Pig Tales

Aug 31, 2015 by

Trying to squish into a dog bed in my sitting room

This day last week all hell broke loose. I had three pigs booked in to my local abattoir. I had arranged everything to run smoothly (so I thought). The trailer had been put in the field so they would get used to it. They were to be fed in it every day for a few days so they would not get stressed when the time came to load them up. Stressed pigs like all animals produce bad quality meat.

The first day the trailer was reversed in, I decided to walk up the ramp shaking a bucket to see what would happen. I was almost knocked over as the three of them scattered up the ramp. Job done. If I wanted them to load that fast they would have avoided it like the plague. Having said that, these pigs were bred here; they were used to people, machinery, noise, activity. So maybe it wasn’t surprising. 
Well anyway, I went out that Monday morning, called them as usual. The three muskateers were already waiting as was their daddy, Laertes the boar. No sign of their mother, Lady Lavinia. I fed them and called the sow. I saw her come trundling into the field. She had a few mouthfuls and then allowed Laertes to bully her and take the rest. I watched her turn and waddle off. She was due on Wednesday, two days later. Something made me grab a bale of straw and follow her. When you are with animals all day long every day you develop an instinct. She went over to the hedge not towards her house. I walked slowly over, I could hear squeaking. She had given birth to two piglets in a nest she had made in the field. The day before it had rained incessantly and the grass walls she had built were sodden. The two little mites had managed to scramble over the edge and were tumbling around in the cold, confused and crying. I picked them up to move them over to their house thinking she would follow me. She did not. I stuffed a load of fresh straw into the house and put them in the middle so they would be warm and went back to the sow. I was all in a tiz, should I leave them in the house alone or move them back to her in the nest. I decided to move them back to the nest and I backed away.

She walked over to her nest and lay down. I left her alone as one started to suckle. A while later my son went out to check and came back to say she was over the other side of the field (luckily he wasn’t working that day). I thought nothing of it as having been in labour myself knew it was easier to keep moving. He insisted she was rejecting her babies. From that on we were in and out as she moved between the house and her nest dropping piglets and moving on. Finally he came in distraught. She must have stood on a piglet and had almost dislocated it’s tail at the base and it was hanging on by skin. The sharpest scissors in the house was a lethal little nail scissors which had to be used to remove the rest of the tail.

At this stage we decided to take the piglets in and keep them warm to give her space, get her head sorted and finish delivering. And we got loads and loads and loads of bloody advice. Do this. Do that. We were told lock her in the house with the piglets and she will calm down. We did this and hovered with baited breath thinking no squeals were good news. Then we heard monumental screaming. We ran out. She had bust out of the house leaving the piglets behind. The one who had had her tail dislocated had obviously been stood on and now had a deep slash across her shoulder. Cue a mad dash to the vet for stitching. That piece of advice cost me €60!

She delivered 12 in total. I was beside her as number 10 delivered. She did nothing. I had to grab the piglet and pull the amniotic fluid from her airways and rub her with grass to get her breathing, I even did the Call the Midwife thing of turning her upside down and gave her a tap on the back. Thank God for James Herriot, Countryfile and all the other programmes I have watched over the years.

Finally after trying to get her to sniff her babies and having her almost take my hand off we resigned ourselves to the fact that she had very firmly rejected them. Previous to this I had caught her trying to bite some of them in the nest and had to dive in and grab them. A big angry sow with big yellow teeth snapping at you is not for the faint hearted!

We got an old chest of drawers, cut the legs off it and stuffed it with straw. I dashed over to a my feed suppliers who rang their rep and asked what colostrum most resembled pig. At this point I realised I was on my own. Reps, feed suppliers, vets, farmers know NOTHING about pigs. Pigs are disposable. If you lose one you throw it in the skip and move on. They are cheap to produce, cheap to raise and they provide you the consumer with very, very cheap protein.

I bought sheep colostrum. I mixed up organic cows’ milk with goats’ milk and cream as none of the other mammals milk comes close in fat content to a sow’s. I then realised to keep this up I would be broke. Organic cows’ milk retails at 99 cent a litre, goats’ at €2.75 a litre, I don’t even know what cream is……

I just could not justify this financially so I went and asked a neighbouring dairy farmer could I buy milk from him. I am buying 9 litres a day, so buying it direct made way more sense.

I then had one little mite go down with scour. I had fed them all at lunch time and when I went in to check less than two hours later I saw her asleep and all the others trampling on her as they looked for food. I took her out and put her in a polystyrene box on a hot water bottle. She released a load of watery yellow diarrhoea on me and was frothing at the mouth. I cleaned her up and started syringing water with salt and sugar every 30 minutes drop by drop. This saved her. We dashed into the vet again and got antibiotic powder and did the crazy calculations for dosage by body weight. She was 754g. I gave up and got a teaspoon and picked up the powder on the tip of the spoon, diluted it and syringed it into her.

She recovered, is demanding food but is not able to get onto her feet. I asked the vet. I asked family members who are vets. None of them knew anything. I got told widely varying explanations and resorted to Google. Apparently pigs are very susceptible to dehydration and it can affect them very quickly. I think she was just starting to dehydrate and her electrolyte balance was off so she possibly had a seisure. Whatever happened has affected her balance.

In another discussion with my vet he told me to expect 6-8 to survive. To date and fingers crossed I have 12.

In all the chaos I managed to find out bits and pieces of information about hand raising pigs. The most important is to get colostrum into them. There wasn’t a chance of getting it from the sow as she was not in the mood to even let me rub her head. She is normally a really friendly, placid sow so something happened that day. The other thing is to get the piglets out onto soil as quickly as possible. I was amazed when I carried them out, barely a day old when they actually started to nudge and eat the soil. This prevents iron and B12 deficiency. Also at that tender age they already tried their best to get out of their bed to pee. They are now trained to go on newspaper and have several favourite spots. If only it was as easy to train a puppy!

The little mite with scour

Pig transporter out to the veg patch

A big tree pot for shelter in veg patch

Looking for a feed

Passed out in the sun
Basking in a ray of sunlight

More anon. For pictures follow @foodborn on Twitter. Also MMG on Vine  and on Instagram as foodbornofficial. 

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  1. She's back to her old self now. No interest in her babies though.

  2. Oh jeepers M. What a week! It's maddening that pig knowledge is so scarce amongst professionals because they're seen as so disposable. How's Mama doing now?

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