The Art of Training Pigs
Our venture with pigs started small, three pigs small to be exact, and it was a shared venture with some good friends who enjoyed good food. Pork was never a staple in our home, simply because we tried to access local meats. Since we had been living in the north that meant bison, moose and the chickens we raised as well as the odd salmon or halibut we bartered for with friends and neighbors. But every small farm needed pigs and so we thought we would dip our toes in to see how we liked it.
Once we had decided to raised a few pigs we started preparations. Being both resourceful and on a budget like most farm start-ups, we used wire stripped from old fence posts on the property and relocated them one some moveable plastic posts at the end of my garden for a pasture. Jarod scavenged some aluminum siding from a neighbors scrap pile and covered the pallet hut he put together. You might remember the mention of a pallet barn in the Yukon, well all I can say is that old habits die-hard and we knew it to be a cheap and effective way to house animals so we stuck with what we knew and the hut is still our primary homing unit used at the beginning of each season.
We all went to the Woodville sale barn and put in our bid for three pigs, two males and one female. We could have stuck with the typical names of bacon, ham and sausage but our friends were much more creative and their names were Hamila Anderson, David Hasselhog, and Amy Swinehouse. Sure the gender specific names didn’t totally add up but I never heard the piggies complain.
The learning curve with pigs is steep; for example, once you have bought the pigs and you pull around to the loading area, how exactly do you get a pig into the back of your truck? The answer is simple, a veteran pig handler informed Jarod, grab their back leg and carry them dangling upside down, squealing and wiggling. This may not seem very friendly but the reality of catching a loose pig is not likely so you grab a leg and hold on for dear life. If they are small enough you can kind of scoop them and cradle them in your arms but that is a carry used by softies like myself.
Our first year with pigs ran smoothly, they were healthy, happy and they made quick work of the pasture we had set for them. We learned that no matter how many screws you put in a wood feeder, they could still get it apart, that no matter how much straw you gave them for bedding they could return it to dust within 24 hours and that they would eat anything except cabbage and potato peelings.
We felt so successful at the end of the summer that when it came time to consider our livestock the next spring, we took a leap and bought ourselves 8 piglets. We knew that we would need to expand the pasture and that if we were going to continue with swine we would need to establish a few more permanent systems but the season was early and we thought we could work away at that while the pigs became accustomed to their new home.
Now when you read about re-homing pigs you are often told to keep them locked in for a few days so they become accustomed to you and your feeding schedule, they are able to settle in and therefore are more content to stick around. We also read that you need to properly train your pigs on electric fence by using both hotwire as well as barrier fence. This is because a pig does not have great eyesight and depending on where they get the zap, their general instinct is to bolt forward rather then back away. By having a sturdy barrier fence outside the hot wire the pigs learn to back away from the wire once zapped and that means that once trained, all it takes to contain your pigs on large pastures is a few slim wires, a dreamy concept when compared to the fencing work required to contain chickens.
But… we decided that since we had not experienced problems our first year with the three piglets challenging the fence, we would be fine so long as they were well settled in the hut. In our experience, the pigs always just backed away so we went ahead thinking that what worked before would work again…right?
Wrong! The reality of 8 pigs played out very differently then our previous experience of 3. We had overlooked the fact that while three pigs could easily change direction once in contact with an electric fence, that this was not the case in a cluster of 8. The back of the pack kept pushing the front forward and before we knew it 6 of our 8 were free and running away at full speed through the tall grass. We managed to close the remaining 2 back into the hut and began our attempt at corralling the other 6. Our saving grace is that pigs are brave as a litter but not as individuals so we only had one cluster of pigs to chase.
Now let me set the scene. I had our 5-month-old son on my back in a babycarrier, our almost 2 year old was in a stroller parked in the middle of the long grass in the thick of the action. We had just cut a large number of poplars in a nearby area and that was where the pigs headed first. I jumped, crawled and tripped over the brush trying to at least keep the cluster of pink blurs in close proximity to the pasture where Jarod was trying to repair some of the fence as well as assist me in containing the pigs. Many times we had them close, but pigs are smart and they had no desire to head back toward the fenced area that had zapped them. As I struggled to keep our swine in view, Jarod was working hastily to build some kind of a chute that would help capture the pigs should we be able to get them close enough to the hut and their two missing companions.
As all of this happened, our son was reasonably content on my sweaty back probably entertained by my rapidly beating heart and our daughter was entertaining herself by slowly stripping herself of her clothing and dropping each discarded item beside the stroller, calling out every once in a while but amazingly, she was holding her own. I think the panic lasted a total of three hours before we had finally penned them in with some chicken wire and got them back in the hut. I can’t even remember the details of how we managed this, they have all become insignificant in the bigger learning that took place that day.
The sigh of relief was deep, the knot in our stomachs slowly unfurled and we sheepishly added another item to our list of “never agains”.
We learned later after more reading that we were very fortunate to only have chased them for three hours, some farmers reported that it took days to regain all their loose piglets.
Needles to say we were humbled by this experience and since then we have always been overly cautious training our pigs in a properly fenced area.
Farming is an interesting mix of lessons learned, some have happy endings which become funny over time such as this, where the lesson is made perfectly clear and we are able to learn without any real detriment, injury or loss. Others are harder and the impact might be greater but each time we are forced to take in these lessons, we adjust our methods, we improve and move on to face our next challenge with a larger skill set and deeper understanding.
Through laughter, tears and many shakes of ones head, we learn and grow as farmers; doing our best to anticipate the needs and antics of our animals, hoping that one day we might find ourselves one step ahead. And maybe one day we will be, but I doubt it, and if nothing else, these experiences give us good stories to share, they teach us to laugh at ourselves and remember that it is all part of the farming adventure.