Oh, the saga of our pigs! As you may recall, we decided to raise the heritage breed known as Red Wattles. They are popular with small farms due to their gentle, social natures, even though they are full-sized hogs. They also happen to be awesome at living in nature and foraging for much of their food. Their meat has won many blind taste-tests with professional chefs around the nation, due to its deep, rich, almost beef-like flavor. Thus, all that info convinced us, and in 2013, we entered the world of raising Red Wattle feeder pigs.
All went pretty smoothly. We did our best to learn from others, trained all our pigs to electric wire, rotated them through overgrown woodlands, and so forth. We trained them to the sound of a bucket, the sound of our voices, and treats like milk to help get them where we needed them to go. All went quite smoothly, and we increased our numbers of feeders slightly each year. Then, this spring, we discovered our supplier had retired and sold all their pigs. So, we decided to take the next step and jump into the world of breeding and farrowing hogs in addition to raising feeders.
We found a family getting out of hogs, selling 2 sows and their remaining 9, 3-month-old feeder pigs. We bought the whole lot. I was so excited. They even delivered! They arrived, opened the trailer, and the reality of our decision hit me like a brick wall….or, rather, like the stubbornness of a 400 lb sow! The sows were huge….comparable to the big barrow we had raised the year prior. But the difference there was that we raised him and knew him, and he knew us. We knew nothing about these sows and their quirks. It was quite intimidating. We also quickly discovered another issue. The feeders in the lot included 2 boars (in tact male pigs). They were already at a size where we couldn’t really handle them to castrate, as we have no special facilities. Thus, the decision was made to leave them in tact and butcher before they were interested in breeding. After all, the books said the young boars were too small to breed their mothers, and their sisters would be at least 8 months old before they were really fertile. That gave us plenty of time to ship the boys to market, right?
As usual, all went pretty smoothly for a few months. Since the sows had already weaned the pigs, we were able to keep them all together, which made EVERYTHING easier. We got to know the pigs, and they got to know us. We spent extra time loving on the sows to make them as friendly as possible in anticipation of future farrowing. We even started looking for a nice Red Wattle boar to mate them with.
Then reality happened. We walked out one day, when the pigs were around 6 months old and discovered those boys getting a bit frisky with their sisters. Hmmmm….we weren’t prepared to separate anyone. So we started brainstorming. We decided to do the unthinkable. We decided to let nature take its course. Based on the looks we have gotten from experienced hog breeders, that is not a popular option, apparently. Then again, we do a lot different around here, so why not? We figured any gilts that got bred would be shipped off to the processor before they were too far along, so no worries there. It saved us the expense of purchasing an outside boar and then wintering him over. It also meant we had a chance of having our first litters by mid-fall, which set us up perfectly to offer pork to our customers in the spring. After the sows were confirmed pregnant, we could ship the boar off to the processor to save the expense of wintering over. What could go wrong?
Fall rolled around, and with it came a reality check. We hauled most of the gilts and one boar to the processor. We hadn’t seen signs of pregnancy in the sows yet, so we decided to hang on to the other boar. We also didn’t have one of the gilts sold, so we decided to hang on to her for a bit. If she wound up farrowing, we were OK with that. Not long after, the processor informed us that EVERY single gilt they butchered was at least half way through her pregnancy! This meant two things….our remaining gilt was likely due to farrow within the month, and we apparently had a very fertile line of pigs, seeing as how all boars and gilts were apparently fertile and breeding by 6 months of age! Ok, deep breath…we would stay the course.
We began watching the gilt. It wasn’t long before her milk came in, and we knew the time was close. After reading and talking with other natural pig raisers, we took an electric wire and partitioned off a section of the paddock so she could have some privacy. We set her up with food, water, and shelter. It was a perfect delivery and post-partum area! We just forgot to ask her opinion. She broke right through the electric line and ran to be with the rest of the herd. We figured we’d try again in a few days. After all, the books said she would develop wax droplets on her teats just before farrowing, and there was none of that. Clearly we had time. Then, she didn’t show up for breakfast. Or dinner.
We knew she was nesting somewhere. We went off in search of her, somewhere deep in the woods and thickets of their 2 acre paddock. After several hours of searching, we found no sign of her. Just before we convinced ourselves she was the champion of hiding places, someone spotted cloven hoofprints in the mud…..outside the pen! They were clearly pig and not deer, as determined by the depth and spacing. And they were all over the place out there! She had clearly wandered those woods for hours, stopping occasionally to take a drink from a puddle, and then moving on in search of her perfect nesting spot. By now, darkness had set in, and we were searching by flashlight, to no avail. If you have any remote fear of darkness or dark forests, try to imagine hunting for a 300 lb, potentially aggressive/protective sow in the dark, fearing you will stumble on her nest at any moment! After several more hours, we finally gave up, praying she hadn’t gone too far, hoping she was still on our property, and fearing we were officially responsible for a new wild hog population in central IL. Of all the ways we could have experienced our first major escape, it just HAD to be a gilt due to farrow!
The next day we searched some more. When still nothing turned up, we decided to set out some feed in bowls along some paths, hoping she would find them. We checked off and on through the day, only to find untouched feed bowls. The third day, I went down to check the bowls, and lo, and behold, there she was! She was devouring that food like she was starving….and, I noted, she was about 30 lbs lighter! So, I selected a hiding spot, waited until her breakfast was over, and decided to let her lead me back to the nest. That was easier said than done! I cannot tell you the agility, contortionist maneuvers, and other feats I put myself through, trying to follow a 250 lb sow, almost running, under brush, through ravines, across briar patches, and more. But, she took me straight to the nest…..which was only about 50 feet from her original pen, but surprisingly far from the food bowl where I found her.
Sadly, I discovered 2 dead pigs outside the nest, and only 1 little guy still alive in the nest. I have no idea what happened, how many there were originally, and never will. She wouldn’t let us closer than about 5 feet from the nest (yup, I learned just how fast a mama sow can charge! YIKES!), so S decided to run new electric lines to create a new pen around her nest. It joined up to the original pen, in the hopes she would want to return there soon. After all, the books said sows like to return to the group within 3-7 days.
Fast forward a few weeks. Mama pig and her baby were still perfectly content in their makeshift paddock, and we had no idea how we were going to get her back in with the rest of the group.
There was still no sign of pregnancy in the 2 big sows, so we took them to the vet for an ultrasound to figure out what our next move would be. After all, feeding 2, now 500-lb sows and a 300-lb boar can get really expensive, really fast– especially with winter coming. The good news was that both older sows showed little piggies in their bellies! The bad news was that, shortly after we returned home, we discovered the mama pig had escaped her nesting paddock. Guess that was her way of telling us it was time to move on! More importantly, it was clear that electric wire no longer could contain her! Now we were faced with the problem of finding and catching her, and somehow getting her to a pen 1/3 mile away, over rough terrain, then reintroducing her into the herd, which isn’t as easy as it sounds after a month of separation.
Long, 2-day story shortened (details to come later!), we finally found her, caught her, moved her 1/3 mile back home to a permanent pen, moved all the other pigs to the permanent pen to join her, castrated her little boy to avoid future surprises, and everyone lived happily ever after….at least for now!