Sunday, June 10, 2012

This Little Piggy...

... about gave us a heart attack.  Notice my tag line for the blog - "Our adventures and misadventures as we journey towards a simple and self-reliant life".  This episode most certainly falls into the "misadventures" category.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's start at the beginning.

Rose, Pearl and Nedry, left to right

Earlier this year, we decided we wanted to purchase a few hogs to raise for meat.  Most people who want to do this purchase "feeder pigs" in the spring, which are young pigs about 40-50 pounds.  These pigs will be raised over the summer and by autumn, they will weigh about 200-250 pounds, which is the optimal butchering weight (after this weight, they put mostly put on fat instead of muscle/meat).  Since they are butchered in the fall, there is no worrying about feeding and caring for them over the winter, which sounded ideal to us.  It still blows my mind that they can gain around 200 pounds in 5-6 months.  Pigs are amazing converters of feed. 

As you know, my husband has been working feverishly the last few weeks to get the pig enclosure and yard/pasture securely fenced in.  We'd done a lot of reading about fencing options for pigs and decided that electric high tensile fencing would be best for our situation.  Our property had a treeline that needed to be cleared because the majority of the trees were an invasive species called Tree of Heaven or China Sumac.  These trees are nearly impossible to kill.  We've cut them down and used the logs to make the beds in my garden.  The logs have been cut down for 3 months and those suckers are still sprouting new growth like crazy.  It's insane.  They refuse to die.   Instead of dousing the whole tree line with toxic chemicals, we decided to turn the pigs loose and let them do what they do best - root and destroy!

The pig yard/pasture

When the pen was finished, my husband started seeking out pigs to buy and we were amazed how difficult it was.  Farmer after farmer told us they had sold out of their pigs earlier in the season.   Apparently we're not the only ones who have been reading about the deplorable conditions of many commercial pig operations and have decided to take matters into our own hands.  Finally, we were able to locate pigs from Maple Valley Farms in Coral, MI (which, by the way, is a really great farm - check them out.  They're hardcore, off-the-grid folks who bought a 40 acre Amish farm).  Maple Valley Farm practices sustainable farming, which is important to us.  All the hog books recommended buying pigs from a farm that has similar practices to the ones you hope to implement.  As we plan to pasture our pigs, we wanted to find pigs that were bred to do well on pasture, instead of a confinement operation. 

The big day arrived.  John drove our Tahoe to Maple Valley Farm.  He lined the back with a giant tarp and then laid down straw to make a cozy bed for them.  We prayed that there would be no projectile poop incidents on the trip home. 

Back of the Tahoe, ready for transporting pigs

When John arrived with the pigs, he backed the Tahoe into the temporary enclosure we had set up for the pigs.  The entire pig yard is about 30' x 180', but we created a small enclosure in the corner that has hard sides and gates, in case the power goes out or if we need to contain the pigs in a smaller area.  One side of the enclosure has electric wire and we planned on the pigs being in this enclosure for a few days until they learned to respect the electric fence.  Once they figured out the fence, we were going to release them into the larger pig yard.

Unloading the pigs

John opened the doors to the Tahoe and started unloading the pigs.  I know it looks cruel to carry a pig upside down by their legs, but apparently this is the way to handle them.  Pigs are incredibly difficult to catch and restrain, so this position offers the most control.  My friend Jenny and I watched as John gently carried the pig over to the pig house and then went back for number 2.  After unloading the second pig, the fun started.  As John was unloading pig number 3, number 2 slipped through a small gap in the gate and found herself in the larger pig yard.  We started panicking a little, but figured "Oh, she'll be ok.  The electric fence is on, so she can't get out."  WRONG.  She had no concept of the electric fence, so she just ran right through it.  Oh crap. We've got a loose pig.  Then we notice pig number 3, who is smaller than the other two, wiggling under a gap in the fence. Well shit.  Another loose pig.  And then we realize that with all the excitement, we forgot to close the other gate.   That's right.  We have 3 pigs loose.  3 pigs that have no idea what electric fence is and are running all over creation. 

Jenny and I were able to herd the 2 terrified females back into the enclosure, but the male pig took off down the busy road adjacent to our property.  Our neighbor saw my husband running after the pig and joined in the chase.  With the other 2 secure, Jenny was able to help herd the male as well, while I kept on eye on the other 2.   Now, I can laugh about the picture in my mind of them chasing this little pig, but at the time, we were freaking out.  How would we ever catch him?  Would he get hit by one of the cars whizzing by at 60 mph?  It soon became apparent they would never be able to catch him, so instead they started herding the pig back towards home.  After about 15 tense minutes, they managed to direct the exhausted pig back into the pig yard and finally, into the small enclosure.  Poor pig.  He was so tired, we thought he might keel over and die. 

Looking back, we realize that chasing the pig was probably foolish.  Pigs are social creatures and they want to stay with their friends.  If we had been able to contain the 2 females, he probably would have come back, desperately trying to get back "home".  In fact the breeders that we bought the pigs from instructed us to not to worry if a pig got loose.  They assured us the pigs would want to come home.  But it was hard to remember that when we had a loose pig on our hands that had no idea where home was. 

That evening, after the pigs had settled down from all the excitement, we started "treat training" them.  I've been reading in all the books that pigs are highly trainable, with an intelligence level greater than dogs.  So we decided to train them to come for treats, figuring that next time they get loose (because let's just be realistic - they will escape), we will be able to call them back with treats.  They were eager and fast learners,  snorting and snuffling happily as they gobbled up the treats (watermelon, raisins, whatever we have on hand).  After a few minutes, they warmed up to us and allowed us to pet them.  We laughed when the male enjoyed the attention so much that he plopped his butt down and sat there grunting in pleasure as we petted him.  

Me with the piggies

The kids are really enjoying the pigs and so are we.  My husband was incredibly excited to get pigs and loves being out there, just watching them root around.  We're hoping most of our pig "misadventures" are over for this season and that we will be able to look forward to a summer of watching our happy pigs grow fat and plump!

John feeding the pigs, while Joseph looks on in delight

Soon, I'll post more details about the pigs, such as what we feed them and how we contain and pasture them.  The more I learn about pigs, the more I like them.  They are truly special creatures!

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