This Little Piggy

…went to market. Yes, I got the pigs loaded last Sunday night and got them to the butcher on Monday. I had no problems — if you don’t count the fact that my truck brakes began to fail during the snowstorm Friday evening and I was not able to get a repair appointment over the weekend, so I drove the four hours round-trip to the slaughterhouse plotting exactly how and when I could touch the brake pedal. Just an added fillip of excitement to keep me awake.

Loading the pigs by myself was the big hurdle. I have loaded pigs many times. In general, with all animals, but especially with pigs, who are 200+ pounds of pure muscle and smooth like torpedoes — nothing to grab — you want to create a situation in which they load themselves.

I’ve loaded pigs by force and it is neither easy nor fun. It’s impossible to keep your feet if even a small boar is determined to push past you and takes the route between your legs. Those powerful heads and necks won’t be turned aside — you will be riding a pig backwards momentarily.

Quite often I’ve put a five-gallon pail over a pig’s head and while it’s confused, backed it onto a trailer. But that job’s no sinecure either, and while you are pushing step by step you must have a second person to slam the door shut.

In the photo (right), I’d just finished moving the piglets this summer, catching them one by one and loading them into a small homemade trailer to take them to the back acres, and in the melee had become smeared with manure from head to toe. (Even Lucy, who is always polite, wrinkled her nose and said frankly, “Mom, you smell kind of … terrible.”) Ever after, I led the pigs wherever I needed them to go with a bucket of warm milk and they trotted after me like dogs.

This is much the best way to move animals. All carrot, no stick — and consequently no stress. But how to create that happy situation while getting big hogs up into the back of my pickup truck?

I thought about trying to lead the pigs up onto Allen’s rock peninsula, from whence they could step into the truck, but that would require building a temporary holding pen on top of the rocks with pallets and t-posts, and given everything else going on, I had neither the time nor the energy for a multi-step solution.

Instead I decided to bring the pigs into the barn and use my narrow barn aisle as a chute. In this scenario I only had to build an enclosed ramp up to the truckbed.

The snowstorm brought the pigs into the barn a day early, which was not a problem except that they immediately burrowed under the hay bedding and began excavating the gravel floor, looking for China. By the time they left, they’d created a 10′ wide by 3′ deep wallow. That would take sweat to fix, but for the moment I couldn’t worry about it.

I had decided to use my lamb creep panel as the base of the truck ramp. A “creep” is a protected area where young animals can squeeze in but adults cannot. I had knocked my panel together out of sauna scraps one dark evening in February in the snow of the driveway. The result was inelegant but perfectly functional. Now I would build on it to load the pigs.

Long ago my friend Tommy said to me sternly, “Are you going to be a carpenter or are you going to be a farmer?” I found this very endearing. Actually, I’m going to be a proofreader was obviously not the correct response. He explained that a carpenter was careful and precise, building for the ages, and that a farmer just banged nails anywhere to solve immediate problems. By this definition (if no other) I am definitely a farmer. I always think of Tommy when I’m tying boards together with baling twine or devising some makeshift remedy out of odds and ends.

After siding the garage in ’09 I’d stored a lot of scraps of OSB. I loathe OSB but now it would come in handy to line the inside of my stake rack. It was 33° and I knew from experience that a draft at that temperature would make any creature miserable.

At this point I was so intent on the job that I forgot to take pictures.

I screwed more scraps of OSB to the creep panel to serve as the floor of ramp. I dragged pallets over to be the ramp side-walls, standing them on edge and pounding t-posts through the hollow centers to hold them upright. The upper row I secured with baling twine. Gradually something Rube Goldberg-ish took shape. None of it was terribly sturdy but my goal was to create a simple passage up to the truck floor, rather than a real containment system.

I spread a bale of hay in the floor of the truck, loaded a feed bucket with pellets and slightly squashy apples (for the enticing smell) and went to let 600+ pounds of pig loose in the barn aisle.

I slid the latch and took a deep breath. Here we go.

The pigs were perfectly happy grunting and exploring the barn and showed no interest in my bucket of feed. I walked up the ramp myself and set the feed in the truck bed. Then, in the interests of a low-key loading, I returned to the barn and forced myself to sit down calmly on an overturned bucket and pick up a book. Yes, I was reading the current novel for book group, Little Bee, with big hairy hogs chewing on my pants’ legs. A surreal moment.

Gradually the pig that Lucy had named Amelia, for Earhart, lived up to her intrepid reputation and ventured up the ramp. She stood in the truck munching apples contentedly. The other two pigs showed no interest in joining her. Suddenly I began to worry that my only self-loading pig would eat her fill, leave the truck, and I’d never load anyone. I put my book down.

Using a spare gate and my weight I crowded the remaining pigs to the front of the aisle. This took longer than you’d think because each of the pigs was both bigger and stronger than I. In fact I began to wonder dismally if they were smarter as well. Just when I’d be about to trap them close to the ramp they’d turn on their haunches and barrel past me, flipping the gate and knocking me sideways, grunting and kicking up their heels, headed straight for the back of the barn. The first pig galloped down to join them.

That’s when I realized I’d misjudged the proper bait. The pigs’ real interest was not food but … cow manure. Yes! A filled muck bucket, ready to be dumped, had all their attention. I clambered over the excited hogs and, using a pitchfork, dropped sloppy cow pies all the way up the ramp into the truck.

Well, this was more like it!

The pigs were drawn as if to a magnet. I stood behind them, holding the pitchfork ready, but there was no need to prod.  The pigs rooted through the cow pies like truffle connoisseurs picking for the choicest delicacy and then strolled up into the truck looking for dessert. I slammed the tailgate shut and swung closed the back gate rack.

Hooray! The pigs were loaded. I’d worried about this day for weeks, but I’d done it.

It was starting to sleet. I covered the truck with a tarp (tied down with baling twine) and left truck and cargo at the farm overnight. The pigs were quiet and calm — fed and watered, warm and dry. I felt almost giddy with relief.

The next morning was blessedly anticlimactic. After milking and turning the rest of the animals out, I peeked in at the pigs and they looked up at me, snouts snuffling and questing. I passed in some more apples and got on the road.

As I drove through a light blowing sleet I was very aware I had almost zero brakes at my disposal. I turned on the radio to distract myself … and happened to hit a country music station.  Who knew there were songs like She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy ?!  The silliness kept me smiling.

Four and a half hours later the job was done. The pigs unloaded with no stress. What a relief to have that big, sad chore crossed off.

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One Response to This Little Piggy

  1. Regina says:

    A farmer creates more than anyone else I know, from near nothing/leftover materials to a functioning solution to the current problem.

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