Pigs grow quickly. The cute little 40-pounders of mid-May…
… are ten times that size by mid-October. Now they are not so cute.
I always dread loading pigs for the slaughterhouse, but this year I had help. One of the smartest moves I made this summer was completely accidental. My friend D happened to be repairing my truck when Rick, my hay man, showed up at the farm with a load of piglets. D thought they were cute and I agreed to raise one for him. Talk about a decision that paid dividends!
As his contribution to feeding costs, D arranged with our local sandwich shop to pick up their day-old sub rolls every night. He regularly appeared with his granddaughter “to feed the piggies,” carrying a Santa-sized bag of bread slung on his back. These visits resulted in some great improvements to my pig operation.
I once mentioned that it would be nice to have a heavy trough that the pigs could not lift, so that I would not have to chase the trough all over the pig pen to feed them. In his travels D found a free homemade steel trough that was fourteen feet long.
He offered to cut it in half and weld new end caps, but I thought the long length was perfect. Once set in place, that trough did not wander. This meant I could feed the pigs without once going inside the pen. Anyone who has ever approached a group of hungry 350-pound hogs with a pail of food knows that under those circumstances you are ripe for a mugging.
Now I could stand outside the pen, pour a bit of pellets mixed with milk in one end of the trough, and while the pigs crowded and fought there, pour the rest of the pail safely in the trough without the pigs muscling in for a milk shower and wasting most of the meal in the dirt.
D’s involvement also meant that I had back-up when I got into a fix.
In the photo above, one of the piglets had rooted under the Pig Palace and become stuck like a cork, squealing with fright. I spent a couple of hours attempting to pull him out by the hind legs, first with my hands and then with a climbing rope and my truck, with no luck. (Pigs have the essential shape of a torpedo and it’s tough to get any purchase.)
In the end I called D and he came out with his son-in-law. The two men tipped the heavy Palace on edge and freed the pig. This happened twice in one week to the same pig: a commentary on both my flawed Palace design and claims of porcine intelligence. Luckily, pigs grow so quickly that soon he was too big to squeeze under the floor.
This fall, two weeks before the pigs were slated to go to slaughter, our long drought broke. It rained and rained. Someday I will have the ability to move pigs every few days around grassy pasture, but that day is not yet. The pen that had been a dusty crater by mid-summer now turned into a cold swamp.
On loading day, D came once again to help.
He had arranged with a friend to borrow her horse trailer. My original plan had been to drop the horse trailer near the pig pen, surround it with electric sheep fencing, and let the pigs load themselves peaceably when they burrowed into the hay for the night.
Unfortunately, shortly after I fed the pigs their breakfast on their Last Day, I had a phone call from the slaughterhouse. They were overbooked; could I get my pigs there the next morning by 7:30 AM?
The slaughterhouse is a two-hour drive. I would have to leave the farm by 5:30 AM. The pigs would have to be reliably loaded that night. But the only time D could help me was that morning. Oh dear.
D arrived and we drove to pick up the trailer. Back at the farm I set up my sheep fencing around the truck and trailer…
… but having just finished breakfast, the pigs had zero interest in the pail of enticing food waiting inside. It was much more fun to root in the water-puddled grass!
I propped the tailgate up on rocks to make the incline into the trailer less steep, to no avail.
D made many remarks about “dumb farmers” who feed pigs breakfast, while he smashed a bucketful of over-ripe apples one by one and tossed the aromatic pieces into the trailer as bait.
A pig or two would venture in, snack idly on apples, and then wander out. At one point D tried to stand on the ramp and hold the snacking pigs in the trailer with his body.
“I wouldn’t do that,” I began. “Pigs are all muscle and you will end up riding—”
Just then a pig forced himself between D’s legs and D, his mouth a perfect O of shock, came galloping down the ramp on its back, arms flailing. I managed to grab him by the shoulders just before he fell off onto the electric fence. I was laughing uncontrollably as D kept repeating, “There ain’t nothin’ on a pig to hold onto!”
After an hour we had three pigs in the trailer. At least momentarily. It was raining but not hard enough to prompt the last two inside — just hard enough to make D and me cold and wet.
We pulled the electric fencing closer and closer to the trailer. The fourth pig slowly climbed the ramp. Now there was just one pig to go. Unfortunately this pig was deeply suspicious. He kept his head down in the corner where the electric fence met the trailer and made low angry chuff sounds.
The only strength in electric fence is in the fear it induces. The fence itself is only plastic and wire. A determined animal can almost always go through it — and that is exactly what the last pig did. As I came up behind him to urge him gently up onto the ramp, he braved the shock and pushed around the electric fence instead, squeezing between the trailer and the nearest post.
Now he was enclosed in the fencing around the truck. I yelled to D on the far side of the trailer to disconnect the battery charger — I am afraid of electric fence! — and moved the plastic post to make a clear alley-way back to the ramp. Then I circled behind the pig and yelled to D again. “Turn the fence back on!” The last thing I wanted was for the pig to push over the fence entirely and be loose in the ten-acre field.
The pig planted his feet. I stood behind him with my knees against him and pushed him. It was like pushing a boulder. Half a step. Half a step. Now we were in the narrow isthmus of fencing leading back to the trailer ramp. I needed to pull on something for leverage. I reached for the wet fender of the trailer.
Snap! Yeeooooowwwwww! I screamed and the pig lurched ahead, his own shoulder blundering into the fender, and then he too screamed like a train whistle.
“D! The whole trailer is electrified!” I screeched. My pig shot forward. One of the pigs in the trailer started down the ramp to investigate all the commotion; he stepped off the rubber matting onto the wet metal ramp. Snap! He shrieked at 90 decibels and jumped back into the trailer. In a panic my pig bounded up the rubber strip into the safety of the hay. The pigs were all loaded!
“Turn off the charger!” I screamed at D. In a moment it was off and we had lifted the heavy ramp and slapped the trailer closed. D was laughing so hard that it took us some time to figure out what had happened.
In the end it was clear. D had dropped his apple pail on the ground between the electric fence and the trailer. The metal bail on the bucket had touched both the fence and the wet edge of the steel trailer, completing a very hot circuit.
“Well, they’re loaded, ain’t they?” D said with a grin.
The pre-dawn drive to the slaughterhouse the following morning was quiet and anticlimactic. I was very grateful to have that major chore off my list, however. The next day we woke to our first snow.