Always good to get a mention.
Always good to get a mention.
Today was moving pigs day. It didn’t go particularly well.
Most pigs are exactly where we started. Some aren’t. Some will be back where they started by morning. Maybe I’ll be hitting a 10% success rate… in my dreams. Normally, it goes like clockwork.
I now use this really smart elec boar netting from Arthur John’s – it’s made by Gallagher. A new 50m length arrived this afternoon. The video above gives some idea of where it might be now.
All jokes apart, it’s been a long day.
I did manage to get 4 young gilts in with Edith (Berkie sow), Limpy (small sow) & 2 of Limpy’s gilts. This foursome is well-established & companiable. One of the new gilts is one of Limpy’s too. There was mayhem. The largest of the new young gilts gave everyone a wide berth, very sensibly. The others picked fights. Limpy – on her three good legs – put up a heck of a fight and dominated her aggressor easily. Edith simply threatened with her bulk and the others backed off. The youngsters really went for it.
The interesting part of this tale is this: the dog, Macsen, stepped in to the fray. He split them apart and threatened both parties in each case – no barking or growling just threatened. It was fascinating to watch. Apart from very minor scratches and a few damaged egos, no one was hurt. The dog was plenty quick enough to avoid any pigs’ teeth and they certainly respected him as the greater adversary.
This happened a few times so it was not chance.
Pigs have a pecking order – a herd runs with a matriachal system – and fighting reestablishes any changes to order. Pigs can fight to the death.
I am expecting that the newcomers will be accepted over the next few days and will be mooching about and sleeping together soone enough.
Famous last words.
This is not a proper blog but a series of comments on pig keeping according to my own experiences – not the intricacies of husbandry but rather the odd little things I have learned along the way. Some of my musings may not be right for everyone. Please feel free to add to them; as I will.
1 Hogweed. The clue’s in the name. It is not a poisonous weed but fodder for pigs, I think introduced to the UK from America many moons ago. Pigs love it. I had fields full of it, now I only have it in the garden. They eat all of it, even the roots. Apparently, it has a nice bitter flavour. However, my pigs started getting severe sunburn one summer and after a little research, I found out that hogweed contains a chemical which makes us all, including pigs, more susceptible to sunlight.
2 Sunburn. White pigs are very prone to this. Prevention – wallows, woodland, factor 50 – only works if the pigs are cooperative. The younger ones seem to learn from the older ones and they learn the hard way. Many’s the time I have slathered them with factor 50 to no effect (and it’s very difficult to do this let me tell you) and now, I tend to slap mud behind their ears and on their shoulders and backsides. Mud is cooling – pigs cannot adjust body temp or process sunlight through their skin. Mud draws out the heat and stops sunlight penetrating. If they have burned lightly, aftersun consists of Sudacrem or similar, aloe vera and / or more mud. If they have burned badly, watch out for sores which can bleed – prevention of infection is really important so I use purple spray – this stings. Watch out for the pigs dipping their shoulders as the sunburn hurts. Sunstroke needs serious attention – a first pig had this and he had to have water dripped into his mouth (an ice cube suppository works well too), painkillers (porcine oral metacam is fab stuff) and careful cooling using shade and damp towels along his back). I always keep a thermometer to hand; and am never afraid to call my vet.
3 Ragwort – a weed with all manner of reputation behind it. Adult pigs, like many mature animals (except horses, I believe) can safely eat all parts of this plant. However, it is not a feed and should never be treated as such. It helps to control it and I would not include it by accident or by design in any dried form as in hay or any other mash.
4 Hay. i keep a hay field. The original thinking was – ooh, how lovely for meadow plants and all the associated critters – but I also thought, ooh free winter food for pigs. Pigs, I had been told, eat haylage. Mine didn’t. Mine have never shown any interest in it. I eventually gave bales away and had the remainder spread over some rough ground. It was worth a try.
5 Fencing. Ok. For pigs, fencing is merely a guideline. Hugely strong, bright animals with a gift for planning escapes as well as an enthusiastic level of practical opportunism coupled with terrific wide vision, for them a fence is a game. I have tried stock fencing – always with the staples on the inside (stops them popping) and a run of barbed at floor level (stops them digging) with good gates with extra bolts (stops them lifting the gates off their hinges) – and they simply hurdled over it, dug under it, lifted posts, climbed over it. It is still the most efficient but mine now looks like a Heath Robinson effort as all of it has been patched with old lengths of wood, wire, grilles, you name it – and a lot of baler twine.
Elec is good. elec is endlessly movable, flexible and easy to put back together after they have pushed through it and wrapped it around acres of rough pasture, hedges and trees, other pigs, sheep and your legs. Always remember to switch it off first. Piglets respect it, weaners destroy it, adult pigs give it a wide berth. The only adult pig who will choose to bust through is my boar – for the predictable reason of a sow in season. Mine is all battery operated. Pigs are quite capable of switching it off. I have seen pigs rock the battery bucket until the battery is unplugged then simply cruise through or over the wires. They very quickly learn when it is off – they can hear the clicking stop and I think sense the current cease, they also simply watch you switch it off. use the most power you can, don’t treat it with anything other than massive respect and buy the best you can.
6 Farrowing. Ok. Where to start? Firstly, when I started researching how to keep pigs, there seemed very little information available other than that for commercial production. Even small scale pig farming seemed to need arks, complicated water supplies, farrowing crates, creep areas, controlled zones for farrowing sows. Farrowing itself seemed to be full of instructions and problems.
Then, I found Sugar Mountain Pigs http://sugarmtnfarm.com/home/blog/where pigs were kept in a way I found to be practical, economical and ethical.
I did not want my sows to be farrowing in any way which I could not manage easily, nor, more importantly, could they. I had planned on breeding Berkshire Pigs when I had spent a couple of years working with bought-in weaners. Life ain’t like that tho and Big Pig – a weaner kept from slaughter for all the wrong reasons and by this stage over a year old, (I just liked her) was evidently in pig to another weaner / grower. Oops. Even young boars can be fertile, they just need to be able to reach..
I had a nice Downton Abbey Ark, lots of elec fencing and Google. I only knew two other farms, at this point, where they kept pigs. One wasn’t breeding and the other worked on a much bigger scale.
3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days roughly later and BP was installed in the ark near the house, the growers were in a pallet-build shed; and she was surrounded by thin strand elec fencing. Easter Sat morning came and BP was nesting. To watch a pig nest is a wonderful thing. Now more practised, my sows sometimes choose to farrow outdoors and build the most extravagent nests.
It’s a good idea to worm sows about a month before farrowing; I do everybody else at the same tme. I use Flubenol oral or Ivermectin injection. (I also vaccinate the herd against parvo and erispelas.)
I have written about Edith’s, BP’s and Limpy’s farrowings here before so I won’t repeat myself but I will add this: yes, I have lost a couple of piglets to crushing (out of a dozen farrowings) BUT I still believe that allowing these intelligent and enterprising animals the opportunity to select where and how they will farrow and raise their piglets is more important than squeezing them into pens on concrete floors, unable to display their natural instincts.
7 Feed. Like for any animal, the human included, this is a personal thing. My pigs mostly free range on rough pasture and old scruffy woodland and this means that they take a long, long time to grow to pork weight (about 55 kilo carcass). Old breeds like mine are slow growing anyway so it can take up to a year to reach slaughter weight (about 90 kilos). I feed them daily – not at the book recommendations of 1lb / day / month of life but much less.
My first pigs were fed on commercial feed at book rate and just grew fat and lazy. As a very good vet said, ‘Fit not fat please’. They get good quality commercial feed – this makes sure they get enough minerals and vitamins and it’s a good opportunity to check their condition when their snouts are in the trough. It also makes them biddable – pigs will follow a bucket anywhere. They also get good milled feed from a local farm.
Pigs choose their food carefully – they love picking blackberries, will ignore bagged feed in favour of acorns and are pickier than you’d expect! This means that burdock, weld, mint, sorrel, deadly nightshade and joe pye are carefuly skirted. The upside is that these are great for butterflies, bees and other winged things. Some plants, like creeping buttercup, they ignore until they are wilting and the chemical changes make them edible. Fascinating.
Jiucy and strong flavoured fruit is a godsend when it comes to oral medicines – hollow out a tomato, pop in the wormer, pop tomato into gaping mouth of pig… job done.
Pigs will argue over food and the big ones will win out over small ones unless it fed separately or feed, say big sow rolls, is scattered rather than bucket / trough fed.
Regulations around feeding pigs are very specific. Stick to them.
8 Housing. This is where often buy cheap, buy twice comes in to play. Pigs tend not to deliberately destroy their homes but just scratching that itch can demolish a flimsy build in minutes. The three little pigs, after all, lived in stone houses in the end. Mine have thepurpose-built fancy ark – the affectionately nicknamed Downton Abbey – and a selection of pallet built accommodation. When they farrow afield, a tarp suspended from neighbouring trees and/or hurdles do the job temporarily and can be repaired easily, even in howling gales…sort of.
Pigs will naturally choose fresh ground to nest or sleep on. In the summer, they elect to sleep in hollows in open ground or under trees / bushes. When they find a particularly nice spot, they will work hard at shaping it to their liking. Stumbling across a pile of sleeping pigs at night is one of life’s treats. Unless you actually fall over them, of course.
9 Vets. You need someone local who knows about pigs, who is interested in pigs & is fearless. C’est ca.
10 Herding. Complex, social creatures, pigs run a herd of different ages and relationships very comfortably as long as everyone – including me – recognises top pig, usually a sow. Swanbridge Herd is led by Big Pig, Beeps for short. Bear lives in his own paddock, separated from the others by elec fencing so they can chat still ‘over the wall’. BP is nervous of Bear but if herding together, the likelihood is that she would still run the herd as a matriarchy.
Pigs talk a lot to each other and to humans. There are various theories about how many words they understand, how biddable they can be, how trainable; with a general idea that they are as bright as or brighter than, dogs. They are cute, inquisitive, talkative, learn routines very quickly, recognise car horns, your voice, your routines, your friends. 2 I parted with this time last year, definitely recognised me on the weekend. The adults all know their names and come when called.
Trust them and handle them all the time and not only is their friendly response rewarding but they will be easier to handle should something go wrong. These are big, heavy animals with a low centre of gravity, a swift turn of speed, big teeth, great vision and the ability to plan. Creatures of habit, if one is missing or something doesn’t seem right, I will have a pretty good idea of what’s up. Watch them and work with them as much as you can – they are terrifically enjoyable time wasters.
11 Slaughter. Not a nice topic but a necessary one. With experience, everyone has their own preferred abattoir & means of delivering their pigs & for collecting the carcasses / pork boxes / sausages etc. I tried all 3 local abattoirs & have decided that Maddocks at Maesteg is best for me and my animals. The distance is about 45 mins & in the right direction to avoid heavy traffic. They plan a time with me beforehand with enough flexibility to account for problems (errant and wayward pigs usually) & the pigs are not kept waiting long before slaughter. The people there are professional & the vet & animal health rep are always helpful. Hand over your paperwork & your stock & head home safe in the knowledge that those pigs have been well looked after.
Warning: all slaughter-houses seem to have a ridiculous design about them: we all have to reverse our trailers into stupidly awkward spaces in order to drop off our stock safely. Quite why they don’t all have a double-gated drive-through system is beyond me. Some of us don’t get enough practice at reversing trailers & so are very grateful for the help of others at this stage.
I want a short journey with minimal hassle for my animals with a quick despatch at the other end. I have cried at the abattoir.
12 Boars. They get big. Really big and really heavy. Berkies are stocky, middle sized breed which suits me. They grow tusks and boar plates. Tusks are very sharp and even when not employed in anger, can damage other pigs and people. They can grow at odd angles and cause the boar eating difficulties. I attended a training course on it and my conclusion was: pay someone else to do it. Boar plates are a hang over from wild boar – thick plates develop under the skin to protect the shoulders and back. Do not mistake this for skin thickening associated with a zinc deficiency or mange. Here sounds the voice of experience and a big vet bill for nothing.
Bear will roll onto his back for a tummy tickle and likes a chat; to date, he has been paddocked with younger boars with no problems BUT he is a boar and I would never trust him to be the gentle giant if he thinks another boar is muscling in on his girl. boars can fight to the death. Treat him with respect and caution always. and bear in mind, even an accidental bite from a pig can do a lot of damage.
13 Mating. Gilts start coming into season at about 6 months or older, in my experience. Every 3 weeks or so – depending on health & hormones – the vulva swells and the narkiness begins. Gilts are female pigs who have not farrowed, sows have farrowed. Some female pigs get very narky indeed. They also like to hang around the boys & will stand. This means that she is ready to stand for the boar; test for this by pressing down on her back and if she holds firm then the likelihood is that she is in season and ready to be mated.
Mating on many farms and smallholdings is a closely controlled and monitored event – using AI or boar – here, I am not proud to admit that it has been rather more random than this and has mostly come about as a result of Bear, my Berkshire boar, running amok. I know that I am not alone and that many an accidental farrowing has furrowed the brow of an anxious pig keeper.
14 Boar taint: a distinct, musky taste to pork. Some butchers will not accept boar carcasses because of the fear of boar taint. Some people believe that all sexually active boars produce boar taint. This is my view based on what I have heard and read: the chemicals which make boar taint are present in all male pigs to varying degrees. Our capacity to notice it depends on our own chemical make-up. Some people who can detect it, don’t mind it but others detest it. For some, it is truly offensive and renders the meat inedible – they are few and far between.
15 Taste. Free-range, old / native breeds pigs produce a much porkier pork anyway. It has a texture, a flavour and a softer fat than factory-farmed pork. It makes great roasts with incredible crackling, fabulous sausages and the best bacon. Maddocks make the sausages I sell from pork, 3% rusk, salt and pepper. No funny bits. Pork boxes weigh in at about 12 – 15 kilos of joints. The fat on chops is about 1” deep. Berkshires make a dark meat, lightly veined with fat. These are not fat pigs; they are delicious ones. Treat pork products with the respect the pigs have been afforded.
16 Accidental / unintended consequences.
OK. I saw the pig – mirror experiment ages ago and it was fascinating – and not surprising.
Mine can switch off electric fencing, open gates, converse, have a sophisticated social structure and like a scratch but until they have opposable thumbs and taste horrible, it is unlikely we humans will stop eating them. Except for the ones with whom we have bonded, the pets.
Nature shows us repeatedly that animals eat each other. Humans are animals with the main differences being our inability to see ourselves as such, our inability to work symbiotically with our environment and that we demonstrate a conscience, occasionally.
Our responsibility to pigs and to all stock is to treat them fairly and with respect while alive and to slaughter them humanely; and not to waste their carcasses.
Edith, of the Excelsa line, was last shown at the 2015 Royal Berkshire Show by Chris Impey.
I decided to buy her as dam to Bear, Kilcot Peter Lad, also at this his last show with Sharon Barnfield.
I collected Bear in October and Edith arrived in November. They were in neighbouring paddocks until January when they were put in together.
Edith soon became tired of Bear’s attentions and decided to brave the electric fencing and join the herd of cross-breed sows, weaners and piglets. They all free-ranged together over about 7 acres of rough pasture and old woodland. Perfect for pigs.
I had planned for Edith to farrow within the confines of a small paddock and inside an ark but she had other ideas, as I had thought she might. One day, she was nowhere to be seen and finding a black pig, however large, proved an impossible task but as the day darkened, so I heard branches cracking in the copse and I found Edith building a magnificent nest under a fallen pine tree.
The other pigs left her alone to get on with her work and I invited Jane (Bissett, Kennixton Flock) to join me and watch this beautiful animal build her own farrowing space through the night. In the morning, I found her stretched out in a bed of pine needles and assorted dry matter having already given birth to two piglets. The first of the Swanbridge pedigree Berkshire herd. A dream come true.
Jane and I had tea and cake and witnessed 9 piglets farrowed with the sow doing well and needing no intervention from us. Edith had positioned herself such that one back leg was braced against a tree stump and the other hooked over a branch above with the newborns free to find her milk without risking a kick. I like to think this was deliberate on Edith’s part.
The only problems with Edith’s free-birthing decision were mine. The weather became cold and I worried. Trudges across the field through the frosty nights, with extra food and water and straw, for Edith and her sander were well worthwhile and whilst, sadly, two piglets were lost to crushing, 7 stonking weaners are now free-ranging with the herd two months later.
Watching Edith protect those piglets during the first weeks was an utter privilege. Every time she left them, however briefly, they were covered with dry material. The nest was divided into three sections – feeding, sleeping and play areas. She had chosen a spot not only under a fallen pine but beside an old wall so it afforded protection from any possible predators as well as being bone dry when it rained and sheltered from the wind.
Edith has never shown any aggression towards her human minders and continues to be a delightful and caring mum to her brood.
As examples of the Berkshire breed, she and the sire, Bear, show all the required characteristics – winning build and markings, gentle temperaments and charismatic natures. I am sure that their offspring will be just the same.
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Berkshire pigs. When I first looked into keeping pigs, these were the ones for me. Roughty toughty outdoor breed, rare enough and good to eat; and best of all, wouldn’t get sunburn on my south facing, coastal fields.
3 years into keeping cross breeds and in to learning how to look after pigs, I had a small windfall and decided the time was right to invest in the pure breds I so fancied. The Berkshire Pig Breeders Club introduced me to Sharon Barnfield and I acquired Bear, aka Kilcot Peter Ladd. And quite a lad he has turned out to be. Now a bruiser with tusks and boar plates, he has sired 8 sanders in 2 years, not all planned it has to be said. His enthusiasm for his work has been boundless and no amount of electric or stock fencing has prevented him from doing what he clearly regards as his duty. Still fond of a tummy tickle and a cucumber, Bear lives in an acre paddock near my house, so near that he and I chat through the kitchen window.
I bought Edith, of the Excelsa line, from Chris Impey shortly afterwards. She is my hippy pig, a laid back lady with middling enthusiasm for Bear’s attentions. Edith is the free-birthing trail-blazer of the Swanbridge herd. (See separate blog post, Freebirthing the Berkshire Way.)
My other 3 sows are Middle White x Berkshire crosses and they all muddle along together across 8 acres of rough pasture, woodland and occasionally help themselves to another 7 acres of sheep grazing / hay field when I’m not looking.
Over the years, I have learned how to manage their feed according to the ground they occupy, using a crude rotation system through the seasons to take advantage of the acorns, grass, hogweed and so forth. Foraging now provides the bulk of their intake with supplementary milled feed from a local farm combined with a high quality commercial feed from the local agricultural suppliers.
They are fit not fat. Their vet practice has written up Swanbridge Porkers as an example of good practice in pig keeping and has supported me in maintaining a vaccination programme against Erysipelas and Parvo, for example.
This free ranging system allows the pigs to display all their natural behaviours – from building nests under trees for farrowing to dismantling hosepipes to make their own wallows… but it does bring its problems.
Ground can quickly turn sour if over used, especially in the wet winter months; and it is no fun for the smallholder trudging knee deep in mud across windswept fields, carting sacks of feed around. Making sure they get enough to eat and the right balance of minerals is also important and that is why I supplement, we have domesticated them after all.
It is also worth bearing in mind that already a slow growing breed, Berkies can take up to a year to reach pork weight when they are living off the land and scampering about all day. Delicious, dark meat with an 1” back fat is worth waiting for; and they do make a fine sausage.
Limpy is a small, broken pig. She is a Middle White x Berkshire cross, born to Georgia about two years ago. When a weaner, Limpy fractured her front left leg and right shoulder – I do not know how but I do know that with care, they healed well enough for her to manage although she could not bear much weight on the front right trotter. However, she stopped growing. This was a good thing for her as pigs do not generally manage well on 3 legs and humane slaughter had been a consideration. Soft heart won out over common sense and Limpy stayed.
Then Bear the boar (a hefty chap, pedigree Berkshire) escaped his electric fencing and attended to poor Limpy. I assumed that as she was undersize that she wouldn’t take but on closer inspection two months’ later, it was evident that she was in pig.
I did some research. The prospects were not good for Limpy nor for the piglets. The likelihood was that she would not survive the farrowing, that the piglets would be undersized, that she would not be able to feed them, that she would be unable to mother them. All bad news heading our way.
Practically, the most immediate problem was keeping her away from the big sows. It was February, cold and wet. Very wet and very muddy and the forecast was even wetter and even muddier. One sow had already farrowed and was living under a tarpaulin in the wood; another was in the big shed. This left the Downton Abbey ark for Limpy which fortunately was only 30 yards from the house. She was moved in and penned in with electric fencing. Limpy suddenly found herself in the wholly new position of nice, warm accommodation, food on a twice daily delivery service, private water supply and a view of the sea.
She bagged up very neatly and on the morning of 3rd March, 2017, she farrowed. 1 born dead but 6 big healthy live piglets and no problems. None. Limpy didn’t let down her milk straight away so the wonderful Arthur John & co. of Cowbridge, agricultural suppliers, lined up lamb colostrum subsitute and multimilk, bottles and teats for me to collect. The gorgeous wriggly piglets had both lamb colostrum and then, when Limpy’s milk came on line much later that day, hers too. Bottle feeding 6 piglets round the clock would have been tiring work but we would have managed somehow – I was very grateful nature stepped up to the mark, however!
Limpy was going to need lots of extra feed but I couldn’t risk her getting fat and being unable to bear her weight on the bad leg. Also, being so small, her capacity to eat on par with a normal sow was impossible. So, a rota with Jane (Kennixton Flock, bringer of the Braeburn apples for Limpy) meant that Limpy was fed at roughly 4 hourly intervals with high protein feed mixed with eggs and multimilk (nothing goes to waste). The piglets, attracted to the milky feed, also supplemented their suckling with her feed much earlier than I had noticed any other piglets doing.
Limpy’s piglets are now weaned. They are still living together in their own paddock but will have to be separated very soon. They are the biggest and fastest growing piglets we have had yet in the Swanbridge Herd. They weigh the same as Limpy now.
She could not have managed without support but what a brilliant mother she has been; and continues to be. Limpy’s little story deserved to be told.
These papers, from 1967, describe the extraordinarily advanced ideas on agriculture and social services practiced by Henry Evan Thomas at Hayes Farm, Sully, Vale of Glamorgan.
From staff welfare to combustion mill engines to agricultural land management, this remarkable man was 150 years ahead of his time.
I used to keep diaries. Lots of diaries. Then Mum died & I stopped. Now I use Twitter & Facebook instead. I still hope that one day I will be famous & all this stuff will be useful. Until then…
Today was a funny ol’ day.
Fed animals in the dark, wished the bees a good morning & trekked off to Spar to buy cat food. It’s 0705, still dark & I am wearing the very latest in smallholder gear: filthy waterproofs, filthy boots & gloves, topped off with unbrushed hair & pjs underneath. I have never worn pjs to a shop before. Of course, as I walk in, having left the boots outside, I walk straight into someone I know. Of course. I am hilarious apparently. I have to agree but draw the line at having my photo taken for the Spar hall of fame.
Next stop, give or take loading a pig or two (would’ve been 4 but one got away), is Maddocks at Maesteg. This is where I learn that abbatoir workers & the nice lady from Animal Health don’t get many laughs in their job. Thinking the coast was clear, I stripped off the waterproofs to reveal a short wool dress, black tights & then slipped on a pair of shoes. In the car park. In what is now daylight.
What are we here for but to entertain our neighbours.
The rest of the day included the joys of waiting for Big Pig to farrow (still we wait), thanking Jane Bissett profusely for pig-sitting when I was at work, cooking a very mediocre supper & getting the escapee boy pig back in with the other boars.
It also inluded 2 parcels in the post: a beautiful, cross-stitch Valerie Chicken cushion cover from Tracey & a beautiful cross-stitch GOS pigs cushion cover from Ros.
And now, back to the tax return. Nos da.
Check this out – delightful! #livingthedream
I absolutely adore that the advent of the New Year gives one a sense of renewal, a chance to reflect and consequently focus on ones short and long term goals. We have lots of changes planned for 2017 and, I must say, yes, I must, that we are very, very excited (and a teeny bit scared). We will be putting all our eggs into our entrepreneurial basket and focusing our time specifically ~ Pumpjack’s to our new wine business Terroir au Verre and me, Piddlewick, to my Pumpjack & Piddlewick Shop and the life that goes on behind it, so our blog will get a bit of a face lift too this year.
Welcome 2017! It’s make or break time.
(Hmmm, maybe not a good euphemism when talking about entrepreneurial eggs.)
Our Plans? If all goes well, the immediate goal will be to buy our own place for ourselves and…
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