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.
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 apples 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. Similarly, deadly nightshade (relative to the potato) is eaten once the plants die back. There are lone tomato and marrow plants carefully avoided in the fields. They will bust through fencing to get at acorns and knap weed. 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 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.
18 Medicines. Get yourself a farrowing bag – something waterproof and pig proof (within reason) and brightly coloured. Fill it with plastic containers full of surgical gloves (over the elbow and short), wetwipes, plasticbags for rubbish, a squirty botle of lubricant, spare batteries for your head torch, portable phone charger, vet number in large print, flannels and leave enough room for pots of needles, bottle of Oxytocin, bottle of antibiotic and bottle of porcine metacam (oral or injection). Keep the drugs safe and according to the instructions on the boxes. Have them readily available for any emergency with a clean supply of needles with a separate purpose-made box for used sharps.
Needles for large pigs tend tobe huge steel affairs – and are impossible to get into the rump or neck without a lot of hassle. Use a short, not too thick, steel needle and practice injecting into an orange or similar (using water or to simulate pen & strep, use something thick like milkshake). Punching the pig’s rump repeatedly before injecting – and this should be a quick, punchy action with thumb on the plunger for a fast move – gets the animal used to the sensation. Neck injections – for mange (Ivormectin) is harder single-handed and I suggest getting help,especially with large stock. Piglets are wriggly things and even iron injections into the neck at 3/4 days old can be tricky and causeproblems (beware an angry sow too). Iron paste onto the tongue may be easier.
Always check that the meds come from a reputable supplier and are for porcine use, regulated appropriately for animals entering the food chain. Always record all medical treatments on the Pig Health Form (check out the Pig Hub / eaml2). Always check withdrawal periods before slaughter.
Woming – I use Flubenol oral – in feed. Dry feed can be wetted to distribute the wormer powder evenly. I have also popped an adult pig’s dose inside a banana or tomato andpopped it intothe gaping mouth. job done.
Injectable wormers like Ivormectin – are into the neck, treating mange and mites as well.
Get some cans of a spray antibiotic – Alamycin (green spray); and some antifngal / antiseptic like iodine /gentian violet (purplespray).
Pigs often get cuts from tucks and teeth when arguing over food or sex – usually, however nasty they look, a generous spray of green / purple will do the job. Sometimes, oral or injectabe ABmight be needed. Pen and Strep is a good all-rounder; Tylan too. I use oral Lyncomycin mostly as is another broad spectrum AB but I can pop the dose in a piece of fruit or water or in milk solution in a bottle for youngsters.
Pigs can be susceptible to lung problems – repeated coughing is a sign.
Knowing your animalsmakesall the difference in managing their health.