This story is for my children.
When I was very young, my Dad’s two brothers were living at home on a tenant farm and still in high school. The house seemed big and old. It was a two-story, surrounded by a large garden, an outhouse, a pig lot, a barn for hay storage and milking, outbuildings, cribs and fields farther out. Both boys’ rooms had shelves of trophies and ribbons from 4-H adventures at the county fair. I went to the fair and watched with envy. It was my dream to be just like them.
When I was older, I joined 4-H, but we were town folks and girls were only encouraged to cook and sew. I did a bit of both, but it wasn’t what I had envisioned. I wanted livestock and trophies and ribbons!
Years later, when my young family moved to a rented acre in the country, I determined my kids were going to have what I had longed for. They were going to get a taste of 4-H and farm. So we embarked on the 4-H / homestead journey of raising animals, growing gardens, learning self-sufficiency and earning those 4-H badges, as proof of their achievements. We had farm neighbors who understood our enthusiasm and offered help often. We enjoyed growing our kids as they grew their interests and we met great 4-H leaders and other families who spent their vacation days herding, kids and animals alike, to the local county fair each August.
Our family tried lots of homesteading projects in those 4-H days and my farm bible was “Carla Emory’s Old Fashioned Recipe Book”. If my grandparents instructions left out a step, Carla could be counted on to fill in the blanks for every endeavor necessary to survival on the farm. I still have a comforting copy of the “Recipe Book”.
All this information is an introduction to the following story. I wrote it a hundred years ago, late one night, and kept a yellowed copy that was obviously typed on a real typewriter. With a bit of rewriting and editing, this is for Travis and Misty.
THE FIRST FARROWING
If you live in the country and harbor secret thoughts of self-sufficiency [and 4-H trophies], your thoughts will eventually turn to pigs; mortgage lifters they used to be called. Cheaper to raise than beef, they require less space and are barely more manageable. And you can fill your freezer with fresh, home-produced meat as was your intention all along. Those 4-H kids soon latch onto this pig idea as if it was their own and they are beyond excited to buy a handful of newly-weaned feeder pigs. These lovely pigs grow, well, like pigs and travel to the county fair and garner some 4-H awards and our freezer fills. Not entirely self-sufficient, but at least self-produced.
A year or two goes by in this way, projects completed and freezer refilled. I even survive the days I long for any steak that isn’t pork. One day, when listening more closely than usual, I pick out words like heat, breeding, farrowing and litter. I don’t think they are talking road-side cleanup either. I casually mentioned that their conversation was boring and they immediately exclaimed over my enthusiasm.
Before I know what has happened, one of the shapelier gilts in the pig pen has been carted off to meet a reputable and discerning chap with a staggering track record for producing offspring. From the reports home, it seems the gilt was no happier with this idea than I was. In a couple of months, she is back and doesn’t seem to be harboring any grudges.
She is now due to produce her own family of squealing, pink, perfectly formed, I-just-love-baby-piglets in about three months, three weeks and three days. This lady becomes royalty. She gets special feed and plenty of it and she blossoms considerably. With this wait [and weight] on our hands, talk turns to birthing arrangements; pen vs crate, a-frame vs barn, day vs night, etc., etc. Nothing could be left to our mother-to-be and the conversation was periodic and seemed unresolvable. I was for A-frame, pen, daytime. The WINNERS chose crate, barn, anytime.
The due date is Friday, Feb 18. Apparently no one bothered to consider arranging for a birth sometime in warm May or probably that didn’t jive with county-fair-in-August timing. All advice regarding farrowing early [or late], determined that she should be in-the-crate a few days prior, to get adjusted, so we decided the Saturday before the 18th would be moving day. Just withhold food that morning and she will graciously follow the feed bucket into her new quarters that afternoon, so “they” advised. Hah! After more than an hour of thin patience and an inappropriate amount of her food, goat food, calf food, chick food, apples and milk, she graciously entered the crate. It was not a second too soon, for all concerned.
Now if we could have just worried that litter of piglets out of her, everything would have been a snap. She got more attention and poking and prodding than a woman delivering triplets by cesarean. She was inspected by each of us a dozen times a day and by every visitor to the farmstead, whether they had ever even seen a crated gilt before. Our mailman inspected. My Mother inspected and she was NOT farm oriented. The school bus driver waved off when we mentioned “farrowing” to her.
The 18th came and went, no piglets. We endured thru the 19th and the 20th all while our ‘Miss Piggy” was literally wallowing in the attention. We checked her morning, noon and night. Sunday night at 8pm, my husband came on the run, from checking, bursting in the house with the shaky news that we had a disaster in the barn. She had killed the first three piglets she’d had so far. I headed to the barn, as he phoned a more experienced friend for help. Everything we had read, all the advice we’d heard and all our questions asked, hadn’t prepared us for this situation. Even the gilt had lulled us into a sense of security with her docile nature and cooperative temperament. I removed the three piglets, before the kids got to the barn. I was quietly trying to get the gilt to lie back down, but she wasn’t having it. The friend determined that if she wouldn’t lie down, we could tie her down. At this point, I am appreciating that darn crate.
As new piglets began to emerge, Misty was busy scrubbing them clean and dry, while Travis was busy counting arrivals, with the marketing potential gleaming in his eyes. By 1 am, 7 lively, darling piglets were nursing eagerly while we supervised, never letting them near their Mother’s head. She would snap and grab for each that dared in her direction. She was definitely a force to be feared; thank goodness for the crate.
By 3am everyone was exhausted, the now-sow [having a litter transitions a gilt to a sow – it’s a farm thing] was no more loving and we decided to move the babies to another stall and heat lamp to get a little sleep ourselves. And little sleep is what we got, as we were back in the barn at six am for another round of feeding. The great mother was still not interested in mothering those babies and I had visions of being a round-the-clock nursing supervisor for 8 weeks. Daytime supervisor wasn’t entirely out of the question, but night supervisor didn’t flicker on my radar. This obstinate and very capable mother was not going to dictate sleepless nights for me.
By noon she was no friendlier and I was a lot more tired, so I decided that if I could shut her mouth and keep it that way, she might learn to put up with her adorable babies and they wouldn’t get hurt. It was her job to do the providing and I intended for her to provide.
I fashioned a muzzle of sorts using a goat collar, part of a calf halter and some baling twine. Ever grateful that she was in that crate, I ver-r-r-y carefully slipped the makeshift muzzle onto her and tightened it down. Next I got one daring little piglet by his back leg [which triggers auto squealing] and let him squirm in the general direction of her head. She snorted and grunted, but that mouth was secure. Lunch time kids; I let them all in to latch on and watched.
We think she was so isolated on our place; she was after all the one and only queen gilt, that she didn’t “know” other pigs, especially newborns. After 24 hours, we were able to remove the muzzle and she was the wonderful mother we had expected.
With 7 babies to choose from, Travis picked his choices for county fair exhibition that fall. He took Reserve Champion Chester White barrow at the Illinois STATE FAIR that year. It was a wonderful outcome for newbies to the farrowing world.
More farrowing was mentioned but we must have sensed once was enough. We did have more pigs. We were all suckers for baby pigs!