Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Working in the hog barn

There will be a special place in Heaven for my husband, Randy. For 17 years, he supported our family by working 7 days a week for a farrow to finish hog operation. For you city folk, a farrow to finish operation means we raised pigs from birth to market weight.

If I recall correctly, Randy’s main areas of responsibility included the farrowing house, the nursery and two other buildings that held feeder pigs. There was another guy who was in charge of the boar yard and getting the sows pregnant, but that is another story entirely. I went to work with Randy in about ’93, helping him in his buildings. As I did my work, I often wondered how the business of hog-raising might change in the future. I don’t know that it has very much, but this is how we did it in the 1990s.

A sow is one of the most predictable mothers in the animal kingdom. She will go into heat 33 days after being weaned and she will give birth – or farrow – exactly 3 months and 3 days after she gets pregnant. A few days before her litter was due to be born, we loaded her onto a cart, I gave her a bath with the power washer and she was moved into the farrowing house and settled into her own private farrowing crate. Pregnant and nursing sows are kept separated from each other to prevent them from killing each other’s babies.

The farrowing crate is also designed to prevent a sow from savaging her own young, which sometimes happens (and it has been happening since long before hogs were domesticated) for reasons yet to be determined. The sow has room to lie down and stand up, but she can’t turn around. In order to eat or drink or poop or pee, all she had to do was stand up. The crate is designed so that the waste falls through the cracks in the floor into a pit, where it drained into a cesspool outside the building. Part of my job was to go around behind the crates with a shovel and scrape out all the poop. Every day. They can really generate a lot of poop.

Anyway, after the litter was born, I helped give them each a shot of iron and a shot of penicillin, to prevent any infection from the umbilical chord. They also had to have their teeth clipped – they are born with four “fangs” (I think they are actually called ‘wolf teeth?’) two on top and two on bottom, that had to be clipped so they wouldn’t hurt each other.

As soon a pig is able to breathe, the first thing it starts to do is look for something to eat. They are a little shakey when they first stand up, but they get over that in a matter of minutes. The second thing they start to do within minutes of being born (actually, I think the struggle probably begins in the womb) is fight their siblings for the best nipple. This created a fatal disadvantage to the ‘runts.’ Since we usually herded in about 10 sows at time, who all farrowed within a few days of each other, Randy was able sort the piglets and foster them between the mothers so that each sow had about 8 babies of all the same size to nurse. Within a couple of weeks, the male piglets were castrated, both genders got their tails clipped off and Randy would examine each gilt (girl) to see if she might be kept for breeding stock. If so, she got her ears notched so that she was numbered. I can’t remember how to read the notches – it’s been too long. Randy probably does, though. He has a much better memory.

Within a few weeks, the piglets were weaned from the sows and moved into the nursery, where their job for the rest of their lives was to eat and grow. Most of them undertook this career with gusto. Meanwhile, the sows were moved back out into the boar yard to eat and get pregnant. At that point, my job was to wash out each of the vacated farrowing crates with a power washer and then disinfect each one. If you ever find yourself in a position where you have to clean up hog poop with a power washer, I have only one piece of advice: never, ever under any circumstances whatsoever should you ever lick your lips. Ever. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Our farrowing house had 40 crates and we had about 120 sows in the breeding herd who rotated in and out all year round. The nursery had 6 rooms with four pens each that held 8-10 piglets each. As the weanlings grew into feeder pigs, they were moved into larger and larger pens in other buildings around the farm. After they were moved out, it was my job to wash each of the vacated nursery rooms with the power washer. I don’t know how many hogs we would have had at one time on the place.

One thing I remember about the farrowing house was that, even though we didn’t have a furnace, it was hardly ever cold in there. We used heat lamps over the crates that the babies could sleep under, but the rest of the heat must have come from the animals. In the summer we ran fans and had exhaust fans on the roof to help pull the heat out.

Each of the buildings had a waste pit underneath it that had to be drained regularly. I would go around the buildings and pull plugs and run scrapers in order to make that happen. Like I said before, they can really generate a lot of poop. (And Ralph can vouch for me on that.)

That’s all I can remember about that for now. If more comes to me, I’ll post it as I think of it.

(Sue will probably be able to add some memories to this procedure. She and Jerry did this for several years.)


Sue said...

We did this for 9 1/2 years. I agree with Janell, when you are power washing, keep your mouth shut. I pretty much did the same stuff Janell did. The barns we ran were coops. Several farmers owned the business and bought the pigs when the reached around 30 to 40 lbs.

Brooke said...

Interesting post. Would have never thought about not licking your lips.

Ralph's Homespun Headlines said...

I will be more than happy to vouch for you - they do generate a lot of poop. You know when I was on that ramp I never once thought about licking my lips.

Mary Connealy said...

I'm with Ralph on this one. Janell qualifies as master of the obvious.
That was an interesting post, Janell.
thanks for giving us a glimpse inside the farrowing barn.
Something interesting...I don't know if Randy did this. But lots of hog farmers will NOT allow a vet onto the place.
the fear is that that vet will bring in a disease that will do more harm than his medical treatment would ever do good.

Janell said...

Mary - I could count on one hand the number of times we had a vet on the place. He came out a couple of times in our 17 years there to do an autopsy. I think in all those years we only had one epidemic (it was a pulmonary infection) go through the hogs. I should have mentioned that we ALWAYS had barn boots which were never permitted outside the barn. And outside shoes were absolutely forbidden inside. We rarely gave tours to anyone from the outside world. I think at Sue's, they actually showered on their way in and out of the barns.

Mary Connealy said...

Janell, the URL for your picture that can be made to appear when you make a comment is

Click on the Orange Blogger icon upper left. Pick Settings. click on Edit Profile. Paste the above link into the URL spot.
I posted your picture on my blog.

Mary Connealy said...

You can get the URL on any picture by right clicking, the clicking on Properties...and I meant ANY ONLINE PICTURE.
And you can right click on any picture and click on Save Picture As, then save it to your Desktop, then it's a jpeg that can be loaded just by clicking on Browse.

Jamie Dawn said...

Not at all "boaring!!"
Little piglets are so cute!!
I'd want a runt for sure. I'd have to name him Wilbur after the one in Charlotte's Web.

Was it salty when you licked your lips??
I thought so.

I wouldn't mind having a hog's job for the rest of my life... to eat and grow.
Well, the growing part would make my jeans too small, so that would not be good.
I'd just like my job to be to eat.

Paul said...

I've never lived on a ranch or a farm, although I've done a lot of work on one or another. Mostly grain in Kansas; cotton and chili in Arizona. And beekeeping is almost as tough as farming.

What you've described is not my idea of a good time. It probably beats sitting in an office all day, tho.

Janell said...

Paul, beekeeping sounds dangerous. I hope you'll blog about it. If you already have, send me a link.

Jamie D. One rule we had on the hog farm - Never name anything you are going to eat!
Yes, the piglets are VERY cute. How come sibling rivalry is SO cute in the barn and SO irritating in the house?

Mary Connealy said...

I had two brothers who worked for a beekeeper ... I think from Craig. They'd come home swollen up from stings. Talk about your disincentive to go to work.
Hello Pavlovian response.
Work - Pain
And I used to hose out the barn for Ivan in the early days. It's just amazing what you can get used to.

LaDawn said...

Ya learn somethin new every day. Wonder if I'll ever use this info....hope not!

Paul said...

About beekeeping: please visit My Other Blog. It will open to a table of contents. My bee posts are Apr 24, Apr 27, Jun 14 and Dec 14. I recommend you read them in that order. (Click the back button to return to the TOC.)

The blog is my memoirs, written for my kids and grandkids. The dates are 1943 to 1960; the location is Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico.

I recently added a guest book, but no one has signed it yet. Wanna bee first?


Stephanie said...

We have a cousin on the other side of the family who has/had a hog operation. During our visit to NE, we would always visit and I can say without a doubt...it is the worst smell.

Cliff said...

Somehow, the fact that you seldom gave tours of the facility, didn't catch me off guard.
Having raised hogs the old way fro many years, I'm ready to stay away from them. Except in the meat case.

nora said...

Hog farming has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world. I'm glad we only raised cows and chickens -
Thanks for sharing the inside peek in to the farrowing barn.
I learned the don't lick your lips rule when butchering cows.

Jerry said...

Stopped by here from Cliff's blog.

I was raised on a hog farm and found your description very accurate. I know exactly what you mean about not licking the lips.