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.)