Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

The Mathematics of Pigs.

Posted on | May 11, 2015 | 4 Comments

Some things defy the general rules of mathematics.  Two plus two doesn’t always equal four.  Takes pigs, for example.  Pigs are evidence that some things are not linear but, instead, add up exponentially.  When we had one pig, Papa Noel, he was just one more animal added to the barn yard.  He hung out with the other animals, inside the same fencing, and shared the automatic waterer.  He made one wallow, we bought one hog feeder and picked up one extra bag of grain while we were buying the rest of our farm feed, and we went about our business.  We were as happy as he was.

The following year we got two pigs, Penny and Pushy.  It quickly became clear that two pigs were too many to run around loose in the barnyard.  They outgrew the kidding barn where we kept Papa as a piglet within just a couple weeks and needed to go to the garden to turn over the grass and root out the wild blackberry while we set up some other fencing.  I used to scoop Papa up under one arm and carry him from place to place as a piglet.  Which I couldn’t do with two pigs.  I also used the feed bucket to tempt Papa in the direction I wanted him to go so I figured I’d do that to move Penny and Pushy.  Which was when I discovered that two pigs were more than twice the work of one.  Just because one pig is following the feed bucket doesn’t mean the other one isn’t dashing around the woods, rooting under fallen logs and scarfing up acorns.  In addition, it’s impossible to keep one pig corralled while simultaneously chasing down the other one.  Moving two pigs out of the barn yard, down the driveway, and into the garden wasn’t a smooth operation.  That’s all I care to remember about that.

Eventually Penny and Pushy made it to a fenced-in area around the pond (with me leading the way with the feed bucket and all four kids blocking any egress), where they were expected to compact the soil and, hopefully, seal whatever area was causing the pond water to leak slowly out.  The fence that went through the woods and around the pond required about thirty T-posts, two rolls of field fencing, and many hours of hard labor.  You’d have to ask The Other Half (he was in charge of that job), but I bet he’d tell you that putting up that fence was more than twice the work of just tossing Papa in with all the other critters.  That was fine because we had already seen evidence that Penny and Pushy were capable of more than twice the amount of pond-packing wallowing.

Penny and Pushy were fed occasional grain from the feed store, leftover goat milk, all the scraps from the house and garden, and outdated bread from the bakery which we kept in the freezer, greenhouse, and pantry.  It was a cheap way to feed pigs but it felt like we were feeding an entire passel of pigs, not just two.  In Farm City by Novella Carpenter she talks about dumpster diving to feed her two urban pigs and states: “If we had had time to think about it, we would have realized that we had become these pigs’ bi*ches.”  Yeah.  That’s about right.

The upside of the whole adventure was that two pigs filled more than two freezers.  So we took a year off from raising pigs and settled in to eating them.  But having pork in the freezer didn’t resolve the problem of the leaking pond.  Penny and Pushy had made a nice trail around the waterline, tamping down the soil as they went, but it wasn’t enough.  All the local farmers insisted we were thinking way too small and six to ten pigs would seal the pond in a summer.  Six to ten pigs.  That seemed less like the amount of pigs needed to seal a pond and more like the amount of pigs needed to dispose of dead bodies.  Luckily, the outbreak of porcine enterovirus last year limited the supply of piglets that were available this spring.  As hard I searched, there were only a few reasonably-priced piglets in my area.  I settled on the last remaining four piglets from a farmer about 10 miles away.  The owner claimed the piglets were Duroc but they certainly look like a Hampshire mix.

I didn’t even bother with putting four pigs in the kidding barn.  I knew better.  They went directly into the old chicken pasture with its long, low pallet house for cover.  I planned to keep them there for a few weeks until they were friendly enough to handle.  A few weeks turned into only a few days because they made way more than four times the amount of mud as the other pigs.  And they were living over the septic field.  I think we’ve recently discussed the rules about the septic field.  According to The Other Half, pigs are not allowed.  Especially pigs that make this amount of mud.  Good for the pond, not good for the septic field.

Before we moved the pigs a friend came over to help me castrate the males.  He castrated one and I castrated the other one.  Turns out that castrating a male pig is not as hard as catching a male pig in a muddy pasture.  Even if the chase efforts aren’t slowed down by the boot-sucking mud, opposable thumbs are no match for a muddy pig leg.  In addition, the same pig that will calmly eat a cookie out of your hand also strategically places his feet out of leg-grabbing distance while he’s munching away.  Apparently this is because pigs have excellent lateral monocular vision.

The good news is that after the strenuous exertion of catching a pig, you have enough adrenaline flowing to castrate the pig even though some small part of your mind is going, “Oh mah gawd!  How did I get to this horrific point in my life??  Abort!  Abort!  Abort!”  For the record, we don’t have the facilities to separate males and female.  The males at our farm have to be castrated or we risk pregnancy of the gilts and aggression between the males for breeding privileges.   Also for the record, slicing the scrotum was the worst part—-removing the testicle and the spermatic cord was rather straightforward.  The Other Half was not even as nervous as he should have been I expected although I’m not sure he slept very well that night.

At this point I wanted those pigs down at the pond where, hopefully, they could live unmolested until it was time to butcher them.  While my dad was over fixing a waterer he suggested we go ahead and move them down to the pond.   After all, there was two of us, the pond fencing was still intact, and all we had to do was coax them out of the chicken pasture, down through the woods, and past the gate into the pond area.  I naively agreed.  Because math was never my strong point.  An hour and a half later we gave up coaxing, chasing, and trying to corner the pigs into the area by the pond.  Feed buckets, treats, and cattle panels as pig boards were no match for four pigs set loose in the barn yard with an acre or two of woods between them and the pond.  Don’t assume we were terrorizing a bunch of frightened, frantic piglets.  They were having a great time exploring new territory, checking out the chickens, sampling the automatic waterers, and gobbling up the trails of grain and cookies we distributed to lead them toward the pond.  My dad and I were the ones that were traumatized.

That’s when it really dawned on me that owning four pigs was way more than double the work of two pigs.  Owning four pigs felt like owning this many pigs:

Pigs in piggery

So we switched modes.  If four pigs made more than a podunk pig operation then it required more than podunk pig tactics.  That’s right.  We went commercial on ’em.  We herded the pigs right back to the long house and chicken pasture where we started the whole operation and closed the door to the house.  Then we used cattle panels to set up a catch pen and a pig chute right outside the door of the house.  As soon as we walked away from all that alarming apparatus, the pigs came out of house to check things out.  It doesn’t seem possible to me that curiosity killed the cat faster than it could kill a pig.  Bam!  We shut the house door to prevent a retreat and…..that’s where we went right back to podunk pig chasing.

My dad scooped up the first pig and started carrying him down to the pond—-mud and squealing and all.  I offered to help.  Because that pig looked heavy.  And muddy.  And squealy.  But my dad said I should stand back because he was afraid the pig might bite me.  So I stood back.  Because who I am to argue with my elders?  That’s rude, people, just rude.  After seeing how heavy and muddy and squealy (and potentially bitey) the first pig was, I figured I should take a turn catching and carrying the next pig down to the pond.  Thinking about carrying a heavy, muddy, squealy (and potentially bitey) pig down to the pond by myself made me remember how we transported the pigs when they first arrived:

“Hey, Dad,” I said.  “I used a crate and a wagon to carry the pigs in here.  It sure was a lot easier than it looked for you to carry that pig.  I bet we could use that to move the rest of them down to the pond.  What do you think?”

He blinked at me.  Then he wiped the mud off his arms.  Then he wiped the sweat off his face.  Then he sighed.

“Yeah,” he said finally, without a trace of sarcasm or bitter inflection.  “Let’s try that.”

The bad news was that we were two and a half hours into moving the pigs when I remembered the crate and wagon.  The good news was that as soon as I pulled out the crate and the wagon, the school bus arrived releasing Middle and Little from the drudgery of school into the drudgery of farm chores.  You can probably imagine how excited they were when I told them they needed to help catch, crate, and carry the other three pigs to the pond.  But with the help of the catch pen, the pig chute, the crate, the wagon, and two extra people, we managed to do it.  The entire enterprise of moving the pigs lasted about four hours.  Which is way more than four times the ten minutes it took to walk Papa Noel down to the pond with the promise of a back scratch.  And more than twice the hour it took me to move Penny and Pushy down to the garden with a scoop of grain.  See what I mean?  Pigs don’t add up nicely.

As my dad was taking of his gloves and slapping the mud off his pants he said, “Well, in all the farming I did, I never moved pigs until today.”

“Don’t worry,”  I replied.  “We won’t need to move them again until it’s time to butcher.”

“Good,” he said.  “Next time we’ll shoot ’em first.”

That’s the best part of having a relationship with your parents as an adult.  After all the unique life experiences they’ve shared with you over the years, you can finally return the favor by giving them the unique experience of carrying a heavy, muddy, squealy, (possibly bitey) pig down to the pond.  You’re welcome, Daddy.  I love you.

When Little called me at work the next day to tell me that the pigs were loose, I thought we probably were going to have to shoot them.  The escape theory was that the fat pony broke down part of the pig fence trying to get to the pigs’ grain, accidentally setting the pigs free.  Which might have meant shooting the fat pony.  But The Other Half was not alarmed and told me that he’d handle it.  According to him and the kids it only took the five of them under an hour to move the pigs back into the fencing around the pond and they managed to walk them back in without any catching at all.  This was obviously a lie but I’m going to let it go because I didn’t have to deal with it and if it wasn’t a lie, they obviously had me and my dad to thank for spending four hours properly training the pigs to go to the pond.  You’re welcome, liars punks.  In any case, I don’t have time to argue about it.  I have to go back to the bread store….


4 Responses to “The Mathematics of Pigs.”

  1. Jill
    May 12th, 2015 @ 7:24 am

    I’ve said it before, but… vegetarian!!

  2. Walnut
    May 12th, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    We raised hogs commercially my entire childhood. I will never forget the bus coming over the hill approaching the house and seeing 500 hogs roaming about the property. That is what they call a ‘Character Building Moment.’

  3. Lisa D
    May 12th, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    If everyone had to work this hard for dinner, I believe there would be many more vegetarians out there….

  4. JJ
    June 16th, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

    This should be required reading for anyone who says they want to have an adorable little piggie.

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