Her damp body struggles for breath while little chirps peep from her beak. Wings flutter feebly against the sides of the tiny rib cage, a grim beat to a death march. I scoop up the wee body from the cage and carry her into the house. With a blow dryer, I try to dry her brown feathers. She wiggles and her beak beats an irregular rhythm into my palm. The warm air works magic and she slowly starts to fluff up again while the cheeps become stronger.
With relief I carry her back to the metal crate which houses 12 more Orphington chicks. They are dual purpose egg layer/meat birds and I am trying to raise them from day-olds. The chicks crowd together and sometimes the weakest are driven under. If they do this near the water bowl, the trampled babies drown. Disposing of their lifeless bodies’ wrenches at my heart and casts a sheen of depression over the beginning of the day.
The idea of living on a farm with fresh eggs and pasture-raised chickens seemed so romantic, so ethically responsible. Like the lotto commercials, it was our ticket to dream. Eight years ago, my husband and I left the city to try and create our fantasy. We both had to keep our city jobs to afford the land, so it’s actually like starting another full-time job. I pictured more evenings sitting in a Muskoka chair enjoying the view and less time tossing itchy hay and cleaning manure. There are transcendental moments when the chores are done and the view of green fields and grazing livestock feeds the soul. But there is also death. The cost for those satisfying moments is high. Every farmer learns that when you help nurture the creation of life, there is also a percentage of loss. Animal husbandry is an old profession, but it comes with an older adage. When you’ve got livestock, you’ve got deadstock.
It’s emotionally painless and physically sweat-free to go to the supermarket and pick your deboned, deskinned piece of meat on a Styrofoam tray. The actual raising of the animals… putting time, love, blood, and tears into the process is a different story. Sometimes when birthing, the weakest don’t survive. Piglets, lambs, goat kids, chicks, calves, it is a cross species reality. Plus, there are natural predators; it is a battle of wits against the coyotes, foxes, chicken hawks, raccoons, weasels and minks that slink or fly around your paddocks planning an attack.
After several close calls with a coyote and our sheep herd, my husband purchased a guard llama. A smelly aloof animal with deep brown eyes and incredibly long eyelashes. She is my new hero. Llamas defend their charges with vigilance and ferocity. Coco is a 20-year-old female with a scream that sounds like a revving Harley Davidson, and talons that she paws at any threat. Incredibly easy to take care of, she just requires hay and water, and prefers if we leave her alone. She has a zero-loss record. All of our sheep and goats have avoided death by predator.
We can’t claim the same success. Breeding sheep is remarkably difficult. The babies are very sensitive to temperature and die if they get the slightest chill. If the ewes give birth in the winter and your barn isn’t well heated enough, there are lots of incredibly beautiful, dead lambs. We have tried heating lamps, birthing only in the warmer months, and vigilance, but there was still quite a bit of loss.
My husband wanted to try something easier. On a mission, he took my horse trailer, filled it up with all 15 of his Katahdin sheep, and traded them for five enormous Berkshire sows and one really ugly, mean-looking boar. When those enormous black creatures rumbled out onto the little electrified paddock he built for them, I felt terror grip my heart. The boar alone must have weighed 900lbs, and he had tusks that curled ferociously up around his face. I promptly named him “Notorious P.I.G.” after the rapper and lived in fear of the beast.
Coco, our llama, took one look at her new charges and jumped the fence. She was quitting. I agreed with her that no respectable guard animal should have to live with enormous pigs that might be able to take her in a fight, so I relocated her to the paddock with our few pet horses.
I learned to love the big black mother Berkshire sows with remarkable nurturing instincts and sheer intelligence. We had calf hutches filled with clean straw for them in an outdoor electric paddock. In the summer, they had a big mud pond for wallowing in. Shortly after taking up residence, one of our new girls got something called “pig belly”, a massive swelling of the stomach which is eventually fatal. Apparently, our vet informed us when he examined her, it can be caused by the stress of travel. There was nothing we could really do for her. And yet, Notorious P.I.G. knew what to do. He started slicing her with his tusks and feeding on her blood. Not only did he look like a villain, but he was obviously part vampire. Someone was moving off the farm. Either I was, or Notorious P.I.G. My husband saw the wisdom of choosing me and sold him to another pig farmer.
When it was time for our pregnant ladies to give birth (Notorious P.I.G. did do his job before he was evicted) fellow farmers told us that we needed farrowing crates to stop the moms from crushing her babies. I just could not believe that was true. The big metal contraptions designed to keep a barrier between the sow and her offspring looked like medieval torture devices. This was a debate. When Esmerelda, our largest and most impressive sow, was ready to give birth, World War Farm began. My husband wanted the crates, and I was firmly sure any Mom with enough room could figure out how not to kill her kids. This was a passionate, spittle-flying, arm-waving discussion. Humans thought they were far too important and I was sure nature had this figured out. I won. We let our ladies do it all naturally.
And there was zero piglet death. Zero.
Esmerelda farrowed out naturally in a round outdoor shelter. She had nine healthy babies and watching the process was hard for me. I remember how much giving birth to my daughter hurt. It looked just as exhausting and painful for her. It was amazing to watch Esmerelda get ready to nurse… she carefully checked all the straw where she was going to lay down, and then she flipped all the little piglets she found out of the way. Then she counted them. (I could swear I watched her touch every baby with her nose) and only then did she lie down.
For a time, there must have been 25 piglets running around, and they were adorable. Little squealing thrashing bodies whose speed belies their round build and short legs. But they eat a lot. Tons and tons of grain, and all the table scraps you can throw at them.
Eventually they were literally eating us out of house so Luke sold most of them to a neighbourhood cooperative. But we kept two little girls that grew very quickly.
It was bound to happen.
One day, the two of them plotted the great escape. Two 600lb Berkshire sows somehow managed to bust their way out of their electric page wire paddock.
First, the girls crossed the busy highway in front of our farm. Then they circumvented our neighbour’s fencing and cast-iron gate. And best of all, they discovered the large Grecian Fountain in her front yard. When we came home from work that day and Luke noticed a couple of girls were missing, he heard the splashing and gleeful snorting from across the road and discovered the two of them having the time of their lives. Good thing escaping and swimming uses up a lot of energy, because the sows were hungry enough to follow a pail of grain back across the road to their pen.Soon after that, (and a few more containment failures), the two girls were sold and joined their siblings at the cooperative. Though I did not miss the sight of pigs running freely around the farm, rooting up every inch of grass and garden that their snouts could reach, I did miss my living green bins, when no vegetable skin or fruit peel ever went to waste.
This summer I noticed that our apple trees were dropping a very profuse harvest close to the house and I remembered how much pigs enjoyed munching on the fruit. Though the worms and wasps had made the apples not advisable for human consumption, I convinced my husband to go to Woodville and pick up a couple of little pigs. He brought home Petal and Oink, two little 40lb Tamworth cross girls.
Petal and Oink would never grow to the 1000lb mark that Esmeralda weighed in at. But I became quite fond of the little pink and orange creatures. They behaved more like dogs than our last set of pigs. Snorting in delight when they saw you and nuzzling your pockets for treats. My only fear was the potential for destructive landscaping or swimming visits to the neighbor.
Our batch of Berkshires took a perfectly lovely green field and made it look like a muddy war zone. I don’t think that pasture will ever recover. I had heard that “ringing” pigs prevented rooting of gardens and grass and would also stop them from burrowing out under the fencing.
If teenagers can ring their own noses for fashion, surely our pigs could sustain a few minutes of pain for a life of freedom in a pasture. Has to beat a conventional concrete pig barn.
The whole operation took under five minutes and the pigs seemed daunted by the procedure for less a day. We scrubbed the noses with antiseptic shampoo, disinfected the instruments with alcohol, and then treated them with iodine when the ring was in. Except for a few minutes of high octave pig screams, the procedure was no worse than when I had my ears pierced. Petal and Oink were back to eating with enthusiasm, exploring their environment and asking for belly scratches in no time at all.
There is controversy surrounding the ringing of a pig’s nose. Europe is known for having the highest standards of food animal welfare. The UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs basically states that pigs kept indoors should not have their noses rung, however, those that live outdoors may have it done when it comes to protecting the soil and environment if done in a humane way with disinfected equipment. Petal and Oink live outdoors and sport nose jewelry with access to shelter, water and food and have a far better life than living in a big concrete barn until they reach slaughter weight. They stay in their paddock, still have grass and firm ground to play on, and are getting fatter by the day.
It is a daily struggle full of learning, death and life. There are horribly sad moments like feeling the life drain out of a chick chirping weakly in your hands. But I am connected to the land and my food. This must be better than the ignorance of a Styrofoam tray. And then there are those moments on the Muskoka chair as the sun sets over a field of horses and pigs.
Artwork by Sally Mann “Sunflower seeds”