Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pigs: The Man Returns

Our goals in our little family farm have never been to upset anyone. We raise animals for the sake of a better product- an exceptional (yet affordable) food source. We do it as an assertion of our independence and proof of our ability to survive. And yes, we do it because we can- for bragging rights. Of course we always knew that there would be some upturned noses by the people who prefer not to know from where their food comes, but the kind of persecution we have faced lately goes far beyond the consternation of the squeamish few. This is personal.

Sunday evening, while walking the dog we were babysitting, I saw that one of the slaughter pigs was grievously injured. She had somehow gotten her hip hung up on a protrusion in a fencepost and tore a foot-long, two inch deep gash in her ham. The slice went through skin, fat, and meat. It was too deep to use the liquid bandage and too wide to sew. So, to cut our losses to a spoiled ham versus a completely spoiled pig, I delayed our dinner guests, and we prepared to put her down immediately.

It screamed. The process is usually quick and quiet. A single, small caliber round to the head, followed by a cut in the throat, a couple squirts of blood, a few kicks, and it is over in a minute or two. This pig, however, screamed. It screamed loud and long, during dinner hour, on a mild-temperatured evening, on a holiday weekend. Someone called the police.

When my parents and several of Pennsylvania's Finest arrived, I showed my guests inside to relax before dinner while Mr. Farmer apologized for the noise and explained what had happened. Once they saw the animal and heard the explanation, they seemed satisfied and went on their way. We had a lovely dinner and my mother seemed pleased with her birthday tulips. The adrenaline wore off sometime well after midnight, and I was finally able to sleep.

Sadly, it was not over. Two days later, more law enforcement arrived. This time they were investigating a complaint of animal cruelty. Mr. Farmer confidently showed the officers to the well-maintained pen with large water barrels being filled constantly with fresh running water. They could easily see that the pigs had ample space, food, water, and shelter. Then, out of nowhere, one of the six-week-old piglets wandered out into the open with a severe gash in its belly and entrails hanging out. We fear that the sudden disruption from the arrival of the unexpected visitors while the pigs were eating may have caused it to get trampled. That surely did not help our case any.

Later that night, the police arrived again. This time they were questioning us about a hysterical neighbor. Cars had been racing around our usually-quiet neighborhood. Someone leaned on a car horn at 9:30 at night. The neighbor was repeatedly screaming, "why are you on my property?" to no one in particular. The whole thing was very strange, and we assured the officer that we didn't know anything about it, except that we had been outside because we were helping a friend move into a new house up the street. We were being targeted because of the previous days' events.

So, the pigs are on the move again. Some are off to the Beta site where they spent last summer. Others are are on their way to what we'll call the Gamma site, another suburban farm where a few of our other pigs currently reside as a result of a previous sale. We're downsizing. There are still four to slaughter and the three breeders whose fate is still unknown. These are dark times for us; I am thankful that we have friends and supporters who stepped up to help us with this catastrophe.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pigs: Wilma's Second Litter

We were pretty close on our estimation of Wilma's due date. We had been on piglet watch all week. All the signs were there. She was very hungry and thirsty. Her milk sacks were full, and her belly nearly touched the ground when she walked. The day before she delivered, she bit two other pigs that were contesting her supreme rulership of the water barrell. We had predicted that Wilma would deliver the second week of January; she gave us 10 piglets on January 8, 2012.

Piglet Cuddling with Wilma

Wilma is proving to be a fine, solid breeder. Her first litter came in the night while we were home relaxing. Mr. Farmer and Young Master Farmer went to feed and water her and there they were! This second litter came with just as little excitement. She just settled into a corner of the hut and started popping them out, one after another. I watched many of them being born, including a breach that was out and on the ground before I could say, "Oh, no! That's a foot!" The entire process was drama-free and incident free.

The only difficulties came from the remaining pigs from the first litters. They were only mildly curious while Wilma did her thing, and they did not bother her. Still, Mr. Farmer was concerned; so as I watched the little piggies come out one by one in the freezing cold, Mr. Farmer closed off the larger pigs into a separate part of the enclosure. By nightfall, however, they became restless and unhappy. Pigs are social animals and do not like to be separated from one another. So, to keep the peace, he allowed them to be together for the night. He closed in the third side of the hut and put up fence rails on the fourth. He fed and watered Wilma inside her cage, and it seemed to be working well to keep the others out without making them feel separated.

The following morning, one of the rails was down and one of the piglets had a cut on its head from being knocked by it. Wilma had forced her way out (or a younger pig forced its way in). Mr. Farmer repaired the rails and added a door to let Wilma in and out. The younger pigs found there way in anyway (over the rails this time), and sometime over the following night, two piglets were lost. Crushing deaths are not unusual with pigs, but we were pretty upset since we didn't lose any at all from the first two litters in the summer.

Several days later, we had another casualty. One of the piglets had a significant injury. A flap of skin covering a quarter of its belly was hanging loose. We brought it inside to see if we could stitch it up, but the wound was too far healed to sew and appeared to be infected. It could not be saved, so we put it down so that it would not die of starvation or further maiming. That leaves 7 piglets.

The babies are starting to wean now, and all but one of the males have been castrated. They are putting on weight quickly, as they should. And, of course, they are cute...

Piglets Pestering Mamas

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hillbilly Ingenuity: The Roto-Flogger

Inspired by mechanical chicken-plucking machines, Mr. Farmer was determined to invent a device for easily removing the bristles and outer skin from pigs. The design was similar to the standing poultry-plucker, which has a revolving drum embedded with rubber fingers that beat and pull the feathers from a chicken. However, you can't just pick up a two to three hundred pound hog and lean it up against a rotating drum; that would be a bit much to ask of even Young Master Farmer, who is brutishly strong. Out of necessity, a mechanical pig stripper would have to be portable.

The scaled-down, portable design began with a 4 inch, PVC pipe end cap. Mr. Farmer drilled 4 equally spaced holes in the sides of the cap and inserted 4 rubber bungee cords as a replacement for the rubber fingers. The reinforced ends (with the hooks removed, of course) held the cords in place.

He drilled another hole in the center of the cap, inserted a long, threaded rod, and capped it off with a nut on each side. He attached the device to a hammer drill, and was ready to rock and roll!

We call this the ROTO-FLOGGER because of the long, whip-like rubber ends.
Other names we kicked around included the Hair-Whip and the Squealer-Peeler.

As usual, the hog was dispatched, and a 55 gallon drum of water was brought to a boil. Since Mr. Farmer and the Boy were handling this one alone, the old setup with the large, flat rock and metal A-frame were employed for the processing. The pig was dipped for the prescribed amount of time, and the Roto-Flogger made its maiden voyage:

(WARNING: I took this video of the second attempt, the side and back end of the pig, so it is less disturbing than the head view. BUT it is still a video of hair and skin being torn off a hog's hip with a homemade, miniature weed-whacker. Discretion advised. )

Ok, so maybe seeing the dark bristle and skin turning pretty pink looks impressive, but after the first minute, and the second, that small patch of pink was still the only progress that was being made. In fact, this was faster:

(If you were ok with the first video, you will be fine with this one, too.)

Actually, even THIS was faster and more productive than the Roto-Flogger:

(PG at best)

So, in the end, a couple clean patches on the side of the face and a couple cool-looking test patches on the hams were all that the machine produced. The rest of the processing was done the old fashioned way: Dipping in hot water, scraping with a knife, soaking towels in hot water, and picking off hair by hand. Even Mr. Farmer's attempt to improve the process by cutting notches in the rubber bands to grab the hair a bit did not help much.

We are not giving up, however. We are working on the design a bit. We may add more flails. Perhaps we will change the length or shape of the whips. Perhaps a leather whip would be more effective. We'll be doing a bit of research and testing, and I will report back.

Back to the drawing board...