Lessons Learned From Our First Pigs

When we decided to raise pigs, I spent several months researching heritage meat pigs and the characteristics that describe each breed. Some have different temperaments in general, while some are more lard-type hogs, and some are more lean-meat hogs, among other differences.

I ended up liking Tamworths overall the best, mainly because I had learned that they were excellent foragers, typically good mothers that had large litters, and they had gentle dispositions.

I looked online and found out from the Tamworth Swine Association that there was a reputable breeder with excellent stock less than 3 hours from me. I made contact and arranged to pick up an intact (not castrated) male piglet and an unrelated female. Our plan was to use these two as a breeding pair and to raise the babies for meat or to sell. At the time, we were enjoying binge-watching all the seasons of The Waltons, so naturally we named them Zeb and Esther. If we were referring to both of them, we called them Zesther. 🙂

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Zeb and Esther enjoying tomatoes.

We kept them together as I didn’t want to have to worry about watching for heats and since we only had 2, I wanted them to have a buddy. We quickly grew attached to them. They were so sweet and loved to be scratched. Esther would lay down for us to rub her belly, and Zeb would prod you with his nose until you scratched his ears.

I kept scouring the internet trying to find out how to know if your pig was bred.  I even asked anyone who even looked like they had ever farmed if they knew about pigs and how to tell.  The ‘unofficial’ consensus from the Old Timers was that if the clitoral hood pointed up, she was bred. If it pointed down, she was open (not bred.) With Esther, that proved to be true, though since this was our first pig pregnancy, we didn’t really know that was true until she started making milk, or ‘bagging up.’ Once we saw that, the watch was on.

I noticed  one evening she was doing things that weren’t normal for her. She was biting off sticks and leaves and putting them in a big ditch she had dug for herself. Once it was nice and cushy, she laid down in it. I knew then that she must be getting ready to go into labor. I had heard that gilts and sows ready to deliver make a nest, but it was interesting to see firsthand.

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Esther in her nest.  The red in the picture is part of a feed bag.

I got up to check on her a few times through the night, each time hoping to see piglets. She seemed to be resting comfortably until early morning, but when I got up around 7 she was pushing. I continued to watch her while consulting my online resources. It soon became apparent that she was struggling a little too much with contractions. I checked her internally and could feel snout and face, but the area was so tight there was no way the piglet was going to budge.  I tied a snare and tried to get it on the piglet to pull, but that didn’t work either.  I couldn’t get even a finger past the cervix to get the front feet out. At that point, I knew I needed help.

I called our regular vet and he couldn’t come. He gave me another number to try and they couldn’t come either. My Dear Farming Friend (DFF) gave me the number of a vet she had just met, Dr. D.  I called the number and his office told me he would be there after he finished up the call he was on.  In the meantime, I  called my DFF back and asked her to come. She showed up at my house willing to help as always, with her 3 kids and a niece in tow. She tried unsuccessfully to repostion the piglet, as did most of the kids with smaller hands. Nothing was helping.

Much faster than I anticipated, the vet pulled up in his truck.  I was so glad to see him.  He checked her and immediately knew that this was going to end up being a c-section. He said she had a small pelvis. I asked him if it was ‘small’ as in first delivery or ‘small’ as in not suitable for breeding. He replied that she shouldn’t be bred again. My heart sank because that changed all our plans.  But at that point we just had to get the piglets out.

Of course, Murphy’s Law says that this would happen just before payday, with no money in the bank. I was concerned about cost and asked him how much it would cost. He really never gave me an answer, but simply stated, “Let’s just take care of your pig, then we’ll talk about that.”  Well, if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a large vet bill – you know this puts fear in your heart. But I had no choice – we would lose Esther and all the piglets if we didn’t do the c-section. So we proceeded.

He quickly made the incision, all the while explaining to all of us what each layer was and pointing out any relevant information. He removed the remains of the first piglet.  We had felt him sucking on our fingers while we were trying to repostion him, he had died in the birth canal after so long. My DFF and the vet commented on the piglet being huge – about the size of a typical 3 week old. Seeing him pull the body out was terribly sad, but we were still focused on Esther and the piglets to come. Everyone had been handed a towel and all 8 of us were standing there anxiously waiting to be handed a piglet to dry off. The vet said the sedation he gave Esther would affect the piglets too, so we needed to be vigorous with drying and stimulating the piglets as soon as they came out.

The uterus of a pig has several horns, or compartments. We patiently waited as he checked each horn. There were no other piglets.  Which meant no babies for this mothering sow to nurture. No income from the piglets. No meat for our family. And no future for our breeding plans.

The vet said the reason the one piglet was so big was because all the nutrition that could have sustained 10 or so babies was poured into him.

Dr. D got Esther all stitched up and gave me post-op instructions for her. I asked him again about the bill. He told me he would only charge me $50.00, enough to cover the drugs and supplies.  When I protested and said that wasn’t enough, he said that these situations make it worthwhile, and that he could not put a price on teaching the kids what all they saw and experienced that day. I literally had to hold back tears.  This man had been here for several hours in the 100-degree heat index temperatures and did a c-section on my pig and was purposeful in getting the kids close to observe, help and ask questions, and he was only going to charge $50.00?  I knew that wasn’t enough but honestly didn’t have much more to give him. I wrote him a check for $75.00 – all I knew we could rearrange the budget for that week. I asked him if he would hold the check until our next payday and he said that he would and if I needed him to hold it longer to just call.  He even said he was sorry that the outcome wasn’t better.  At that point the ugly cry was about to bust out….

My friend and her kids left about the same time the vet did. I went in to wash my hands and figure out where $75 was going to come from. We were expecting a little income from the piglets, and at that point I could try and sell Zeb, but I couldn’t even sell Esther in her condition.

I wasn’t even finished washing my hands and the phone rang. It was a guy who was wanting to come buy a grass bagger I’d had listed on Craigslist for the past 6 weeks, and several weeks the summer before. Yup. It was listed for $75.00. When the man left, my husband told me that the guy had four $20 bills and we only had four ones to give him back in change. So not only did God provide the $75, he threw in an extra dollar. 🙂

Between providing the absolute best vet that day and providing the money with a dollar to spare, God made his provision known that day for sure.


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