how we didn’t earn our “Herding Pigs” merit badge

As I wrote in my last post, the pigs were supposed to head to the abattoir last weekend. I say “supposed to” because they are still here. Why they are still here is a tale worthy of a scene out of the Hollywood movie “City Slickers”…

When the piglets arrived both of them fit into our dog’s crate. Now they were much to big for us to move (I briefly considered putting them in the back of Husband’s SUV/truck, thinking about how Jenna transports her sheep in the back of her Subaru station wagon, but quickly decided against that option) so we had to hire a guy who does livestock transport. He’d told Husband to put the pigs in some sort of enclosure against which he could back his trailer, open one side, and usher them in. I suggested using the space between the house and the garage. It is only about 14 feet wide, so I thought that would eliminate us from having to assemble at least two walls. And it fronts the driveway which would make for easy trailer-positioning. In the end, Husband used some leftover electric fence tape and posts to assemble a four-sided pen between the two buildings.

Now, I have never worked with pigs before but I have worked with horses. Horses are prey animals and when they get spooked it’s a matter of life or death, at least in their minds. I once saw a horse get spooked in a small paddock and, in his efforts to bust through the gate, ripped his chest open on the gate fastener (which had incorrectly been installed on the inside of the gate). A huge flap of skin hung down from the gelding’s chest when it was over; he healed up just fine but required numerous stitches and drainage tubing and netted a hefty vet bill. I figured the pigs, if suitably motivated, would probably find a way out of the electric pen. Sour had already demonstrated that he was willing to brave getting zapped if it meant the possibility of food, so I don’t think he’d be too concerned about it should it save him from the dark, scary, unfamiliar livestock trailer. Still, Husband felt it was the best we could do and I decided to just hope for the best myself.

That morning we brought the pigs their breakfast but then, to their surprise, opened up their paddock and started leading them up to the house using the bowls of food we’d brought. They were willing to follow only for a short distance so we had to tempt them by letting them take mouthfuls of food out of the bowls as we walked. It wasn’t too hard to get them up to the “holding” pen (and I use that word loosely, for reasons which shall soon become apparent) and soon they were in there munching away happily on food scraps and pig pellets. Shortly afterwards the livestock trailer guy arrived, took one look at our setup, and shook his head.

He was one of those burly yet quiet country types, with skin like he’d lived most of his life outdoors (which he likely had) and that sense of wisdom that oozed out as he shuffled along. He backed that trailer right up to the pen like it was nothing and we opened the front side of the pen. On each side was electric tape which I already sensed was too high off the ground. The guy made a few quiet comments that we needed to put something solid on the sides or else the pigs would just run out. He was also a bit miffed that we’d already fed the pigs: he said the only way to really load pigs is if they are hungry. I tried to explain that we’d had to feed them to lure them up to the pen, but he didn’t seem interested in excuses. I honestly don’t know why Husband and I didn’t act at that point to shore up the sides of the pen. I didn’t want to criticize my man’s work in front of a “real” farmer, especially since I didn’t really take part in the process, and I suppose he was fresh out of ideas. Before I knew it the pigs had figured out that something was up, got spooked, and busted outta jail. All three of us tried to get them back to the pen. The food wasn’t working as well since they’d eaten their breakfast already. To keep them interested in following me I had to keep letting them take bites from the bowl. The livestock guy kept saying, in this voice that was somehow gentle yet scolding at the same time, that we shouldn’t be feeding them. But I didn’t know how else to get them moving. Anyways, we chased the pigs around – with me at one point picking up my kids’ pup tent and waving it around to shoo the pigs back down the driveway (they were heading for the road and I was panicking about how we’d get them back if they decided to go for a long stroll) – until finally the guy commented to me that he had other stops to make and didn’t have time for this.

By this time I was really embarrassed and I sensed my husband was feeling the same way. I told the guy he should go, that we’d try to figure something out for a better holding pen, and we’d be in touch. That was six days ago and not much progress has been made. To be fair, Husband and I have been working a lot of hours this week and it’s been hard to get things done. Our idea is to purchase a proper livestock holding pen, with metal panels that hook together to form a square, heavy enough that animals can’t knock it over but portable when taken apart. We’ll attach it to the pig paddock, sort of how one might side-car a crib to a bed. We’ll put the feed bucket in that part of the paddock so the pigs get used to it. Then on trailering day we won’t have to lure them in there. We’ll position it so the guy can back his trailer right up to it easily, and hopefully we’ll use the morning feed to get the pigs in the trailer, rather than just somewhere nearby. And while the pen will set us back about $500, we will certainly get good use out of it as we’re planning to get more pigs next spring, and likely a goat or two.

Of course the neighbours and our family all called or stopped by that afternoon, wanting to know how it went. By then I was over the frustration and embarrassment. What the heck would I know about moving pigs, anyway? I grew up in the suburbs! And while I felt bad for the livestock guy (we have offered to pay him for his time, so at least he won’t hate us) I’m quite certain we’re not the first people who have been unprepared to move their animals. I couldn’t help but think of the many posts I’ve read over at Cold Antler Farm, and Jenna’s courage in sharing some of the challenges, mistakes, and downright failures she’s experienced with owning her first farm. In the end, all we can do is laugh at ourselves, enjoy putting a smile on friends’ faces, and count ourselves truly blessed to have the opportunity to experience such mistakes in the first place. Not everybody comes to the land with a background in farming. We all have to learn somehow and I’m just grateful to be living this life, mistakes and all.

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Categories: critters | 1 Comment

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One thought on “how we didn’t earn our “Herding Pigs” merit badge

  1. Pingback: A Life of Meaning « Rural Aspirations

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