I have been the silent and minor partner with a friend for three years now in raising 4-H pigs, after giving up my own small farrowing operation because of space and too many neighbors. I figured it was time to quit before they complained, not after. Besides, when I found myself sweating one hot afternoon scooping manure with no kids in sight, I questioned why I was doing what I'm doing. Now it's become therapeutic for me, although I question sometimes if I don't need a different kind of therapy if I consider raising hogs therapeutic.
Altogether, I've probably helped with 100 litters over the past few years. In big operations, that happens in a week. But in a 4-H pig operation, you get more up close and personal with each sow—kind of like in the old days when we milked 40 cows. I knew each one—which one would kick, which one would sneak into the feed room if you weren't watching, and the like.
Of all the sows we've had over the past few years, I've learned my biggest lesson this year. Sometimes you learn lessons when you don't expect to. I could entitle this 'the little pig that could' after 'the little Train that could,' but you'll get the picture soon enough.
We use a simple ultrasound to do pregnancy checks in the late fall. By the time we did our first checks, this one crossbred gilt, a bit on the small side anyway, had managed to do severe damage to her leg. My partner thought it was broken, although it turned out to be a severe sprain and bruise that got infected and walled itself off.
From the moment the ultrasound hit her belly, I knew she was pregnant. "On nuts," my friend said. "I was hoping she wasn't since she's hurt so bad."
It got worse from there. Although he dosed her with antibiotics, she soon developed a deep cough. So he switched antibiotics. She got thinner and thinner. Eventually the leg healed and she put some weight on it, but it looked like she was a goner. When we did the last pregnancy check, again, it was obvious she was pregnant. Or at least the fluid was there. Whether the pigs were alive or not was another story.
After we quit treating her, on a late December inspection, my friend wondered if we should ship her and at least salvage something from her. I vetoed that idea, but neither one of us was confident she would live long enough to see a farrowing crate. If she did, we weren't sure we could get her in it because of her leg. Then we weren't sure that she could deliver pigs if they were alive. And we didn't figure there were many in there.
A vet looked at her and told us to just treat her once a week with a strong antibiotic. She had some permanent breathing problems due to her bout with pneumonia, but the leg infection was walled off, and, well, hope for the best.
It came time to put her in the crate. She had actually put on a bit of weight, but she still looked like she was from Ethiopia compared to her sisters. The only problem was her two sisters turned out to be open.
She farrowed a day early, without a hitch. Out came four pigs fairly quickly. That's about what we expected. Then three more, then four more! They were all normal, slightly small but healthy—10 in all.
They're three weeks old now and she is a eating machine. They're approaching weaning, and she's actually gaining weight. For the record books, her record will read '10 born alive, 11 weaned'- we actually stuck an orphan Berk pig on her because he was the same size as the rest. I still stand and marvel at her. She has to be the toughest, most productive gilt we've ever worked with, despite all her problems and her rough beginning.
Someone once told me Winston Churchill gave a speech of which the whole content was 'Never give up. Never, never, ever give up." And he sat down. I've never been able to verify it.. But it's a slick idea for a time of crisis. I learned from the little gilt that you never give up. The odds of pulling 10, or 11, healthy pigs off her at Christmas time were somewhere between none and the chance of Santa Claus landing his sleigh on the barn roof. Yet she's there, and her pigs are there with her.
Maybe you don't like pigs. But any animal that can pull of such a feat is worth remembering. The next time you're ready to throw in the towel, you just might think about that little gilt with the mighty big litter before you toss in the towel!