Electric Fence - by Alice
No matter how often we brought new pigs home, they always had something to teach us. It might be a way of leaning on the pig yard gate and squealing when dinner time had come and we were not in evidence. No one who has heard a pig get seriously into squealing has any particular desire to repeat the experience. That summer's pigs did their best to teach us promptness and diligence.
Of course a 200 pound pig leaning on a gate can be rather hard on the gate, and, if left to his own devices, might very well soon be coming down to the house to see what we were doing at all hours of the day or night.
We gradually got to know something of the ways of coping with pigs both small and large. We even put them to work for us, clearing the weeds off a piece of land we wanted to incorporate into the garden. In the early years of raising pigs we had kept them behind a set of what we called "pig gates," sturdy galvanised iron affairs which we wired together in a rough approximation of a square. These gates were heavy, and once wired together no-one was enthusiastic about moving them, not even the pigs.
Although we had put up some barbed-wire fences to keep the cows in their pasture and out of the garden it wasn't too long before we discovered the effectiveness of electric fence and how easy it was to move. Gradually we began to experiment with using the same technique to contain the pigs. According to the books we read, the trouble with using electric fence with pigs is that the fence must be quite low and the pigs as they are rooting about tend to push soil up against the wire and so short it out.
It may be so where there are many pigs in a large area. Our pigs' yard was small and as we visited them at least twice a day to supply food and water we could keep an eye out for problems. In fact, once a pig has been bitten by an electric fence and correctly identified the source of the problem he is not likely to go anywhere near the nasty thing.
That discovery led us, on a clear and cloudless day totally lacking in omens or portents a year or so later, to bring our weaners home to a yard without pig gates, a yard neatly limited by the electric fence.
Our New Piglets Set Out For Home
We have had this year's pigs for less than a week and already piggy excess has cut a swath through our attempts at an orderly existence.
After three years of putting the pigs on a patch of ground which had originally been the vegetable garden, we decided that, interesting as our porky friends might be, the aroma of pig drifting in any open window was a bit much.
You have heard of an indefinable smell? The one that drifted in from the pig yard was far from indefinable, especially when the wind was from the north or north-east. The wind seemed to be in that quarter a lot last summer.
The pigs were put there originally to cope with a patch of comfrey. We had planted one comfrey plant in the centre of the vegetable bed the first summer we were here. It had been given to us by someone whom we regarded as a friend at the time. (We now know all too well why she was so enthusiastic about sharing her comfrey with us: comfrey is the vegetable equivalent of a pig - I'm sure its botanical name must have "excessive" or some similar term in it somewhere.)
Anyway, we forgot the comfrey the next spring when it was time to plow, and by the time we had plowed and disked and all the rest of it we had distributed small pieces of comfrey root all over everywhere. I do believe that a piece of comfrey root smaller than a pig's sense of decorum is capable of producing 75 pounds of comfrey leaves in something under two months even if planted in the stony places mentioned in Matthew 13:5.
In any case, our intended vegetable garden was turned - hey, presto! - into a comfrey jungle. The pigs were called in to do their thing and do it they did, but the comfrey did its thing too and it took three years of pigs to finally root out the last evidence of our original plant.
So this year we moved the pig yard down quite a way to a piece of pasture we would like to incorporate into the garden. That way the pigs could get their jollies by rooting about and we could reap the benefit of their four-legged plowing matches. Since we have had good luck in the past with electric fencing as a means of pig control, we rigged up two strands of fence wire, plugged in the fencer, and went to get the weaners.
The trouble started when we deposited our two piglets in their yard. We should have remembered to draw their attention to the unpleasant quality of electric fence at once by getting them up to it while holding on to them. That way they could draw their own conclusions. Pigs are not slow to draw conclusions if you can get their attention, and that certainly gets their attention.
As it was, we simply dumped them out of the burlap bags they had reluctantly come home in and stood back to watch as they explored their new world. Our complacency lasted for all of half a minute. That was the time it took the pair to get up, shake themselves, renew their acquaintance, and set off to find the rest of the litter, so as to warn them about burlap bags, no doubt.
They passed through the fence doing about twenty miles an hour, and the shock was just sufficient to convince them that they were doing the right thing.
People, pigs, and our two dogs attempted to come to some understanding. "Come, let us reason together," we pleaded, and the pigs said, "Nix on that!" and were off and running in another direction.
Eventually we got them penned up in the barn, but not before Pooh-Bah, our very stuffy, long-haired, ginger, ex-tom cat had had the fright of his life.
There he was, having just arranged himself in a patch of daisies in a elegant pose with his tail curled around his front feet and every hair in its proper place, when one of the piglets, fleeing a pursuing child, roared around the corner of the house and practically ran up one side of him and down the other before his nervous system could switch from contemplation of his own perfection to red alert.
When last seen, he was headed for the back pasture at a most impressive speed with his tail the size of a bottle-brush.
Myself, I'm looking forward to an interesting summer.
30 July 1986
“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”
We began raising one or more weaner pigs over the summer in the early '80’s. The experience turned out to be something entirely different from our relationship with the cows.
For a number of years after we first settled here we raised a few pigs and we always found the association good.
Since we kept only a few pigs each summer, three at the most, we were always fascinated at the development of their personalities. It may be possible, in a hog barn, to regard all the inmates without regard for differences, but on a small farm pigs have a chance - like everybody else - to be themselves. There may be ill-tempered pigs, but we never had one. Demanding yes, but not ill-tempered. After all, pigs do love to eat. Nothing makes the staff of a small farm run to phone the vet quicker than a pig who seems to have lost interest in food.
Our pigs lived outdoors, and we used them to root up ground which we would later incorporate into the garden. They were thus doing good work for us and having a good time doing it. But we always brought them food in the morning and evening. Pig chop was basically ground up grain we bought at the Co-op. The slop bucket served to moisten the chop. Slops might consist of a mix of almost anything, usually excess milk up from the day’s milking, some water, with kitchen scraps and any other available goodies mixed in.
We learned early that a single pig can be selective in his diet. Add another pig and the two will compete to see who gets the biggest meal fastest. As we had no building for keeping pigs in the long winter months, our pigs lived an outdoor life while they were with us. The experience suited them. The term “rooting around” has its origins in the activities of pigs. Pigs’ snouts were made for digging and if you want to clear a patch of weeds so you can expand your garden, and you don’t have machinery, a pig is the very one for the job. They will get the weed, but they will get the root too.
Some of the old farming books we read called the pig "the mortgage lifter." And no doubt it was. In the days of mixed farming, when every small farm had a few chickens and a cow or two and a variety of crops, the pig and the chicken could be relied upon to consume whatever was left over in the way of kitchen scraps, sour milk, garden thinnings, and almost anything else that would be otherwise wasted. On such a diet and with access to pasture, a bit of shade and a wallow for hot days, a pig could wax and grow fat.
The chicken is a good composter but the pig brings enthusiasm to the job. Indeed all our pigs, bought in the late spring after they were weaned and in the freezer by winter, brought both enthusiasm and a kind of infectious exuberance to our midst.
The name "pig" is the very definition of excess, and yet, in our experience, the excess was always good-humoured; we never knew quite what would happen (or they would think of) next. From the time they came as weaners to the time they went at about 200 pounds some months later their exuberance begot an affection - and a relationship - quite different from that accorded the cows.
Summer is a state of mind.
Right now, to be accurate rather than romantic, we are in the intermediate period between the “Is-it-going-to-be-summer -or-isn't-it?" and "The-days-are-drawing-in" seasons. The sun hasn't got so far over the yard arm that the evenings are noticeably shorter, and the immediate drop in temperature that accompanies the sunset still leaves a comfortable margin above the dark and frosty regions we will worry about in a couple of months.
The pigs are growing apace. They no longer look like little creatures that are easily discouraged, who miss (how could they possibly?) their mother. Far from it. Higgledy, the little gilt, was so much smaller than Piggledy, her litter mate, when they arrived, we worried that she might have a hard time getting near the food trough.
We needn't have worried.
She quickly learned to stand in the trough so as to protect the maximum amount of food. She now tells Piggledy where he can eat and what he can eat. She may be watching his weight but she certainly isn't watching hers.
Other endearing and not-so-endearing porcine traits appear now. Not having kept pigs last summer, I had almost forgotten the quick feint with the feed bucket required to get the slops in the trough. The pigs know a food bucket when they see one now, and anxiety levels are high until some food is actually in front of them. It does no good to put the dry pig chop in first. If it is pelletized they stand on it so as to be closer to the bucket of slops and if it is ground into meal they sniff at it and blow it all over the place.
In our experience, "all over the place" means "all over the bucket-wielder" because the wind at such moments is always on shore.
One of the girls used to take a stout broom handle with her when she took the slops to the pigs. She said she was teaching them to stand back from the trough until the food was ready. I thought this a novel, if somewhat utopian, plan, and wished her god-speed. It worked all right for their young and impressionable days as I recall but there is a clear point beyond which your pig is no longer either young or impressionable. By then even a stout two-by-four would probably not make much impression, and etiquette is not part of their agenda.
But here we are, "poised," as Alexander Pope said in another context, "on this isthmus of a middle state," in the season that comes between a late spring and an early frost. We declare it to be summer and we revel in it and, like the pigs, we look neither forward or back.
19 July 1988