Last fall, my mother very innocently said she’d like to “buy a few animals for the farm.” Who am I to deny my mama, right?
We did some research and decided we wanted to purchase heritage breed animals–animals that were used a hundred years ago, but due to commercial farming were nearly bred out of existence. Farmers bred animals for their specific features and ended up with different breeds that would have larger litters, grow faster, be weaned earlier, etc. in order to make bigger profits. It makes sense, but we wanted to concentrate on those original animals, the animals that were deemed threatened or critical by the American Livestock Conservancy.
We got some books, did some reading and visited a friend’s farm. That’s all it takes, right? Shoot, we have 120 acres of prime Ozark clay and rock. We read how it was done, what else could a person possibly need to do!
Back in October, my other brother Darryl and I drove to Missouri to purchase a breeding quad of Ozark Mulefoot hogs. They are the sweetest things you’ll ever meet. Jed, Ava, Clementine and Ellen May. Clementine gave birth in April with no mishaps or problems at all. She had five, fat, adorable babies. Oh goodness. So very, very cute! Things were going great. We anxiously awaited the arrival of Ellen May’s litter.
Ellen May decided to be difficult. Well, I’m sure she decided she was going to go up into the woods and have her babies in peace, but we decided she needed our help. Yeah, right. Help. The scene from Gone with the Wind about “I don’t know nothing about birthing no babies” kept running through my mind. As if I knew how to assist a sow give birth.
I knew the signs that she was about to go into labor. She was hanging out by herself, and after becoming getting increasingly intimate with her, I determined that she was lactating. Sows give birth approximately twelve hours after they start to lactate. Of course, I had no idea when she actually started lactating. It could have been that very second, four hours previously, or as I’d hoped eleven and a half hours previously.
Like a good Mulefoot, she had made a nice nest in the woods. We didn’t want her to give birth on top of the ridge because a HUGE rainstorm was heading our way. The piglets getting wet and chilled would mean their deaths, not to mention the fact that the hillside where she was residing always ends up in the creek at the bottom of the holler. Didn’t want piglets in the creek.
So, Ma and I go to work. We try every way possible to get Ellen May to the shed. Food, prodding, Oreos, nada, nothing would lure her from her nesting area. So, I go to the shed, load my Subaru with a ton of hay and head back up the hill to give her some bedding. By the time I got to the top of the hill, Ellen May had decided to go to the shed. I go back to the shed, unload the hay and get her settled. She ate a nice dinner and all was well. Until, she headed straight baarck to her nest. After at least three hours of running up and down that damn hillside, we decided she was going to stay there and we’d check on her first thing in the morning.
I do NOT do mornings. Arising before 7 a.m. goes against every fiber of my being, unless I’m going fishing. Well, I was up by 6 and headed to the hog pen. Of course, Ellen May wasn’t in the shed. I unplugged the fence and drove to the upper ridge where she’d been the night before. I spotted her, called Ma on the two-way radio and climbed through the fence.
There was a weak, squirmy little piglet lying in the middle of the woods. I picked him up, cleaned him off and took him to Ellen May. When Ma arrived, I scoured the woods looking for more babies. Nothing. I plopped next to Ellen May wondering what was going on. Was she still in labor? As I sat there, a squealing piglet emerged from a pile of leaves. I quickly grabbed it and took him to his mama. Then, I scoured the woods one more time. Then, another. It’s an acre and a half lot, but it’s all uphill. I figure if it were flat, it would be the equivalent to 90 acres. I covered the hillside twenty times as Mama sat with Ellen May. Surely she wasn’t finished giving birth. There were only two piglets.
I ran to the house and grabbed those books. Ma and I sat in the rain and read everything we could find. I went to every website known to pigdom, trying to figure out what we should do. Yes, I know now, we should’ve stayed up with her all night. So, please don’t lecture me on that. Lesson learned!!
As we sat there, watching Ellen May, we saw no signs of labor. I ran to the house and called the vet. The earliest anyone could get out here was 3 p.m. We had to do something. We reread all the books and the information I printed out from various websites. Finally, it came the time that we knew what we had to do. One of us had to go in.
Another read of Kelly Klober’s Dirt Hog yielded the best advice I’ve ever heard. “Never put your hand in to a pig’s dry vagina.” Another trip to my house. I grabbed latex gloves (we use them in the greenhouse) and Vaseline. Back to the hillside. I climbed through the fence and sat next to Ma and Ellen May. I thought discovering whether or not she was lactating was a bit personal. Trust me, that was nothing.
I’ll spare you the gory details, but Ellen May was done. We had two piglets.
I can’t for the life of me imagine that I would’ve tried to inspect Ellen May without using some sort of lubrication, but reading Kelly Klober’s words not only made me laugh, hysterically, during a very tense moment, they saved me from doing something stupid. Well, something else stupid. Why on earth I didn’t stay with Ellen May in the woods all night is beyond me. My gut told me to, but my butt told me it was time for bed.
Farming isn’t for the faint at heart.
We now have a farrowing house and hope this experience is NEVER repeated.