Nobody Said It Would Be Easy (Part 2)

Sometimes its funny how and when you learn that you have some experience, when you acknowldge that it's not your first time around the block. I have a great friend who has been helping me try to get to this point with our business. Get me to the point where I am not rattled everytime I encounter a bump in the old business management road. He has so much experience and has been bouncing around numbers and ideas for so long that its all part of the deal for him.... just another problem to be solved. 

So there I was, surrounded by sick pigs. A couple things to understand about pigs before I proceed. First of all pigs have one stomach, like us. They are similar to humans in lots of ways and are succeptable to many of the same things we are in terms of digestion. The second thing to remember oabout pigs is that they live very close to the ground. It is almost impossible to keep their snouts out of the mud and muck as that is where they prefer to be doing their eating. 

As much as I wish I could say that my only concern was for the health and well being of these pigs... I would be lying. I'm a farmer. I raise pigs to sell pork. I keep them healthy and raise them naturally because I think that is the best way to raise the happiest pig that will produce the most flavorful and healthy meat. So part of what I was thinking / feeling at this moment was.... holy $#it I have about 7 grand out here in these pigs.... aaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!! What if? What if? What if? I'm sure you can imagine. 

When I found the pigs in this state a couple weeks ago it had been super wet and turning to mud season. So I had been struggling for a couple weeks to keep their house and surrounds dry with mulch hay. But pigs love to root and eat, so anything you put down eventually gets "tilled in" by these guys... so you need to stay on it. If you remember, we had just finished a pretty busy month with the lambs. I did feel like I had been keeping up well with the chores related to pigs. Anyway, consider the stage set. 

So I have seven pigs about 6 months old, sick as can be. As I said, they were not interested in the food at all. I tell the kids I work with here on the farm all the time... these animals can not talk to you but they can TELL you quite a bit by how they behave. Pay close attention to what goes in and what comes out. Obvious sign something is wrong??.... they don't eat. ESPECIALLY for a pig. As alarmed as I was, this is the moment where I realized I have some very valuable experience. Two things popped up on the radar through the fog of alarm and worry. Take the feed away and completely refab the house. 

I started by gathering up all the feed dishes and bringing them up to the barn with the grain I had just lugged out to the pigs. Even a sick pig may decide that he wants to eat... but if you don't eliminate that feed as a variable it can hinder your ability to eliminate possibilities for what is causing the problem. Once the grain and dishes were gone I came back down and kicked all the poor guys out of the house and into the muck... I picked up their house (corner by corner, a little bit at a time) and moved it to a new spot, relatively clean... shoveled the little bit of snow out, covered the floor with dry pine shavings, then I spread two bales of nice green second cut hay all over the floor, nice new nest. 

A couple purposes were served here. First of all by taking the food away I knew that if the feed was the problem I was eliminating it for the time being, even if it was not the problem I did not want to feed any more into these sick guys only to fuel their fire (so to speak). They were not hungry anyway so a real no brainer there. Completely redoing the house assured me that if they were sick from something in their old nest I had just removed that as a possibility as well. Finally, the second cut hay is the pig version of ginger ale and saltines. Simple, sweet, comfort food to ease the belly, also some fiber to get everything right again. 

At this point I am simply interested in getting to the bottom of the problem and fixing it. Several possibillities crossed my mind... one was that they had just been worn down by the wetness and the sloppy conditions. We raise our pigs naturally of course (duh!) so I know that parasites were a possibility as well as we do not give them chemical wormers. That would have been quite a surprise though as we have never had parasite issues with our pigs, plus generally parasites do not result in the symptoms we saw, not in 6 month old pigs anyway, only piglets. Several diseases were also a possibility... but again this would have been a great surprise as most of that type of thing comes from issues related to confinement and crowding or when a new pig is introdiced to an established group. None of that fit with our situation. 

What was striking to me about this scene was that all the pigs had it at once. That is very unusual when you consider something like parasites or disease. Usually you see it show up in the weakest animal first... then spread. This was like.... BAM! So that was actually reassuring in a way. My suspicion was that it had something to do with their feed. 

In the meantime I had to guard against dehydration. So I went and got a livestock electrolite solution and mixed it up for the boys that afternoon. It was a mix of a powder and warm water, to this Laura and I added a bunch of whey from cheese that we (ok, she)  had made that morning. The pigs slurped it down in tremendous fashion. Good sign. That afternoon I also got a load of compost (waste vegetables and fruit) from our local supermarket. I picked trough it for some apples, melons, beets, and grapes (Anybody want to know how much perfect food is tossed out of this one market every week?).  Most of the pigs came out and nibbled on this fare... another good sign. I was also starting to see the second cut hay disappear... another good sign and more evidence that we had a feed issue on our hands. 

The bottom line is that I still am not 100% sure what caused this to happen, but 48 hours later my pigs were fine again. My suspicion is that they were reacting to a slight difference in the feed. Pigs (like chickens) are domestic livestock that rely on grain for about 60% of their diet. As many of you know, what I love about cows and sheep is that you can toss them out on a field and they can harvest their own meals. Not so with pigs and chickens, these animals depend on the high protein of concentrated grains like corn and soy. I calculated that I could get through most of the life span of these feeder pigs with one grain order. We ended up using some of that order to feed our new layer hens in the month before their eggs began appearing. One consequence of that was that we were short on the pig grain. So I had to go out and get another half ton to get these guys through till their date with the butcher on March 25th. 

Guess when they started to eat the new grain? Yup... 1.5 days before barf-o-rama. Just about enough time to have a systematic reaction / rejection of their new feed. Looks the same, smells the same, same protien and carbohydrate content... but just different enough to mess with their sensitive pig system. At least that is my conclusion. They are back, by the way, to their happy and healthy ways and their systems have adjusted to their new grain. Infact, they are so big and healthy that I have to play tricks on them to get out to their food dishes in the morning withouth getting upended into the muck!