We chose to farm livestock. We chose to deal with live & death on a daily basis...most of the time life on the farm is a routine. It's the moments of pure uncertainty that shake us to the core. The feeling of helplessness and the weight of the responsibility of being stewards for these animals can be hard to bear. We had such a moment a few weeks ago. One of our gilts was due to have her piglets. She was settling in to her farrowing pen, she still wasn't terribly keen on being touched even though the group of gilts she was with are friendly. We knew she would get to know us very well once her piglets were born.
Matt was getting ready to go for a Fat Bike ride (a very precious activity to Matt as we don't get away from the farm often.) and our farmhand, Luke was finishing up chores. As Matt was getting into the truck he heard a piglet squeal. Now, we have over 50 piglets of various ages in the barn, you get to know their voices and what sounds mean...this was a "new piglet" sound. Matt rushed into the barn and the young gilt had just birthed her second piglet. There was already one born (it did not make it, unfortunately.) Matt dried off the piglet and got the heat lamp set up (the temps were bitterly cold). He called me, luckily I was still in town and was told to pick up more heat lamps, bulbs, and a box of rags. I got home as quickly as I could. She had had 5 more by this time.
So far the story is pretty doable...okay we didn't have the heat lamps set-up, but we got it taken care of. The sow was rejecting her babies. Okay, sometimes that happens when a gilt has her first litter and she is a little confused and won't let the piglets nurse until she is done with the birthing process. The piglets were warm, but clearly wanting colostrum. This sow was snipping and growling at her babies. Not good...not good at all.
Being a pig farmer is all about patience. Pigs and patience go hand-in-hand. They are smart, large animals that will not just "do" as you ask. They are stubborn and will do things on their own time. So now we wait...we wait for the birthing process to be over so she can feed her babies. She had 3 more for a total of 8 live piglets. She had 3 afterbirths. She was done...and still rejecting her babies.
So it is 11pm and I am in the barn trying to be patient. So why did I wait so long to feed them milk replacer? Feeding milk replacer isn't always a great solution. Babies are designed (all mammals, really) to need that colostrum in their system to grow and thrive. It is a VERY important process. Feeding babies an artificial chemical concoction isn't a great solution. Something had to be done. So I gave them all a small amount of watered down milk replacer. None of them wanted it.
These piglets were feisty! I have NEVER seen such a strong will to survive in piglets before. They had a vigor I couldn't explain. This put a tiny bit of hope in my heart that a solution would be found. That these little guys were still going to be with us in the morning.
Morning came. Matt so bravely volunteered to go out into the barn to see the status of the sow and piglets. My heart just pounded and I prepared myself for the worst news. I got a text saying they were still alive! I got dressed and gave them some more milk replacer. At this point the sow was still rejecting them. Looking back, she was rejecting them, but she could have killed them...but didn't. So there was some motherly instincts deep in there-we just had to create a situation for her to shine.
Matt got on the phone and starting reaching out. That is what you have to do as a farmer when you run into challenges-reach out. We don't have access to a large animal vet, so we rely on each other. The 2 gentlemen were "old-time" pig farmers and Matt knew they probably ran into this problem also. You won't believe what they suggested!
Matt told me the solution. What?!!!! The plan was to get her drunk. So she could relax. Then she would allow the piglets to nurse. And as a last resort we could hold her down and put the piglets on her to increase her oxytocin levels and that in turn would help her relax and bond with her babies.
Not much different than mothers. I could tell she was in pain. She had 9 piglets and a small build. This was her first litter and she was confused. Oxytocin is a wonderful hormone that is like a miracle drug. And normally, it would be injected artificially, but experience with human mothers (I was a Doula for years) told me in order for this to work long term-we needed to have her produce it on her own. Plus, we don't have access to artificial oxytocin.
She was fed beer. Several cans. First we poured it over left-over veggie scraps from the kitchen, then we poured it over her feed. Then we wait...and we did. She wasn't relaxing. So we had to do the part none of us wanted to do...forcibly hold her down. This was not fun. Making an animal do something it does not want to do. Making her feel more confused. Making her angry. Thankfully, our farmhand Luke was there and between him and Matt they were able to wrangle her down. It was stressful for all of us! One by one, the piglets were put on her. They instantly nursed. They were so hungry and so anxious to get their mothers milk.
The sow started to settle down. The hormones were kicking in and we heard the most glorious sound! Her nursing song! She was grunting! She was relaxing! Her babies were eating! We all stepped back and watched this sow go from confused and angry to being a mother. Like she didn't skip a beat! Will we have to do this every time? We all gave her space. The piglets eventually got full and we kept the barn as quiet as we could. Now we wait...again.