Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Stori- furry and fuzzy friends

There was only a very short period of time in my life that I was not surrounded by animals. It was the loneliest I had ever been. My family had a small farm when I was growing up, and a good portion of my folks' income was made from selling weaner pigs, milk, cream, and eggs. We would have anywhere from 1 to 6 milk cows, about 50 or so laying hens, a handful of sheep, and quite a few brood sows. And of course, horses. Always my horses. Along with having milk cows comes having barn cats, and what's a childhood on a farm without a dog? Needless to say, I had lots of friends to play with, just very few of them walked upright.

It was not uncommon to have a baby pig living in the house on a bottle. My family never took to the philosophy of getting rid of runts, we just gave them a little extra TLC and they made it fine. Having very little in the extra money department, but a whole lot extra in the "we can do this ourselves" section, I can only remember one time having a vet on the place. We did all our own castrating, calf pulling, butchering, and even surgery when the need arose. We had one little pig get her front leg almost ripped right off when her momma accidentally stepped on her when she was only a couple hours old. My dad brought her up to the house and proceeded to stitch her up from the inside out, bandaged her up tight, popped a bottle in her mouth and called her good. We named her Dottie and she was forever the grouchiest pig I had ever met. She lived to adulthood and we sold her as a sow to someone else. I don't know how many hundreds of animals I have watched being born. Every time it's a miracle. It was also a fantastic sex ed lesson for us kids. There was no question to us about the birds and bees. We witnessed it, from beginning to end, a hundred times. We knew what sex caused and that nature was messy.

I wanted the same education and lifestyle for my kids, and thanks to my parents living next door, they're getting it. Last May, on Mother's Day, our milk cow Molly had her baby at 8:30 in the morning. I was right there helping, along with my dad, with my husband and kids front row center. What a wonderful Mother's Day gift to be able to help create another Mother? My kids got the chance to watch a live birth of a baby calf. It was bloody, and slippery, and looked horribly painful, but they watched. I was glad my oldest daughter, Paige, was right there witnessing the end product of sex, especially since we are entering the ever painful puberty stage of her life. There will be no questions from her on where do babies come from. She was able to watch that particular door open. The baby was healthy, the momma was natural, the day was perfect.

On February 15Th, my youngest girl, Sunni Sue, and I went out to give the horses their afternoon feeding. Paige and Colt, my two oldest, were over hanging out with my folks. We had 3 sow pigs that were due about this time and we had been keeping a careful eye on them. Pigs are like alarm clocks when it comes to babies. If you are able to watch the boar cover them, it will be exactly to the hour of the day they were bred, 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days that they will have their babies. But, since we hadn't been able to catch the love birds in the act, it was a guess of a couple days. So Sunni Sue and I were going to poke our heads in to the farrowing barn for a quick look to see if any of the ladies had built their nests yet. Momma pigs are pretty smart, they will gather any little bit of building material they can to get ready for babies. Straw, sawdust, dirt, anything. They gather it all up and build a mound and lay on top of it for labor. They are so big and the babies so tiny that this way, the babies roll right off the hill and don't get squashed by the momma. Sunni Sue and I peeked just in time to see out come a baby! Our white sow already had 6 nursing and we watched another. Little Sunni Sue was so excited, she recognized right away that those were different pigs. She's only 16 months old, so that was a pretty big observation in itself. All in all, 2 of our 3 sows had their babies that day. Each sow had 12 and each lost 2. Those are both huge litters for first year gilts, a usual litter size is only 8 for a first timer. Losing two isn't uncommon for pigs either. We still have 1 sow due any minute, plus 2 others that aren't ready for another month or so. Spring is in the air!

Pigs are the cutest of any babies I have seen. Within minutes of hitting the ground they are fighting. Vicious little newborn fights, little barks and squeals. They are the toughest things going, just ask them, they would be happy to tell you. They are so clean and so shiny. Their little noses so tough skinned. They put up such a fight when first picked up, but are completely tame within minutes. They are happy to curl up in your neck for a little nap. Nothing cuter than a baby pig. The baby that Sunni Sue and I watched being born was, unfortunately, a runt. Barely half the size of her siblings. Baby pigs will immediately after birth pick a teat. This is theirs, they do not share, and once picked, stick with it. The closer to the head of the momma the more milk a teat will produce, farther back, less milk. My guess is this is where the saying "sucking hind tit" comes from. When we notice a runt, we try to get him a front teat as soon as possible. This will give the runt the best possible chance at survival, but of course, since they are smaller and weaker, they are usually pushed to the back. Dad noticed on the second day that the little runt wasn't doing so good. Weaker than the rest and getting thin, Dad decided to bring him in to the house and bottle feed it to make sure it was getting all it needed. I was so excited, how fun it would be for my kids to have a bottle baby of their own. To really know how much work a baby is. I was fully prepared to take over the care of this little guy. The first night, Mom and Dad were able to get it to eat two good sized feedings. By the next morning, it was too weak to feed and died shortly after. Sometimes the babies just don't make it, no matter the good intentions. This is life, and death, on a family farm.

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