– Winston Churchill
The Farm School raises between forty and fifty pigs every year to supply our meat CSA, the kitchen at The Program for Visiting Schools, the farm house at The Learn to Farm Program, special events, and our wider community. We purchase feeder piglets in the spring from a few reliable sources, rather than keeping and breeding sows.
The piglets are usually about eight weeks old when we get them, they have been weened from their mother’s milk and they’re big enough to make it on pig food. The transition that we take them through, from purchase to when we send them out into the woods for the summer, is a really important stage in their lives that helps to ensure that we all have a successful growing season. We set up a special training area at Sentinel Elm Farm to house the new piglets for a few weeks before they go into the woods. The goals of our training are to teach them the electric fence, teach them the automatic water system, make sure they are all healthy, and get them a little larger before putting them out in the ‘wild’.
We use two strands of electric fence to contain our pigs while they are out in the woods. The lower strand is close to the ground to ensure that they don’t root through the fence, and the upper strand is about a foot off the ground to keep them from stepping over and out (pigs don’t really jump). We power the fence with a Premier PRS 100 Solar Energizer. The pigs get a large area in the woods, mixed with open and forested areas, to explore, root up, and make home. We need to make sure that the sight of the electric fence is enough to stop them, that experience has left a clear and powerful memory in their minds that the little black and white string is super unpleasant and that they should not go near it. The piglets learn this important lesson in the training area where there is a strong electric fence just inside a existing ‘hard’ fence. If a piglet touches the electric fence and gets shocked, and dashes forward (which is their natural tendency), the hard fence will keep them in. After a touch or two, they know to never touch the electric fence again. We know that this training has been accomplished when the piglets start to visibly avoid going near the electric fence. An electric fence is much more of a psychological barrier than a physical one, since a determined pig (or any other animal) could easily cross the fence if they really wanted to, and as unpleasant as it sounds, we put a lot of focus on making sure that every piglet’s initial experience with the electric fence is unforgettable.
The automatic water system is another vital component of our pig’s wilderness home that we need to make sure they master before we can send them out to the woods. We have developed a system that uses a 275 gallon water tank to gravity feed automatic water dispensing dishes that the pigs learn to activate to get water. The unit has a small metal dish with a paddle or button at the back of it that a pig can press to start water flowing into the dish. Another option would be a nipple-drinker, which has a toggle switch that pigs press as they bite down, and a jet of water sprays directly into their mouths. I have found these nipple-drinkers to be much better than the dish approach because, as is always an issue with pigs, there are less parts and less area to break and defile. The one drawback that I have faced with nipple-drinkers is that bored or hot pigs will hold the toggle switch down without drinking, letting water run out of their mouth, creating a mud pit at the base of water source. This isn’t really a problem if you have a continuous water supply, and pigs love a muddy wallow, but with our remote water tank approach, this would drain the tank in no time. We use the dishes, setting up two or three depending on how many pigs we have, and we use one in the piglet training area and make sure the piglets know how to use it. There is a delicate time, while the piglets are learning how use the automatic water, when we slowly reduce the amount of supplemental water that we provide them, hoping, through thirst and mimicking their peers, that every piglet will figure out the new way.
We buy piglets from several good sources, and since we mix them into one big group, we need to make sure that everyone is healthy and thriving before they go out for the summer. Their time in the training area gives us the chance to closely observe every piglet several times every day, and to notice individual or group problems hopefully before they escalate. Time in the training area also give us a few weeks to get the piglets a bit bigger, in the safety of our farm, before going out into the woods. Although most wild animals keep their distance from loud smelly pigs, we’d like the piglets to be hard to handle before facing coyotes or foxes.
It seems like our maple sugaring season is going to come to a close here in the next week or so, as night-time temperatures stop falling down far enough to encourage a strong run. The sap starts to yellow in the late season, it ages quickly in the warmer weather, and buckets start to fill with insects emerging into the spring. Here in New England, the end of the sap season is called the ‘frog run’, referring to the sound of peeper frogs singing in the pond at night while the sap boils in the sugar-house. This late sap produces thick, dark, flavorful syrup, in contrast to the clearer fine result of the first sap run. The last few days of the season have been really productive, and our store of syrup is satisfying and beautiful.
Seedlings in the greenhouse keep pushing up and up, and we have prepped the hardening off house to receive the first batch of onions and scallions soon.