Feeding inside the box

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It’s a blessing, having neither fortune nor good looks. You never have to answer any nagging questions about why your friends are your friends or your husband is your husband. But you still have to think about why your animals are always so happy to see you.

We’ve had pigs for four weeks now, and they’ve always been happy to see us. This, despite the fact that we’ve found several notable ways to screw up in that one short month. Most of them concerned food.

It started with an error of quantity. I’d envisioned pigs to be like cats – you leave food out for them, and give them more when it’s gone. Given that I’ve had experience with only one cat, and no pigs at all, I have no explanation for why I had this idea. I mean, really. If there’s one thing everyone should know about pigs, it’s that they eat like pigs, not like cats.

In retrospect, it boggles my mind that I didn’t figure out one of the few things you really need to figure out before you take your pigs home: how much you’re supposed to feed them. I think it’s because the rest of our livestock experience has been on the cat model. With chickens and turkeys, you give them a feeder full of food and, when it’s gone, you give them another.

So I went in to pigs doing essentially the same thing. I put feed in their trough and, when it was empty, I put in more.

The trough was our second mistake. Pigs will climb all over each other to compete for food, and if a pig can get her entire body into a food trough, she will. There, she will hunker possessively over as much food as possible in an avaricious attempt to keep it for herself. To hog it.

Spot, about to be nosed out of the trough by Doc

It took us a while to sort this out because, in a rare case of two wrongs making just one wrong, the quantity mistake annulled the trough mistake. When there was plenty for everyone, nobody was ever aggressively hungry. The trouble only started after we figured out that pigs are supposed to get a pound of food a day for every month of age.

For our pigs, that was a total of about four pounds of food per day – four almost-full scoops. I’m not sure how much we’d been giving them before, but it was definitely more. When we cut their rations, and started to give them two scoops, twice a day, usually with some kitchen scraps in between, the trough issue came to the fore.

Tiny, in the front, trying to muscle out Doc, in the back

Tiny, who had begun as the smallest pig but quickly became the second-smallest, would climb in the trough and use her body to cover as much feed as possible. Spot, now the smallest, would sometimes try the same trick, but she didn’t seem as committed to it, and usually got nosed out by Doc, the largest pig.

You, the pig owner, can prevent this by putting bars across the trough at regular intervals, and Kevin thought, at first, that we should go that route. But the other issues – hooves in the trough crushing the feed, the crumbs of which then attracted varmints; difficulty of cleaning; impossibility of even dispersal – changed his mind.

We buckled, and ordered a pig feeder at bust-out retail.

A pig feeder consists of a hopper that holds feed and lets it out at the bottom at a controlled rate into troughs or bays the pigs eat from. An outdoor feeder has to protect the feed from rain and critters – not to mention pigs – and is usually made of metal.

Ours has two bays, each with a flap over it. The pigs nose the flap up, and stick their heads in the bays. The flow is adjusted by a plate that you move up or down to change the size of the slit the feed comes through.

We put it in the pen and secured it with several of the large metal staples used to keep clam netting on the sea floor, which we happened to have on hand. (How farmers make a go of it without stores of unused shellfishing supplies is beyond me.) We put 100 pounds of feed in it. We showed the pigs that the feed was under the flaps and it took Doc all of about 17 seconds to figure out how to get at it.

Spot and Tiny took a little longer, but within half a day they were all three using it like they were born to it.

Tiny, now less tiny, at the feeder

I’m not at all sure we’re dispensing the feed at the appropriate rate. We’re watching the level in the hopper to see if it goes down about six scoops’ worth each day, but it’s hard to tell. If the pigs spend all day, every day, at the feeder because only a few pellets can work their way under the plate and into the bay, then we have to raise the plate. If too much is coming through, they’re going to eat it like pigs, and we’ll have to lower the plate.

It makes our lives a little easier because we don’t have to be here at any specific time to feed them. We wander down whenever we feel like visiting.

Which we often do. Pigs, we’ve discovered, are charming. They’re always happy to see us, and come running up to the fence when we visit the pen. They crowd around to say hello and get a scratch on the head. They’ve given every indication of being fond of us.

Until they got their feeder. And now we know that it’s our fortune and good looks they were interested in. They don’t care about us as people.

I went down to the pen early this morning and called to them. Doc was at the feeder, and Tiny and Spot were milling around. I stood at the fence and they looked at me. Tiny took a couple steps in my direction and then decided it wasn’t worth her time. Doc came over, nosed my hand, and walked away. Now that I am no longer the bearer of the breakfast, their “affection” takes a decidedly different cast.

Spot loves a backscratch

They still usually come over when we visit. We put a little variety in their day, and they most definitely enjoy a back scratch. But their enthusiasm for us has waned decidedly since we let a metal box do our job.

It’s a useful lesson about our relationship to animals. You think your pet loves you? You can put it to the test by getting a feeder. I’m telling you, it’s your fortune and good looks.

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Comments

  1. This was instructive, but I am left with two nagging questions: Why are your friends your friends? Why is your husband your husband?

  2. Aaron, re: her friends: it’s our good fortune.

  3. This post makes me wish my parents had a blog when they first started raising pigs. I’m sure the entire experience was filled with similar hilarity (w/the exception of slaughter day, of course).

    My favorite thing to do with our pigs was give them a little scritch on their bellies and watch them fall to the ground and expose their bellies, grunting for more.

    My other favorite thing was giving them fermented fruit. Drunk pigs are hilarious.

    • In my one month of experience, I can confirm that pigs like to be scratched. Heads, backs, bellies — it’s all good.

      We don’t have a lot of fermented fruit on hand (unless you count the wine, and they’re not getting that), but we did have some stale beer, which they loved. Not enough to make them drunk, but enough to show a predisposition.

      What I wouldn’t give to read your father on the raising of the pigs.

  4. Tom Gowans says:

    Bang on with animal love. I was laid up for days and Marcia was away so the dogs largely fended for themselves. When I was on my feet again, no sign of the dogs. Eventually found them in residence at the neighbours. Bloody hell, I said, you´ll feed my dogs but didn´t even think to bring me at least a bowl of chicken soup? Sorry Tom, they replied, but we do like your dogs. Friends.

    I am forever being plagued by feral pigs; nosing in the trash or rooting through my raised beds. This morning I heard them again so leapt out of bed, grabbed some stones ready to pelt them and one little piglet, instead of fleeing along with his mother and siblings trotted up to me, looked up and I swear, he smiled. So I ditched the stones and gave him last night´s Lasagne.

  5. The only pig fact I know is their gestation period: 3 months+3 weeks+3 days. This post has trebled my pig knowledge already.

    I wonder if the affection dynamic applies to dogs as well? I tell myself that the dogs love me better than Mike, but as I walk them, feed them, and work them, it might not be love. They may just see me as a means to what they want.

    Damn. I thought I was special.

  6. Tom — All my sympathy. I know what you’re going through.

    Jen — We are none of us special to our animals. We are only the source of all good things, and we’ll just have to be content with that.

  7. naah, my cats really love me…
    don’t they?

  8. I think my cat Danger Kitty( named for good reason) kind of likes me, since I am the only one she doesn’t draw blood from when I try to pet her. She scratches me gently.

  9. Sharyn and Trish, the cat contingent — Cats ain’t never loved nobody. Every cat on this planet is out for Number One — and they all know which side their bread is buttered on. Trish, the fact that the best thing you can say about your cat is that she scratches you gently is all you need to know.

  10. We had two dogs. I fed them, I walked them. But…each dog chose a kid to be best friends with. The house could burn down and they’d each grab a kid and leave me to fend for myself. So it can’t all be about the food!

  11. The same goes for kids, I’m sure. As tempted as I am to put it to the test, especially in summer where 2 families merge to tend 6, social services would probably be called in. 😉 Can’t wait I meet your pigs!

    • And I’m sure they’re looking forward to meeting you! Let’s get this on the calendar, shall we? I’ll e-mail you …

  12. Allison Fishman says:

    My dog loves me. She likes any tall man better than me, and it’s not because they give her food. She sits next to a newcomer at the dinner table — not because she likes them, but because she wants to be fed. But there is no question that dogs, of all animals, love and protect. There’s a different loyalty there.

    I thought pigs were smarter than dogs — but not necessarily as loyal. That’s fine; I’ll continue to enjoy my pig without guilt. I was thinking you were taking me to a different place there, Tamar…and I was worried about having to get all emotional about eating pig. Thanks for relieving me of that fear!

  13. Lisa Petrie says:

    A wonderful story in the WaPo, Tamar! Someday I hope to be doing exactly what you & your husband are doing — raising a bit of my own food on a small farm.

    🙂

    Doc, Tiny & Spot are awesome. With regard to selecting a breed of pig that would work for you, you say this in your story:

    “If a breed that humans created in the first place is dying out, it’s probably because it has outlived its usefulness.”

    I think that’s true in a certain sense. It’s my understanding that heritage breeds fell out of fashion (is this the same as “dying out”…?) because they do not do well in large confinement operations. So certainly, they are not useful there. But heritage breeds are very well-suited to living off the land. They thrive in their natural environment, and many farmers & consumers think their meat tastes better.

    Do you think you’ll ever consider raising a heritage breed in the future…?

    Thanks!

    Lisa

    • Hi Lisa — I’m glad you liked the story. And I think you’re right about one of the reasons heritage breeds died out — they certainly don’t do well in confinement. (But what pig does?) Our local breeder has incorporated different heritage breeds into his operation, and our pigs have some Large Black and Old Spot in them. They’re bred not to be true to the breed, but to be robust, fast-growing, and adapted to local conditions. So far, I’m very happy with our pigs, and I’d do the same again. On the other hand, if there were a local breeder of Tamworths, we just might reconsider.

      Thanks for visiting, and for commenting. I wish you luck raising some of your own food, and I hope you’ll stick with me here.

      • Lisa Petrie says:

        I will definitely follow you here, Tamar! You and your husband (and the pigs!) are an inspiration!

  14. If you want the “fondness” back from your hogs, mix up some slop for them and give them a helping every day. I grew up on a mixed use farm in Kansas so it was easy but I expect you can find a local diner or cafe to help you with ingredients. Since we had milk cows and sold cream, we had a lot of separated (skimmed, today) milk. Start with milk from the diner, add table scraps, anything left over from preparing a meal (potatoe peels, tomato corings, etc) that doesn’t contain bones or hard pits (no peach or olive pits), corn, oats or wheat, anything from the garden that isn’t good for human consumption (spoiled/wormy tomatoes, any zucchini cause it starts out bad, other spoils) and put it all in a 50 gallon barrel with a tight lid. Try to keep proportions of 2 parts liquid to 1 part solid. Let it ferment for 3 or 4 days before you start using it as you add more volume. When you start using it, you can feed half to 3/4 of a bucket twice a day while replacing the same amount and you’ll have the fattest, happiest pigs around. Hogs are the ultimate recyclers, so go (hog) wild with what you put in your slop.

    • Richard — I’d love to be able to do that, but we don’t have access to a lot of waste food. There are tight regulations about disposing of over-the-hill produce, and our local market can’t give it to us. And there’s no source for dairy. We do get fish skins from a local restaurant owned by a friend, and we get spent grain from the brewery. The rest is standard-issue pig feed.

      Even so, we’ve given them enough of our household scraps to realize that you’re absolutely right. They are the ultimate recyclers. It’s actually gratifying to see animals grow so quickly on a diet that is, in part, waste.

      Thanks for the slop tips!

  15. Matt Jarvis says:

    When my wife and I first got our 6 baby chicks to raise for eggs, a large portion of my motivation was to start learning (or relearning) farming skills. I figured that I was going to screw things up badly enough that the hens will have paid their dues one way or another, so butchering the first 6 wouldn’t really be an option. Figured I;d owe it to them…

    Yes, we named them, based on appearance or temperament. Buffy, Elvira, Mae West, Margaret Thatcher, Stella and Polka Dot.

    They did their job very well, yet still from time to time I would get upset with them, and as chance would have it I kept a wood chopping block and axe right next to the chicken coop. I would threaten them, point at the axe and yell “So you don’t think I’d do it, eh?”. Maybe it’s just my bias towards my own proficiency as a backyard farmer, but they DID seem to respond to my tirades…

    Being the bearer of food, treats and coop care, they always came rushing up to me and got underfoot, not always at the most convenient moments, and my wife would say “It’s because they love you so much!!”.

    Deep down I know that if I should have had a heart attack or foolishly decided to take a nap in the back yard, once they realized I wasn’t there to deliver, they wouldn’t hesitate for an instant to peck my eyes out…

    Love??? Like hell…

    Matt Jarvis
    Eugene, Oregon USA

    • Matt, I’ve heard stories of farmers dropping dead in pig pens — heart attack, aneurysm, whatever — only to become a meal for the pigs they were there to feed (although not in that way). Could be apocryphal, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they were true.

      You’re clearly a better chicken-wrangler than I am. I’ve threatened mine with the barbecue many and many a time, without the slightest effect.

  16. Nigel medhurst says:

    I had quite a discussion with this Vegan lady about your raising pigs article. She was against the process of bonding with livestock. I think it is the more honorable and life-enrichening approach as opposed to buying cellophane wrapped meat in a supermarket. I’m really looking forward to reading about your process from pet to food.