The pig poop post

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This is part of a pig series cross-posted at The Washington Post.

 

All his adult life, Kevin had long hair. Now he has a crew cut, and we owe it all to pig poop.

When we first contemplated pigs, we visited the local pig farmer – Bob Flynn, at Ten of Us Farm – to do reconnaissance. We found a barn full of clean, healthy-looking pigs, and we decided we’d buy three of them as soon as we’d built the pen. We also found a mountain of composting pig poop, which Bob sells by the yard. We took two.

There’s a world of difference between “composting” and “composted.” A very smelly world. Shoveling the poop out of the trailer and onto the designated spot, far from the house, where it would continue to break down, was not pleasant.

Luckily, I had a previous engagement. Kevin was good enough to tackle the job alone. I left him, still long-haired, ankle-deep in the stuff.

I came home to a finished job and the worst haircut known to man.

What a lovely thing to come home to!

“I was sweating and covered in pig poop and my hair was in my face and I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he told me. So he rinsed off and got out the clippers.

This incident gave us pause. Not because we regretted his hair – thirty years is a long time for a pony tail – but because we got a whiff of what it must be like to keep pigs.

Our pig pen was far enough – and upwind – from our one neighbor that we weren’t worried about disturbing other people. It was us we were concerned about. Three pigs make a lot of poop. Maybe not a mountain, but at least a foothill. We pictured our 2000-square-foot pen covered with it, and the smell wafting up the hill.

But we’d read that pigs, their reputation notwithstanding, have a strong cleanliness instinct. They don’t poop where they eat or where they sleep, and tend to pick one area – far away from house and feeder – as a toilet. If the poop weren’t walked in and tracked around and generally spread all over, perhaps … but no, that seemed too much to ask of three little pigs.

Now, two months in, I will vouch for the cleanliness of pigs. Their shelter is perfectly clean. The area around their feeder and waterer, while it’s been rooted down to raw earth, is absolutely poop-free. They have chosen the far corner of their pen, a good sixty feet from their house, as the bathroom.

And, oddly, the pigs themselves are clean. They spend their days wallowing in mud and digging in dirt, but somehow manage not to show it. Not much, at least. Their hocks and snouts are dirty, but not the rest of them.

Clean pigs, snacking on comfrey

If I knew their secret, I could market it for millions.

And the smell? The pen, even on hot, humid summer days, doesn’t smell bad. There’s a faint odor that I can describe only as piggy; definitely not poopy. Which brings me to a theory I’ve developed after spending a couple of years with livestock. It seems to me that poop from animals that are vegetarian (or almost wholly so) is less offensive and breaks down more quickly than poop from carnivores. Chicken and turkey and pig poop doesn’t seem to be nearly as bad as human and dog and cat poop.

I never bargained for a life in which I became intimately familiar with the nuances of animal poop. I was an urbanite. My only animal was a cat. And my husband had a pony tail.

I guess I’m adjusting.

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Comments

  1. I hear that lions make the smelliest poop ever.

  2. Now if anyone ever tells you that you don’t know sh*t, you have a rebuttal.

  3. Trish — And they are the fiercest carnivores. Another data point. Although fierceness is probably irrelevant.

    Laura — That is both funny and true. I look forward to the chance to use it!

  4. Many years ago I was chatting with a woman who was a veterinary student. She was spending the summer at a farm maintained by the vet school and had to occasionally check the cows to see if they were pregnant–it involves putting on a latex glove that goes up to your armpit. I commented that it sounded pretty horrible, but she said that while shoving your arm up a cow’s ass wasn’t exactly fun, it wasn’t as bad as you might think, because cows are herbivores and their poo–and the poo of all herbivores–doesn’t smell as bad as omnivore poo.

  5. The big issue with poop — cow and pig, at least — seems to be moisture. Let it dry soon after it appears, and it doesn’t generate that much smell, nor grow that many flies.

    Keep the animals on concrete instead of dirt, and let the poop aggregate in a low spot, and if there is much moisture at all (like several contributors), and the smell multiplies, lingers, etc. I visited a neighbor’s confinement hog bar. If you ever smelled the cigarette smoke from someone that just left a bar with lots of smokers, you get an idea of how deeply the odor, and airborne particles, saturate and penetrate the hair, the clothes, and the skin. My neighbor put in an outdoor entrance to his basement, added a basement shower and separate washer and dryer so that he could decontaminate after leaving the hog barn. The practice seems pretty wide spread for confinement operations. The separate laundry seems about as necessary, and common, as the shower at the door, and dedicated door, too.

    The part I don’t get, is that I grew up helping clean the hog house (we left our shoes at the door, and coveralls in the stairway to the basement, and washed them twice a week whether they needed it or not, and often didn’t, but then Dad never did the confinement thing). I don’t recall getting the muck all over me that much, without actually falling in the stuff, or once when I failed to account for the wind when spreading the pile onto a fallow field with a tractor-pulled manure spreader. Neither was pretty. Using a shovel or fork, I just don’t see getting that much stuff on me.

    One of Dad’s neighbors told me that the rich manure smell was “the smell of money”. When I passed that bit of homespun logic onto a (city raised) foster boy some years back, he replied, “It doesn’t smell like money to me.”

    As for the dirt and mud, the pigs do what many animals do, they use dirt to scrub their skin. Especially when most of their pen is dry, this results in a dust or dry bath. We don’t do it that way anymore, but folk used to use a brush to knock dirt and mud off clothes, rather than wash them very often. And pigs are accounted one of the smartest of livestock animals.

  6. GMB — Well, if a vet student says it, I figure it’s probably true. (Although, if she’d contradicted me, I don’t know that I’d be so quick to believe!) Thanks!

    Brad — I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The chickens and the turkeys take dirt baths (which definitely sounds like an oxymoron), and I’ve seen the pigs rolling around in the dry parts of the pen. Unless it’s been raining pretty hard for a long time, there are parts of the pen that are quite dry (our sandy soil drains quickly), so there’s almost always a place for a bath.

    We haven’t yet had to clean out the pen. As the pigs get bigger, we may have to, and we’ll add the gleanings to our giant pile of composting poop. And I guess I have to agree with that foster boy — I don’t smell the money in it!

  7. Tamar, I came to that same realization vis. poop from vegetarian animals vs. poop from omnivores. Observational data only but deer/cow/sheep/rabbit poop is so inoffensive I wouldn’t think twice about picking it up bare handed.

    Dog/cat/badger/fox/people (and, arguably, chickens) are ‘rubber glove only’ department.

    Having shared a bathroom with vegetarian people…well, that’s where the theory falls apart. It sounds like sharing a latrine with pigs is preferable. Plus, who wouldn’t want to pet a pig while having a pee?!

    • I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I wouldn’t have to steel myself to pick up any poop bare-handed, but I can see that I’m trending in that direction.

      If you would like to pet a pig while having a pee, we can make that happen for you.

  8. It’s the protein that stinks.

    I learned years ago in an earlier life while selling protein packs for hair treatments that they were heavily scented because the protein in them stank.

    The deal with the vegetarians is probably also due to protein in the dairy and eggs. What would be interesting to know is if vegans’s ‘effluence’ smells bad or not.

  9. @ Paula,

    Some years ago, in California (naturally), I got involved with a doctor into colon cleansing (I still have my Colon Health Handbook). The author claimed it was remaining debris in niches and pockets in the colon that caused the lingering putrefaction. The program included psyllium husk (the non-sugar part of Metamucil), which is actually quite useful for a number of reasons, from comfort during food poisoning “full system flush” episodes to helping manage excess mucous, a salve that included olive oil to rub on the stomach (the theory claims the olive oil penetrates the skin through the intestines and loosens petrified guck. I think the massage does that.), and a herb (naturally!) that causes the intestines to shed excess stuff, or something.

    Once one eliminates the residue of previous years of eating, the resulting stools should mostly reflect current diet, give or take a day or three.

    Given the nature and relative harshness of some of the greens and things, I would think only a mostly fruit and bland foods diet would lose the bad aroma.

    @ Tamar,

    I tend not to pick up any poo that isn’t heroically sun-dried (like cow chips), except with a fork or shovel. That is why I keep such tools around. And I would immediately be washing my hands, without contaminating any livestock water, since parasites are always a concern. Also, my life on a pig farm makes me wary of conveying possible diseases between pens.

  10. We keep pigs…and love them. And, we learnt the secret to flies and smell was to dust their living quarters and yard often with rock dust. Don’t know why it works, or how it works*, it just does. It’s also damn good for your garden and vegies too.

    *we were told at a crazy seminar sponsored by the govt that rocks break down in the natural environment, therefore we needed broken down rocks to mimic that environment. Thinking forest, i can’t remember a forest overrun with pig/animal poop smell or flies. so maybe that is the truth.

    • Thanks, Cath! That’s incredibly useful information. As the pigs eat the greenery in the pen, it gets muddier and, I think, has more potential for smell. We’ll stock up on rock dust.

  11. What is rock dust? I have three pigs and they are interesting. All of sudden they will run around their pen for no reason.
    Kind of like recess. My pigs are 14 weeks old and they live on grain. Should I be worming them if I see no worms?
    Thanks.

    • Karen, I’m afraid I’m going to be a fat lot of help here. Rock dust is just what it sounds like, and it keeps down dust. As for worming, we never did it, but I would never presume to give advice to anyone else on that subject. If you want to read someone who really knows his pigs, follow Walter Jeffries at sugarmtnfarm.com.

      Our pigs also did the recess thing — it was a joy to watch.