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.
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, 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.
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.
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.