Posted by: A Part of the Solution | April 24, 2012

What I Know About Piglets

Welcome to another installment in my swine life cycle following them from birth to early childhood to juvenile to mature adult. Ruby and Garnet’s piglets are in the midst of their early childhood. None of the pigs in the barn is still technically a nursery piglet, as they’ve all begun ‘stealing’ morsels and mouthfuls from the sows’ feeding bowls. In fact, we’re delighted to see every one of the little pigs takes an active interest in rooting in the freshly cut grass strewn with corn-on-the-cob, strawberries, green beans, tomatoes, and whatever other produce delicacies our refuse pick-up may yield. Regularly, we put bowls of cooked oatmeal , sprinkled with feed and loosened with whey into a box with small openings for the piglets to use, but which exclude their moms from getting at the eats. This is called a creep box. And it trains the piglets to eat solids without having to stress or fight for every mouthful.

A recent guest asked if pigs maintained an intentionally exclusionary social order, such as the notorious pecking  order of chickens. I will say I’ve seen larger piglets crowd around a trough of food and not pay any attention at all to whomever might not be having any access to feed. But I’ve never seen a group of larger piglets stand guard around a feed area to prevent low-status individuals from eating whilst the higher status animals take turns. And that’s something I watch the chickens do twice a day, every day. Frankly, I believe pigs do not maintain the rigidly stratified social structure common to chicken flocks.

In addition, I have seen frequent ‘dominance’ activity on the part of piglets who haven’t been castrated. Though, in the interest of fair and balanced reporting, I see the girls engaging in the same dominance play as the boys, and to about the same degree of roughness and with the same frequency.  I have seen little pigs transition to big pigs by dint of playing outside their weight class. I’ve seen big pigs lose size, and with their size some of their privileges, if they were ill for even a couple of days. None of their ‘status’ or lack of it seems to have much to do with intangibles. Pigs in herds seem to have meritocracies (Ayn Rand would have been so proud): if you’re fast, you get there first; if you’re bigger, you can shoulder the others aside; if you’re louder and more pushy, you may get the limited treat.

Such an unsentimental society is not always easy for us to watch. When some of the piglets are more than thirty percent smaller than their siblings and cousins, it’s not hard to see they’re not getting choice time at the feed trough. But we really don’t need to have 15 (or 30, or even more than  that in the future) pigs at exactly the same size at the same time for our customers. So their natural Darwinism serves our ends as well as their temperaments. Technically, it’s a win-win.

Piglets also start out shy, and are wary of anything or anyone which is not another pig. In our barn, the piglets first lose their fear of the chickens. By the time they’re ten days old, chicken chasing is part of every day’s routine. After they’re several weeks old, the lure of exotic smells from our boots and trouser cuffs lower inhibitions, and the little ones are unable to resist coming over to smell and nibble at us. It’s only a week or two more until the piglets can be freely scratched behind the ears, under the chin, or along the belly. In the case of the bottle-fed piglets, they’re utterly without taboos regarding the people in and out of the barn. They recognize the source of so many of the good things in their every day lives.

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