By Megan Schulte
This summer I have the amazing opportunity to move 500 miles away from home to learn and experience all Fair Oaks Farms has to offer. If you don’t know what Fair Oaks is, they are the leader when it comes to Agri-Tourism, with dairy, pig, and crop adventures, and even more on the way. This summer I will be working with both the dairy and pig adventures, six weeks on each side.
I started on May 15th working in the barns at Legacy Farms. Legacy is the farm which houses the pig adventure at Fair Oaks. It is owned and operated by the Belstra Milling Company. People can ride in on a bus from the main campus, and spend an hour walking around upstairs where they are able to look down at a fully functional pig farm!
I spent the past two weeks working down below on the floor in both the breeding and gestation, and farrowing barns. Learning from the people that care for these animals every day, is an experience I will never forget. Growing up I raised hogs for the fair every year, and even spent my freshman year of college working in the campus swine barn. However, Legacy, with 2,800 sows is nothing like I have ever experienced.
Breeding & Gestation Barn
My first week at Legacy was spent in the breeding and gestation barn, and let me just say, I had a blast. This barn is home to the sows and gilts who are ready to be bred or pregnant and waiting to be moved into the farrowing barn. Unlike the other farms owned by Belstra’s, Legacy is the only farm with group housing. Instead of each of the sows being housed in individual gestation stalls, they live in pens with anywhere from 75 to 250 animals.
One of the coolest parts about this farm is the Electronic Sow Feeders or ESF’s. Each of the pens has anywhere from one to three ESF’s. Every sow has what is called a Transponder tag in their ear. The machine reads the tag as they enter, and the feeder drops their allotted amount of feed. Once all the feed is dropped, they have four minutes to finish eating before the bowl is pulled out, the front door opens, and the sow must exit the feeder.
The ESF’s can not only determine the amount of feed each sow is given, but they can also track how often the pigs enter the feeder and how much of the food given to them is consumed. If an animal doesn’t visit the feeder within a 48-hour time span, we are notified. We must then manually find the animals within their respective pens and manually guide them to the feeder.
Another daily task included checking for heats and breeding sows and gilts. While checking for sows or gilts that might be in heat, we would hook one of the boars up to what is called a boar bot using a harness around their body (kind of like a larger version of what you would use for a dog). We could then control the robot with a remote and guide the boar around the barn. [I even got to drive the boar bot once, but let’s just say that’s not my calling. I didn’t make it far without crashing into something.]
As we guide the boar around the barn, the females in heat would usually come right up to the fence, and become extremely tense. So tense, in fact, that the main way to confirm they are in heat is through physically sitting on them. If they hold your weight and don’t squeal, they are most definitely in heat. If they squeal and run away, they aren’t in heat. After we find all the sows and gilts showing signs of heat, we move them from group housing into the breeding stalls where they can more easily be handled.
When it comes to breeding, there are two different techniques they use at Legacy. Artificial Insemination and Post Cervical Artificial Insemination. Artificial Insemination requires the presence of a boar. The semen is deposited through a straw at the edge of the cervix. The boar is needed to excite the female, and enable her to suck the semen through the cervix where it can fertilize the eggs in the uterine horns. A.I. is only done with gilts, or females who haven’t yet had a litter. On the other hand, Post Cervical Insemination is done to sows, who have had one or more litters of piglets. A special straw is inserted past the cervix allowing the semen to be manually deposited. A boar is then taken to each of the sows. When the sow is excited, she is more likely to settle with that dose of semen.
Some other daily or weekly tasks I learned about include:
- Moving close-up sows/gilts from the breeding barn and into individual stalls in the farrowing barn, as well as move weaned sows back into the breeding barn.
- Using ultrasound to determine if sows/gilts have become pregnant.
- Checking each pen for injuries or lameness and moving those animals into hospital pens.
- Hand feeding the sows and gilts in the breeding stalls.
- Placing individual record cards in front of the animals in the breeding, gilt, and cull sow stalls. These cards allow for quick and easy identification of the animals within each of the stalls, and relay information from the barn, into the office where it can be entered into the computer system.
My second week was spent working in the farrowing barn. While this barn was fun, it took a lot more physical strength than the breeding barn. It was totally worth it though when I could see the new born baby pigs.
For about two days I worked with the ladies farrowing sows. Each of the sows is induced the day before they are due. If the medicine works right they should begin farrowing sometime before noon the following day. On average, our sows have 14 piglets, but we have had as few as 1 and as many as 27.
Once the sows have given birth to their first piglet, they join the rotation. Every 15-20 minutes a farrowing technician checks each of the sows. If she hasn’t given birth to at least 2 piglets on her own, then we sleeve up and go in. With that many babies, there is a tendency for a pileup. Sometimes more than one piglet is trying to be born at the same time, so we are there to help unblock the birth canal and care for the babies.
When the piglet is out, we break off the umbilical cord, dry them with a towel, and place them in a tote with a drying powder. Piglets umbilical cords can be up to five feet long, which is the average length of the sow’s birth canal. If we don’t make it to the piglet fast enough, he/she will wander up to Mom’s face and she will chew it off.
Pigs are born with some cool characteristics! They have a cartilage around their hooves. There hooves are extremely sharp, so that is there to protect the birth canal during the farrowing process. Not only that, they are born with 8 razor sharp teeth, called needle teeth, which are used in the wild to protect themselves against predators. They are also born with the ability to walk. As soon as they are born, they begin trying to lift themselves onto their feet. They will be stumbling for about 20 minutes, but after that, they will be up and walking perfectly fine. Piglets are born with all 5 senses intact. That means they are born with their eyes open, while their sight isn’t very good, they can still see to about the length of a human arm. As they grow, their sight doesn’t improve much though. During their life, they heavily rely on their sense of smell. They can smell up to 7 miles. In some European countries, they even use pigs just like we use dogs, to sniff out drugs or even people.
For a couple days, I worked with some of the woman who do the processing of the piglets after birth.
The day after they are born, piglets go through processing. This “processing” includes 4 different things:
- An Iron Shot: Pigs are born very susceptible to anemia, and the sow’s milk isn’t iron sufficient enough to get the piglets the iron that they need. Instead of waiting to see which piglets become anemic, we give each of them a shot of iron in their large neck muscle to prevent any problems down the road.
- A Premise ID Tattoo: All the piglets born on this farm will leave and go to contracted growing farms in Indiana and Ohio. Because they leave the farm, and cross state lines, they must have this tattoo. It is an identification specific to our farm, so when they move to their future homes, those farmers can see exactly where they came from. This also allows anyone handling them in the future to know they can come to us with any questions they might have.
- Dull Their Teeth: Pigs are born with 8 razor sharp needle teeth. They used to need them in the wild to defend themselves against predators, but in our barns, all the teeth do are injure the underline of the sow and injure the other piglets, if they were to get in a fight. At this point, those teeth are purely cartilage. It is very similar to us trimming our fingernails, it doesn’t hurt them at all.
- Trim the Umbilical Cord: The cords are usually all dried up the day after they are born, so we trim the umbilical cords closer to the body wall. The rest should fall out in the next couple of days. Before returning them to their stall, the umbilical cord is sprayed with iodine to prevent any infection.
Over the course of the week, I was able to help process upwards of 75 litters of piglets!
At 4 days of age, the piglets have their tails docked, and the males are also castrated. I was able to help dock tails and castrate about 25 litters of piglets.
At this age, there is no nerve growth in the tail, so when the tails are clipped off, the piglets don’t even feel it. The wound is then sprayed with iodine to prevent any infection or disease.
I’m not going to explain castration in depth on my blog, but if you are really interested, shoot me a text! (LOL)
Some other daily or weekly tasks I learned about include:
- Treating sows and piglets for scours
- Waking up rooms of sows to check for sores or sickness
- Hand feeding sows (corn) and piglets (creep feed)
- Talking to the public through “windows” – We bring a newborn baby piglet upstairs (behind glass of course) and talk to the people at the pig adventure about what we do downstairs.
Throughout my two weeks at Legacy, I learned more than I ever thought possible, and all because of the hard-working men and woman I was able to work with.
The people who care for these animals are hardworking, caring individuals who are constantly trying to better the farm, and the animals that call it home. I am blessed to have had the opportunity work alongside, and learn from everyone at Legacy Farms.