In the late afternoon on Memorial Day, Craig went off in the Gator to do chores. The kids were napping, and I was busy watering the garden. About ten minutes after he left, Craig pulled back into the driveway. "We've got a problem. A big problem." my mind started racing. Cows out on the highway, a barn on fire, pigs running free - there are plenty of potential problems waiting to happen on a farm. "Bertha's dead." It took a moment for the full import of this to sink in. Bertha is a sow. Losing a sow is a problem in and of itself. But, what makes this different is that not only is Bertha one of our sows, but Bertha farrowed a litter of nine piglets not even a week before Memorial Day. Nine hearty and healthy piglets, just days old, now without a mama. A Very Big Problem indeed.
We started raising pigs here on this farm in 2007. Since then, aside from the still sad but somewhat inevitable piglets lost at or soon after birth, we have lost one grower and one other sow. That other sow died from complications in farrowing. It was a devastating loss for us - she was one of our first sows and our favorite. A beautiful sow with a great personality and a very successful mother pig. Just before she died, she gave birth to one piglet. We named him Wilbur and kept him in a cardboard box out in the garage with a heat lamp and a blanket and a hot water bottle. I proceeded to bottle fed Wilbur every two hours around the clock a formula that I mixed fresh for each feeding - cow's milk mixed with egg yolks and fish oil. I was newly pregnant with Greta at the time, and Thatcher was a young toddler. Wilbur did very well, but the amount of work that went into helping him thrive was staggering.
Multiply that by nine? Well, I can say that we never for a moment considered any option other than trying to keep Bertha's nine piglets alive, but - in those first few moments - I just couldn't imagine how on earth we would manage to be successful.
I ran inside and immediately started looking up information on feeding orphaned piglets. I learned that it is possible to teach a piglet to drink from a pail. Blessing number one! I learned that goat milk replacer works just fine as piglet formula. Blessing number two! I also learned that after the first week, piglets no longer require round the clock feedings. Blessing number three! And then I realized that there is a great deal of difference between a newborn piglet and a bunch of piglets who have had the benefit of several day's worth of colostrum and constant access to mother's milk. Blessings all around!
At not even a week, these piglets were doing great. That first night, we left them in their hut out in the farrowing area, with a board across the door to make sure they wouldn't stray. Tractor Supply was closed for the holiday, but we were able to get a full five-gallon pail of fresh goat milk from a local farm. Craig and I took turns teaching the piglets how to drink it up. In no time at all, they had the new feeding action down pat. They finished the entire dish by morning.
Seeing as how Craig already has too much on his plate, we decided it would be best to have this group near the house so I can be responsible for their feedings. I built them a hog panel pen, and Craig brought over the first hog hut he ever built, now discontinued for regular use (it's too narrow for bigger pigs) but just perfect for our little orphans.
So now we are raising up nine piglets, just outside the house, uphill a bit from the sandbox, to the left of the picnic table. They're the first thing I think of in the morning (first feeding - 5:30) and the last thing I tuck in at night. I can see them from the kitchen, and the front door, and from the dining room table where I'm sitting this very moment. I can see them when they spill out of the hut, looking for food and squealing lustily to let me know three hours have certainly passed by now (they haven't, not yet).
And the kids are in love, of course. So am I. Thatcher has been telling everyone he is the piglets' big brother, with a puff of his chest.
There's one runt in the group (yup, that's him in the next photo), but he's a smart little fellow. He's already learned that he can sneak in under his bigger siblings to slurp out of the dish.
No, not mama.
And they sleep. Warm and cuddled together. They sleep.
This is such bittersweet work... Bertha, we're doing our best for your little ones. Rest peacefully, Mama Sow.