Farmer’s Lament

I need to get something off my chest. This weekend our favorite sow, Tuesday, gave birth and I failed her. And I can’t figure out why. I keep replaying the day over and over in my head and I know I should have done better. I could have done better. Perhaps it was just a combination of being too hot, tired, and overworked. My mind wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I thought she was doing ok. But the signs were all there and I missed them.

Saturday was a hot, sunny day at the farm. We knew Tuesday was close to farrowing, and a quick check of her early that morning showed she was producing milk, which for a pig usually means labor within 24 hours. At this point we were already set up for some trouble as Tuesday had decided to build her nest outside, despite having access to a lovely little hut that would have provided shade and kept her piglets safe. Once a sow builds a nest, there’s really nothing you can do to change her mind about the location, so we figured we’d roll with it.

A few hours later I went over to Tuesday’s pen with a pop-up farmers market shelter. I figured I could at least create some shade for her if she insisted on being outside. When I climbed into her pen she was in her wallow, but as soon as the shelter was up she waddled over and plopped down in the shade. I was so relieved! Her breathing slowed down and she seemed content. Suddenly I heard a wet, flopping sound and looked back over at her wallow, where a brand new piglet was struggling. Labor had begun!

I settled down next to Tuesday and waited for the piglets. And waited. And waited some more. Usually if the time between piglets is longer than 40 minutes, something is wrong and she needs help. At this point I wasn’t too concerned. I thought perhaps the first piglet came out early because she was stressed by the heat, and that her labor had slowed now that she was calm. Which in hindsight doesn’t make any sense at all; labor is labor and those piglets needed to come out! The next two piglets that came out were undeveloped and had clearly died a long time ago. This is not uncommon in my experience, so I still wasn’t worried.

As time went on, another healthy piglet was born. The time between piglets was still long, but for some reason I stayed back. Our new sow Holly had farrowed just a few weeks ago, and I assisted with her entire litter. Because I did, she delivered twelve healthy babies (though she wound up crushing two later that night). Had I not intervened, things would have turned out much differently because she wasn’t pushing and clearly needed help. I can’t figure out why I didn’t notice that in Tuesday. Perhaps because she is our older, more experienced sow. We’ve never had issues with her farrowing before. So I just ignored the signs. And that’s when things got worse.

After that healthy pig was born, another full term stillborn piglet slid out. And another. A couple more live piglets, and then another dead one. Suddenly a live piglet popped out and Andrew, who had joined me at this point, looked at it and said “whoa, something’s wrong with that one!” The poor little guy had a crooked spine and seemed to be missing his abdominal walls. It was obvious he could not have survived, so unfortunately we had to put that one down. Finally I decided to go in. I felt some afterbirth, and once that was passed we assumed she was done. We made sure the piglets were nursing, washed up, and ran across the street for about half an hour.

Whoops. When I returned I saw that Tuesday had passed yet another stillborn piglet. I sat there on my heels reeling, not understanding how I could have been so careless. Since Tuesday is an older sow we knew this was going to be her last litter. Our hope was to get a replacement gilt out of her, so that we could continue her legacy on our farm. At this point she had five live piglets, and NONE of them were female. I sat there thinking maybe, just maybe she had one left in there. As I contemplated going back in to help, out popped a healthy little girl.

Six healthy piglets out of a possible 11 that had come to full term is not ideal. But six is still a decent litter, and we had our girl! The rollercoaster of emotions was incredible. Finally we realized we needed to give Tuesday some oxytocin to get her uterus contracting and push out the afterbirth. In retrospect we should have given her this medication much earlier on, as it likely would have prevented most of these losses.

Unfortunately that night Tuesday accidentally crushed two of her piglets. We still have the girl, but now we are down to four. Thankfully she finally let us move her nest into the house, so at least they are staying safer now. But I can’t shake this feeling that there should be a boisterous group of piglets out there vying for mom’s teats. Instead there are only four. I know everyone makes mistakes, and I know that’s how we learn. I will never question myself again when a sow is in labor. I’d much rather help too much than not enough.

I realize this is a rather bleak post. Livestock farming is hard, emotionally draining work. There are a lot of romantic notions about what this life is like, but those cute animal photos on social media don’t tell the full story. I want this blog to be a place where I can be real and honest, and I’m grateful to all of you for reading. Putting these words down on paper is the best way I know to mend my aching, weary heart.

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Andrew and the little gilt. What a bittersweet moment.
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