Crushed

After a night with 40 mph winds and snow (in mid-May!), I went out on Monday morning to find we lost a dozen piglets.  Older pigs had piled into a first-time sow’s nest and smothered the piglets overnight.  AJ and I had taken precautions Sunday afternoon to bring a round bale of dry straw out to the pasture because the weather was so unusually cold, but despite the drier and better conditions we provided, the pigs had their own plans and after lounging in the straw all afternoon, they moved some time that night after my last check and crowded over by the sow.  Until that night, they had never slept with the sow, keeping plenty of distance between her and her piglets.

Picking up an armful of dead piglets is crushing.  Even though as a way of life I always have blood on my hands (often literally) I can only say that in coming across a group of dead piglets, my first thought isn’t about the sunk cost or lost revenue.  My first thought is straightforward disappointment that the piglets died.  Following closely I feel a weight of responsibility, wondering how I could have done better.  We’ve had many litters of piglets born on the farm and the way this situation unfolded was unique, with unusual weather and unprecedented behavior.  I tried to anticipate problems but I didn’t do enough.  Having raised animals for years I am not incapacitated by encountering death, but the occupational exposure to death doesn’t ever remove its sharp edge.

This is representative of the complexity inherent in being human. These conflicts aren’t unique to farming and I don’t claim any special insight, but in farming there aren’t many ways to shield oneself from the extremities.  I kill pigs, and I love pigs (and not just as functional objects).  I struggle to do everything I can to give pigs a good life.  When all goes well, I kill them in the end.  I wouldn’t be the first to observe that farming “all turns on affection”.  Extending Wendell Berry’s theme, affection integrates the disparate and conflicting aspects of our lives.  I recognize these dichotomies in my life, but I live contentedly among my conflicts.  A neatly packaged and simplified life isn’t for me.  I love this life I have.  Sometimes it crushes me.  And still I love it.

2 Comments on “Crushed

  1. What a terrible story. As a physician, I have seen human babies smothered by their parents as well (co-sleeping) and cases like those kept me up at night thinking about the needless loss of life. It sounds like you run a very caring and humane farm. I’m very glad that I recently found out about you from a neighbor, and can’t wait to get my first delivery

    • Pigs are consummate co-sleepers. Usually that behavior is benign, even beneficial in cold weather. On winter evenings I enjoy going out and looking at them stacked like cordwood. The challenge is that pigs aren’t just gregarious, they are selfish. So they are unlikely to move out of the way if someone else is getting squished. We usually separate the mid size pigs from maternity group, but in this case that didn’t work out. Mature pigs know how to handle babies, but the adolescents make most of the trouble.

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