At the end of March, I had the opportunity to visit the Gould Family hog farm. I’m part of the Illinois Field Mom program through IL Farm Families, which takes suburban moms like me out of the city and into the country to talk to real farmers.
The Gould farm is family owned. The hog operation is a “farrow to wean” which means that the Goulds specialize in artificial insemination, gestation (pregnancy) and farrowing (birthing). The piglets stay on the Goulds’ farm until they are weaned, and then they are transported to a nursery on another farm. They retain ownership of the pigs until they are sold to Hormel and used as pork.
Gould Farm also grows corn, soybeans and wheat. The manure collected from the pigs is used as fertilizer in the fields. The corn and soybeans are then used to feed the hogs. Our visit focused primarily on the hog side of the farm. As I show you some pictures from my visit, I’m going to imagine some questions you might ask if you were looking over my shoulder.
Why are you wearing gloves, a hair net and coveralls?
What you can’t see in the picture is that I’m also wearing plastic boots over my shoes, and I walked through disinfectant before I entered the hog barn! It’s all part of biosecurity precautions that most hog farms use to prevent the spread of disease between herds. Piglets, just like newborn babies, are more susceptible to diseases. Right now, farmers are being cautious because of the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV). This virus can sweep through a farm and devastate the herd.
These precautions are not just for visitors. Farm Mom Kate Hagenbuch showers every time she enters her pig barns, and then changes into clean clothes that are kept inside the barn. When new female pigs (gilts) are brought to the farm, they are quarantined for two weeks before joining the rest of the herd.
Why is the mother pig separated from her babies with those metal bars?
At this point in the sow’s life, she is in a farrowing room. There are a few reasons for those bars. The mother pig is able to stand, sit, and lie down to nurse her piglets, and the likelihood that she will accidentally lie down on one of her babies, crushing it, is greatly reduced. Sadly, it still happens occasionally. The piglets are free to move around the mother. The sow has access to her own food and water 24 hours a day, and her health is individually monitored. This arrangement also allows mothers who have a small litter to have piglets placed with her from a larger litter. If a sow has up to 20 piglets, that mother might not have enough milk for all the piglets. An average sized litter, or parity, is about 13 piglets.
What about the lack of exercise? How does that affect the health of the sow?
The Goulds have been hog farmers for a long time, and their pigs weren’t always kept in this way. They have observed hog behavior for many years. Domestic pigs are not very active to begin with, and in a larger pen, the mother pig would probably lie down in the same spot until it was feeding time. Pigs form hierarchical societies, and at feeding time, the senior sows would fight with lesser pigs if they were together in the same pen. Farrowing stalls help protect sows from more aggressive members of the herd. More information about individual housing versus group housing is available at PorkCares.
The piglets are so cute! Didn’t you just want to take one home with you?
I did! The piglet I held was so sweet! However, there is a reason 48 pigs were used in the filming of the movie Babe. Baby pigs grow fast! At the age of three weeks, they are weaned and sent to a nursery at another farm. In just six months, they are about 270 pounds and are ready to be sold to market. These little piglets are specially bred to be long and lean and provide a consistent pork product for consumers.
These are just some of the things I learned during my farm visit with the Field Moms. If you have other questions, please ask in the comments below and I’ll answer the best I can, or connect you with someone who can answer your question. Many thanks to the Gould family for hosting us on their farm, to Farm Moms Kate Hagenbuch and Pam Jansson for answering all our questions, and to Illinois Farm Families and the IL Pork Producers Association for providing this opportunity!
P.S. I participate as an IL Field Mom under my real name, Christa Grabske. Thank you for following along!