Shawnee The Pig: A Lesson In Loss and Comfort
It is always tough when we lose an animal. It is a part of farm life that cannot be avoided even with the best planning. Sometimes things just happen. But you learn to roll with it and carry on. Last week we lost our sweet Shawnee after the most difficult delivery we had ever experienced here at the farm. I feel it is only fitting to share how Shawnee came to be part of the family.
Jordan joined 4-H when she was officially 8 in 4-H years. We had a litter of Herefords for her to choose from for her project. Before the fair all she had to say was “This is my last year at 4-H, I don’t want to do it next year.” To have piglets ready for the fair they must be born in late February to the first part of March. Not exactly the prime weather for having pigs due to the cold. So, our scheduling for fair piglets was not going to happen. We would wait for warmer weather to farrow. Half way through the fair she had decided that she did indeed want to return next year and stick with 4-H. By that time, we were already off schedule to have our own piglets ready for the fair. She wanted to keep her cost on piglets down so we reached out to an Amish friend that has piglets to line a few up for the spring.
We picked up 6 piglets in the first week of April. They were all Landrace/Yorkshire crosses. A breed that is known for good litter size. Unfortunately, they are not known for a mild temperament. All six would run away from people at the first site. They were all nervous almost continuously and did not seem to settle down. We had planned our spring open house and wanted to roast a pig. Shawnee was notched to keep to be that pig. Two weeks before the BBQ Eric had found out that he had to be away for work that weekend. He cancelled the butcher. We decided that we would just finish Shawnee out in the fall.
There had been some brush that was growing in an old pasture field that really needed cleaned out. We had some portable fencing and some portable shelters that would work for putting pigs into that space. But the six were still a bit on the wild side and could very easily escape and never be seen again. Every animal does better with open space and room to carry on how they are created to live. The younger animals are protected in the barn for as long as they need but no longer. When piglets get to be about forty pounds, they are big enough to be on pasture. Weather permitting, they can go out sooner. But these guys were still nervous and not making up to us even with treats and time spent with them. With our fingers crossed we moved them out. We watched and nervously waited for the worst, all six to run right through the fence to never be seen again. They ran, they splashed in the creek, they walked up to the fence and touched it with their noses. Pigs are exceptionally smart animals and when they discover the fence shocks, they remember to leave it alone. A few squeals and they were no longer curious about the fence and were content staying in and frolicking. They had space, a self-feeder, brush to knock down, and mud! As part of the routine to check on the pigs and their fence we got into the habit of taking them a bucket of shelled corn. We would place the corn around the brush and watch as the pigs would root for the corn and clear out the brush. Their demeanor changed in two weeks. They went from panicked to see us, to running to see us. They would wait for us at the fence to flop over and get their bellies rubbed. They had become pleasant just given some space to run and carry on and be pigs.
When it was time for the fair Jordan decided to take Jasmine. Jasmine was also big and all white like Shawnee but she was a bit more nervous. Jordan has never had an issue raising animals knowing that they will end up heading to “freezer camp”. She says, “If we weren’t supposed to eat them, they wouldn’t be made out of bacon.” She enjoyed the fair, even though she did not win any ribbons. With the fair out of the way it was time for the rest of the bunch to head for their forever homes, be it chest freezer or upright. Shawnee was really starting to stand out. She was long built but also really wide in the hips. The news had just started covering that China had a new swine flu out and much of their pork supply was destroyed. By the time we needed extra feeder pigs there would be none to have. We decided to keep Shawnee. We already had the Boar, and pigs don’t eat that much once they are full grown.
Shawnee was in with the goats for two weeks. She had access to her own feed and could see and be seen by our sows with just a fence dividing them. They could chatter through the fence at one another and get used to each other without having to co-habitate right away. At first there was a lot of barking back in very serious tones. By the second week everyone was used to each other. We decided that Sugar was the easiest going out of the pigs and she should meet Shawnee up close first. With a few marshmallows as bait Sugar walked right through the gate and into the same side of the barn and pasture as Shawnee. It was not love at first sight. It was nothing short of indifference on the part of Sugar. She sniffed. She sniffed again. Then she laid down and went to sleep. Shawnee was very nervous at the sight of Sugar. But once she realized the lack interest on Sugar’s part, she went about her business eating. Next up was Scarlet. Scarlet is by far the most laid-back Hereford we have. She runs to greet you in the field just to get her belly scratched. She had sniffed Shawnee through the fence and was passed the excitement of seeing her. With Sugar back with the other sows we sneaked Scarlet into the goat side and in with Shawnee. She was not indifferent. She tried to fight. Shawnee on the other hand had a different strategy, squealing. She did not run away or stand and fight she just stood and made sounds, terrible, loud, heart stopping sounds. If our neighbors lived closer, I would have expected police to show up to see the murder scene. It was loud and obnoxious enough that Scarlet could not even stand it and they were done being confrontational. We put Scarlet back with the other sows and left Shawnee in with the goats. The next morning, we would switch her over to be with the rest of the pigs. Directly after milking we baited Shawnee into the section of the pigs. They were all on pasture when we sneaked her through the barn. She spent the better part of an hour sniffing all over before she decided to go outside. Sugar and Scarlet were not excited to see her. Charlotte our Hereford/Berk cross with the chronic sticking up ears made up for it. She ran as fast as she could directly towards her with a look in her eye that meant business. Shawnee had the same plan, squeal. This time it didn’t work. Charlotte just kept on trying to bite her. Shawnee changed her plan to squeal and try to bite. Charlotte was taken off guard and ran. There is something to be admired with swine in the fact they set up a pecking order. This is hardwired into them. As soon as a piglet is dried off, they are fighting for the best teat. As it turned out with Shawnee, she seemed to have different style than any of our other pigs had seen. She was a squealing attack pig when provoked. Within an hour, much of the drama was over and no harm had come to anyone. Shawnee established herself as third in rank in the pecking order and there was, for the most part, peace in the porcine kingdom
Late in the fall we introduced Boris to Shawnee. That would ensure some late March piglets when the weather should not be cold. Shawnee was not so impressed with her meeting of rather prehistoric Boris but being we only have one boar she soon lowered her expectations. We had to wait to see what would develop from the meeting of our snow-white Shawnee to the solid coal black Boris. We would have to wait for three months, three weeks, and three days an easy enough to remember saying about pig gestation. Shawnee fit into the group of sows like she had been there forever. During the winter months she would lay belly to belly with different girls at night. As the winter finally changed to spring it was time for her to deliver. We had already had successful deliveries from Edna, and Scarlet and were anticipating Shawnee to be easy as well. Oh, were we ever wrong!
Shawnee was separated into her own stall with a small section for the piglets to come and go from the heat lamp and for her to have enough room to move around. She was given a full week before her due date to adjust to her new surroundings and settle in. She settled in nicely and began nesting. When a pig begins to lactate, it is not long, usually 24-72 hours before her labor begins. Shawnee started making milk three days before she was due. We had our doubts that she was going to make it to her due date which was Thursday. Being a leap year, she was actually due on Wednesday now that we thought about it. By Sunday afternoon she was being checked on every two to three hours to see if her milk had picked up. Monday night she had increased milk production considerably. It would not be long. Tuesday morning at two, Eric discovered that her water had broken. He sneaked in and woke Jordan up because she enjoys drying off little pigs and getting them started eating. Also, we called Jordan’s buddy, Abigail, and she and her mom came over to help deliver piglets. We were ready for a delivery party and felt confident Shawnee would do very well. Two hours after her water broke, there were still no little piglets. We feel like we are overly zealous and rush things with deliveries, we decided to try to allow nature to work its own magic. After almost three hours, we were nervous. It was time to go in and explore what was happening. Eric tentatively went in and felt a baby piglet right near the entrance/exit. The issue was the little thing was upside down. It was head first but feet up. We had never before experienced such positioning. Shawnee was like a vacuum tunnel; the piglet would get to the point that is was almost out and she would suck it right back in. After much difficulty, the baby was finally out, alive, but appeared to have issues with her tongue. She was almost impossible to get to nurse and that was not a good sign. Shawnee also decided she had had enough human interaction and had herself a frightening tantrum. Everyone, even Eric who loves and trusts his girls, got out of there quickly. Poor Abigail scaled a wall to escape and ended up in tears. After five hours, the little girls had had enough and retreated to the house for hot chocolate and breakfast. The day did not get any better for anyone. Our friend, Jenna who is going to school for animal science, came and spent the day trying to help. Our friend Madison, who has vast experience with farm animals came to help as well. Even with such experience, we weren’t able to help Shawnee’s labor go any easier. After hours, the fourth piglet was born but Shawnee was exhausted and just kept sucking them back into herself. The only other option was the calling the vet. She advised giving Shawnee penicillin and oxytocin and letting her body expel them naturally. Unlike humans, most large animals don’t do well with C-sections so we were out of options. It was one of the hardest things we’ve had to do but we had to allow nature to take its course. We comforted Shawnee the best we knew how, Eric used a spray bottle to spray water into her mouth and helped her to change position periodically. It was a long night and a long next morning. Shawnee seemed so distressed, we took her piglets into another stall and fed them with fresh goat’s milk. We’ve learned from experience most small baby animals do well on goat’s milk. It looked like we were going to have four bottle babies for a bit. Eric continued to treat Shawnee and comfort her throughout the day but it was clear, this was precarious situation. He came in at lunch time and when he went back out, Shawnee had passed away. We all felt brokenhearted and like we had failed our friend. With heavy hearts, we moved the babies into the heated garage and spent the night nursing them every hour to two hours. Eric and Jordan were attentive nurse maids. The next morning, I did the milking while Eric took the backhoe out and dug a grave for Shawnee. We then had to remove her body from the stall and take her out to be buried. As her body was being removed, I saw all the other pigs stop and take note as she went by. I’m not sure, but I think they knew their friend was gone and wouldn’t be coming back. While Eric buried Shawnee, I cleaned out her stall. We removed every trace of bedding, bleached the stall, limed the stall, put clean bedding down and then took the old bedding out and burned it just to be safe. We weren’t sure what had happened with Shawnee but we didn’t want to pass on any pathogens to the other pigs, baby pigs or goats. It was a long and arduous task but it had to be done. Doing this, all the while stopping every two hours to feed the babies made for a very long day. What once seemed bright and hopeful now felt very dark and heavy. We had four baby piglets to care for around the clock and they require a lot of care and attention. Eric and Jordan have spent the last week camping out in the garage and feeding them every time they begin to stir. They are finally drinking from a bowl and will be moved back out the nursery stall very soon. Luckily, they have each other, enough goat’s milk, and very attentive nurse maids. So far, they are healthy and thriving but we aren’t out of the woods yet. Although appearing hardy and robust, pigs are actually delicate and fussy when they are small. We have learned the hard way, if a baby animal begins to go downhill, it is a fast, slippery slope and it doesn’t take long to lose them.
With everything that has been happening in the world, the care of the animals takes some of the worry and tension away. Unfortunately, we can’t just shut down and stop everything when we are ill, worried, or overwhelmed. The animals require our undivided attention and consistent care, farm life runs on a schedule all its own and Covid-19 or not, our life must go on. There is a certain amount of comfort in that when all else seems out of control.