The hogs were miserable and we were too. Mark and I decided we would never use a “gestation crate” again. – Kelley Escobedo
The first litters of 2012 have arrived. During my initial visit to South Texas Heritage Pork, Mark and Kelley couldn’t stop talking about how their hogs have become great mothers. I thought “become” was a weird word to use. After all, animals are either instinctually good parents, or not. How exactly does a pig “become” a good mother? At the time, the answer to that question was still elusive. Regardless, I thought it would be great if I could be there for a birth, and see first hand the beginning of a hog’s life on the Escobedos’ farm.
In order to maintain a constant supply of pork throughout the year, Mark and Kelley must ensure that they have a balanced number of animals in every phase of life. Too many, and the herd would become unmanageable. It would also increase the risk of not having enough pasture to provide for the hogs during the hot summer months, as drought has become a fact of life in south Texas. Too few, and the Escobedos would not have enough hogs old enough, and large enough to slaughter, and still maintain their high quality pork. To maintain this critical balance, the farm has two major farrowing seasons, spring and fall. Piglets would be too stressed in the peak heat of a Texas summer so they need to be born early enough in the year to grow and strengthen before the heat wave arrives. Ask a woman you know who has been pregnant in her 3rd term during a hot summer, how she felt, and she will probably talk of the discomfort the heat caused. Likewise, gilts and sows would suffer the same discomfort only sans air conditioning and the respite it provides.
Mark and Kelley only have a few hogs farrow at any one time. During my last visit in January, there were three sows that were all around the same gestation point, and would be the first hogs to give birth during the spring season. I had planned to spend two days at the farm during what I was hoping would be the most likely time for the last of the three to give birth. I wanted to go a little earlier but unfortunately couldn’t get the time off work to make the trip. Nature doesn’t wait for a convenient time to take off from work. Prior to my scheduled arrival, Kelley informed me that I missed the last birth by two days. This was disappointing news, but I was still determined to visit as planned and see as much of the early life of their piglets as possible.
Mark’s son Michael greeted me on my arrival, and after a short visit with the Escobedos in the kitchen to catch up on farm happenings, Mark took me out to the back yard and pointed out to one of their pastures. There was Halftime and her piglets, on their first walk out with mom since they were born. Halftime earned her name because that was the time she delivered her litter, right during Madonna’s Superbowl halftime performance. I grabbed my camera, and we walked out for a closer look. Mark stopped me about 10 yards from them, warning me that this is as close as we better get. The sows are very protective of their young, and while they recognize, know and trust Mark, I was a stranger and very likely to get charged if we got any closer. I snapped a few photos, thankful for my telephoto lens, but wishing I had a better one. After getting a few adequate shots we walked to the barn, a corner of which had been fenced off to separate another sow from the main herd. There she had built a comfortable nest of hay for her and her litter. These were the youngest of the three litters, barely two days old. As we approached she got up, gave a few snorts of warning and fainted a charge, but Mark, who I have dubbed the pied piper of pigs, was able to calm her. As I watched the young piglets trot circles around their mother, Mark explained South Texas Heritage Pork’s farrowing process. When a hog nears her due date she begins to separate herself from the herd, and look for a safe place to give birth. Once she finds a suitable location, she will pile up grass and straw to provide a soft warm place for her offspring. Mark has learned to watch for these signs and influence the hogs farrowing locals by providing them with huts located in various pastures on the farm. Once a hog “chooses” her desired hut, or area of the barn, he fences that area off to protect the hog and her offspring from the rest of the herd until the piglets are old enough to join it. When the piglets are first born, the mother stays very close to them in order to ensure their protection. However, the Escobedos ensure that she still has the freedom to get up, eat, access pasture and generally do what her piggy heart desires. In this way they have shaped the natural process of birth, instead of forcing it into a small box. After a few days the mother will feel comfortable enough to take her piglets out for a walk. They will leave the comfort and safety of the nest for the pasture that surrounds it. It was this “walk” that I got to witness Halftime and her piglets taking when I first arrived.
That night after dinner I learned that it has taken a lot of work to get the farrowing process down just right. Like everything else in their farm venture, Mark and Kelley learned through a combination of research and trial and error. “When we first started doing this,” Kelley said, “it was like a bad episode of 16 and Pregnant. We didn’t know what we were doing and the hogs we were breeding were all young gilts, none of them had ever given birth before. We did our best but we lost a lot of piglets that first year.” “It was heartbreaking,” Mark added, “The hogs would roll over and crush some of the piglets. It almost was enough to make us quit. But we learned from those bad times, and the sows learned as well. We got rid of the unsuitable mothers and now most of the girls we have are very experienced.” In addition, when the Escobedos choose to keep or sell a gilt for breeding they ensure that she is the “pick of the litter.” They have also noticed, that now that their gilts have been around sows during the farrowing season, even the inexperienced moms do much better during their first litters, almost as if they have learned from watching the experienced sows. In addition, as Mark spends more and more time with his herd, he learns more and more about each animal and can recognize their pre-labor signs. Day or night, if one of his hogs goes into labor he will make sure that he is there to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible, a literal porcine doula.
Prior to this visit I had an opportunity to do more research on “conventional” Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO (the meat industry’s term for the factory farms that supply most of America’s meat) and the breeding process used there. Most, if not all hogs designated as breeders, are artificially inseminated and then spend much of their life in what is called a “gestation crate.” These “gestation crates” are about as long as an average sow and only slightly wider than one. They are designed to prevent the sow rolling over on a piglet and crushing it. At first glance, one would think this is a good and practical thing, until you realize that the “gestation crate” is not designed with the animals’ wellbeing in mind, but merely to maximize the number of every litter going to pork. The crate is so small the sow is not able to even turn around, forcing her to either stand when eating, urinating, or defecating; or lay when nursing. As we spent the rest of the evening around their fireplace chatting about farming and food, I asked the Escobedos if they had heard of them or used one. They said yes to both. When they were first starting out their only basis for knowledge was what they had researched online. They read that “gestation crates” prevented rollovers and thought it would help their inexperienced females with their first few litters. “We bought one with the intent to use it during those first few critical days before and after a litter is born. We thought we were doing to the right thing. We were wrong.” Kelley flatly says. “The hogs were miserable and we were too. Mark and I decided we would never use a “gestation crate” again.”
I woke up the next morning to the crow of a rooster. I ignored him for as long as could and then decided to just embrace it and get out of bed. Grabbing my camera, I slipped on my boots and walked out to the pasture and barn to get a few early morning photos. The pasture was enveloped in mist as the sun and the moon shared opposite ends of the sky, the sun just rising and the moon slowly fading in the morning light. The pasture was empty, so I continued to the barn. The barn door was left open so the hogs could come go as they pleased. I slipped in and saw the sleeping mass that Mark had told me about earlier. Most of the herd was gathered at one end of the barn sleeping in a large “hog pile.” At the other end separated by temporary safety fencing was the sow and her now three-day old litter. She was laying on her nest of straw, her piglets suckling contently. I watched her as she got up to investigate, wary of my presence. She walked over to me took a sniff and let out a snort. I greeted her in the same manner I had watched Mark greet his hogs, and while she must have known I was a stranger, this greeting seemed to have sufficed. The sow began to return to her litter. During the short time that the big sow was away the piglets had moved to the center of the nest, leaving only a small area along the edges for the her to lie. After a night spent talking about rollovers, I held my breath as she made her way towards her piglets, imagining I was about to witness the worst. To my surprise she hugged the edges of the nest and slowly laid down, gently nudging her piglets to make room for her large body. I was surprised to see just how gentle this big animal was and as her piglets nuzzled up to her I knew that I had just witnessed something special.