Autumn was the time to ship our first pigs to the slaughterhouse. But we didn’t have a stock trailer, so there were days of planning before and at least a day of relief after.
First, we had to prepare the truck. We knew the little 1 x 2-inch side racks we’d used to get them as 30-pound piglets would never stand up to the 400-pound bruisers they’d become. So we nailed 4 x 8-foot sheets of plywood to the inside of the truck box, with half-sheets for the front and rear. Then we built a ramp up into the truck with cross pieces for good footing and nailed up more plywood sheets on the sides of the ramp to form a long tunnel. In the pen, we lined up straw bales as best we could to form a narrow run to the ramp.
Conor stopped feeding and watering them the day before because we were hoping to entice them up the ramp with some kitchen scraps, water, and feed. But they weren’t the least bit interested. It took a little shoving and pushing before the first, Pork Chop, trotted up and into the truck. Charlotte took her station at the top of the ramp to make sure there were no porcine second-thoughts of escape, and we tried the next one, thinking that it would be a bit of a struggle, but not too bad.
We underestimated our pigs. Yelling, prodding with sticks, pleading, and swearing were useless on the remaining three. They would either stand still or go in exactly the wrong direction. Then the largest, Hammy, bolted for the barn door that was guarded by my wife Susan. He dove between her legs, picked her up and tossed her aside in a flash. She got mad and wanged him twice over the head with a shovel. We were at a standoff by this time, the pigs and the people, looking at each other and puffing in the same rhythm. We called for help.
Our neighbour, Ray, has experience with pigs and had advised us on the truck preparations. I jumped in the car to pick him up and his son came, too. By the time we got back to the farm, the pigs had escaped the barn and were out in their yard. We made soft flails out of binder twine so we wouldn’t bruise the meat and tickled them into the barn. Then we performed a yelling and prodding encore with no more effect than before. Finally, Ray grabbed the ears of the largest, Hammy, and flipped him over on his back. Then we dragged that squirming bag of squeals out of the pen and into the truck by his ears.
We rested a few minutes and hauled Peameal up the ramp the same way. Charlotte was still in the truck, keeping them in there. While we were resting again, Conor guided Hickory out of the pen and up the ramp slick as could be using a small piece of plywood next to her head as a portable wall, a trick he saw at the fairgrounds. Hickory just about danced up the ramp while Ray and I watched enviously. We decided to let Conor do the whole job next year.
Finally, we tied a tarp over the top of the truck and took off at fifty kilometres an hour for 40 kilometres, wind blowing the truck sideways and the pigs moving around inside. I never thought we would make it intact, but we did.
At the slaughterhouse, Susan and I dragged the first out by the ears while it squealed bloody murder, which would be about right soon enough. Then we turned in time to see the butcher calmly walking behind the other three as they strolled out of the truck and into the corral. It’s amazing how much better a little technique works than just brute force.
As we left, Susan said, “Well, I guess we’re farmers now.”
Pigs. If you have just a few you baby them, maybe name them, and get to know them as individuals. When the time comes for slaughter you start to feel kind of sad about it, but after you get them in the truck you’re mad enough to kill them on the spot yourself.
We went on like that for four more years. Some years were better, some were worse, but I dreaded loading pigs. The sheep weren’t so bad, we could just lift them into the truck but one year it took Ray and me the whole morning to load our pigs. I had enough. I did some research and found Dr. Temple Grandin’s website on livestock behaviour and the design of handling facilities. I learned about flight zones, points of balance and common distractions that impede animal movement. For example, pigs won’t cross a change in flooring or texture, step across a gap, or move into areas that are darker or blindingly brighter. They even shy away from a shadow in their path.
Armed with my new information, I backed the pick-up into the barnyard, measured the height of the tailgate, then calculated the length of ramp needed for an incline that wasn’t too steep for pigs.
I built a long tunnel with sides three feet high and a wire top, hinged to the door the pigs used to get out into their yard, water and feed. Then I installed a truck jack underneath halfway along. The idea was for the pigs to get used to the tunnel all summer long. Then, at loading time, we could crank it up with the jack so it inclined into the bed of the truck and drive them up the tunnel one last time.
This would determine once and for all if I was smarter than a pig.
The tunnel worked well. The pigs scampered through it all summer long to and from their inside sleeping quarters. Just before loading time, however, Ray called me and said he could borrow a stock trailer when I wanted to load my pigs.
The nice part about a stock trailer is that it is low and animals only have to step up about six inches to get in. We backed the stock trailer up to the main barn door and Susan put a bucket of boiled chicken mash inside. The pigs smelled that warm mash and couldn’t get into the trailer fast enough. Took us about five minutes, once again proving that the right tool makes the job a lot easier.
I looked over at the tunnel we never even used and Conor said, “Dad, looks like the pigs outsmarted you again.”
He was right but I didn’t care. For the first time in five years, even loading pigs was fun on the farm.