I’m not sure if I agree with the widely-held homily that pigs are as intelligent as dogs (actually I am sure; I disagree, unless said dog in question is somewhat dim – say perhaps Rough Collie level), but the fact remains, of all the barnyard animals, the pig is the Mensa-member. Very intelligent and, in a way, easily trainable, you have to watch your actions around pigs so they don’t learn too much for their own good. In our experience, keeping pigs on a pasture is fine and easy until you have to actually work with them. The keys to success in manipulating their porcine wills to follow your wishes are time and patience (and being agile helps when one of your pigs decides it would like to see if your calf is an acceptable substitute for the goodies you’ve brought in “The Pail”).
Our Pigs have always been kept in paddocks made of electric polywire with step-in posts, within the larger pasture fencing. None of the problems forthcoming would happen if you had permanent corridors and pens fashioned of hog panels and fence posts, but for multi-species rotational grazing on pasture this would prove prohibitively expensive as well as confounding for the other species sharing the green space at different times. Step-in posts and polywire pens are easy to put up and take down and moving the pigs should, in theory, be quite easy. They learn quite quickly to stay away from the wires and consequently even when the power is off most won’t attempt to step over a wire, even if it is laying on the ground. It’s this imagination and memory which paradoxically makes moving them a bit trickier. We have to cut the power and open up a way for them to move to the next area and then, even though there is no wire whatsoever across the opening, they remember there was one and refuse to cross the invisible barrier for upwards of two days rendering the moving process a logistical nightmare one needs to start well in advance of the actual desired ETA.
Nearly three years ago was a very wet Spring out here in our neck of the woods and there were various small half-frozen lakes here and there in the low spots in the pasture. To utilize our above-water space more effectively we decided to move our pregnant gilts to a new site for farrowing in some thick bush ideal for rooting and hiding, leaving the open, above-water spaces for the cattle, donkeys, and sheep. Unfortunately, where the pigs currently were was nowhere near where we were going to move them and it would require a significant cross-country trek. We debated about the best way to achieve this with minimal insubordination from the girls but could think of no good way and decided a combination of leading and driving might work best.
In classic artwork and vintage tales the Pig Drover utilizes only a stick to keep his herd of pigs in line as they amble pleasantly along Spring lanes. These pigs seem to require only gentle words or a good-natured tap with the Drover’s stick to be reminded to keep their eyes on the road and not be distracted by small, tasty children playing in the lane, or geese, or whatever. The reality is that if those were my pigs in the painting, the children would be in mortal peril and the geese would be unpleasantly surprised to meet their evil-tempered matches.
I’m sure it would have gone better if it was like an old-fashioned cattle drive with many bodies helping to drive and block, but as it stood it was just my husband Adam and me. We decided I would lead with The Pail and he would trail, rounding up stragglers. For added incentive to follow my pail, we denied them their breakfast the morning of the move and as we walked into view of their paddock their immediate chorus of excited barks and frantic circles told us they were indeed ready to eat.
We unhooked the electric and then, trying to avoid having our hands bitten, took down the wires in the front of the paddock.
“Pig, pig piggie!!” I called, banging on the pail with my stick. They rushed to the opening and then the ones in front stopped so abruptly that their companions, pushing forcefully from behind, went up over their backs or underneath them forcing them into porcine handstands as they squealed deafeningly. They jostled and barked until the front ones were unwillingly shoved forward past the invisible barrier. Once they realized that they weren’t getting shocked, the dam burst and out they poured out in a wave surrounding me almost instantaneously. Cursing and leaping I managed to keep my feet and get to the front of the mass. I quickly put down a few morsels to avoid being knocked down, while Adam laughed at me from the safety of open space. I hurriedly retreated, half running, while calling them. A group of three followed at my heels while a few others decided they didn’t like the looks of what was going on and retreated to the old paddock, grunting worriedly. Those who were finishing up the few crumbs left on the ground were split in opinion and half took off into the pasture at large in the opposite direction and the other half planted their feet and began to root.
Adam took off after the ones trotting away and I decided to continue with the three I had and see if I could incarcerate them in the new pen and then head back to help with the others, all the while hoping they weren’t motivated to try to leave the pasture all together. The girls following me were excited and leaped and gamboled like lambs behind me until we reached one of the small lakes formed from melt water. There was no going around this one. Previously that morning, I had been in to gauge it’s depth, and, walking slowly so as not to make waves, at it’s deepest point the water was just below my rubber-boot tops.
Unable to wade in daintily now, the icy water sluiced over the tops of my boots and instantly my feet were frozen, a thousand fiery needles pricking them. Here at the cold water’s edge the pigs paused and grunted in consternation. One braver soul put her cloven foot in and as it sunk a bit into the icy muck, jerked it out again. They paced along the edge grunting in consternation until my coaxing and pail became too much and in they waded. I could only imagine how cold it must have been as they neared the center and the water reached their armpits and bellies. I was thinking I might see a pig swim (something I’ve never seen and was sure to be entertaining), when they stopped, unwilling to go further. I placed the bucket on the other side and then no matter how much I called, yelled, or pushed, they wouldn’t move forward, dancing from one foot to the other in the shifting mud. In the mucky footing, I floundered becoming thoroughly soaked, frozen, and besmeared as I tried to push with all my might against their muddy butts to no avail.
Realizing I wasn’t going to get these girls across, and as there was no other route we could take to the awaiting dry pen, I decided to take them back and we would try again another day, some other way, perhaps when the water dried out if it wasn’t too close to farrowing time.
Getting the girls back the way they came proved almost as difficult. They ended up retreating laterally along a fence which now became another barrier to overcome. Despite trying, I couldn’t force them back the way they’d come and I ended up having to cut and lift the bottom of the pagewire fence and shove them underneath as it scraped the tops of their bristly backs. This was only possible because, in this one case, their will followed the path of my own, as trying to shove a 300-pound pig under a fence is akin to forcing the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle. From far in the pasture I could hear Adam yelling from his own fresh Hell and guessed he was having similar success with the runaways. It was at moments like these that I wondered why I didn’t just buy my bacon in the store like everyone else. Of course, the answer to that is simple. Nothing (and I mean nothing) can compare to cured, homegrown, pastured pork. I would miss having a freezer of the stuff and so would my customers if I ever let myself become discouraged by their piggy antics.
We spent most of the day rounding everybody back up, missing a prearranged coffee date in town with friends (they’ve grown used to being stood up on occasion, working with animals is often full of surprises). Aching, dirty, wet, and frozen, in the end we’d accomplished nothing except ruining a small section of cross-fencing and scaring the cows who were only used to seeing pigs behind a wire not running alongside them in the pasture. To that end, the girls never made it to the new farrowing pen. If it had been later in Spring and the pastures dried up we could have loaded them and moved them by trailer. As it was they only made it about halfway there by rotational grazing before the first one farrowed as we only had enough electric materials to make one other pen at a time besides the one they were occupying.
Later in the year, the spring fiasco forgiven but not forgotten, the pigs once again had some unscheduled freedom. That summer finished as dry as the spring had been wet. To escape the heat and the inevitable flies, the pigs put their muscular snouts to good use and rooted up long trenches for themselves where they could roll in the cooler earth. They would cast themselves into these trenches and sleep away the heat of the day. The most coveted of these (over which fierce, but immensely entertaining, battles were waged) ran alongside the water troughs for these had the added bonus of being mud-filled as well. Still and unmoving, at midday they lay in these wallows coated in mud looking for all the world like bloated hippopotami. These earthworks had the unintended effect of huge earth berms running parallel to the trenches and inadvertently spilling onto the lower electric wire effectively grounding out the fence. I would walk the perimeter kicking the offending dirt away and revealing the lower wire while the pigs grunted at me and tried to bite my boot tips.
One morning after seeing the kids off on the school bus, I turned and caught movement out of the corner of my eye. There, bounding across the pasture, was a large sow, considerable ears flapping as she ran. When I reached the nearest gate there she was, waiting patiently as if she were a dog seated at the door. I grabbed a bucket of barley and away we walked to the pigs’ paddock (which was within sight of the main pasture gate at this time) as she frolicked at my feet like an enormous Spaniel. I saw immediately what had happened. This brave (and clever) girl had seen the opportunity afforded by the pushed up earth and had used it as a ramp right over the wires. Whether by design or by accident, the wires had been buried overnight. Thankfully, after a quick head count it seemed none of the other pigs had been inclined to try this novel method of escape. With much difficulty in convincing her to cross back in under a lifted wire, and being shocked twice myself (a very unpleasant sensation that continues in your muscles long after the actual moment of contact), I got her back in and proceeded to kick down the earth, exposing the buried wires.
We ended up getting rid of (a polite euphemism for “eating”) that one sow as she, being so clever, learned from her experiences and became a porcine Houdini. It never happened, but I always secretly expected to find her sitting at the foot of our outside stairs waiting for me as I left the house for morning chores, or perhaps scratching at the door like one of our dogs wanting to come in. In pastured pigs you’ll want to breed down for intelligence if you can and get rid of anyone too clever for their own good or soon they’ll be muttering among themselves a la “Animal Farm” and you’ll find them on the wrong side of the fence… yet again.