The single-digit or subzero cold spells are the times I remember best. Trudging out to the back field, through the arcing windbreak of leafless trees, there was no sound except the crunch of snow beneath my heavy boots. Soft tissue inside my nose and throat cringed as the icy air assaulted wherever it could reach. I opened the front of the little shed where the feed was stored and filled white five-gallon buckets with pulverized grain. Repeated trips carrying the buckets six steps up to the platform, lifting, and emptying gave me the shoulders of an Amazon. By the time all was ready, my face, hands and feet would be freezing, but my core would be sweating under my puffy insulated coveralls Then, I opened the door.
To farrow means to give birth. The farrowing house was a maternity ward of a sort. The tropically steamy atmosphere inside frosted and fogged my glasses, blinding me, as the walloping stench took away my breath. A farrowing house is built over a pit, a cesspool for swine. Adding to the pungent reek of excrement and urine was the very specific pig smell impregnated into the dander, which floats invisibly in the air and settles on every surface including my skin, clothing and every strand of hair. I was resigned to the fact that I would smell like this place when I was done. The sows were confined in two rows of crates, seven on each side facing a center aisle with a food bin and water dispenser by their heads. Heating mats on the slatted floor and hot air forced noisily out of the blower kept everyone toasty, regardless of the outdoor clime. Bars inside the crate kept the mothers from turning around, reducing but not eliminating the chance that they would lie down on their young, who milled around the perimeter of the crate, and smother them. If I found a poor dead piglet, I had to reach in and remove it ASAP. (DON’T READ THIS, YOU OF DELICATE SENSIBILITY!) Sows often chew on their own dead piglets, I don’t KNOW why, (psychosis, hiding the evidence?) but I will tell you that picking up a dead piglet is much less traumatic than picking up half a dead piglet. And on a hot summer day, having a feed bag containing a dozen whole and partial dead piglets break open at the bottom and spill out over your shoes will mark you for life. Life. (DELICATE FOLKS, YOU CAN BEGIN READING AGAIN!)
I moved down the center aisle, pouring feed into the bins, so the sows could in turn nurse their offspring, the reason this was all in place. I have never heard a pig “oink.” Our pigs either grunted or more frequently barked with a toss of the head, baptizing me with saliva and snot. It could be argued they were joyously greeting me, the bringer of food, but I think not. To reach into the crate, I had to face down their intimidating teeth and beady, glaring eyes. It was a contrast to the sight of a pile of newborn piglets piled in a warm and content heap, sleeping and occasionally flapping a delicate pink ear or tail. After feeding was cleanup when I used a scraper to break up the piles of manure, (which I called shit loudly and repeatedly inside my head,) pushing it between the floorboards into the fragrant pit below. “It’s just dirt,” as my dad said, often, in exasperation or amusement.
When the piglets were big enough, they graduated to the next room in the building, dedicated to feeder pigs. Liberated from the constraining and threatening bulk of their mothers, the young pigs scampered in pens with their friends, eating, sleeping, urinating, defecating and socializing until they were big enough to sell. With thunderous little hooves stampeding in tight circles and excited squealing in unison, the sound was deafening. Much more filling and emptying of heavy buckets, but the excrement was more manageable. All done, the door shut behind me, I breathed in deeply the silence and the pure arctic air. This was my first paid job. Every day I tended the pigs, I drew a tally mark on the blackboard in the house. Every so often I’d call Dad to account. I wish I remembered how much one hour, give or take, in the pig house was worth. I learned a lot about dirt and unpleasantness and doing the job anyway. I learned about being responsible. I learned about showering so thoroughly that no one would ever guess how I spent my after school time. This is what I do, I assured myself, not who I am. But of course it is both. “It’s good for you! It builds character,” Dad used to say, and no matter how many showers you take, character never completely washes away.
But then again, if character could be washed away, you wouldn’t be who you are today, and I love you just the way you are.
I don’t remember the partially eaten piglets. Maybe I’m selective in my memory. I DO remember how those warm rubbery little noses felt and the uplifting feeling I had in the feeder pig room at the (what I thougt was) sheer joy the romping piglets seemed to exude.
Very different perspectives, yes. On the other hand, did you ever get peed on by a baby calf being held in your lap while being hauled around in the front loader of the tractor? THAT was ugly.
Characters for sure!
I got peed on by a sick cat once, because I confused the deodorizing crystals with actual cat litter, and the cat wouldn’t use his litter box. Gross, but mostly I felt bad that the cat suffered. If I was a baby calf getting hauled around in the bucket of a tractor, I might pee too! But I see your point.
Okay, I know I said I wouldn’t comment so much anymore, but this one demands me to tell people how much we love our daughters–as well as animals. Their mother wasn’t thrilled with this part of the adventure, either, but it came with the package. We did love and care for the animals in the best way we knew–and they had the best veterinary care imaginable. But it was at a cost! Oh, yes, and I want you to know the sows got their revenge for being herded anywhere — even to freedom after their short stay in the farrowing house into the large lot where they could root, snuggle in the mud and make contented sounds. Some of my husband’s biggest laughs came from watching his wife being charged by 5 sows I was trying to drive into a chute. The middle one hit me about the knees with her snout and I shot onto her back and spun around like a propeller as she ran the opposite direction. Another laugh came as we let the sows out of the farrowing house. I was again standing where a sow took exception, and she effortlessly tossed me into a large water tank–coveralls, boots, and piled high hair-do. As I watched my husband laugh until tears came, I sent up a thankful prayer to God that it was a warm day, and the bath was just a precursor to the long shower to come–soon!
Oh, yes, we learned a lot of things–and our girls definitely have character and a work ethic that will never stop–it was thoroughly imbedded there in the years of working with/for their Dad, may he rest in peace. I couldn’t be prouder of them!
My brother once worked on a pig farm and I will never forget the stories he’d tell. Wow. I didn’t know that about the sows munching on their young. Maybe it’s because she sensed there was something wrong with them? Interesting post!
Fortunately all I had to do on my grandpa’s farm was feed the hogs; anything else was HIS responsibility! Knew about the munching the dead young thing. Pigs can be more cold-blooded than people realize. Can’t wait until the series gets up to the lab years! =)
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