30,000 Pigs & Bye-Bye Petra


Nude Study on Hay – The Incredibly Beautiful Petra Pig

Petra is possibly the most photographed sow on the planet, or so she said, especially with her risque nude shot out in nature on the mountains, in the ponds and bathing under water flows or the light of the morning sun. Google loves her.

Petra was born here on Sugar Mountain and lived her entire life here. She was one of our earlier generations of sows although not a founder. She has had a lot of offspring during her stay here on our farm and in their improved genetics she will be remembered because Petra was, as the saying goes, one fine pig.

The photo above is her second to last litter. Petra was big, friendly and a very good sow. She was very white and threw white piglets suggesting she is a pure blood white pig, at least as far as color goes. But that was not her important characteristic. Petra had extraordinary tits with a count of sixteen teats, all of them very well developed and heavy milk producers. Petra made Holstein cows blush with envy. Her feminine endowments are a part of what made her so special, which allowed her to raise large numbers of piglets to high weaning weights. She did this all while not losing her own body condition summer or winter. I wish I had 30 sows and pigs like Petra Pig. That’s a statement that could cause some confusion as I recently discovered. But more about that later.

Why tits on a boar matter: There is an old phrase that something is “useless as tits on a boar.” This is sadly miss-informed for the simple reason that the more teats a boar and sow have the more likely their daughters will have more teats. More teats means more milk. Bigger breasts, at least in cows, sheep and pigs, mean more milk too. Very well endowed sows produce massive amounts of milk necessary to nurse large numbers of offspring. Since pigs might have ten to twenty piglets this becomes a big issue. A sow with a lot of large strongly producing mammary glands weans larger piglets giving them a better head start in life. It’s all about the Head Start Program for piglets.

On top of the fact that Petra had great tits, when fully bagged she almost dragged on the ground, and a very friendly temperament she also had large hams, broad shoulders, was long bodied and had great legs – these are all parts of good conformation in a model pig. Petra wasn’t just a pretty face. She also thrived on pasture, held her condition in the winter and produced excellent fast growing piglets with little to no intervention. The lack of need for help during farrowing is an important trait in the fields. With confinement animals the farmer or even a vet is there to pull calves and piglets from the womb. In nature that doesn’t work. Pasturing is more along the model of nature than factory assembly line and as such we need mothers that can do natural childbirth.

Petra’s sweet temperament was also critical in such a large animal. Petra weighed about 700 lbs, when not pregnant. During pregnancy she would gain about 100 lbs on top of that. Fortunately she knew her place with the people, the dogs and the other pigs, behaving appropriately with each group. Petra is the kind of pig I want more of on our farm. Thus I select the best of her sons and daughters to continue on the fine traditions of selective breeding.

A wonderful thing about pigs is that they are so plastic in their genetics that we can easily use traditional selective breeding to quickly and safely develop new lines of animals to meet the needs of our customers and our environments without needing to resort to transgenetic modifications and GMOs. The “mistakes” are edible feeder pigs. The top 5% of the gilts and 0.5% of the boars make for the breeders in the next cycle.

Each round takes only six months to a year. From conception to market is about ten months to a year depending on season of birth. Birth to market about six to eight months, again depending on when they were born. To get a gilt, a young female pig, to her first farrowing is about a year from her birth to her offspring’s birth. This is a fairly rapid turn around with animals. Pigs rivals rabbits and mice in food production. Heck, I can’t breed carrots that fast as they’re a biannual. This rapid reproduction, several litters a year and lots of offspring in each litter lets you do a lot of selective breeding quickly so you have the chance to improve your herds rapidly. Always remember:

“Breed the best of the best, and eat the rest.”

Gradually you’ll have better and better animals.

I said that this is her second to last litter pictured above. Petra’s subsequent and last littler yielded only one piglet. Since then she has failed to ‘take’ every cycle – about 21 days for pigs. In fact, she didn’t appear to be ovulating anymore. Perhaps she had gone through menopause. After seven months of that I realized that Petra had finished her reproductive cycle of life. At over seven years old Petra was officially an old sow. In human years she was in her late 70’s or 80’s. She had a very long and productive life out in our pastures and I’m thankful both to have known her and to have had all of her offspring.

There are some of her cohort who are still breeding like Winnie and Mouse but with regret I realized that Petra’s days were numbered. As winter wore on I realized that I needed to take her to market. Winter is the hardest time of the year. It is when an old pig is more likely to die as they fight the cold. The same happens with dogs, sheep and humans. Winter is harsh.

When a sow dies on the farm I add their bodies to one of the compost piles to return the nutrient’s to the soil of the mountain. This is a far better and greener funeral arrangement than embalming in poison (formaldehyde) in a box, cremation or even simple burial in the dirt which risks ground water contamination. With composting the nutrients are quickly returned to the soil and even the bones break down to nourish new life.

But that is not the best economic solution for the farm. The farm needs to make sales to stay viable and sustainable. A big sausage sow represents 300 to 400 lbs of meat off the bone. That’s the size of a small beef cattle. As unromantic as it may seem we’re not here to provide rest homes until death do we part – as much fun as that might be with a pig as gentle as the lovely Petra. The reality is the government, the banker, the butcher, the electric company, the phone company all want their money each month. The best solution is that I note the sow after she loses her fertility and before she begins any decline in health. If I catch her in time, as I did with Petra, I can send her to the slaughterhouse where she humanely dies and then helps to pay the bills one last time. This is reality.

Petra yielded in her final sacrafice ultra-large hams that might be used for prosciutto, huge Boston Butt and picnic shoulders that are great for fancy pulled pork, massive tenderloins, bacon and a tremendous amount of premium ground pork for sausage and hot dogs. In fact, about 230 lbs of Petra went into our next batch of all natural hot dogs.[1, 2, 3]

Petra is dead. Long live her line.


From alert reader Mike:

30,000 pigs swept away in flood.
— The Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, 6th January, 2011

Correction: What Baralaba piggery-owner Sid Everingham actually said was “30 sows and pigs”, not “30,000 pigs”
— The Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, 7th January, 2011[1, 2]

I love it! I’ve said those words so many times without realize the other possible miss-understanding.

30,000 pigs isn’t outrageous for the big factory farms but little pastured farms typically have more like 30 sows and pigs. :)

We have 30 (to 40) sows and their resulting piglets, weaners, growers, roasters, finishers and market hogs. The number fluctuates. When someone asks how many pigs we have the easy way to say it is “about 300 pigs” or maybe “30 sows and pigs”. Who knew that they might hear 30,000 pigs!

Outdoors: 26°F/15°F 4″ Snow
Tiny Cottage: 68°F/60°F

Daily Spark: Say what you mean but don’t be mean about what you say.

About Walter Jeffries

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15 Responses to 30,000 Pigs & Bye-Bye Petra

  1. Jeff Marchand says:

    Walter, when I saw the title for this entry I thought you had sold your 30 thousandth pig. Do you keep track of your cumulative production? I wonder how many pigs have left your farm over the year.

    Good call on sending Petra to the butcher, much better to put food on lots of plates than to have 700 pounds of meat rotting in a compost heap. Is she the oldest/largest sow you have had processed? Can you report on the quality of her meat? Was it fattier and or tougher than a market size pig?

    Jeff

    • Petra is the oldest (greatest age) sow we’ve have slaughtered yet as she is from our second generation. Most of her cohort already went so they were at various younger ages. We had some of her St. Louis Style ribs last night. They were delicious. We also separated out a couple of other cuts to do scientific taste testing. The big old sows do have gristle areas but that can simply be cut off and the rest of the cut is delicious. Our pigs aren’t fatty so we don’t run into that which I hear is a problem with the traditional corn/soy confinement fed pigs.

  2. Jeff Marchand says:

    I meant ‘I wonder how many pigs have left your farm over the years.’ I would be very impressed if you produced 30,000 pigs a year!

  3. Leon says:

    > As unpolitically correct as it may seem we’re not here to provide rest homes – as much fun as that might be with a pig as gentle as the lovely Petra.

    Amen.

  4. Marie says:

    When I saw that news item from Austrailia a few days ago, I had to laugh. There was plenty of confusion in the comments section about the farmer’s statement, mostly along the lines of, “Doesn’t he mean sows and BOARS?” I hope someone finally enlightened them… :)

  5. JarardE. says:

    Wow. Great post. Great pig. I lovethese discussions of the deeper meanings. Sorry to hear of the loss of such a fine lady.

    Marie-I bet they think pigs are monogamous. Even people arent. Pigs have harems little do they know but there would be very few boars. There might not even be any boars since many people in farming us artificial insemination. That is not a job I want!

  6. Marie says:

    I think they were confused by the term ‘pigs’, meaning the little ones. To lots of folks , they’re all pigs, regardless of sex or age. I never checked back to that comment thread to find out if someone set them straight…

  7. Jessie says:

    JarardE made a comment about artificial insemination; Walter, would you ever consider using AI to diversify your herd genetics without the risk of bringing a new boar with his potential parasites/diseases onto the farm? — Curious Jessie N.

    • Long ago we considered using Artificial Insemination (AI) when we had just four sows. The cost was about $150 or so per sow and that’s assuming everything goes well. The reality is maybe not every sow takes so the cost goes up. We were able to find a local farmer who lent us a boar. We did this three times with him until we eventually bought one of the boars, Archimedes. That had the risk of disease but we had only a few sows.

      Now that we have many more sows I would not borrow a boar for the reasons you mentioned although that was how we got started. At this point we have other boars, in addition to Archimedes, who were descended from the boars we had borrowed before Archimedes. This gives us some diversity.

      Someday I figure that I may need to bring in new genetics. I do not know if I’ll do that through AI or through buying another boar. One thing that I have considered is buying a set of six boar piglet brothers so that I can observe them growing and then pick the best.

      With any newly introduced genetics we’ll also need to go through retesting for boar taint so that we continue our policy of not castrating.

  8. David Lloyd Sutton says:

    Walter, regarding testing for boar taint; I have an idea you might try, based on an accident I had once. Two assumptions here, that boar taint appears in a sexually mature boar, and that a boar who has boar taint himself would be more likely to pass it on than one who does not. At least this idea would better your odds of not having boar tainted litters to cull out If you ever want to expand your herd genetics..

    Background: I used to keep one or two pigs a year in confinement, because I had only an acre and incomplete perimeter fencing in a suburban neighborhood. So I built a concrete floored pen, with short stub walls in which were set the pipes and lower edges of the cyclone wire walls of the cage. It was only about fifteen feet long, eight or so wide, and sloped to a drain in the narrow end, where there was also a gate.

    Because of neighbors’ noses I buried three metal drums in series, to act as septic chambers, entered and linked and eventually leached by clay tile channels, and hosed the arrangement down daily (It never freezes in Santa Barbara.) The pigs had food, bedding hay, and overhead shelter at the upper end of the pen, and training them to latrine down by the drain was easy. Problem was, their hay and food were fibrous, and often the six inch drain would block, I’d have to put on rubber boots and a clothespin and go in to shovel out the obstruction.

    One day I was in the pen with my sole remaining porker, a barrow I’d let get to about four hundred pounds, and the gate swung open behind me, the critter made for it, and I pushed him back casually with the shovel blade. He just moved on, not even wincing, and I put a slash four inches or more long, at least two inches into his shoulder fat. (yes, confinement and lots of grain and table scraps). It didn’t stop him, he actually didn’t seem to notice, and I had to put my hands on his nose and push him back. I was three quarters of his weight, almost, he wasn’t irritated, so I didn’t lose him, or any fingers.

    Think of an apple corer style probe, surgical stainless steel, the six twenty alloy maybe, perhaps the diameter of a pencil or a small finger. Put the beastie in a low enclosure that immobilizes him, shave a patch, swab on some betadine, and take a fat core. I just washed my fellow off and wiped on betadine and he healed a much more serious wound in just a couple of days. Maybe a filling of baciguent or something of the sort for insurance? If the thing is sharp, no worse than a shot, and fat has no nerves.

    You could practice technique on a carcass or three.

    Slice off the skin end of the core, rinse, sniff, fry, sniff. Taste. My experience with small game like opossums and the like is that the strong flavor manifests most strongly in the fat. Guessing it’s the same in swine.

    And, incidentally, now I know why boar spears had a cross piece behind the head!

    • It is a really interesting idea – doing tissue samples on the live boars. I have been thinking of building a squeeze chute for vaccinating and that would be helpful for a project like you’re suggesting. There was a university research team a few years back who wanted to do testing of big boars for boar shield and proposed doing the same sort of thing. They were very interested in our boars since ours live so long and we also have younger ones to test. Their grant fell through though so it never happened. They had wanted to test Spot among others – he was a nice guy it would have been, er, interesting.

  9. David Lloyd Sutton says:

    Your shots of Spot are . . . interesting to consider. I’ve admired some of them before. He did seem to be a nice guy. I do think such screening should happen somewhat EARLIER in a boar’s career. At least before he could render cattle panels into a tangle like crumpled tinfoil if you irritated him!

    What, pray tell, is Boar Shield?

    • Boar shield is, from what I understand, a thicker, tougher tissue on the shoulders and flanks to protect boars during fights. They wanted to do the screening for the shield in the big boars because it doesn’t show up in typical market age pigs. We screen boars from birth to choose who will become a boar so that screening starts early.

  10. Ben Wilke says:

    Walter,

    I came across this post because I searched “pig funeral” to see if you have had experienced a peculiar mannerism I’ve recently encountered with my herd. It’s a clucking noise that comes from the throat of the pig, that I’m hypothesising is a eulogistic honoring of a pig friend that has passed. I’ll share my story and perhaps you may have some insight.

    I’ve been running a herd of 14 Old Spot x Ossabaws through 5+ acres of pasture in a mob-grazing fashion, with minimal grain supplement. They are now finishing up in a 4 acre, open canopy wooded lot, on a rather steep hillside with oaks, hickories, maples, brambles and autumn olive.

    My buddy is taking care of his own guninea hog herd (of 3…er, now 2) along with some pigs another friend purchased and overwintered last year. His small herd is kept on a neighboring property in a more closed wooded lot. One of his guinea hog boars (Big Boy) was not trained properly to electric and comes and goes as he pleases. Fortunately for my friend, Big Boy never had a reason to leave the neghboring property until a few weeks ago when my 7 month old ladies were in the adjacent pasture. I was ok with this as I was interested in breeding the three ladies with his boars and this was a lot easier than walking them over. The other boar (Little Boy) eventually learned how to cross lines too and I was up two pigs.

    As my pigs continued to graze in the neighboring pasture Big Boy would go back to his homeland every now and then. It came time to move them from this pasture into the open canopy hillside I mentioned earlier. On move day I only noticed one boar with the herd and was relieved not to have to deal with the one that was notorious for finding ways out of the electric. However, on the second day of being in the woods I noticed I had two boars again! Oh, well… what can you do, if he’s not really do much damage? My pigs were still respecting the line.

    After about a week, I noticed I was back to one and thought Big Boy made his way back home. My buddy was out of town and having someone else check on his pigs so I didn’t think to check if my assumption, that he had gone back home, was true. My buddy got back and asked if I’d seen Big Boy and I had told him he left a few days ago. I began to get nervous that he had passed somewhere in the woods (he had been sickly in the past). Days went by with no sign of him and then I smelled it one night while feeding. I searched the next morning and found him face down and bloated, in a stump full of water.

    He got visited a few times before actually being hauled out and buried. Each time Big Boy got visited by us, my pigs would gather, some would sniff and give a throat cluck as they were walking away. At first I thought they might have been getting sick as the motion they made with their mouth looked like they were about to vomit, but they just made this clucking noise. However, I never heard them make the noise outside of gathering around Big Boy, face down in the stump. When my buddy went to haul Big Boy out and bury him, my pigs did the same thing. Do you think they were acknowledging his death and doing some sort of eulogistic honoring? Have you heard this throat-borne clucking noise from your pigs?

    Also, did you see my last comment regarding the use of your “Cut Chart” to educate my customers and make it easier to fill out my cuts questionnaire?

    Thanks,

    Ben Wilke
    Strong Earth Farm
    Blacksburg, VA

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