Death on the Farm

One Little Piggy on Our Farm Didn’t Make It.

This is not a defense of Confinement Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) also known as Factory Farms. On a blog I like and others around the web they’re making sensationalist posts along the lines of linking CAFOs to the A/H1N1 flu. At this point there doesn’t appear to be any link, people are giving it to people and the only known cases of pigs getting it involves them getting it from people. Whether there is a link or not it would be best to stick with facts rather than sensationalist reporting based on emotion. I do not usually reply to other blogs but the disinformation is too intense. The following is in response to a series of photos that are being used to misrepresent.

20100211 Update:As usual, time brought forth truth. Humans were the source of this round of pandemic, transmitting to other humans around the world and occasionally to a few pigs, chickens, turkeys, dogs and cats. Our governments inspired great fear mongering. Lobbyists got rich. Pharmaceutical companies made fortunes, rushed vaccines to the market without sufficient testing and had to recall millions of doses. The CDC said it doesn’t matter. Fortunately this time we appear to have dodged the bullet and A/H1N1 did not kill off a large percentage of humanity or anything else.

The blog in question with the photos is sensationalism. They provide some out of context photos with erroneous titles and text to shock people. Let’s take a look behind the obvious shock value…

(I don’t post the photos because they are not mine – you can see them at the link above if you like.)

The broken pipe is literally nothing. The entire pipe leads out into, not a lake, but a waste lagoon. The idea is to put the fluid waste material into the lagoon and water evaporates so it condenses and can be managed better. (I won’t argue here about the toxic sludge of antibiotics in CAFO waste – we all know that.) The pipe is disconnected at one point but the disconnect is out over the lagoon so it is still dumping in the lagoon. Calling that a lake is simply more sensationalism – it is a waste lagoon just like used by cities to handle their waste. Nothing to see there folks, let’s move on.

Barrels full of bacteria? Huh? What I see in that fuzzy photo is a crushed soda bottle along the concrete block wall which gives size reference. Perhaps he had another distorted grainy photo he meant to use but that is a pretty clear photograph of a pop bottle despite the blow up – Sprite perhaps? Maybe he meant barrels we can’t see. Well, then why the photo of the soda bottle? Speaking of bacteria, I hope everyone does realize that good bacteria are a vital part of breaking down materials, like in compost, into nutrients that plants can use? That photo was pure emotional sensationalism. I’m not impressed. Next slide please.

Three(?) dead pigs in a pile waiting to be moved. In a CAFO of 1,000,000 pigs a year this isn’t shocking. Some pigs will die every day and need to be removed from the pens. Nothing wrong. We’re looking for some thing really bad, not merely a little gross.

Eleven(?) dead pigs being moved on hand cart. Well, you need to move them somehow. Is this the process of collecting the three above and some others? Looks like their on their way to composting or methane digestion. Yes, it is grosses if all you’ve ever dealt with is ‘clean’ cities but there’s a misnomer if there ever was one. Again, nothing wrong.

A few dead pigs in the methane digester. Well, yes, of course, that’s the responsible place to put the dead, in a compost pile or methane digester. Better than feeding them to the public or pets like they do with downers. Again, nothing wrong. Let’s move along.

Dead pig out in the lagoon. Yeah, that one stinks, literally. These things happen though. So the company produces 1 million pigs a year and the photographer managed to find that dead pig out of place. Kind of hard to tell it is a pig. I wouldn’t have guessed from the photo but I’ll believe the blogger. Yet, what is the “dead pig” doing there in the waste lagoon? Decomposing perhaps? Yup. Not really that big a deal. Of course, it should be in the compost pile or in the methane digester. Perhaps the photographer was helpful and went and reported it to management so they could properly take care of the situation.

So, of all those photos nothing was actually wrong except maybe one pig in the wrong place. Out of a million pigs there are going to be a few dead ones. This is reality, not Disney Land. This is not Park Place or Boardwalk. The numbers don’t impress me. This winter we lost five of our sows. They were old. They had begun as a group, were all the same age and all died the same year. No surprises there. Others from that same age cohort are still alive but getting on in years. Death happens whether I like it or not. I composted their bodies with fitting ritual – pigs are Mudamists – They return to the Earth from whence we all came. Dust to dust and all that good organic stuff. The compost will fertilize fruit trees I will plant. The cycle of life continues.

We raise 200 pigs on our small pasture based farm – Five sows died. At the Smithfield plant in Mexico they raise 1,000,000 pigs a year. If the ratio held true and they were doing as well as a small farm we all say we want emulated then they would have 25,000 pig deaths a year. Yowsa! That puts the numbers in perspective. There were only a few dead pigs in those photos, not 25,000 dead pigs. Remember, they’re producing about a million hogs a year. That’s a major city. That’s almost twice the population of our entire state. Even if you divided 25,000 by 365 days in a year you’re still talking 68 dead pigs a day. There weren’t 68 pigs in the photos so it wasn’t a day’s worth by the math. I count maybe a maximum of 20 pigs in all of those photos, maybe even half that. Your count may vary, slightly, but not by much. It is hard to tell if perhaps some of those photos might be multiple shots of the same pigs which would reduce the count. In any case, we’re not talking a 3 fold or order of magnitude difference so it is moot.

There is death on the farm, be it a CAFO or a small farm, livestock, fruit or vegetables. Even if you grow vegetable or grain crops you kill large numbers of insects, worms, snakes, rabbits, birds, mice, deer and other animals when you plow, till, harvest and otherwise work the soil. If you raise livestock there will be some who will die – not 100% are going to make it to the plate. The bodies should ideally be composted to return the nutrients to the soil. A methane digester is an alternative some places now also use to generate electricity and gas to produce their own energy. This is well and good.

The big thing that this whole episode emphasizes is that it is important to look critically, to question, to understand the evidence being presented. Someone posted a series of “Shocking Photos” but when I look carefully at the photos and run the numbers it really isn’t nearly as bad as they are making it out to be. Instead it was simple sensationalism like we see in the tabloids. Bah.

By now perhaps you think I’m here to defend Big Ag. I’m not. I’m defending rationality. I’m trying to put some perspective on this, especially for city folk who deal with death in shrink wrapped packages under bright florescent lighting. In the city one has the paramedics, hospital and undertaker to handle death. On the farm its all done by the farmer. I am not defending CAFOs in the slightest – I do not like factory farms at all. I am not defending their pollution of the water supply, the air, the horrible way that they raise animals, their worker conditions or anything they do. But let’s do accurate reporting rather than sensationalism. Sensationalistic articles like the ones I cited at the top just cause a loss of credibility and lose the focus on what really matters. Focus, focus, focus.

So, what can you do? Don’t support factory farming. As much as you can avoid buying food that came from Big Ag be it vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat or grains. Buy locally. Support your local economy, your neighbors. Make a little difference every day.

Outdoors: 63°F/38°F Sunny
Farm House: 50°F/49°F
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/61°F Torn weaned Friday

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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26 Responses to Death on the Farm

  1. ChristyACB says:

    Oh, that poor sad departed piggie on your front photo is just so pathetic…really.

  2. It is very sad. We hate to lose any lives. Pigs have such large litters that not all are viable. Sometimes a piglet is still born. Sometimes they die soon after birth. In a case like this it was alive at birth but died shortly after. My guess is that the umbilical cord kept it alive but once it no longer had the life support system of the mother through the placenta it was not able to breath or something like that. Perhaps the circulatory system to the lungs was not quite right. It appeared to breath, walked momentarily but then died.

    Out of the 18 piglets Blackie had in this latest litter, one was this one who born alive and died quickly, one was still born and one was very weak dying within the first 24 hours. The other 15 are doing great. They were my planned post for today but once again got bumped forward, again.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for posting the story of the piglet in the photo. I was very curious. I realize it isn’t related to the longer topic but I wanted to know the story of it

  4. Funder says:

    I’m mildly surprised to hear that you keep sows til they die of “old age.” Many small farmers who raise chickens seem to slaughter the layers when they get too old to keep producing. Do you ever slaughter the old sows when they don’t get pregnant? (Sorry, I don’t know the pig word – settle?) Or do they “retire” with you?

    Part of me feels like anything that exposes the horrible lives of CAFO animals is a good thing, but part of me knows this can backlash on small farmers too. :-/

  5. Okay, I give up, what’s a Mudamist?

    Non-agrarian people seem to expect farmers to be all busted up when an animal dies. Even the passing of one of our original goats is nothing compared to the death of an actual pet. It’s the core life lesson on a farm – everything dies at some point. The trick is getting the most out of the living years.

  6. Most of the sows, the best ones, stay with us until they naturally die of old age. Once a gilt (young female who has never given birth) becomes a sow (female pig who has given birth) they will generally “settle” or “take” again rather than staying “open”. And once a good sow they tend to stay that way.

    However, that is not to say every new sow makes a good mother. We had one sow, Coal, out of Blackie, who I had high hopes for as both her mother and her non-litter sister Jill are excellent sows. Like them Coal was gentle, had fine conformation, did well in our winters and was an all around excellent gilt. Unfortunately she did not produce milk or mother her piglets. They all died as a result since there were no other sows farrowing then like Jolie had adopted piglets last year. After much debate I ended up taking Coal to the butcher.

    The biggest reasons I cull a sow is that she is not as good as another upcoming sow, she shows some fault that was not apparent earlier or her piglets demonstrate that she is carrying a recessive gene that represents a problem such as a propensity to prolapse or hernias. That might sound harsh but the reality is we can only support a certain maximum number of animals here on the farm. With each generation we breed the best of the best and eat the rest. In doing so our herd gradually evolves and improves over time – selecting the fittest just like Mother Nature does.

    Like you I have the go for the throat feeling about the CAFOs but if we don’t hold true to what is real we could lose more important things.

    • Sean Govan says:

      So I’m assuming your sows stay productive until they die of old age then? Do they taper off at all before the end? How old was your oldest sow? What’s the average age at which senescence kills them? So curious.

      • A sow will lose fertility occasionally just randomly. Usually though as she gets old she tapers off her piglet count, four, three, two, one and then there were none. Or something like that. However, most sows are not around that long. Usually what happens is someone younger, prettier, more productive and more modern out-classes the older least sow in the herd and then the upstart takes the older sow’s place. Since I don’t want an infinite number of sows that means the lowest performing sows get culled. This advances the genetics of the herds.

  7. Funder says:

    Very interesting, thanks!

    (I had local bacon as part of dinner! Yay for finding local pork!)

  8. Mudamist believe in the powers of the mud. There is a funny story about pig belief systems that I need to tell someday. B.F. Skinner would be proud – a regular chicken dance.

  9. Heidi says:

    It always amazes me that farmers must ‘remove’ dead animals within 3 days of death – yet dead deer can lay on the side of the road for WEEKS!!! with people passing by, car windows up or kids on bikes, walking..
    Loss is part of life, it reminds us to be thankful to have life…

  10. David says:

    Walter another great post. Thank you. Your grounded realism is what keeps me coming back over and over.

  11. Glad to see someone else looking beneath all the sensationalist hoopla coming out in droves lately.

    God bless.

    William Cross

  12. Anonymous says:

    Reading the other blog’s comments is upseting to say the least. I wonder how many of those people speak out as strongly for the choose life campaign. Erik

  13. Janet says:

    Walter you are famous again! Time Magazine this time!

  14. Anonymous says:

    I dont want to seem callous but there are hundreds of MURDERS a DAY in the cities — our equiv of factory farms for humans. There are like three million deaths in the US of A alone a year. Eleven pigs on a big farm like that out of so many is not all that surprising. Death is a part of life. Just that way. Glad you exposed the expose. As you said it is tabloid material and there is not anything really wrong in those photos. Yet — I still hate factory farming. That doesnt change

  15. janicet says:

    it is a amazing how people will warp stories like this to fit their agendas. there is a blog americasmeixco where some idiot is making a big deal that 56% of the victims of h1n1 flue are female so obviously it is a womens issue. well, like DUH! of course! 56% of the population is women! that means it is an exact parity and not a womens issue or a mens issue or anything like that. people like her just want to abuse anything to prove their points. same as the usdauh is now going to do with h1n1 to get NAIS.

  16. Karen B in northern Idaho says:

    I am slowly working my way through your blog from the beginning, though I am not reading everything — I’m concentrating on the animal posts. I am curious how you and your family got started on this farm, and how you got started with the pigs, and how it evolved to where you were able to market as many as your sows will have :-) For instance did you get all your stock from local breeders, and how did you arrive at your Yorkshire mixes being the best (cross)breed to have.

    The 4-H breeders near me got started because they had kids in 4-H and the local pig stock was so poor they ended up breeding just to get good stock for their own kids to have for fair. They travelled to WSU and OSU for their breeding stock and what they have is about 3/4 Yorkshire and 1/4 Hampshire — the pigs are almost all white with a few small black splotches. They don’t pasture theirs but have large paddocks with low permanent shelters.

  17. Good question, Karen. Basically necessity is the mother of invention. This is deserving of it’s own post. I’ll write more soon.

  18. jojo says:

    As always Walter you’re the bomb! best writing, clear and always fair. Even if i don’t like to hear the “other” side. You are a voice of reason. And i do hope everyone stops sensationalizing but then again, sensationalism sells.

  19. Diane says:

    Just came across this site
    Thank you Walter

    I was looking up Jewel Weed, and somehow there you where

    I as well am going to take some time and read more of what you have to say.

  20. Eric Hagen says:

    I just read this post for the first time, it’s one of my favorites. I’d put it among the best of the best. Distorting reality to further an agenda only gives reason to dismiss the cause, I appreciate your aversion to sensationalism.

  21. Johan van der Merwe says:

    Hallo Walter
    I had 3 grower pigs died on me in the lasts 4 months. They just die suddenly, no signs of illness, loss of appitite etc. They all died where they normally sleep in the field.I have check them for snakebytes, open one up but could not see anything. What to you do in your post mortem finding a dead pig?

    • I examine them and the surroundings to look for clues and sometimes perform a necropsy, examining the skin, gums, eyes, muscle bisection of hams, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and digestive tract. Sometimes I find answers, sometimes not.

  22. Farmerbob1 says:

    Good article, Walter.

    Looks like an extra carriage return found it’s way in during translation from the old blog:

    “paramedics, hospital
    and undertaker to handle death.”

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