Dumb Pig, Smart Pig


Pigs are not very smart, contrary to some urban mythology. Pigs have very tiny brains, about the size of a tea cup. They’re very good at being pigs, at their instinctual behavior, but they’re not intellectual giants. Their heads look big because they have so much muscle and bone. Their head is a great shovel designed for rooting. Rather, they’re thick between the ears. For a pig this is a good thing.

That said, we may have one pig who is a peg above the rest in the brains department. He can learn by watching the mistakes that other pigs make. That’s intelligence at some level.

Today we moved a group of grower pigs from one area to a new winter paddock. I dumped some food in the new space and they all came to me. Ben closed the gate. Easy as can be. The problem is the pigs have a strong homing instinct to return to their old space no matter how nice the new space is. Pigs will nose a gate and lift it up, unhinging it through instinctual rooting motions. They can even damage the fencing and gates, bending thick pipes with their powerful neck muscles. Pigs may not be the brightest bulbs but they are very strong.

To prevent the pigs from damaging the gate I put a single hot fence wire low along the bottom. This stops rooting behavior at the gate, prevents damage to the gate and keeps the pigs in their new area so they re-home. Electric fencing is extremely effective. A single thin wire keeps back 10,000 lbs of pork. If the wire is on their side of a physical barrier, even a weak one, it is particularly effective.

Once the fence is setup the pigs have to test it for themselves before they understand. Some will even test it several times – slow learners. However there is a large red grower boar who watched the first pig test the fence. YOWSA! And watched the second pig test the fence! MAMA-MIA! And watched the third pig test the fence. @#$*&#@#! And watched the fourth pig test the fence – who uttered something totally unprintable. The red boar then looked at the fence wire and started shaking. He understood without needing to get shocked. He then walked away from the fence and resumed eating.

The fact that he was able to learn from the experience of others demonstrates he’s smarter than the average pig. Most pigs have to hit the fence, some multiple times, before they learn their lesson. I never did see him hit the fence. Zero failure training. That’s smart.

In a few days the pigs will be re-homed to their new space and the hot wire will no longer be as necessary. At that point they’ll be happy to stay in their new digs with the spacious greenhouse. Of interest is I only need a hot wire on the side of the gate that keeps them from returning. I don’t have to string a hot wire on the other areas. That is to say, there are pigs who came into that space that these pigs vacated. The new pigs have no interest in going forward through the cycle, only back towards where they came. This is homing instinct. It is quite useful in managing the pigs. Messenger pigs anyone?

The dog in the photo at the top is Remus looking over his domain. Remus is not a pig. Remus is more intelligent and smarter than any of the pigs, more than even the best pig like the red boar. He is their guardian and herder. Remus, Hanno and Kavi all helped with moving the pigs around the rotation. Dogs rule.

Also see:
Pigs Fixing Fences
More Fencing
Fence Lines 2
Poultry Netting for Pigs
Moving Pigs With Fence Panels
Calibrating Pain
Dumb Pig, Smart Pig
Pig Trap
Fence Jumpers

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About Walter Jeffries

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11 Responses to Dumb Pig, Smart Pig

  1. Richard Whiteman says:

    I grew up on a farm and know how strong hogs can be. I remember our duroc sow going to the back of the 56 Chevy pickup and using that shovel head of hers to pick up the back of the truck! She didn’t pick up the back end like one could imagine a strong man on television do, but she moved the back end two inches upward fast as lightning! I think of a hog as an organic lever with the fulcrum being those two front legs!

    Walt, you don’t know how much I appreciate your website. After a long day of dealing with pathological bosses, you are a refreshing read:)

  2. Joe says:

    Aye, They’re not very smart but can lift heavy things….I know people like that and want them on my team.

  3. Brian Martin says:

    I learned early on that Pigs can learn about death. One of the first times I slaughtered I planed on doing three pigs that day. I had all 3 in the location of the slaughter. The first went fine the second and third, well they turned their head to the wall and wouldn’t look at me for love nor money. So from that day forth I never did more than one at a time.

    • Perhaps it was not death they learned but dismemberment that bothered them. Our experience is that pig’s don’t care about seeing another pig killed. The scientific research backs this up with pigs and other species. What they write is that it is when the head is removed from the body that the animals associate it with being disturbing. I have watched in slaughterhouses where sheep, goats and pigs saw others being slaughtered. The livestock showed no signs of distress about it. The gutting and disassembly, e.g., head removal, were happening further away.

      The actual killing is only thought of as sleep. So it might have been that your pigs were more impressed with your butchering and that is what got across to them. It is possible too that it was at that point they realized you are a predator. Predation is something they live with in nature and of which they are are rightly respectful. The whole joke about, “I don’t have to run faster than the bear, I just have to outrun you.”

      That said, there is no harm in having a system setup where the animal who is being stunned, killed, bled and gutted is away from the other animal’s sight. If that lowers their stress levels then that is both more humane and more conducive of producing better quality meat since they won’t release the stress chemicals in their blood which can taint the flavor of the meat, change the pH, etc.

      In our abattoir the animals will come in from the lairage (holding area) into the stun chute and be stunned there. Then they’ll move out through bleeding (which does the actual kill while they’re stunned) and then gutting. All of this is out of sight of the live stock. This solves this issue and improves sanitation.

  4. Jeff Marchand says:

    I often wonder what would happen if we selected animals for their intelligence. Only breed the smartest boars to the smartest sow for hundreds or thousands of generations. I think that would be a terrible idea. We might find ourselves on the menu!

    • We are actually a bit careful of this. We purposefully do not choose high intelligence as one of our breeding criterial. Nor do we choose the stupidest either. On the one hand we want animals that are smart enough not to get in dumb trouble yet on the other hand they are not smart enough to be trouble. It is a balance.

      Ducks and chickens are very low on the intelligence scale. Sheep I find to be too dumb, at least the ones we’ve had. Mostly the little intelligence they have is masked by their fears. This can cause them to do dumb things like charging through a fence that hurts them. This can happen in people too. The pigs in general are a good median that makes them work well in our grazing management.

      The dogs we breed for intelligence – they need to be able to manage the farm. Of course, with every species there will be a range around the norm. Fortunately, I’m not looking for a challenging game of chess with my bacon. :)

  5. Gina says:

    I have always considered my pigs to have their own distinct intelligence. Certainly not genious, but I find them to be far from “dumb sheep.” My previous boar would encourage his girls to test the fence every spring when the snow was low enough so we could let them out of the hog panels. We would watch him stand by the fence and talk to his girls. He seemed to be convincing them that they had to test the fence to make sure it was still on. It was quite funny because he would never touch it, but both of his girls would with his urging. One time when the girls and a grower got out and ran down the driveway he stood in front of the barn until I noticed him. I ran over to urge him back into his pen and he looked at me and then looked down the driveway grunting urgently. I told him to stay and ran down the driveway after the girls and grower. It’s 1400 feet long and I’m no runner, but by the time I got within earshot of them with the wind blowing my yells back at me they were within 100 ft of the road. When they finally heard me they stopped and looked around. When they turned and saw that it was me they walked back towards me. I scolded them and told them they would have gotten themselves and their unborn babies killed out on the road and they needed to stay at the barn. They followed me home nosing at my hand for scratches, and when we got back to the barn Elmer the boar was back in the pen waiting for them. They never tried getting out again unless it was to get into the cow pasture to run around and chase the cows.

  6. Lorna D. says:

    Love your articles.

  7. Erika says:

    I like to say pigs are socially intelligent, not intellectually. They have very strong social skills and can learn quickly whos boss and how to act around people and other animals. My pigs like to follow me through the woods on walks, and sometimes we curl up under a tree and take a nap together. Socially intelligent and pleasant. People often confuse this will intellectual intelligence. I find when my pigs arn’t bred they’ve got more going on in their noggin, but sows get “pregnancy brain” real bad.

    I had one who was very much my friend and one time i went picking wild violets and the pigs followed assuming i knew some good digs, they foraged with me trashing all the flowers…i let them move ahead and picked what they hadn’t destroyed. Suddenly I felt a tug on my pants and turned around to see Peppercorn motioning for me to not fall behind and come back with the group. I thought she was smart for a pig. Now shes pregnant and is she ever spacey. Sometimes she walks to one side of the pasture, looks around like she forgot what she was doing and just stares. Its like her IQ has been halved.

    But when you have the strength of Atlas, why would you need much in the way of brains? Its only for us weak humans that high functioning brains are necessary.

  8. Dawn Carroll says:

    I too have New Zealand hot fencing for the pigs…6 strands the bottom wire is hot the next wire is cold for grounding and so on to the top. I originally set the fencing up for horses so I had a solid post every 100 feet and fiberglass post every 25 feet (that were not driven into the ground to maintain spacing of the wire. I set the fence up this way for horses so that if they got into the wire they would come out of it without a mark because the fence had ‘give’. One has to use the springs along with the ratchets to get this virtually maintenance free fence.
    But I had one set of pigs (about 6 of them) on pasture that would stand and stare at that fence grunting & squealing. They would reach a certain pitch and then they would all charge the fence and go under at the same time. I guess the grass to them was greener on the other side of the fence.
    It was like they were gathering up the courage to breach the fence. That set of pigs has been the only bunch who has ever challenged the fences. None of the other pigs wanted to join in with this group either. Most of them even if the fence wasn’t on would never challenge the wire for fear of getting shocked.

    • For years we’ve used a mix of netting, polywire and our favorite, the high tensile wire. This year we’re in the process of replacing a lot of the old weaker fences with the high tensile wire. For the bottom two feet we’re doing a tight hard netting. This helps deal with newborn piglets wandering down the mountain away from the nest and weed load on the fences. A disconnect-able hot wire at the bottom offset from the hard netting keeps pigs from pushing it. The net acts as a physical barrier to make sure they learn the fence when small.

      We power out along the top wire. The net is neutral ground like your alternate wires. We too use the springs and ratchets. They’re really nice. I’ve used them for about 20(?) years in some areas and it is nice to be finally getting them into the rest of the fences. Within three or four years we should have all 70 acres re-fenced. You can see a little of this in the post North Home Field Sow and Piglets.

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