Sorting & Driving Pigs

Ben and Will Driving Pigs

Each week we call pigs down from the mountain pastures to sort, select, redistribute and take to market. I use my magic wand, waving it above the herd and then spray paint their backs with Halloween air spray to indicate who is pregnant in late gestation with an “O”, to be saved back “X” or to be considered for market “/”. It is like a game of Tic-Tac-Toe with a board consisting of hundreds of pigs.

The late gestation sows (“O”) from the main herd get moved into the gestation fields where they’ll farrow and nurse their piglets for six to eight weeks.

The saved back pigs (“X”) are too small, breeder gilts and sows who are not yet in late gestation or breeder boars who are staying on the farm to do their job. Only the top 5% of gilts typically get a chance to become breeders and only about 0.5% of the boars will stay on. Your odds of staying on the farm are 10x better if you’re a lady.

This weekly sorting process gives me a chance to examine each pig, check how they are doing, look for any issues, talk to them, treat them and assess how the herds are. Since they’re normally out on our mountain pastures I may not see particular pigs in any day – they’re spread out over 70 acres of savanna style fields across our mountain. In fact, without this weekly sorting I might not see a pig for weeks.

The purpose of the symbols is so that all of us doing the herding can know how I’ve evaluated each pig. O’s to be sent to the closer pastures to farrow, X’s to be sent back to the mountain pastures to grow or mate, /’s to be moved forward towards the sorting and loading areas for the weekly trip to market. By having clear symbols on the pigs it is easy to know who to move, herd, sort and drop as we shift around 20,000 to 50,000 lbs of pigs.

To move the pigs, to sort them out and to shift the groups we use sorting boards[1, 2] made from plastic 65 gallon food grade drums. Flattened with flame and with handles cut in them they make easy walls that we can shift around to let a pig drop back or to move another onward in the direction we want.

Roughly the top 20 candidates out of the group of striped pigs (“/”) get herded to the sorting pen near our driveway where I examine them in more intimate detail. I check sizes, evaluate who I might want to keep back as a potential breeder, compare them with each other. At that point they either gain more stripes or an “X” that sends them back out to the fields to grow larger and possibly to win big, producing the next generation.

After winnowing the group down to about eight to ten finisher and roaster pigs we move them down the driveway to the loading pen where the van is parked with hay in it. The pigs rest there overnight and get to explore the back of our truck at their leisure. Sometimes they will have already loaded themselves when we come down early in the morning.

Finally, as early as 4 am, we drive pigs away, down the mountain and the three hours to the Adams Slaughterhouse in Athol, Mass. They’re very good at handling the animals and well worth the drive, skipping past closer processors.

We are now done construction with our own butcher shop for meat cutting and sausage making. This winter we’ll add the walk-in freezer, cooler, brine room and cave. Then we’ll be able to add smoking to our repertoire. Our kids are really looking forward to learning to smoke. What proud parent wouldn’t want their kids smoking bacon!?!

Later down the road we’ll finish off the abattoir portion of our on-farm USDA/State inspected meat processing facility, a.k.a. the butcher shop. When that happens we’ll no longer need to drive pigs three hours down to Mass. It’s a journey, both ways.

Some Related Reading:
One Day of Rotational Grazing
How Much Land Per Pig
Pasture Post Pig Grazing
InstaPigs and Animal Units
North Home Field Sow and Piglets
Sugar Mountain Farm Pigs: Feeding and Grazing
Vet Visit Field Tour
Painted Probed & Pierced Pigs
Sorting and Driving Pigs
Wild Farrowing – another view of the loading chute.

Outdoors: 79°F/53°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 69°F/65°F
Butcher Shop: 60°F iCutter Processign Room in Butcher Shop

Daily Spark: A “short period” is an interesting concept. A period is a dot. If it were any longer it would be a dash, a hyphen or an underscore. If it were any shorter it would be nonexistent.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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12 Responses to Sorting & Driving Pigs

  1. Matthew says:

    Walter what is the “Brine Room”?

    • Very good question! The brine room is a cooler room for brining, that is to say salting hams, bacon, sausages, hot dogs. It has no metal down low so they can’t rust, expand and damage the concrete. The reinforcing material is basalt mesh. The room will be chilled, basically a refrigerator, and is very tall so dry hams can be hung up high from the ceiling. It is setup so we can do both dry and wet salting. There is also a separate brine drain to allow us to keep brine water from entering the septic or compost fluid systems since the salt would harm the bacteria that aid in the digestion of waster materials in both of those fluid waste handling systems.

  2. Farmerbob1 says:

    Interesting, Walter.

    I have been misunderstanding something for a while now. I thought the butcher shop was going to come online with the facilities to both slaughter and butcher the pigs. It sounds like you will still be having the slaughter done elsewhere.

    Also, I noticed this. “clear symbols on the pig’s ”
    Got an extra ‘ in there.

    • That has always been the plan – to build out the butcher shop in phases. Butchering first since that is what costs us the most to have done hired. Then sausage which is our lecond largest cost. Then smoking which is our third largest cost.

      In fact, our wanting to do things in reasonable phases is one of the reasons banks wouldn’t give us a loan. They wanted it all built and operating in one huge leap. That’s too hard to do.

      The cottage was actually a prototype for the construction techniques and prior to that we did some other things that were similar. We do baby steps – things we accomplish in small bites and get right.

      Ironically, slaughter saves us the least at only $60/pig but the cost of construction for slaughter is the highest priced part of the project. When we get to doing that we still have $90K to $120K to spend to bring slaughter on-farm. Butchering on the other hand costs the least for construction but saves us the most per pig.

      Thanks for spotting that apostrophe disaster. Fixed!

  3. Julia says:

    pssst – it’s “nonexistent” usually, not “nonexistant”

    unless that’s some sort of punctuation related pun I am not getting!

  4. Nance says:

    You have come a long way! (dating myself, I wanted to say ‘you’ve come a long way, baby!’ from ‘the day’ . . . but thought that inappropriate.) Anyway, good job with the Shop, the Pigs and your great Family!

  5. Nance says:

    PS: I think I should be closing in on Pablo (is your comment counter not working? as I think I have been stuck on 265 for Quite a while.)

    • Hmm… Interesting. I’m not entirely sure. It’s a WordPress plugin and other than installing it there isn’t anything I do with it. Let’s see… The latest reload after your comment before shows 266 for you and should go up to 267 in a moment… Here’s the current count to compare with for checking if it’s working:

      Top Commenters
      pablo: 289
      Nance: 266
      David Lloyd Sutton: 181
      Donna OShaughnessy: 179
      karl: 175
      Farmerbob1: 167
      Mellifera: 143
      PV: 112
      Susan Lea: 105
      Patrick: 97
      Peter: 90
      Patti: 82
      ranch101: 68
      Jeff Marchand: 67
      Urban Agrarian: 66
      Melissa: 63
      Ryan: 63
      Teresa: 63
      David: 62
      Jessie: 58
      Sal: 55
      am in the pm: 54
      Evelyn: 52
      Eric Hagen: 52
      Anna: 51
      Mary Ricksen: 51
      Dawn Carroll: 50
      HomemakerAng: 48
      Lisa: 48
      Art Blomquist: 48
      P.V.: 47
      Brian: 47
      Gail in Montana: 47
      Emily: 44
      Leslie: 43

  6. SMF says:

    Farmerbob1 – I just wanted to clarify that, for the moment, we are going to continue to slaughter at Adams Farm in Athol, MA. Eventually, probably a couple of years down the road, the slaughter portion of the butcher shop will be complete and then we will also be slaughtering on farm.

  7. Hi Walter
    Yes, distance in the country can be vast…. esp. in places like russia, USA and australia. Driving for an hour is just getting into top gear, thats the nearest “city”, Town is 30 + minutes, Bigger city, two and a half hours. A REAL city is six hrs North and seven hours South…and thats in the populated bit…Go west of here and all hope of civilization is lost as the fuel bill rises and the speed increases into the open , flat vastness.
    Just sayin’

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