Friday, December 13, 2013

Humans Are Animals Too...Remember?

After feeling pretty combative today (the machine I need to run my samples is broken...which means all of my samples will NOT be run before I head home to take care of my family), I remembered a video I took a couple of months ago when I moved my recent piglets from the farrowing room into the nursery but never did anything with. 

You see...there's a dark side to pigs. And I don't mean in that the farmer abuses them, being raised inside makes them mean and angry and unnatural and mutated way. The dark side is that pigs can be pretty darn aggressive. Not necessarily to humans...although I did have one massive Duroc boar that absolutely hated me for some reason. No, they can be very aggressive with each other

Surprised? If you think about it, you shouldn't be! 

All animal societies require pecking orders. Somebody has to be at the top which means somebody has to be on the bottom. If you have watched enough National Geographic or Animal Planet you can easily see that the animal kingdom likes to fight dominance out. And in case you forgot, humans are technically Primates. And we really aren't so different in fighting for dominance, it just doesn't always involve fist-fights these days

So why do I say there is a dark side to pigs?

Well because that fight for dominance can end up in death for one or both (sometimes more than 2 are involved) of the pigs involved in the main fight. If two pigs just won't give up they can die from injuries sustained during the fight or simply die from exhaustion and stress. 

When do pigs fight?

The main reason pig fights break out are when groups of pigs are trying to establish a pecking order. Somebody has to be the Boss, whether it's a Boss Sow or simply Boss of the Pen. This tends to happen when pigs are mixed.

Mixed? Here are some examples:

1. You have a pen of sows and you need to introduce some recently weaned sows into the pen as well. 
        Things to consider:
            -Are the sows you are introducing a similar size and age of the sows already in the pen?
            -Are any of the sows being introduced INTO the pen or already IN the pen particularly moody or                   combative?
            -Do you have enough space to make sure there are areas for the loser sows to go hang out and stay                  away from the grumpy sows?
            -Will there be enough feeding space to make sure the bottom of the pecking order gets enough to                    eat without the Boss Sow eating her share as well?

2. You recently weaned multiple litters of piglets and must move them into the nursery pens. Most often it is impossible to leave only litter mates with litter mates as pens are usually large enough to house several litters at once (remember the national average is about 10 pigs per litter). They must now establish a pecking order. 
             Things to consider:
                 -Size of pigs
                 -Size of pen
                 -Feed and Water access

3.  When boars (uncastrated males) get together. Boars are probably the strangest creatures in the world. It's like testosterone poisoning ruins their brains (sounds familiar...it's not surprising that humans and pigs are so very similar). If they are raised together and kept together forever then there are usually few problems. But if you take a boar out of his home pen to go breed sows and forget to put him back for a couple of days then you might as well forget putting him back ever. Because as soon as you put him back, it will be WAR. Big Angry (sometimes Tusk Wearing) Boars fighting each other? Definitely not something you want to ever witness or have to break up. The one time I had to do it (boar got out of his pen, then lifted the hinges on another boar's pen to fight) I thought I was going to get killed, but I couldn't let them kill each other. Even though they were bound and determined to do it. 

The most important thing to remember when mixing pigs? Never, ever, ever mix just 1 pig into a new pen (unless it's a 2 pig pen or there is absolutely no other choice). Mixing multiple new faces into a pen keeps the resident pigs from beating up on only one pig. 

When I am asked questions about pig behavior, I tend to compare pigs to the guy who wants to fight everybody after he drinks a little too much whiskey. Most of the time they are pretty calm, OK relatively calm, friendly, inquisitive (yum your boots and calves taste yummy) creatures, but everybody has bad days right?

Wanting to fight is the reason why there are guys running around with boards in the middle of pig show rings, because if two pigs want to get together and fight, a quick board between them and pushing them in separate directions is the best way to redirect their attention. 

I love pigs, I really do, but they are not always as cute and cuddly as people like to believe. Understanding they aren't as cute and cuddly as you believe can help you understand why pork producers handle pigs in the manners that they do. Because ultimately we want pigs and people to be as safe as possible.

NOW, the video I took is of the 2nd situation, when I had to wean pigs and ended up mixing pigs from a couple different litters together. Why didn't I make the fighting stop? I monitored the situation to make sure that it wasn't getting too out of hand (at which point I would have separated the combatants, i.e. moved EITHER the aggressor OR the aggressee into a different pen) but otherwise pigs have to develop a pecking order and too much interference from me would not do much good. By the next day, this pen was a little scratched up from the fighting but settled into months of happy cohabitation otherwise. 

Keep in mind this post has not been an entirely comprehensive explanation of behavior in pigs, but has merely been designed to show you a pig behavior that is not witnessed much outside of pork production (since most people are 3+ generations removed from farming) and to give you an idea of how complex taking care of livestock can actually be. It can often be a series of tough choices. Which pigs can I mix? Where can I move them if the sow at the bottom of a pecking order in a pen is in danger of malnutrition or has injuries from the Boss Sow beating her up/eating all of her food? What is best for the health and happiness of the animals? Do I have enough space to separate problem pigs or do I need to remove them from the barn altogether? The list of questions and balancing acts is endless. But at the end of the day, their health and happiness is the most important thing of all. 

If you have any questions/concerns, please contact me and I will be happy to discuss this further! 



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