Monday, January 6, 2014

The bushel basket

I agree it is a sad fact that our pigs are no longer with us, but I write this post for edification, for others who might have to corral their swine into a vehicle of sorts to transport them to their final destination.

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We read in several reliable sources, and listened to the sage advice of experienced livestock farmers, to leave double the time you would expect to load your pigs. So with an 8am appointment at Hilltown Pork on January 2nd, we spent the evening of our first day of 2014 hanging out in the woods with our two 6-month-old, 300-pound pigs. After rigging up a truck+cap (forgoing the trailer since a snowstorm was predicted for transport-time), we collected our most delicious compost buckets ever to entice the pigs into the truck’s bed. Just Jason and I, we did manage to get our heavier, greedier, not-as-smart pig to follow the slop bucket and Jason into the bed, chowing down on some beef liver that yours truly cooked up just for the occasion. But then, the not-as-smart farmers lost it all when our second pig squealed, freaked out by the sight of the confined space, sensing what was to come, signaling to the other one to break free. And that’s what they did. Broke free. Around 5pm, in the last of the daylight, into the woods, with the electric fence down, and two tired, broken-down farmers silently watching them graze the new ground they found themselves on. What could we do?

We let them go to bed in their pig hut. That’s what they wanted after all, it was bedtime.

Getting an appointment for slaughter was a difficult task. And the coming days of winter did not promise any easier moving opportunities, with snow cover to come, bad driving conditions, and frigid temperatures forecasted. We knew we had to get them into the truck and upstate on the morning of January 2nd. So we called three neighbors, who at 8pm that night, agreed to meet us in our fields at 7am the next morning.

I didn’t really sleep that night, having lost my dignity trying to move the pigs to no avail, despite being physically exhausted from the work of pushing such strong, heavy beasts, and running through how I thought the morning’s corral would go. We had the “V” all ready, the corralling boards made up nice with handles and everything, we re-read our reliable sources, called again our experienced farmer friend, and felt confident that using panels to calmly nudge the pigs to their destination and block their sideview so they could go nowhere but forward would take us 5 adults just a few tries, with assured success.

The pigs were still sleeping at 7:05, as daylight just broke. They usually sleep until 8 or 9, but Jason was sure they’d wake up with the second batch of delicious food scraps we brought up. And wake up they did, following him the 200 feet all the way to the narrow path we created that led to the truck after one final left turn at the big maple tree.

But that’s where it ended. The sight of the red truck sent one pig straight into the electric fence, rooting it up but being shocked as he did so. In five seconds, they were both free. Again. Into the woods, with the electric fence down, and five shocked people looking on. We thought we had had them. But my confidence sank after the previous night’s failure. We spent the next hour and a half using the “V”, our panel boards, long sticks, calm voices, patience, petting, prodding, tantalizing buckets of food slop, to lure them back our way. Maybe we’d get just one in again, and that would have been enough for me. Maybe we’d get none in and we’d have to seal the deal on our own farm in the coming days or weeks.

But thank god for youtube. (never though I’d say it…). Frank had done some research the previous night and told us about the bushel-basket-over-the-head trick: when a pig’s head is covered, he wants nothing else but to back out of that bucket. And if you have someone daring enough to keep that bucket on, and another person daring enough to steer the pig backwards by the tail, you might just get your pig to where you want it to go.

So we did. In 2 minutes, Frank and Jason got our big one backed up 200 feet into the truck, taking it but 3 seconds after we slammed the bed door shut to find some more food we left for it to settle down and munch. But could we really get the second? Could we time the door drop perfectly, without scaring the captured one to break free?

Yes, we could. Frank and Jason got the smaller but smarter one backed up 195 feet to the edge of the truck door, Luke and I dropped the bed door and raised the paneling, the pig’s foot slipped under the door and down the stone wall it was propped up on, and Frank and Jason bench-pressed that 300-pound pig into the bed as we slammed that door fast. Pig is magnificently strong, but man can be surprisingly stronger.

Then we were off for upstate. I’ll spare you the rest of the story of the treacherous road conditions and slaughterhouse arrival. But I’ll tell you… throwing food scraps into the “pig bucket” just isn’t the same now.

Lessons learned:
(1)   When corralling your pigs, if you must: listen to the old-time farmer who swears by his bushel baskets.
(2)   You must: learn to do it all yourself, for the honor of eating your meat. Next year on Longhaul… raise, thank, slaughter, butcher, eat.

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