Berkshire and Mangalitsa sows are farrowing on the farm right now. This is a big deal, because it is cold here - 21F (or -6C).
The Mangalitsa sows are supposed to do fine, even in the cold, as long as they have some basic shelter. Humans don't need to attend the birth and help them or their piglets - given the minimum, they should survive.
The Berkshire sows on the farm are much worse mothers. This is apparent in multiple ways:
- They farrow in bad places - e.g. in the open, where their piglets freeze.
- They are indifferent to their squealing piglets, so they let their piglets get hurt.
- They don't keep their piglets out of trouble.
- They are more likely to attack their piglets.
The behavior of the bad mothers is very hard on Gary, the herdsman: one Berkshire sow attacked her piglets whenever they got near her food. She'd pick them up and throw them, maiming or killing them. Another Berkshire sow farrows out in the open, where her piglets get crushed or eaten by other pigs, or just die of exposure. Another crushes them, ignoring their screams of distress. This is simply terrible to witness.
All of that brings up the interesting question - what is more humane, using crates, or not? Is it inhumane to use crates on the sow, or is it inhumane not to use them, and have a large number of piglets die because of it? It is very easy to say gestation crates are inhumane, until you need to dispose of lots of dead piglets. Guys who use crates will tell you that if you let the sow out of the crate, she'll just go back in it, because she's used to it and considers it her spot. Dogs can have the same relationship to their kennel. It isn't really clear how miserable a sow in a crate is or isn't.
The Mangalitsa pigs are completely different from the Berkshire sows - just give them a hut with straw away from the other pigs, and they'll give birth. They won't crush their piglets or farrow them out in the open.
The downside is that if a piglet squeals in distress, sows get upset and bite. It happens very quickly - it is an instinct.
That means that you can't "process" the piglets (e.g. ear notch, castrate, deworm) with sows around. For example:
- Gary, the herdsman, tried picking up a piglet that had a bump on its head. The piglet squealed, so sow #5 ran up behind Gary and bit him in the thigh, twice. She ripped his jeans, tore his skin and gave him a massive bruise. I tried to get between him and the sow with a hog panel, but it didn't work. He was sore for weeks and walked with a limp.
- In another instance, we were grabbing piglets to process them, so one squealed. Although his dam (mother) was confined, sow #17, in an adjacent pen, stuck her snout through the fence and bit the helper in the back of her knee. The helper wasn't even picking up a piglet - she just happened to be in the general area of a squealing piglet.
One interesting thing about the humane standards from groups like Certified Humane Raised & Handled is that they often require that piglets be sterilised in the first week of birth. Although that makes sense for pigs raised in confinement, that can't work for us, nor anyone else that lets the pigs farrow unattended in a big field or forest. Because if you have to go out to a sow and castrate her piglets in those first few days, you are probably going to get maimed. If the sow isn't confined, she will attack. You'll just get maimed, and no piglets will get castrated.
So if a farmer wants to have "Certified Humane Raised & Handled" stamped on his pig, he'll pretty much have to confine the pigs. Another thing about their standards: clipping the needle teeth is allowed, as is tail docking. So the humane producers can confine their pigs, cut their needle teeth and dock their tails and still be humane. Anyone who doesn't confine the pigs (like us) can't be humane without getting maimed.
The EU has similar standards about castrating piglets in the first week. Due to the Mangalitsa sow behavior, the farmers just castrate later and lie about it. They are all breaking the EU's animal cruelty laws, despite the fact that most people would consider their farms extremely good for the pigs.