Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Piggy Little

"Piggy Little" was the runt of the litter — about the same size as
our young farm kittens that liked a handout of fresh milk.

Over the past 44 years, my husband and I have had numerous baby calves in our house — newborns born in cold weather, needing to be warmed or thawed out, or sick calves that needed intensive care. One of our houseguests wasn’t a calf, however, but a baby pig.

When my husband Lynn and I were first married, we spent part of a year on a rented dairy farm in southern Idaho before we started buying our present cattle ranch. Along with our dairy cows on that farm, we raised a few pigs. One of the first things Lynn did, that March after we were married, was to build a nice pig house and pigpen, not far from the old barn we used for milking the cows.

We had two pregnant young sows that were due to have their babies that spring. This particular piglet that became such a memorable character in our lives was born on a cold morning, among a litter of 16 babies. The mama sow had only 12 nipples, so it was a pushing and shoving contest for the babies to find their dinner; some were always missing out because there weren’t enough “faucets” to go around.

Piggy Little was the runt. Being the smallest and weakest, he didn’t get anything to eat. When we checked on the newborn babies, he was cold and limp — and he already had pneumonia. A newborn pig that doesn’t get enough milk is likely to become sick and die, especially if he becomes chilled.

Lynn brought the limp little fellow into the house to try to warm him. I gave the tiny piglet a very small injection of antibiotic into his little rump, and then we put him into a shoebox and set it in the oven. I turned the oven on low heat (with the door left open), to try to warm him up.

We had to get some food into him, but we weren’t sure how to accomplish this task. His mouth was much too small for even a lamb nipple. Finally, we tried a doll’s baby bottle; it had a tiny nipple that actually worked. We filled the little bottle with warm milk, and I held the little pig in my arms like a baby and fed him the bottle. He had trouble swallowing, however, because his lungs and airways were so congested that he could hardly breathe. It’s difficult to breathe and swallow if you are fighting for every breath. So we rubbed some Vicks VapoRub on his chest, and that seemed to help him breathe a little easier.

We made him a snug bed in his shoebox, using soft fluffy rags. After he warmed up, we kept the shoebox under our kitchen table instead of in the oven. We weren’t sure if he would live through the night, but about 3 o’clock in the morning, we were awakened by his cries. I got up and fed him another doll’s baby bottle of warm milk. He was a little stronger and much hungrier. He slurped and smacked eagerly from the bottle as I held him; then I tucked him back in his box, with the old rags for covers.

During the next few days he became stronger and livelier and started climbing out of his shoebox. We had to put him in a larger cardboard box. Now he had room to patter around on his little pink hooves, coming back to his fluffy rag bed in the corner to curl up and sleep whenever he got tired.

One of the first things Lynn did that spring was build a pig house and pigpen,
in preparation for the expected piglets

In a few more days he got over the pneumonia and was healthy again, so we put him back outside in the pigpen with his mother and all his brothers and sisters. They were still a lot bigger than he was, and Piggy Little wasn’t sure he liked this idea. But we snuggled him in amongst them and found him a nipple, and he started sucking happily.

He crawled out underneath the boards of the pen so he could follow us to the barn.

The next morning we went to the barn as usual to do morning chores — milking the cows and feeding the calves their bottles. We hadn’t been in the barn very long when I heard a plaintive “oink, oink” right outside the barn door. When I looked out the open top of the door, I saw Piggy Little standing there, looking up at me expectantly. He’d apparently seen us when we walked out to the barn, so he crawled under the side of the pigpen to follow us. He was the only piglet small enough to wriggle under the board fence. He wanted his baby bottle! He must not have been getting enough milk from his mama, with all those greedy big brothers and sisters jostling him away from the faucets; he wanted us to feed him.

Piggy Little (the small pig on the right) was still smaller than his sisters and brothers,
who learned how to crawl out under the pen, too

I picked him up and carried him to the house to warm up some milk for the little bottle, which he slurped eagerly. Then I took him back to the pigpen. After that, however, he came and went whenever he pleased, crawling out of the pen very often and trotting to the back door of our house.

I usually fed the barn cats some milk in a saucer on the back porch every time I brought back some “house milk” after we milked the cows. The old mama cat had several half-grown kittens, and they all liked to come for the handout at chore time.

About the third time Piggy Little trotted to the back door, I was feeding the cats their milk. He barged right up to the saucer among all the cats and stuck his little nose into the warm milk to slurp up his share.

Piggy Little drinking milk with one of the cats, right outside the pigpen.

The old mama cat backed up and gave him an angry look, then hauled off and biffed this impolite intruder with her paw. A baby pig is small but very solid and heavy, compared to a cat. He was about the same size as the mama cat but probably weighed twice as much. He didn’t even blink or budge when she cuffed him.

The cats weren't sure what to think about a pig that came to join them at their milk dish.

That surprised the cat, and she took another look at him — reevaluating her opinion of this rude pig. Then she decided that if he wanted to stay and share the milk, it was all right with her. She cautiously sidled back up to the saucer alongside him and started lapping. After that, the cats and the baby pig always drank amicably together.

Piggy Little was a smart little character and more a pet than a pig. Even when he grew bigger, he still managed to crawl out from under the boards of the pigpen and trot to the back door, where he’d oink and tap on the door with a front foot until someone opened it to let him in. Then he’d march straight to the refrigerator in the kitchen, with his little hooves making clickety-clack noises on the linoleum floor and his little pink ears flopping. There he would beg at the refrigerator until someone poured him a saucer of milk.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.


Kristy Rustay said...

What a great story! Your experiences on your ranch and about your animals are so wonderful and touching — I love them. Keep the posts coming!

Teresa said...

I love your stories about times on the ranch and I especially love that they come with photos! Thanks so much for sharing!

Melanie Jolicoeur said...

I want a piggy little!