We knew the time was near, even though we didn’t know the date. Early Monday morning I turned out to do the chores while Cindy headed off to work. I started with the feeder pigs behind the equipment shed, then the chickens and finally off to see Snowflake. Her farrowing date was at hand. She had lost her entire litter the summer before. Was it to do with the heat or some other factor we had not determined? Ultimately we decided to give her another chance.
She had been showing a heavy belly for the past few weeks. But her appetite remained healthy. Sometime on Saturday she began gathering sticks and bringing them into her shelter to create an uncomfortable-looking nest. I removed the sticks and brought her more straw bedding, taking the time, as always, to pat her and chat for a few moments.
Strolling down into the woods, calling her name, I knew it had begun. No answering snorts to my call, her 350-plus-pound bulk nestled in the hay. I opened the gate. As I approached, Snowflake was on her side groaning, in heavy labor. One small and very active piglet dashed around her. I knelt down to examine her. No distress, so I rearranged the hay and went back to the house to work.
I checked on her every hour. By eleven o’clock in the morning, no additional piglets had been born. A hasty call to Cindy and we both agreed to call the vet. As bad luck would have it our vet was at a rodeo in Oklahoma City. He called back on his cell phone and gave me the number of several vets in the area: I left a message with all.
A vet in Riceville, 30 miles away, called me back. Typical of a Monday morning, he was covered up in emergency calls. He advised me to put my hand up her birth canal and check to see if there was a piglet blocking the path. If that was the case, I was to remove it and let her get on with the farrowing. He was concerned that she might not have the energy to deliver the rest of the piglets and gave me instructions that included feeding dog food, peanut butter and tums tablets (for calcium). Additionally, I was to give her a shot of oxytocin to induce contractions if she did not deliver another piglet.
OK, I’ve seen All Creatures Great and Small, so how difficult could this be? With some trepidation, I gathered up the Vaseline, scrubbed my arm and went back out to the paddock. Snowflake had meanwhile shifted her body so her butt end was against the back wall. I slathered on the Vaseline and inserted first my fingers then my hand up to the forearm. I could feel the piglet blocking the birth canal, head back. Snowflake howled with pain. After a few fruitless minutes I extracted my hand.
Back in the house I called Cindy and asked her to come on home. Before agreeing, she said, “I thought you had watched all of those James Herriot TV shows!” I went back out to put my TV vet knowledge into practice. This time I pushed all the way to my elbow. I pushed with the tips of my fingers on the small body blocking the cervical opening to the birth canal. After a few minutes I was able to snag a leg and begin the process of pulling the piglet out. It was dead, as expected. I left Snowflake in hopes that she would get on with the job.
Meanwhile Cindy arrived home and I brought her up to speed. We checked on Snowflake and found that no more piglets had arrived. Cindy called our dog vet to see if we could get a shot of oxytocin to induce contractions. The officious gatekeeper at the counter told her, “WE DON’T TREAT PIGS!” “We are not asking you to treat pigs—we are asking for a shot of oxytocin.” “Miss, we can’t hand out injectable drugs to the public.” Cindy: “This pig could die”. The gatekeeper: “Your human doctor wouldn’t give out drugs over the phone.” Cindy hung up.
Calling another vet clinic, she explained the circumstance again. This time, they immediately said that they would have the injection at the counter waiting. I headed out for Crossville, an hour away, to meet two customers picking up our beef at the processor. Cindy headed half an hour the opposite direction to the vet.
Returning home two hours later, I found her in the house. She had given the injection and contractions began, but still no delivery. She had to repeat the Vaseline procedure and hand remove all of the piglets. Snowflake ended up delivering four more, each one dead.
Here we were again. A sow on her second chance with what we, and our farm vet, felt was some congenital defect preventing a successful farrowing. What do we do?
I left on Tuesday morning for a work trip, the one remaining piglet doing ok—but, Snowflake not moving or eating. Upon my return Wednesday evening, the lone piglet had died. Now we were faced with the decision: We can’t sell her for breeding stock. We can’t keep her as a pet. We can’t afford to give her a second chance. And, we don’t have a customer for the meat. We made our decision.
Thursday morning, after Cindy left for work, I went to see our sow and brought my Winchester 30/30. She was in her hut. I knelt down and talked to her while I stroked her massive head. Standing up quickly, I raised the rifle and fired one shot aimed directly between her eyes. She died instantly.
Livestock serves a real purpose of providing protein in a convenient package. I am comfortable with the choice of being an omnivore. And, I’m equally comfortable with the decision to put her down. Still, she was a beautiful pig called Snowflake.
This Farm Note from the archives was written in April 2011. This is before I began to regularly post on the blog. The Farm Notes began in 1999 and were shared for those years with a group of friends and family. Over the coming year I will post periodically from those archived Notes.
Reading this weekend: An Island in Time: the biography of a village by Geert Mak. A well written work examining the decline of a specific village in the Netherlands; and the larger decline of village life globally.