One of the most gratifying things about raising kids on a farm is that, as they get older, they prove they’ve been paying attention and in some cases know even more than you do. The older a boar gets the more risk there is that he will become dangerous — either because he gets grumpy and set in his ways in his old age, or simply because the sheer size of him means accidents can happen too easy. Older, bigger boars are also harder on the sows. Natural mating means the sow has to hold his weight up on her back when they’re breeding. Holding up a 300 or 400 pound boar is one thing, holding up a 600 or 800 pound boar is another. At that point he’s two or three times the size of the gilts and young sows, and his weight is unwieldy for the older sows who are bigger, but not in better shape.*
Axel, the boar we’ve been using for the past couple years, had hit that 600 pound mark a while back. We have a few young boars who were left intact coming up the ranks right now, and as we restructure and reassess our goals following last year’s losses he didn’t have much work for him anyway. I’ve been meaning to move him along, either to the compost pile or the packer, for a few weeks. The problem we have this time of year however — and the one we’re focusing our attention on fixing this year — is that during the mud season our farm lane gets really wet, and since it’s a steep incline there’s no guarantee that if you go down there with a trailer, you’ll be coming back out until it either freezes or dries up. Since all the loading infrastructure is in the barnyard, next to the pens by design, that means when we load pigs this time of year it’s an leao of faith. They have to be walked up the hill to the trailer and put in it without the aid of any kind of permanent (and therefore strong) chute or alley. It’s open land up here and if they want to bolt for the next county, there’s not really anything stopping them. For market pigs and sows I don’t worry about it too much. Market pigs are small enough that even a hog panel held in place by hand is enough of a funnel to get them going in the right direction. And sows, while big enough to pose a physical challenge that we cannot compete with, at least do not pose quite the same risk that they will become aggressive if we have to insist they go where they would rather not. And even a big sow is often a quarter or a third smaller than a boar.
The Man and I had been discussing whether we wanted to put Axel on the trailer next time we went to the stockyard, or if we just wanted to put him down and make compost of him like we did the last boar. The last boar, Geoff, was about a third bigger than Axel even and he had shown aggression before. With him we didn’t even bother trying to load him with the built-in alley in the barnyard, let alone without it. We put him down in his boar pen and then picked him up with the skidsteer and drove him to the compost after he was already dead. In his case, safety came first. Boars aren’t worth much at market and it wasn’t worth risking life and limb. He died happily munching on a treat from his trough, and no one was ever even remotely at risk of being hurt by his half-ton of muscle. Axel has never shown the slightest hint of aggression though, so it was a bit of a debate. We hate to “waste” animals, though I suppose you could argue the whole dust-to-dust, fertilizer-value of the compost isn’t really a waste. But at the same time, we try to do things the smart way, not the hard way. Farming is inherently dangerous and so I try to make sure our choices don’t make it more so.
Yesterday as we debated whether or not to bring Axel up the hill with a couple sows we were loading on the trailer, Wren finally chimed in: “Axel isn’t Geoff. He’s a big puppy. He likes scratches and peeing in mud puddles. I think he’ll be fine.” And so when we finished laughing about his love of peeing in mud puddles — every single time we let him out after a storm he’d run as fast as a 600 pound animal can run to the nearest puddle, stand right in the middle of it and pee — it was settled. With some trepidation, of course — plenty could have gone wrong — but settled nonetheless. And she was right. Axel followed the sows up the hill as fast as his legs would propel his big old body and hopped right into the trailer without hesitation.
Axel was, indeed, a big puppy. He was bred and born and raised right here on our farm. I suspect we’ll even miss him a bit, but such is the reality of farming, rather than homesteading. Ways must be paid and weight pulled, and every job eventually comes to an end.
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* One way to get around the issues with natural mating is to collect the boar’s semen and artificially inseminate the sows instead, but that’s another topic worth another whole post so I’ll write more on it some other time.