Gilt and innocence: Farrowing on a Moffat County hog farm
Raising hogs is an enterprise as dirty and physically demanding as it sounds.
Regardless of the type of operation hogs have never been widely regarded for their sanitary existence by the general population.
Though breeders in the industry are quick to dispel the myth that hogs are filthy, and tout the animal as being the smartest found on the farm, hog barns are notoriously foul smelling places, and are famous for dropping ill prepared visitors to their ever-loving knees.
JB and Paula Chapman not only revel in the stench, they thrive in it.
The Moffat County residents raise show hogs and have earned a reputation in Colorado as premier breeders.
Last Saturday the couple prepared to welcome the first litters of the new year at their home and hog farm, NC Enterprises, LLC, located off Colorado Highway 13 a few miles north of Craig.
The Chapmans raise purebred Berkshire, Yorkshire and Duroc Jersey Red hogs, as well as some cross breeds. Among the expectant mothers were two Berkshires, a Duroc, a Yorkshire and two Hamp-appearing belted crossbreds.
Two of the hogs were gilts, or first time mothers.
Though hogs usually require near round the clock attention, efforts are doubled during the farrowing, or birthing, process, especially with two gilts in the mix.
“We like to be there for the gilts because you never know how they’re going to respond,” Paula said. “Some are mean and will try to eat their babies.”
Though gilts can sometimes be a wildcard, some take to their newfound maternal responsibilities naturally.
“We had one in the past that I was checking on every hour for about a day and a half,” Paula said. “I got really tired and missed one check, but by the time I got back to her she had had 10 babies all by herself.
“They were all alive and all nursing. That’s how we like it.”
But it wasn’t going to be that easy for the six females waiting to farrow last weekend.
The Chapmans expected their hogs to hit, or go into labor, Friday. But by late Saturday afternoon only the Yorkshire sow, named after her father, Platt, and therefore known as the Platt sow, had farrowed, giving birth to a healthy litter of 13 piglets.
A sow is a hog that has farrowed at least one litter.
The Chapmans spent late Saturday night and early Sunday morning routinely checking the other five hogs, searching for piglets that may have been farrowed in their absence and other signs the labor process had begun.
They broke up the hourly routine with, ironically, a dinner of bacon and eggs, watching late night Sportscenter highlights, and recalling the humble beginnings of their show hog operation.
It all started in 2005, JB said, with two bred sows the Chapman’s son, Nathan, acquired from a family friend.
The family business is named after Nathan — NC for Nathan Chapman — and serves as a credit to his enthusiasm for raising hogs that brushed off on the rest of the family.
“We farrowed those two and got hooked,” Paula said. “The next year we wanted purebreds, so Nathan and JB went out to the World Pork Expo and came back with, I don’t remember how many.”
Over the years the operation steadily grew from two sows to as many as 23. This year the Chapmans will twice farrow 19 sows and gilts for a total of 38 litters that will yield, with any luck, 350 to 400 show-worthy piglets.
The Chapmans sell their pigs to a variety of people, including local 4H participants. For the last three years they’ve not only sold out, but their hogs have competed in the most renowned county and state fairs.
“The goal is for all of the show-quality pigs to be shown,” JB said. “If you don’t have your pigs shown, your name doesn’t get out there and you can’t grow your clientele.”
The Chapman’s rapid success in the show hog industry begins with genetics, but JB said there are a lot of characteristics to consider depending on the type of operation.
Because the Chapmans primarily raise purebred hogs for show they focus on maternal traits, such as disposition, how many pigs a sow normally has, how that genetic line milks and how well a sow receives her babies.
“You know if a hog is that good in the crate, that’s going to breed on,” JB said. “Those maternal instincts do breed on to their babies.”
But structural soundness also is key to any hog, which is where a boar’s, or male hog’s, genetic traits become a factor, JB said.
For example, some boars are known for throwing, or fathering, big headed, wide shouldered piglets, which typically are what most buyers want.
“We can talk design all day long, but if a baby can’t stand on its own feet it can’t feed,” JB said. “If they are so far blown apart they have trouble walking, if they’re too tight they won’t have enough gut fill to get to market (or show) weight, and if they’re too long they can look snaky.”
And because show hog breeders are always trying to improve their genetic lines they have to farrow some gilts along with their experienced sows.
A boar that throws large babies, therefore, might not be the best hog to breed with a gilt that will more often than not have a narrow birthing canal during her first farrow.
“It’s always better to farrow sows because they’re experienced, they’re not first-time mommas,” JB said. “However, if you want to improve your genetics you have to bring in some new ones.
“In the show pig industry sows average two to three litters and then she’s shipped, she’s gone. Unless she’s so good she’s known as a foundation female, then you build your whole program around her, but you have to earn the name foundation female.”
The reminiscing concluded abruptly Sunday morning as the first of the five remaining females went into labor.
It was a Hamp-appearing belted crossbred called the Big Apple gilt, and as feared she was having difficulty farrowing her first piglet.
Typically females begin to farrow within about 30 minutes of their water breaking. The Chapmans usually begin to assist with troubled gilts after that much time has passed, but decided to be more patient with this gilt, hoping she would eventually deliver her litter naturally.
But after about 90 minutes Paula prepared to assist. As she lubricated her hands and forearms for the unpleasant task of reaching into the birth canal the second gilt, a Berkshire named for her father Torge, let out an enormous squeal.
“Baby, we’ve got a baby,” JB said excitedly upon checking on her.
Paula stopped what she was doing with the Big Apple gilt to clean off the first Sunday arrival. The Torge gilt continued to farrow like clockwork, delivering a baby about every 20 to 30 minutes. In the end she farrowed nine piglets, five gilts and four boars.
The Torge gilt’s first delivery seemed to put the rest of the sows in the mood and before long piglets were being farrowed at a steady pace.
With the more experienced sows more or less on autopilot, Paula returned to the Big Apple gilt that was having problems.
She pulled the first piglet from the birth canal, cleaned it off and immediately put it on milk. The suckling stimulates the farrowing process and the Chapmans hoped now that the first piglet had been delivered the Big Apple gilt would settle in on her own.
But the troubles became compounded when the Big Apple gilt caught sight of her baby for the first time and went, for lack of a better word, ballistic.
She tried to escape the birthing crate, throwing her 500-pound body in reverse while Paula was still armpit deep the Big Apple gilt’s birth canal.
It took two adults to save Paula from a trampling and several minutes to push the gilt back into her birthing crate.
Once the Big Apple gilt was calm the Chapmans decided not to risk another outburst that could put the remaining unborn piglets at risk.
Paula once again reached inside and delivered the rest of the Big Apple gilt’s piglets. For some it was already too late and they were still upon entering the world.
Despite the Big Apple gilt’s issues the Chapmans enjoyed their first successful farrow of 2013.
A process that began 2 p.m. Saturday with 13 healthy farrowed babies finally ended at 10:30 p.m. Sunday with the successful farrowing of 55 live piglets.
For the next 21 days the pigs will nurse. Five days later the sows will once again come into heat and the Chapmans will begin the whole process over again.
“The driving force behind why we raise hogs is to seek out that perfect specimen,” JB said. “We’ll never get there because there’s always something that can be improved, but it’s that passion to always better the herd, to be on the cutting edge of the industry that motivates us to do what we do.”
Joe Moylan can be reached at 875-1794 or firstname.lastname@example.org