Our Pigs are Out! Lessons in a Powerful Reality
We are opposed to current industrial agriculture practices. At Lick Skillet Farm, we understand that our animals are sentient, intelligent beings. In fact, studies show a pig is about as intelligent as a three- to four-year old child.
Most of the pork you buy in the grocery store has been produced using practices that assume the sow is but a breeding/production machine and youngsters are merely “pork on the hoof,” rather than thoughtful, highly social creatures. At a CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation), a mother sow is confined in a farrowing crate designed to severely restrict her movement, otherwise she might crush her litter accidentally. Meanwhile, her offspring, unable to snuggle against their mother for warmth, must huddle under a heating lamp on a concrete floor. This practice allows production of the most pork possible, so we can enjoy our bacon for the least price.
At Lick Skillet, we have raised our calves alongside their mothers for decades. When we decided to learn how to raise pigs, we first bought piglets as an experiment. Soon, we realized our ethics wouldn’t allow this – we feel it’s best to start from the day our animals are born to give them lives they can truly enjoy.
To begin raising our own pigs, we rescued three sister sows from a CAFO and brought them home, along with their newborn piglets. One of the most moving experiences any of us had experienced, it shocked us to see what life in a CAFO could do to the minds and hearts of this otherwise curious, creative, independent, adaptive species.
We gave them a 1600-square-foot farrowing shed, bedded a foot thick with fresh hay. It’s got a water fountain and is open to the outside where they can run in the sunshine and root and forage for fresh clover, kale, barley, and rye to their heart’s content. With all this space, sows have plenty of room, and we don’t worry about piglets’ safety. They spend each night nestled up against their moms, who can start after anyone who may look suspicious around their broods!
Why was this experience so moving? Upon exiting the truck, these animals were completely baffled. After life on only concrete, hay was such an unfamiliar substance, the sows had no idea what to do with it. Alex had never seen such behavior in animals, and was so concerned, he stayed late at night worrying that the piglets would wander off and the moms, who hadn’t had any chance to protect or care for offspring before, wouldn’t understand to do so now. It was a very cold night and he worried piglets might even freeze.
The sows carried a wasted, weak, unhealthy appearance, with lethargic behaviour, and large sections of skin worn bare from hair loss. They were also quite thin, and we were shocked at the sight. Nervous and afraid of their surroundings, they seemed to us as people released from a prison or mental health facility who'd been mistreated for so long they'd forgotten how to be humans.
It was heartbreaking to recognize that to treat animals as machines in a factory is to remove any semblance of who they are, or who they should be. This was the first time these mamas had ever been physically together with their offspring the way they evolved to be. Eventually, with a little help, these three mamas began building nesting places and connecting with their own litters for the first time, and it was gratifying and heartening to watch.
At first, the sows were fearful and would not consider going outside into open pasture, seeming confused by all the space and sunshine. It took several days, but eventually these animals began to behave normally, and finally express their “pigness.” They began putting on a healthy weight and their hair grew in slick and wiry as it should be. It brings tears to my eyes as I type this. It’s been a thrilling discovery to see the sows change their behavior from meek, bewildered beings without personality to free-ranging, feisty characters who come running through the pasture, vocalizing to us whenever we approach.
This is how animals should live. This is what we at Lick Skillet want to share with you. Come visit, try a pork chop, and share with others what you have learned. We love our animals and care for them the best we can, but we cannot keep our farm sustainable as a business without your support. We want to be your farmer!