Story of a Pampered Piglet

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms

Our 12-hour traveling companion under his heat lamp. Behind him is a stuffed sock for companionship.

It isn’t hard to see that the animals on our farm have it pretty good. During inclement springtimes, baby chick brooder boxes are often setup right in our walk-out basement, bottle lambs get their start in a stock tank in the kitchen, and many a runty piglet has lived in a tub in the house until big and strong enough to fend for itself in the barn.

This tendency to give struggling baby animals some extra TLC to help them through the difficult time has led to many an epic adventure. One bottle lamb named Edelweiss lived in a cardboard box next to Kara’s bed and traveled in the minivan with us on trips to Ashland and Madison. She thought she was one of the dogs in the house and would gladly walk in the front door if you’d let her, well after she was full-grown.

The smallest of triplets, Edelweiss’ mother had rejected her and stepped on her abdomen, which would usually spell the demise of a lamb. But with careful attention, lots of patience, and extra care, Edelweiss became the grandmother or great-grandmother of many of the sheep in our flock today.

On another occasion, three bottle piglets had to ride in the car on another long trip. Feedings must be regular, and if no one is at home to attend to the needy little ones, well, they have to come along. These pigs were about football-sized, and in the “screaming demon” stage. They quickly learned that when we stopped, they got fed, so every possible stop was a chance to loudly voice their hunger — every stop light, every stop sign, every halt in traffic. Our ears rang for days, but the piglets grew up healthy and vigorous.

This week was another one of those long trips, taking all of us off the farm (which is a rare occurrence). We’d thought we’d planned the appointment well — no lambs, no baby chicks, all the animals in their winter quarters, the fish in a fairly stable spot in their life cycles. Everything was pretty wrapped up for our leaving. The two pregnant sows had farrowed, so no immediate expectancies to accidentally miss. It was looking like clear sailing for our haul to Platteville for annual dental work!

But then, a few days before the trip, Kara woke at 4:00 am with one of those strong premonitions livestock owners learn to heed. She had to go out to the barn, she had to check on the sows, she had to look for the one runty piglet. Out she zoomed, throwing on coat and boots. The pigs all appeared to be contentedly sleeping, but no runt to be seen. Not anywhere.

She dug around in the bedding, no pig. She tried reaching around the sides of the sow, no pig. She checked with the littermates — still no runt. Then, getting very worried at this point, Kara rolled the sow onto her back, and there under her belly was the runt, squished entirely flat, white as a ghost.

Picking it up, Kara began rubbing its side in stimulation, like you would a newborn piglet that isn’t breathing. A few scary moments passed, and then, gasp! The piglet miraculously came back to life.

Hemmingway Moves Into the House

That’s when he moved inside and was named Hemmingway after “The Great Gatsby” — or “The Great Gaspy” as we were calling it. At first, Hemmingway lived in a large pot on the kitchen counter, fed with a needle syringe to help him perk up. His head was bruised and one eye got infected for a while, but the tender care brought him back to his perky self.

Soon, he graduated to a rubber feed pan, surrounded by protective cardboard and a clamp-on heat lamp to keep him warm. Feeling lonely by himself, the piglet needed companionship, so a stuffed sock became his new littermate and cuddle friend.

But then there was this trip, and we’d likely be gone 16 hours. There was no way little tiny Hemmingway could make it at home alone and with no food that long, so he was going to have to join us on the journey. I was not terribly excited, especially remembering the screaming demon pig trip. We were planning to all squeeze into Steve’s Prius, since it had the best gas mileage of our vehicle collection, and I already had 120 skeins of wool yarn we were packing into the car to drop off at a dye artist along the way. How, oh how, were we all going to fit — with a piglet?

It was pretty cramped quarters when we loaded the car at 5:00 am, after quickly doing morning chores in the dark and wind and spitting rain. The piglet rig was too tall to fit in the trunk, so we had the back packed with the yarn, a marine cell battery, and an inverter to plug the heat lamp into. The pig went on the bench seat between Kara and I (the pig had most of the room, really), with Steve and Mom up front, with the lunch cooler taking up most of the passenger foot room. It was a tight squeeze!

Plug the lamp into the inverter, and we had our portable porcine palace. Great…here we go for 12 hours of driving, cramped, sitting a bit sideways, penned in. This pig better be a nice traveler!

And he was, really, keeping very quiet except for little, expressive grunts when he got hungry. No screaming squeals, no climbing out of the pen. Of course, Hemmingway was about the size of three candy bars bundled together, but most of the time he was asleep, enjoying the light jostle of the ride.

Keeping Hemingway Warm

So it wasn’t the pig that was the problem during the trip — but it was keeping him warm that caused most of the adventure. We were over an hour into the trip when his light went out. We thought, well, maybe it was the bulb, since it was an older light, so we stopped and bought a new bulb, after checking in a couple of places that had fluorescent lights only. While those might be nice for the environment, they won’t keep a piglet warm!

No go with the light, so then we thought that, well, maybe the lamp had a short. It’s an old lamp Grandpa had around, and the cord looked a bit iffy, so we stopped at a hardware store for a new clamp-on lamp. Steve was trying to explain to the hardware store folks what we needed in order to keep our piglet alive because, well, how many chances do you get to say that to customer service?

Got the new lamp assembly working, and then it died again. It would work a little, then die again. So then we thought it must be the inverter going bad. So the hardware store folks directed us to a truck stop station that would supply inverters, and we were off again. The piglet was expressing his concern at having no heat lamp, and we had his little abode all covered up with towels, trying to keep him warm enough until the issue was resolved.

Off to the truck stop, got a new, more powerful inverter, which worked for about two minutes, then showed an error. The battery was low! “Gotta save the piglet,” Steve sighed, at this point feeling rather frustrated at how this was unfolding. We’d pretty much replaced all the parts of the assembly at this point, chased down packaging that was blowing away in the rainy gusts, and stopped in three towns. He went back to the truck stop and bought an inverter that plugged directly into the Prius, and we stuffed all the rest of the paraphernalia we’d purchased into the back.

After that, the light worked fine, and the pig was quite satisfied — until he got hungry again. At the dental appointment, Kara had to ask if she could bring him inside to use an outlet to keep him warm since the car would quickly cool to the 40-odd degrees it was outside. So there we were, four folks and our piglet, in the waiting room, and then finally back into the car for the next 6 hours north to home.

At least there was no more heat lamp drama for the return trip, the yarn got delivered, and we had a little more leg room. But, most important of all, that pampered piglet is alive and well and getting bigger every day. See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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