A Different Kind of Processing with Pigs
Reading Time: 8 minutes
By Matt Roben; Photos by Laurie Hatch Photography In January of 2022, my wife, Emily, and I adopted four potbellied pigs that were taken to the county animal shelter because of neglect in their previous home. We brought them home to our 12-acre farm, Rancho Roben Rescues, where we provide a forever home to over 80 farm animals in need of a loving and safe space.
We had no idea what their actual history was or even their ages, but they were all roughly the same size and the county shelter vet thought they might be around 6 months of age. We knew that with three boys and one girl we were fast approaching the age of sexual maturity if it hadn’t already happened, and we didn’t want to add more pigs to the world that needed homes so we took them to our livestock veterinarian to have the boys neutered and get everyone vaccinated.
When we came back to pick them up, our vet told us the good news — the boys did just fine and their neutering was a success without complications. The not-so-good news was that they had been neutered a few months too late as an ultrasound confirmed that there were at least three developing pigs inside of the female, whom we had named Lady. Based on the stage of development he saw, he estimated that she was around three months pregnant, which meant we had about three weeks and three days until some little pigs would be born.
Researching pig pregnancy became my full-time job for a few days but we quickly learned what we needed to know. We had all of our necessary first aid supplies, colostrum powder in case they couldn’t nurse mom, supplemental heat, and a safe space ready for Lady when she would finally have those babies. The date approached … and nothing happened. A few more days went by … and nothing happened. Then a few weeks went by … and nothing. Since there was no crystal ball to tell us the exact date, all we could do was continue to look for the signs that birth was imminent — a milk line developing in the teats, a swollen vulva, nesting behavior, and a bout of restlessness followed by sleep.
Every day I would give a little squeeze to her teats but nothing would come out. I thought to myself, “she is clearly still days away.” No source could definitively say how many days before the birthing event any of these signs of imminent labor would happen exactly. A day, a few days, a week; each article I read seemed to provide general information but no specific timeline. Her milk line seemed to be developing but even a lengthy massage and squeezing of her teats was only able to produce a pinhead-sized drop of milk. She was still rooting around in the pasture all day, following the ponies and the mare, nosing at the dogs, and like usual, dozing with the other pig boys, Captain, Major, and Atlas.
When we first brought them home, I had the pigs in their own portion of the paddock, just off the barn, but everyone got along so great it didn’t seem to be necessary to maintain that separation. Only a few days ago, I took down the fence between their barn stall and the section of the paddock where they used to spend their days, as it had been many weeks now that they were in the large pasture full-time. In the past, I would close them up at night so the horses and dogs wouldn’t disturb them while they were sleeping but it was never an issue so I even stopped doing that. All of the animals would come and go as they pleased, in and out of the barn, but still securely closed into a ¼-acre paddock so the LGDs could do their job of protecting everyone from predators at night.
A complication arose when a long-planned trip for us humans came around in early May. We would be headed to a family event in Southern California for a weekend, but this was fully two weeks after her original anticipated due date, and either way this trip had been scheduled for a year. Since she still hadn’t had any babies, I was beyond nervous to leave her, not wanting her to have those babies while we were gone. But again, there were no real signs of that birth day being upon us, so we chose to go on our trip and have our dear friends and neighbor keep an eye on everyone. I personally hadn’t spent more than a few hours away from the farm in months and now the one weekend I must leave means I might miss that exciting birthing moment which was the first one for me to help and participate in.
The morning of our trip Lady was acting just like she usually does. We made the decision to leave and hope for the best. We provided lengthy instructions on what to do to take care of all of our other animals and especially what to look for with Lady. We checked in multiple times throughout the day with our friends; no milk dripping, even when squeezing teats; no restlessness, just a nap in the weeds, basically the usual activity. Before bedtime, another squeeze and nothing. I even checked our barn camera and the usual nighttime sleeping positions were on screen, all four pigs lying next to each other. Dogs and horses were doing what they do. No babies! We might just make it home to be a part of this experience. Calmness.
All of that calmness changed when I woke up the next morning and checked the camera. My heart fell out of my chest. I immediately called my friend and frantically told him to get outside to the barn. One of our LGDs was in the area where the pigs normally sleep and he was barking and pacing around. I started to watch some footage from the camera from the night before, which took little clips of movement throughout the night. In a video marked 11:15 p.m. I was able to see the first baby make its appearance. Then, in a video from a short while later, I could see that there were two more babies.
It was at that point it seems that the dogs came over to check on the commotion. From the best I can figure, the dogs chased the pigs out of the barn stall, seeing these new bloody squealing creatures as intruders, and decided to protect Lady and the boys from any harm. My friend made it outside moments after I called him at 6 a.m. which means it had been nearly seven hours from the time the babies were born. They were subjected to the cool temperatures of the night, in the 50s (Fahrenheit) but it was nothing close to the 95 degrees F that newborn baby pigs require. 11:15 p.m. was also likely the only time the one possibly had anything to eat, and the others possibly had no chance at all to suckle before the dogs got involved.
My friends told me they found one already-dead baby, one barely-breathing baby, and one stronger live baby hiding in the straw. They quickly began to warm the two living babies and tried to get them to drink powdered colostrum that they mixed up. They tried to get Lady back to the barn but she would not have it. She was absolutely traumatized and wasn’t going to be a part of this anymore. They wrapped up the dead baby and placed it to the side. Sadly, the second weak one did not make it and died shortly after, thankfully with human love and care during its final moments of life. The third one that was still alive was warming up, eating, and making some positive signs of recovery.
The baby was brought inside the house and for the rest of the day, she had three loving humans tending to every single one of her needs. Three hours of swaddling, warming, and offering a bottle. They then created a safe enclosure for her to be in, and placed towels and heat lamps to continue warming her when she wasn’t being held. Anytime she seemed to want food they picked her up and bottle-fed her. Then she began walking around and exploring. She left her warm space to go pee in a corner for the first time. She showed her strength and continued to make it through the day. Knowing there was nothing we could do from afar and that she had the best care possible, we made the difficult decision to stay for the entire event because we wanted to be with our family and celebrate this special day for our nephew. We didn’t want this to ruin his day.
As soon as the family event ended, we began the long drive home. It was a six-hour drive. My wife and I spent the car ride talking and trying to process all of the feelings we had about what had happened. Recognizing that we could not change the past, we made the decision to focus on the things we could change moving forward. Hindsight being 20/20 as they say, these are some of the things we recognized we could have changed to produce a different outcome: We should have separated Lady for these last few days, just in case, knowing that any possible temporary discomfort and boredom would be offset by her safety. We should have left the fence in place within the paddock and continued to close up the barn stall at night to keep the pigs away from the dogs and horses at night. We should have realized that the tiny drop of milk was all we were going to see, that her nap in the weeds was her saying it was time, but we didn’t realize that. I may never forgive myself but at least we can learn, and hopefully, we never make these mistakes again.
When we finally got home that night, we found our friends and neighbor inside of the house giving so much love to this baby. They were all seated in the warm and cozy room, sharing the responsibilities of ensuring this little one made it. We could not have walked into a happier and more loving place. Eventually, our neighbor went home, our friends went to sleep, and we just spent time with this sweet little baby, whom our friends named Moses because they had found her spared from death, hiding amongst a pile of straw.
My wife and I took turns holding her and feeding her. She was drinking her replacement formula which our veterinarian suggested instead of the powdered colostrum. He told us the powdered colostrum can cause diarrhea, so instead, she was drinking a mixture of 16 ounces of goat milk heated up with 1 ounce of Karo syrup. She was pooping, peeing, grunting, and squealing. Unfortunately, just as the vet warned, she was starting to have diarrhea, which was very concerning. Per his suggestion, we transitioned her to water, glucose, and electrolytes.
We might not have been able to save them all that first day, but with the love of five humans, we can hopefully save just this one, giving us one more animal to provide a forever home at Rancho Roben Rescues. No matter how many animals we care for, sometimes it makes me wonder who is actually saving who.
As it is said in the scriptures: “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the entire universe.”
Nearly five months have gone by and little miss Moses is thriving! She quickly outgrew her indoor quarters and took up residence in a large enclosed space behind our home and has three rescue rabbits to spend her days with. Her personality is strong and gentle and she enjoys naps in the sun. Moses loves eating anything she can fit into her mouth and will let you rub her belly until your hand falls off. She will soon make her way into the main barn with the other large animals but the limiting factor is that Moses is still a smaller pig and could easily slip under the electric poly rope fence in the fields where her mom and dad and uncles live alongside three sheep, two ponies and her LGD protectors, Altan and Emre.
MATT ROBEN and his wife, Emily, run Rancho Roben Rescues, a 12-acre, non-profit farm animal rescue in San Jose California, working alongside their farmhand Lindsay Mashburn and many wonderful volunteers. They rent out a converted school bus on Airbnb and host farm tours. Matt was a professional circus performer, police officer, and loves to play bagpipes.
Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.