Ever wondered what pigs do all day long in the winter?
In the winter all our work is confined to the barn’s walls. It can be pretty boring for our tenants and especially for the pigs. Sheep seem pretty content. Chickens are the masters of the barn and can go wherever they please, so they are thrilled (I will write later about happy chickens … it is a topic that deserves its own space). Pigs, on the other hand, become very needy.
It takes twice as long to shovel the pig pens because they are all so needy! The early risers are super eager to come and chat - I swear, they come and talk to you! I am quite familiar with pig noises, and can easily distinguish their communication. They make specific sounds to communicate: I am hungry, I cannot believe you fed him before me, I am in pain, you are bothering me, I am going to eat you, I am scared. Moms also say: lunch is served, follow me, and of course if you touch my child you are meatloaf. But in the winter mornings, it is none of those; it is truly a full-on conversation. Sometime I wonder if they are telling me their dreams, because those are long conversations and if you bend over and look at them in their eyes they go on and on and on and I am pretty sure they are telling me something. And some of them have very long dreams and take for ever! Much longer that you have time for, especially if it is cold and the only thing that can keep you warm is shoveling. But, yes, some pigs come over and want to chat – they are bored. And of course, we chat back, in pig-gish. Stefano is the best at the farm in pig language. I am fluent in understanding but only intermediate in speaking. I can communicate I am afraid and I am going to eat you, but the rest is pretty hard. The pigs have also learned to understand some Italian, they know “go,” “go away” and “stop that,” but they are quite horrible at speaking Italian.
After they are done talking, they want to be scratched and do not dare forgetting that this one likes the belly by hates if you touch his head and vice versa for the next pig. If you forget… they will let you know. How about ignoring them to shovel, so you can go on with the chores? They know how to perfectly position themselves so that you have no alternatives but to scratch them. As soon as you are done with petting one, another one gets up and wants his share… it never ends!
Some pigs care less about being petted or coming over for a chat and look for other types of entertainment to help the day being less boring. Giuseppina, in the group of the sows, loves sticks. I have found her a few nice, sturdy wooden sticks over winter that she really likes. A first I found her some thin dry burdock stalks and she was almost offended by my choice: she picked up the stick and put it right on top of the manure pile I was shoveling out of her pen… I thought that was an effective communication technique. The sticks she likes, she will carry them around. Sometimes, in the morning, she brings them to me, if I am working in her pen. She does not want me to take them from her but if she puts it down and I move it, she will pick it up and put it back to the same spot. Other times she spends quite a bit of time to figure out how to push the stick through the fences to the group of pigs next door. It is a long stick so it does require some concerted effort from pigs on both ends. At times we find that stick in locations that I swear I have no idea how they did that.
Some of the neat pigs (yes some pigs are very clean and neat, and others are filthy – just like humans) organize all their throughs in a pile. I have no idea how long that takes them and how they do that. I never witnessed anyone in the act. For a while, I believed it was the farm assistants and I started asking them why on earth they would organize the pigs’ throughs in a pile, and that is when we all learned that it was the pigs. Other pigs are less creative and they find endless entertainment dumping their water on the floor. Probably because they have figured out that this leads to a flourish of activity and loud noises and weird accents from the farmers – these are indeed the situations when our farm assistants learn Italian. Following, of course there is an effort from the farmers to make a modification to the through design to outsmart the pigs and make it impossible to flip the troughs; but every time we make an improvement on the design they respond “challenge accepted.” I have started to believe this is a sort of pig version of chess. So far, we are ahead of the game in most pens but there is one that we are constantly getting checkmates, and indeed there is an ice-skating rink in front of their pen, which I am sure adds to the entertainment because of the numerous chickens falling as soon as they touch ice.
My favorite type of pig entertainment activity is what you can see in the pen of the Giocondi. Gioco means game, in Italian, so Giocondi means “playful ones.” They absolutely love hay and every time you give them hay, it is the VERY BEST day in their lives, even if you just gave them hay 2 hours before. They pick it up with their mouths and shake their heads as hard as they can, they move the hay from one corner to another and then back again, they take a big mouth full and try to convince their siblings to catch them to get the hay, they roll in it, they make little 360 degree jumps making the hay fly everywhere, they borough in it… It is just the best thing ever. It reminds me of the way life was simpler when I was a kid; when the best thing on Christmas day were the boxes and the ribbons around the presents, and I cannot help to smile knowing that feeling and seeing them going through that excitement every single time.