The Gould Hog Farm raises 16,000 market piglets (the pork we buy at the supermarket) annually, or about 300 piglets per week. Their farm operation is called “farrow to wean” and that means they specialize in the breeding, gestation (pregnancy), and farrowing (birthing) of the sows.
Even though the piglets are sold, the most important animals on the Gould farm are the 650-700 sows that produce these piglets each day. The Goulds take the health of all the animals very seriously. This was conveyed to us when they described how they operate and it is also evident in the physical aspects of the barns.
All of the sows at the Gould farm have the exact same genetics. The Gould family has chosen this breed and genetic line for particular traits, such as body length, a stronger skeletal frame, and leanness. The sows are specifically breeding animals.
A sow is purchased by the Goulds as a “gilt,” the term for a young female pig who has not yet been bred, and is transported to the Gould farm where she lives for two weeks in the isolation barn while her health is monitored. They will ensure that she is not ill before they introduce her to the sow barn where she will be among all the other sows.
At the time she moves into the sow barn, she will begin breeding. The Goulds own several boars and they also use semen from a neighboring hog farmer. The boar has different genetic traits and genealogy than the sow. Traits they look for in him are leanness and good musculature.
When bred together, the genetics of this sow line and this boar line combine to make the characteristic market pigs that the Goulds desire. Perhaps more importantly, they produce the characteristics that their contracted processor, Hormel, demands. Hormel’s demands are for consistency of product size, taste, and leanness; because that is what we (the consumer) have come to expect at the supermarket.
The Gould farm is considered a “confined animal feeding operation,” which means the sows are housed indoors in individual pens. There is another housing option called an open pen that some farmers also use. One housing type is not considered better than the other and each has advantages and disadvantages. (more on that in my next post)
To start the breeding process at the Gould farm, a boar is walked in front of the sow to determine if she is in heat (estrous). The farmer will recognize signs that she is ready; she will stand still when pressure is placed on her back and she will hold her ears erect. When she shows the signs, there is a two-day window to successfully breed her.
Chris Gould demonstrated the “art” of artificial insemination to us Field Moms. We learned it is an art because some people are more successful than others. A long clear plastic tube, about 18” long and maybe 1/8” in diameter, is attached to a bag of semen. The boar was brought in front of her, she reacted as expected, and Chris gently inserted the rod. He caressed the sides of her belly and her back a little to relax her and in a matter of about a minute she relaxed and the semen drained from the bag. He gently removed the tube and it was done.
In about four weeks, they will perform an ultrasound on her to check for pregnancy (gestation). Gestation is 113 days or, easier to remember, 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days. In that time, the sow’s health is closely monitored. At the front of each sow stall, there is a card with all of her stats. Chris casually calls it her “baseball card.” On that card is noted every aspect of her health, such as any medications she may have received; and dates of important events, such as the artificial insemination. It also notes who performed the artificial insemination, so if a number of sows are not getting pregnant, they can look to see if the same person has been doing the job and if that is the problem, they can re-train him or her.
Each stall has a water nipple with unlimited water 24/7 and a “feed tube” that comes down vertically from a horizontal run of tubing at the ceiling. We didn’t get to see how it drops the feed, which would have been interesting to me, but somehow (I think by gravity) it drops her portion of feed into the trough at the floor in front of her. She receives limited feed (as opposed to unlimited) that is specially formulated with added vitamins and nutrients for a gestating sow for maximum health benefits. Her feed rations at the Gould farm consist of corn, soybean meal, dicalcium phosphorous, calcium, salt, sow vitamins and trace mineral pac, and amino acids. The corn and soybeans are grown by the Goulds on their farm and processed at the feed mill.
There is always a farm-hand (the full time employee responsible for the animals) in the barns and the sows are looked at, individually, at least twice a day. The farm veterinarian, Dr. Noel as they call him, visits the farm a minimum of every three weeks and sometimes more frequently.
A few days before her due date, the sow will be moved to the farrowing barn into a farrowing crate. When she moves into the farrowing crate, she will be very closely monitored and they will look for signs of the impending birth.
The farm-hand is present and will watch the birth (farrowing) to make sure all of the piglets are healthy and viable. Sometimes they are not. The Goulds shared some of their farrowing cards with us, which is where they record the stats of each birth. They record how many piglets were live born, stillborn, and mummified (rare). They track important dates, such as when the piglets are vaccinated.
Each litter contains 10-11 piglets. On the farrowing cards we looked at, however, it was not uncommon to see several more than that. We saw several with 18 or 20. As long as the piglets are proper size, that sow would be considered a very productive sow. On the farrowing card we also saw something called “fostering.” If a litter is very large and another litter is very small, the Goulds may transfer piglets between sows to even out the counts. They do this within a day or two of birth and the sows don’t notice.
According to the EPA, each sow raises an average of three to five litters in her lifetime. Each sow has 2.3 litters each year. At the Gould farm they have a number of sows on the far end of the spectrum that are very productive and are six or seven years old.
It is clear to me, after seeing this hog farm first-hand, why health is their number one concern. I’ve learned that the healthier the sow, the more productive she will be.
There does come a time when the sow’s productivity diminishes, usually as a result of age or illness. Some things that change may be inability to become pregnant, litter size decreases, or the size of the piglets diminishes. At that point, they are culled from the herd.
The sow pork does not meet the standards set by the retail processors, like Hormel. The meat is from an older animal, so the meat would be a different flavor, not as tender, and also less lean. The Goulds send the sows to a different processor where the meat becomes ground pork or sausage products.
With that said, at the end of our tour, the Goulds shared 3 pounds of ground pork, bratwurst, and sausage with each Field Mom. The pork was from a recent sow that had been culled and they sent it to a special processor to have the meat ready for us. My husband and I like to make our own homemade Italian sausage, usually from a butcher’s pork butt. We enjoyed the Gould’s sausage and it was tastier than any sausage we’ve ever made or purchased.
More to come about the piglets - the meat we eat!
Oak Park, Illinois
Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. Read more from Heather on her blog, Field Mom Journal.