Farmyard Bling

I joked to a friend the other day that I have joined the world of Big Ag, because I have had to join the Pig Trace programme, which includes getting government approved ear tags with unique numbers so that the pigs can be tracked every time I report that I’ve moved them.

It’s no joke of course.  Traceability is something the Canadian Pork Producers associations have been working on for some time.  Disease is part of the business of raising livestock, whether for meat or for products like eggs and milk.  It happens, even on state of the art, super hygienic, bio secure meg farms (maybe more so there, but that’s another topic).  Last year, the Pork Producers and the government finally made it mandatory for ALL pigs to be tagged when when going to slaughter.  The rules are more complicated than that, in that breeding stock movements have to be reported too, but the main concern seems to be that they want to be able to trace where pigs came from when they’ve been slaughtered.

My pigs last year were almost turned away at the slaughter house because they weren’t tagged – it was a month after the deadline for the tagging programme to begin, and I’d somehow got the impression that I’d be exempt because my pigs were born before the cutoff (wrong).  However, they did the job, and I found out later that the government was fairly lenient in the first year of the programme while producers were getting into gear with the new requirements.

However, this year, I knew I’d have to knuckle down and tag the pigs.  The Pig Trace website is a wonderfully succinct little resource, and after perusing it, I duly got myself an account with Pig Trace and ordered three tags (the tags were $1 each, the postage was $12 – hubby said I should have ordered 100 to make the postage worthwhile, but it would take me 30 years to use up that quantity).

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look carefully – small yellow tags, just visible

Tagging pigs is fun.  I mean fun like roller coaster fun.  There’s the lead up as you prepare your gear, make your plan and get your pigs in a happy place (this involved food of course).  That’s the first uphill slope of the coaster.  Then you make your move, go in, grab the ear, place the applicator and tag – the downhill of the coaster, and squeeze – HARD.  The pig’s head whips up, startled, and that’s the curve after the slope.  the applicator tool releases if the two parts of the tag connected properly through the ear, and the pigs ear just slips away from you.  If it went well, the ride feels pretty good.  If it doesn’t quite go according to plan, well then – the ride gets exciting.  One of the pigs jerked her head just as I squeezed, the applicator slipped out of my hand while still in the pigs ear, and – we’re off.  Pig with set of pliers (the applicator is like pliers) hanging from her ear, banging around, the other two pigs flying around sharing her panic.  Through the electric fence twice – through the wallow, round the shelter, back again.  We finally cornered her, and I was able to finish the squeeze so the ear tag was done, and get the applicator off.  Poor little piggy.  Then I had to do the third pig (the barrow) – whose trust level after all that was not great.  I considered leaving him till later when they were calm again, but fortunately, everyone settled back to their dinners almost immediately, so I went in and tagged him without drama.

But let me tell you – the Pig Trace website gives you no indication of all the fun that ear tagging involves – except for maybe a hint when they mention that tagging a mature pig isn’t a lot of fun.  You need to go to the link here so that you can see just how simple they say the procedure is.  And while you’re there, check out the graphic which portrays where to put the tag in the ear.  It’s a cartoon pig for Pete’s sake, with little x marks for the ear tags.  So cute!  I guess the reality is that the Big Ag farmers all know how to tag pigs already and don’t need a picture.  That’s fine, but if they’re requiring backyard producers (which is essentially what I am) to comply, then a little guidance in the form of a video, or even a photo of a pig with the tag in the correct place would be helpful.

Fortunately there’s YouTube and Google.  Now that I’ve done my pigs, I know why there are zero videos of pigs being done.  It would make the job look a little too exciting.  Actually there is one video – and it does look a little exciting – but I had discounted it because the guy freely admitted it was his first effort at tagging, and it was moreover a different tagging applicator than the one needed for my tags.  A couple of British sites mentioned that food was a good idea while tagging pigs, and a NZ site mentioned that a second person would be helpful, which I’d figured out from the various videos, since not one of them had someone tagging alone, except the cows in crushes.

In retrospect, restraining the pigs might have been a smarter idea, as it would have given me more control and less chance something like that chase with the pig with the applicator banging around her face while she ran. On the other hand, cornered pigs are not happy pigs – they know full well there’s nothing good in it for them, and trying to catch the ear and hold it still might have been the challenge. So, in the end, I’ll probably do it over the feed bowls again next year, but maybe feed in a smaller space, rather than the open paddock, so that I limit the escape routes.  On the upside, I feel better about the tagging process than before I started.  The pigs really only reacted to the tag application for a brief moment (except for pig #2), and were back in their feed bowls within a second or two after I’d tagged them.  They seem oblivious to the tags now. It really does seem much like when my daughters got their ears pierced.

I kept an eye on the pig that got tagged second for a day or two.  I think her ear was a little tender (what a surprise) because she wouldn’t let me touch it, but there’s no seeping or swelling, so I think she’s OK, and this morning I was able to lift her ear to check the underside before she pulled away from me.   I found out after the fact that infection is quite common with tagging, and that there’s yet another gadget you can buy that lets you remove the tag to treat infection if need be.  They certainly don’t mention that on the Pig Trace website either.

Further research also elicited the little gem that I should have figured out for myself – ti’s smart to write down the tag numbers somewhere before you tag the pigs, or right when you do it, because they get muddy pretty fast and therefore illegible.  Now that my pigs have been wearing their earrings for a couple of days, I can see why.  Or rather I can’t see – the numbers have been covered in mud.

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blue ring, right leg – these birds are 11 weeks old and need to join the main flock

The young chickens got some jewellery this weekend too – and seem to be keeping theirs much cleaner than the pigs.  A partial solution to my flawed plan to keep track of the different generations of chickens in my layer flock involves coloured leg rings.  I was a little daunted by ringing the main flock (50 birds) so we decided to ring the young birds – only 9.  Younger daughter and I whipped through that task just after dusk when the birds were sleepy and were done in 5 minutes.  No website, no video, no infection risks, no adrenaline surge (at least for us, maybe for the birds).

So, anklets and earrings – the youngsters are growing up.

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