Newborn piglets suckling. (Photo, S Russo)
If you ever have to soften someone up really quickly, then take my advice and do this: Get your hands on a new-born, wrinkly, pale pink piglet. Hand it to the person you’re trying to butter up, and watch his steely exterior soften in front of your eyes.
How do I know this will work? Because at a recent pork farm tour at Wakefield Pork, Inc in Gaylord, Minnesota, about two dozen grown men and women turned into cooing, warm and fuzzy fools at the sight of piglets, yours truly included. I have to believe that the employees were secretly laughing at our endless chorus of “oooooh, they’re soooooooo cute,” except that the folks at Wakefield Pork are so ridiculously kind, I don’t think it’s possible.
Robin Plotnik, a nutritionist on our tour, cuddles with a piglet. (Photo, J Jorgensen)
It all started in 1991 when two families and second-generation pork producers, the Langhorsts and the Peters, joined forces to open Wakefield Pork, Inc. The Langhorsts (Steve and Mary and son Lincoln) recently hosted a tour for several food writers and nutritionists, including me (see below), allowing us access to the animals, the workers, and the facilities.
Lincoln Langhorst, far left, and his mother, Mary, far right (Photo, J Jorgensen)
“We believe in transparency, so we're thrilled to have you here today,” says Mary Langhorst, who oversees human resources, operations, and serves on multiple pork boards.
Wakefield Pork is a farrow-to-wean farm which means they breed sows, and raise piglets up to 7-months-old. Prior to my visit, my knowledge of pig farms was based on what I had read, so I wasn't sure I was going to like my experience. I was concerned that I might see animal cruelty or unclean conditions. That's not at all what I found. Indeed, I experienced many surprises during my tour that day.
When we arrived at the farm, the first thing that surprised me was the intensity of safety protocols in place to protect the animals from illness. When you enter the building, you go through several bio-security measures. First, you answer a series of questions, such as “Have you visited a zoo in the past 48 hours?” If you pass, then you go through a series of measured steps to secure you don’t carry any bacteria or viruses into the building. They include removing shoes and all clothing and changing into fresh clothing, overalls, and boots provided for you, as well as handing over cell phones for disinfecting. Upon leaving, you follow similar measures, including showering.
Lincoln Langhorst, Mary's and Steve's son, who oversees the sales and marketing aspects of the organization as well as day-to-day operations, was my group's leader. Soft-spoken, sincere, and forthright, he repeatedly encouraged us to ask him anything: “Don’t be afraid to ask me the tough questions,” he said repeatedly and stayed true to his word. Indeed, every worker with whom we came in contact was open and honest with us. They allowed us to take pictures, ask questions, and see all aspects of the production. They believe in education and want people to know how they raise pigs. “We've got nothing to hide,” said Todd Marotz, manager.
Sow in individual gestation stall. (Photo, J Jorgensen)
My next surprise was the barns. I was expecting whipping Minnesota winds, but instead we entered indoor, temperature-controlled, clean barns. Staff are constantly in contact with the animals, monitoring their feed intake, health, and well-being. Practices are highly routinized both for the well-being of the animals and for the workers' safety.
The first barn we visited was the farrowing barn, where sows or mama pigs go to deliver their babies. Sows are housed in individual gestation stalls that are constantly monitored in-person by staff. They come here 2 to 3 days prior to birthing then stay with their litter for 18 to 21 days. I've read my fair share of critiques of gestation stalls whose detractors consider them a form of animal cruelty. I was prepared to be disturbed by them. In actuality, the opposite was true. The sows were remarkably calm and content. They have 24-hour access to water and are on feeding schedules. Because they need extra calories and nutrition to produce milk for their litter, Lincoln explained that food is given freely: “They can pretty much each as much as they want during this period.”
Perhaps the happiest surprise was seeing a sow give birth. I was shocked at how placid the sow remains throughout the birthing process. She lies on her side, and every 15 to 20 minutes, you’ll see her side rise and fall lightly. “That’s a contraction,” said Michelle Fuller, one of Wakefield's employees. “Any second now, you’ll see a piglet being born.”
Then, sure enough, we did. A 2 to 2.5 pound of pink, slimy, squawking piglet slid out of its mother and was immediately whisked up by Amanda, one of the employees, who dried him off and placed him in a feed bin with warming lights until it was time to suckle the mother’s teat. Michelle explained that the umbilical cord remains attached because it's the final blood transfer from mama to baby that is nutrient-dense. It will come off naturally with time.
To our delight, we continued to see several more births. Michelle told us that an average sized litter is 12.5, and the average weight per piglet is 2 to 2.5 pounds. Litters can be as small as 6 to 8 piglets or as large as 20 to 21, though litters that big are uncommon.
Ideally, the piglet should start suckling immediately since the first milk produced by the sow contains the colostrum, which Michelle explained provides antibodies to the piglets, naturally fortifying them against illness. I asked her why some piglets start suckling right away and others don’t. She explained that some piglets are innately drawn to the mother’s teat while others need a little help — like this little lost guy pictured below.
Also, the first 5 to 6 piglets in the litter have an advantage: Without competition for teats, they begin feeding sooner, thereby claiming a teat as their own. Yup, it’s survival of the fittest, in action. Michelle explained that they manually rotate piglets to ensure that the less assertive and later-born ones have sufficient access to feeding. She also added that in a very short time period, “a hierarchy of nipples” occurs. That is, each piglet will choose its own nipple and stay there for all feedings. In the case where a sow has fewer teats than piglets, Lincoln explained that another sow can provide milk; however, this transition must happen very soon after birth, or the sow will recognize that the piglet is not hers and reject it.
Todd explained that the sow releases milk only 20 seconds at a time, so needless to say, the piglets have to act quickly! After they feed, they rest or sleep, then about 30 to 40 minutes later, then feed again. And the cycle repeats all day and all night. It’s a life of eating and sleeping and eating and sleeping.
To our amazement, Todd also said that the room of sows will often “synchronize.” That is, they’ll start dropping milk at the same time. How does this happen? Todd explained that the sows release the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, that triggers the let-down of milk. Just in case a sow isn’t letting down enough milk, her piglets might “nudge” her by burrowing their noses into her teat which will produce more milk. It’s the piglets’ way of saying, “Come on, Mom! We’re hungry!”
Long-time Wakefield Pork, Inc employees, Todd Marotz and Michelle Fuller. (Photo, S Russo)
Next, we visited the gestation barn where the sows get impregnated. I'll share that in the next post. So, stay tuned!