Can pigs learn manners? Here are some ideas to keep pig-raising enjoyable when those cute little piglets have grown big and are no longer so cute.
Here, I’ll share three strategies that have worked for us to keep pig-feeding time from degenerating into a full body contact sport in which the pig wins and the amateur pig-raiser gets discouraged and gives up on homegrown pork.
Strategy #1 – A gated feeding area
This takes a bit of setting up, but once the set-up is done this is the easiest option, especially if your pigs live in one place and don’t get moved around.
It calls for a feeding area that you can lock the pigs out of. Ideally your feeding area would have two gates; one that you can shut the pigs outside of, and a people-only gate that you can access without having to wade through the pigs.
- Throw the pigs a treat to move them out of your gated feeding area.
- Shut them out and pour their feed.
- Open the gate to let the pigs in and stand aside.
The reason this is easiest to set up for pigs that live in one place is that you can arrange a feeding area that can stand some pressure from them if they push and shove at the gate while you’re pouring the feed.
The open gate indicated in blue is for the pigs. The yellow circle indicates the closed people-only gate.
This can probably also be done for pigs that move about within portable electric fencing and have no solid fencing, but we have not tried it.
If you try this with pigs that only have electric fencing, here are some suggestions that may help make it a success:
- You will need to do your fence training first, before the feed training. (See Part 4, coming soon, for more on fence training.) Be sure before you start trying to set up a gated feeding area that your fencing works very well and the pigs are very respectful of it.
- Set your gated feeding area up with good gate handles so that you can keep the fence turned on while you are shutting the pigs out, pouring the feed, and then letting them in again.
- Don’t keep the pigs waiting if you have very attractive pig food, as we do (we use waste washed from the pipes of a local dairy and our pigs LOVE it).
If they have to suffer the temptation of waiting to get to the feed for too long, the pigs may learn that the fence only bites sometimes or that it only bites once, on the way through, and that getting through it is worth the bite.
There goes all your careful fence training.
Strategy #2 – The solid barrier and zero-table-manners option
This is the simplest, and also the messiest option. Messy for the pigs, but it will at least keep you relatively clean. Place your feed tub beside a barrier behind which you can stand to pour the feed into the tub.
An example of a strong barrier could be something like two pallets wired together, standing upright side by side, with steel fence posts driven in at the ends to hold them firm.
This will work best with a solid barrier. You could stand behind the electric fence to pour, but that’s not really fair on the pigs because as they push and shove each other to get their share, one of them is bound to get shoved into the fence.
Strategy #3 – Teaching piglets to stand back and wait
This is the option we use, but fair warning: it’s not for the faint of heart and will work best if you already have some animal training background. You’ll need excellent timing and plenty of confidence.
Once our piglets have recovered from their move (see Part 2) and have started getting pushy at feeding time, we start training them to stand back and wait while their feed is poured into their tub, and to come forward only when invited.
Here are the steps:
- Start this when your piglets are little. Please note that the pigs in the pictures above were already quite big when we got them, and these pictures were taken after we had had them for a while – so they are a lot bigger than piglets usually are when we first start feed training.
Don’t wait till your piglets have gotten into the habit of barging into your legs the moment you enter their pen with food. If this is where you are at with big pigs right now, I suggest you use one of the easier options suggested above and try this training with your next batch of little piglets.
- Set the feed tub against a barrier or in a corner so that the pigs cannot come from all sides while you are pouring the feed. This will make it easier for you to defend the space around yourself while you are pouring the feed, and therefore easier for the pigs to get the idea.
- Take a stout stick along with the feed bucket. The stick is an extension of your arm and is for communicating effectively to the piglets that the feed tub is a no-go zone while the feed is being poured. (There’s a knack to pouring the feed while using the stick. You might want to practice with bucket and stick, outside the pig pen, before you try it with the piglets.)
Once you have your feed tub where you want it and bucket and stick at the ready, start pouring. The piglets run into a tap from the stick when they come forward while the food is being poured.
How hard should you tap? Hard enough to be effective – no more, and no less. How do you know if you’re being effective? If the pigs have their noses in your feed bucket, you are not being effective.
At first the piglets will be very surprised and offended, and they’ll run about and squeal and try from every angle – which is why you have your feed tub in a corner.
(Be prepared for the squealing. Some pigs will keep up a deafening squealing the whole time until their noses are in the food.
We wait for our piglets to not only stand back but also to be quiet before we invite them in, and we end up with a much quieter feeding routine. But when you first start out, put up with the noise. (Focus at first on learning to time your reward/release for when the pigs stand back.)
Each time the piglets come forward uninvited they run into the stick, which is tapping or fanning firmly in the space between the pigs and the feed, or onto the pigs when they put themselves into that space.
Eventually there will be the briefest of moments when the piglets will stand still. At that moment, lift your stick out of the way, step back, and invite them to come and eat.
The crucial thing is to lift the stick out of the way and invite the pigs in with a clear, consistent verbal cue (“Com’n piggies!”) AT THE EXACT MOMENT when they have paused and are standing back.
This is harder, of course, the more piglets you are feeding – because you are looking for the moment when they ALL pause and stand back. That’s why I said you will need excellent timing.
The cue needs to be the same each time, and the same by each person who feeds them. We find it helps to not speak to the pigs (or to bystanders) at all while pouring the feed and speak only when inviting the pigs in – so they can listen for the cue and it’s easier for them to identify it.
The incredible importance of timing
It’s important to understand that if you miss the moment when the pigs are standing back and invite them forward when they are coming anyway, they will never get the idea of standing back and this training simply will not work.
If you find that teaching the pigs to stand back is not working out for you, it’s probably best just to choose one of the easier options instead.
You want to enjoy your pigs, and for the enjoyment to be mutual; having to wade into battle with them at every feed time is not conducive to enjoyment.
For us, having pigs that will stand back when asked to is one of the keys to making sure that raising pigs stays pleasurable. But remember, as the saying goes, “Your mileage will vary.”
I suggest that you consider the ideas I’ve presented here and choose the variation or combination of them that works best for you so that you and your pigs can live happily and peacefully together.
Coming up next
Part 4 of this Series deals with the topic of teaching piglets to understand electric fencing so that they can enjoy the great outdoors without you having to build a Fort Knox to keep them from sampling your veggie garden or answering the call of the wild.
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