Back to Personal Reflections

Excerpt from: "Rocking the Boat" 

A Farrowing Experience


I got thinking during the week of times in Knockbrack, Banteer, when I first started to keep pigs. The first pigs I bought in the mid '60s were at Kanturk Market, then managed by one of the kindest gentlemen I have ever met, Jim Power. I bought around 5 sows with an average of some 9 bonhams each. This was the start of a herd, which in 3 years was to become 70 sows and around 300 pigs for fattening.

One thing I had my mind made up on was that whatever I invested in animals my investment into bricks and mortar was going to be low. I wanted to make sure that if things did not work out my losses would be kept to a minimum. So we decided that sows that were not with young would be kept in a two-acre field, to be fenced with electric wire. We rebuilt ford boxes and so the sows slept in theses. The boxes were bought from "Big Jim" Dillon who at that time was the sole agent for them in Cork City.

Houses for young store pigs of around 60-70 lbs were also made from these. They were most effective and served us well until 1971 when we came to Sherkin.

I have wonderful memories of the first two sows that were to farrow in our own yard. We had housed them in an old hen house in farrowing crates. Needless to relate Matty and Michael, who were then 4 and 3 years old respectively, were all excited and spent the days leading up to farrowing time, hither forth from the house to the yard to see if any bonhams had arrived. I donned some warm clothing and was grabbing my torch to head for the yard when Eileen said: "You promised the two they could be called whatever time - day or night." So Da and Mum went upstairs and woke and dressed them. Then myself and the two of them headed out into the dark night to the converted farrowing house. Eileen, smiling, said: "Enjoy yourselves, I'm going to bed".

Reaching the house where the sow was lying flat with an infra-red light hanging near her, there was as yet no sign of even one bonham. We settled ourselves in, lying back against the bales of straw that surrounded the sow and farrowing crate. Da with Matt curled up under one arm and Michael under the other. Every grunt that the sow gave one of them would shout in a loud whisper: "Da, she's having one!" Alas as one o'clock came and then two o'clock no bonhams appeared. By then my two heroes were fast asleep in my arms and I was nodding on and off.

I awoke with a start as I felt someone shoving me. It was Eileen and she telling me it was four o'clock in the morning and had I any sense. The sow had bonhams screeching all around me so we had been of no help. Eileen had woken to find that neither myself nor the two were in the house and so came across to investigate. I need not add that it took the three of us a long time to live down missing the first sow farrowing.

As we got more and more pigs, our disease problems increased. We had mostly scouring, which necessitated calling the vet. He was the late Donal O'Connor, from Millstreet.

Donal was an incredible pig vet. He always said that of all the animals he was called to help pigs were his favourites. Donal never stood on ceremony. He was blunt and to the point and if you were wrong he told you so. It was many a time when he came to the farm to check through the herd that he would turn to me and say: "Murph, I've told you a thousand times cleanliness and fresh air to avoid those darn scouring problems".

When we had a farrowing problem and phoned Donal he would ask are Matty and Michael around. If their small hands cannot solve the problem then phone me back. In all our years at Knockbrack the two heroes were the midwives and saved many a twisted bonham caught inside the womb.

As anyone that has been involved with pigs knows deaths can come fast. Donal would always say on the phone: "Bring it on." So, many a night I'd head for Millstreet at one o'clock in the morning with a dead store pig in the booth of the car. Arriving at Donal's he'd lay out the pig on the kitchen table and do a post-mortem. I'd then head home fast with the necessary antibiotics to arrest the problem because one thing I learned with pigs when a scour problem hits you, you had to hit it back fast and furiously.

Donal O'Connor was the kindest and finest of men. When he came to into our yard or our house he was wonderful with the kids. They loved to see him coming as he treated them as adults and he always let them feel they were solving the problems.

I was one of the first pig farmers around the area to feed large quantities of whey. I gave it to them ad lib and they consumed around 8-10 gallons a day and one and a half pounds of meal. I remember having 70 sows living out in those Ford boxes. They were fed in a large enclosed concrete yard. You'd take your life in your hands at feeding time. One would give a roar as one spread the meal onto the concrete yard. The sows would come from the boxes and I can tell you to see 70 sows in full flight heading to you, was an awesome sight.

Sows are the most stubborn animals I have ever, ever come across. They just drive on and unless you have a large piece of board to put in front of them they would quickly land you on the seat of your pants.

One Christmas we ran out of farrowing houses and had house the haybarn, as we had around 28 sows due to farrow. We built up the open sides with straw bales and with timber as supports we roofed it also with bales. We had ESB cables running everywhere to take the infra-red lights. When I think of it now I shudder at the danger but when one is young and in a corner these never cross your mind. Anyway we made 8 cubicles for 8 farrowing crates in that straw house. It got us over our problems and the sows reared mighty healthy bonhams.

During the time I also got around to buying sows for sending to pig factories. We advertised on the Examiner and one of the calls was up in Mushera, above Millstreet town. I headed off with Patsy Cusack, who was our p ig man at the time. In the car with trailer, we eventually found the place and the deal for the sow was done in a short time. We loaded the pig into the trailer and headed for home over the mountain road. We were taking our time, as with the trailer and pig we had to be careful. Going along, the two of us were chatting away forgetting that we had company in the trailer. Anyway when we were some two miles from where we had done our purchasing Patsy looked back and shouted: "The sow is gone!" As you can imagine I jammed on the brakes and we had to unhitch the trailer before I could turn the care, the road was so narrow. That done we re-hitched and headed like the hammers of hell back the way we came. Some one and a half miles back there we saw herself, contentedly walking along the side of the road.

Again we had to unhitch and turn our car and pray to God we could re-load the sow. Loading a pig is difficult at the best of times, even when one can back a trailer against the piggery door. One can imagine trying to do it on a mountain road with acres and acres of open spaces. Lo and behold we succeeded in the first attempt and were able to continue on our merry way home. The lesson from that day was to have a cover for the top of the trailer when collecting pigs.

Those were wonderful times, with great experiences. We made a few bob. One thing for sure, no one ever kept pigs in straw walled houses but us!


Copyright © Matt Murphy