As I struggled with my personal life last fall, our farm struggled. We have only four new litters of pigs when we normally would have twenty. The reason? I failed to listen to my gut!
I’m reading an excellent book by Jonah Lehrer titled, “How We Decide.” It’s about what’s going on in our heads when we make a decision. In the second chapter, Jonah talks about how experts typically make a decision.
“Although we tend to think of experts as being weighed down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast amount of explicit knowledge, experts are actually profoundly intuitive. When an expert evaluates a situation, he doesn’t systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information. He doesn’t rely on elaborate spreadsheets or long lists of pros and cons. Instead, the expert naturally depends on the emotions generated by his dopamine neurons. His prediction errors have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows him to tap into a set of accurate feelings he can’t begin to explain.”
I used three littermate boars for breeding this past fall and they failed to successfully conceive a single litter. I had a bad feeling about these boars from their birth, probably before their birth. But I failed to listen to my intuition.
These boars were sired by artificial insemination, (AI), using semen from a boar housed in Iowa at a company called Swine Genetics International, (SGI). I like SGI and have had a lot of good luck working with them. We have had a closed swine herd for fifteen years. This means we haven’t brought any new swine onto the farm. We introduce new genetics using artificial insemination. I joke that the only swine we buy is delivered by UPS.
SGI helpfully separates their boars by breed, and further separates by type and expected function. For example, boars may be classified as maternal, meaning they will sire excellent mothers, or terminal, meaning they will sire excellent market hogs. They also have high marbling lines, high growth, high lean, and other types.
The type that gets us in trouble is the Showpig line. These boars are always very attractive to look at, but usually end up disappointing us in the end.
The sire of our three boars which couldn’t breed was a Yorkshire from the Showpig line and his name is “Be Bold.” That is a fitting name, because we were, even though we knew better. But look at his video, isn’t he awesome? Can you see why we were tempted?
The three boars we kept out of him looked awesome as well. Dad even said they were the best-looking boars we’ve ever had on the farm. So we turned them in with the gilts and proceeded to work on corn harvest and didn’t pay much attention to them other than at morning feeding or a casual glance walking by their pen.
The problem was they couldn’t extend their penis out of the sheath. Boars have a long, pink, corkscrew-shaped penis. Here is a link to a diagram of a boar’s penis.
They would mount the right end and get all tight in there and get that orgasmic look in their eyes. But their penis was not going into the gilt. They ejaculated inside the sheath. That’s why I even saw the cervical jelly the boars produce which is usually a sure sign something is getting bred.
Now I probably could have pulled the penis out of the sheath and helped them get started breeding. Some farmers would do that. But by the time I figured out the problem, I was so frustrated I was looking forward to letting Johnsonville make bratwurst out of them. And I had other boars which had grown large enough to breed.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been disappointed. In fact, it happens so often, I’ve been toying with an idea that would be a safeguard. The problem is this idea also slows genetic progress.
Here’s the idea. Only keep gilts out of AI litters, no boars. You see, on our farm, a boar can produce 200 offspring in a year while a gilt can only produce 20. If I end up liking the gilt, then I can keep gilts or boars out of her later. That way I introduce the new genetics into my herd, but at a slower, safer rate.
I’ve already implemented this idea in some fashion. If a gilt or sow has a litter and is a poor mother, or there is a genetic defect in the litter, or any other reason for not liking the litter, I don’t ear notch the piglets in the litter. That way, five months later, when I am selecting replacement gilts, I’m not tempted to choose a gilt from that litter.
I keep detailed records and write down any problems that may have occurred. But I have been known to justify keeping a gilt from a problem litter because she looked so good. If she is not ear notched however, I have no records on her, and the cautious curiousfarmer of five months ago, trumps the reckless curiousfarmer of today.