Los Ojos, 28 May 2018
Doctor is not a word you hear used as a verb all that often outside the world of livestock. True, you do hear it from time to time, & most dictionaries recognize the informal verbal use – “doctor your wounds,” etc. – but when you say you have some animal doctoring to do, the word carries a certain connotation. For one thing, it means that you have something of a job ahead of you, because nobody likes to be doctored. And even something as simple as giving a shot is somewhat complicated when the patient is several multiples of your size (or a lot smaller & a lot faster – greased-pig contests are a thing for good reason) & just doesn’t feel like cooperating.
Doctoring steers means roping them or putting them in a chute; doctoring sheep means catching and throwing them; doctoring chickens… I’ve never heard of anybody doctoring chickens, actually. And then there’s pigs. Little pigs aren’t bad, just fast, tough to contain, and wriggly as an eel; they’re pretty simple to doctor – trap ‘em in a secure pen (easier said than done), then catch and hold ‘em. Big pigs, though, from 200 to 600 lbs., are another story. They’re strong, smart, and stubborn. They don’t do well in squeeze chutes (especially the old style cattle chutes that don’t really squeeze so much as just lean), and while you can rope a pig, you probably shouldn’t. A loop won’t hold them around the neck, and they’re devilishly hard to heel (smart enough not to put both feet in the loop at the same time). In other words, if you do rope a pig, then you just have a pig with a rope around its middle, and since you mostly can’t handle pigs on horseback, that extra handle doesn’t solve anything. You can snare them around the upper jaw, making sure to get the rope in the mouth and behind the canine teeth, then snub them to a post – that works well, but it’s a technique you should use very sparingly, and probably only for big jobs. To top it off, pigs begin to get stressed, hot, and mad easily – as soon as you start to get physical with a pig (tackle/throw/tip/restrain), they get stubborn and respond in kind. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather that my animals not die from the stress of doctoring them. Oh, yeah, and a big ol’ hog can turn back and bite like an alligator – seems like everybody I meet feels compelled to share at least one helpful story of somebody they knew who was killed or maimed by a pig.
To be honest, though, I enjoy working the pigs – despite all the above, they’re really just like any other stock, and all you have to do is use your common sense, not get in a hurry, and put yourself in a pig mindset. Truth to tell, it also helps to have someone around to tell you when you’re beginning to get stressed, hot, mad, and stubborn (sound familiar?). When that happens, it’s time to take a break and rethink your approach. To me, though, the most important thing is just to handle them regularly in low-stress situations, and get them accustomed to handling the way you want them to handle. Ultimately, you are responsible for how your stock handle – you train them with every interaction. I see a lot of people who never really handle their stock at all: some just pet them and feed them & are afraid to push them a little; others literally never approach them, just tip feed into a trough and walk away. Either way is a recipe for trouble – when comes time to doctor/load/move, the pigs that have only been petted and loved won’t respond to cues, while the ones that have never been touched will just be wild. It’s not just pigs, either – the point applies to all livestock; every spoiled, wild, crazy horse, steer, and sheep I’ve ever dealt with has been the direct result of some person who just didn’t know how to work animals. It’s a failure of basic stockmanship.
I’ll climb off the soapbox now. No. On second thought, I won’t. The above has been all about the how – but what about the why? Working big animals (especially big, unfamiliar, potentially dangerous animals) can make a person a bit nervy, but it’s just something that has to be done. The two extremes I described above (people who keep their stock as essentially pets and those who never handle them at all) are also visible in the different attitudes to doctoring in general. There are a lot of people in the sustainable farming world who make humane treatment and “old fashioned” animal raising an excuse not to do any real doctoring. Sometimes they’re afraid to handle the animals, other times they don’t want to stress the animal or do anything that it might find unpleasant. I sympathize, but to me basic doctoring is part of the responsibility we have to the animals.
On the other hand, some modern producers over-medicate, over-concentrate, and try to control every aspect of their animals’ growth and environment. I’m not afraid of antibiotics or modern medicine – since we have these incredibly powerful tools to keep our stock healthy, why would we not use them? At the same time, there has to be a happy medium between never doctoring anything and just blindly dosing everything with prophylactic antibiotics. That’s where I try to stay – in that happy medium. If I have a sick individual, I will happily dose it with the appropriate modern treatment, within the use guidelines for the medicine, and providing an appropriate withdrawal period. With, of course, due consideration that doing so raises production cost – whether it’s worth it is a calculation that the producer has to make for each intervention.
There are a lot of unpleasant jobs associated with raising animals, but they’re part of our duty to the animals – if we are raising them as food (we are, in case there was any question), the very least we can do is to respect them and do our best to keep them in good health. I won’t put off a necessary intervention just because it’s unpleasant (for me, or for the animal); counterintuitive as it may seem, that to me is an important part of treating your animals well.