Important note to anyone new to castration: If your piglet has an enlarged testicle, he might have a scrotal hernia.  And if so, when you remove the testicle, his intestines will also come through your incision. Some farmers will still castrate the piglets and suture the incision without the use of a veterinarian. Others will skip castration and plan to process before 5 month of age. Some prefer to have a vet perform the procedure since vets can also correct the hernia to prevent long-term health problems or reduced feed to meat conversion ratios. And some commercial processors will simply cull the piglet to avoid potential problems later.

Data suggests that scrotal hernias are only present in about 1.5% of piglets, or less depending on breed.  Yet when you read pig forums, it seems like many small-scale pig raisers have run into this issue.  There is a lot of research to suggest scrotal hernia is genetic and commercial producers generally cull sows and boars who have high rates of litters with scrotal hernia.  So it could be that scrotal hernias are more common among small-scale breeders as we might be less likely to cull sows and boars for economic and personal attachment reasons.  But, it is something you want to be aware of before you make the cut and you might want to ask about instances of scrotal hernias before you buy breeding stock.

Now back to your regularly scheduled blog post…

Remember those cute little piglets I posted about in Piglets and Preparing for Piglets, well today was castration days for the boys.  There is nothing nice about castration. Here’s why:

  • It upsets the sow when you take her babies. And it’s tricky to do.  She needs to be confined so she doesn’t maul you trying to protect them.
  • It upsets the babies when you handle them because they have no idea what you are doing and they probably pick up all sorts of subliminal messages about how bad it is going to be from the person doing the handling.
  • The process is quick but brutal and basically involves making two slits with an Exacto knife and popping out and removing the testicles, one by one.
  • It’s mentally challenging (revolting, actually) for the person who does it.  And since it is also easier to do the procedure with a couple hands to make sure the piglet is completely restrained when each testicle gets pulled or cut, more than one person has to suffer that icky feeling.

But let’s be real.  These pigs are being raised so they can be slaughtered for meat. Worrying about castration in the grand scheme of things is pretty silly. How about repeatedly putting the sows through labor?  Based on observation, labor seems a whole lot worse than castration of piglets on the pain spectrum.

This is farming. Parts of it suck. The goal is to do it quickly, with as little trauma as possible, so the little pig can get back to nursing and otherwise have a pretty good life relative to the way conventional pigs are raised.

Today I was the one making the cuts and doing the removal. Someone had to do it and none of us were looking forward to it. Thanks to my practice at duck processing, and years of cooking, I have some confidence with sharp objects.  So I offered to be the surgeon hoping that I could do a good job, even without experience.

But the cutting wasn’t the only hard part.  We got mama locked up, but didn’t have a great plan for catching the piglets. After realizing how fast those little guys were, we stopped trying to grab them and instead coaxed them into a corner and nudged them them into a pet carrier.

That worked for three of the four boys, but by that point Mama was getting full and losing interest in her feed. So she noticed what we were up to and broke out of the make-shift pen.  We tried to lure the last boy away from her and take him quickly.  We almost did, but then he squealed and Mama Aja turned into a race car/bulldozer and ran Matt down to the ground.

From our perspective, it looked like Aja had gone rabid. She was biting his knee and appeared to be working her way higher up on his body towards his vital organs.  We all raced to the rescue, but before we got there Matt stood up, praised Aja for protecting her baby, and managed to pat her on the head before carefully backing out of the pen to safety.  He later said she wasn’t hurting him, just giving him a a good “chewing out” for trying to take her baby.  And he was fine.  She forgave him right away, but after that unexpected adrenaline rush, we were all ready for a break.  So we decided to postpone the last castration for a day or two to let Mama calm down a bit. We’ll get it done.  Just not today.

Our neighbors, and Matt and I, are new to pig breeding.  But we are now beginning to understand the wisdom of farrowing pens rather than just shelter in pasture. This would include a “creep” which is a heated box that allows the piglets to escape if Mama needs some room to move in her pen and (if designed right) also gives you access to the piglets without having to through Mama.  Also, we now see the importance of castrating earlier, between 3-10 days old, so piglets are easier to handle and have less developed pain and fear sensors as well.  Without a well-planned creep and farrowing pen, it’s hard to even get to the babies that young, since Mama is so protective. And that lack of access is part of why we waited so long.  But we’ll be ready next time.

With the deed behind us, we now see why the process is a bit controversial.  It’s been banned in the UK and a few other countries. Yet, there are  reasons why people still do it.  Castrated pigs are supposed to be easier to handle, particularly if you are raising a few male pigs together.  Managing a 250 pound market-sized pig can already be a challenge without having to deal with testosterone. If you don’t castrate, then you have to raise males separately from females to avoid accidental pregnancy. Depending on the genetics of the pig, unless you slaughter at 5 months of younger, having really bad tasting pork is also a possible side effect of keeping an intact male. And keeping them only until 5 months, would mean slaughtering in mid-summer for us which would be a logistical nightmare on the homestead.

Now, these are just things other people say.  We don’t know them based on our own experience.  But I can tell you with goats that whethers are a whole lot sweeter, easier to manage, and gain weight faster than intact bucklings. And they sure smell better. Tessie, the boar-daddy of these piglets, is very sweet and even easier to handle than Mama Aja, so if taint and accidental copulation weren’t practical considerations, I’d be all in favor of skipping castration and doing our own tests. But we’re homesteaders, trying to live well on limited income.  Raising an animal for 7-8 months to provide meat for our families and then discovering they taste terrible is just not a reasonable option. So, at least this go-round, castration is a necessity.

In case pig castration is on your radar, or you just have a sick curiosity about it, here are two videos we found helpful:

Good Piglet Castration Video 1

Good Piglet Castration Video 2

It’s so wonderful of these folks to share good, free information.  As a bunch of former city people gone country,  watching videos really helps us get our heads around what needs to be done.  Then doing a bit of mental practice before making the cut also built confidence.

The castrated males were running around right after the deed.  But, they did lay down more frequently and gave us dirty looks every chance the got.

I almost forgot to mention, we had one piglet with an undescended testicle. Apparently this happens, so we’ll be on the look out for number 2 to drop so we can figure out how to castrate an even larger, older pig down the road. Won’t that be fun?!