The castration of piglets can be a contentious issue in the world of free-range and ethical pig farming, as it should be. It’s a decision less concerned with the animal’s well-being, and more with commercial and husbandry realities. It’s one that we struggled with for some years, eventually choosing to castrate. Our caveats to that decision were:
- We’d only do it if we were able to administer pain relief to the animal.
- We’d only do it if we were properly trained by our vet. I’m happy to learn a lot of things from the Internet, but surgical procedures are not one of them.
It’s still a decision that some may disagree with, and one that I think we should explain fully to our customers. Hence this blog post… 🙂
Firstly, we need to answer the question: “Why castrate at all?” There are a few reasons, and I’ll cover each below.
This is the main reason that most pig farmers castrate, and while some people may be familiar with the concept, most would never have heard the term “boar taint”. Boar taint is a nasty “porky” taste that develops in pubescent male pigs. In effect, they begin to taste the way they smell, and if anybody has ever been around a boar when he’s been within sniffing distance of a girl, they will completely understand what I mean.
This taint comes from the accumulation of two naturally occurring substances in the fat of the pig, namely androstenone and skatole.
Androstenone is a male sex hormone (actually a pheromone) that develops as the boy reaches puberty. Skatole is a digestive by-product formed in the pig’s intestines, and is unaffected by castration. In fact, skatole can develop in female pigs, though it’s rarer. The interesting thing here is that free range pigs almost never have a skatole problem, though it’s common in intensively farmed animals.
One way to avoid taint is to slaughter the animals earlier. This may be the reason that some intensive farms don’t castrate – they grow their animals super quickly, they’re going to slaughter them young anyway, so why go to the hassle and expense of castration? For the record, that’s my conjecture only, though I do know of a couple of intensive farms who don’t routinely castrate.
There are a couple of weird things about taint. Not all boars develop it, though my vet tells me that any boar over a certain weight will have a certain amount of taint, and that only grows as the animal grows. The other thing is that not everybody is sensitive to it. Some people can’t taste it at all, while others are sensitive to even the smell. I’ve read varying statistics around this, some saying it’s 50/50, while others say that around 75% of people are sensitive.
Taint is a big problem, and I believe part of the reason we meet people who can’t touch pork. Most of them describe the porky taste of a roast or chop they had as a kid, and now they can’t face it. Our working theory is that these people are sensitive to taint and once they tasted it they were turned off pork entirely. We’ve managed to bring several of these people back into the fold, and it’s an ongoing mission of ours.
Taint is also a threat to people like us who build a brand around a superior product. It wouldn’t take much by way of tainted pork for our brand to suffer, and that is clearly something we need to avoid. Yes, most of the reason we do what we do, and work the hours that we work, is to promote an ethos of the ethical treatment of stock animals, and in particular pigs. However, the vehicle that allows us to do that is our commercial operation, and we need to protect that.
There are ways to avoid taint without surgical intervention. Firstly, you can slaughter the boys younger, as mentioned above. That’s what many intensive farms do, and it’s an option we went with for years. The problem is that heritage breeds, which are now our focus, grow much more slowly. While they might take longer to get to slaughter weight, they don’t take any longer to get to sexual maturity, meaning we have a taint risk often well before they’re ready for processing.
Another way to manage this, and one that we’ve spoken to our vet about at length, is chemical castration. This requires two injections – one soon after weaning and a second at some stage later in life. The drug is called “Improvac” if you want to look it up, and it’s promoted as a vaccine. Personally, I don’t trust it, though I really can’t coherently explain why. From my research, it’s not a hormone, but it’s always made me wary when I’ve spoken to the vet. It may be an option further down the track, but I’d need to see a lot more evidence before I used it.
Reproductive Herd Management
Now that we castrate, we’re free to run mixed herds of males and females. In the past, we had a couple of instances of what we call “teenage pregnancies”, where we had a young girl unexpectedly impregnated by a herd mate, normally a brother. We tried to be careful about this, splitting boys from girls as soon as we thought there was a risk, but we were still bitten a couple of times.
While this might not seem a huge problem (who doesn’t want more piglets, amiright?!), inbreeding isn’t the way you want to go. We also keep the gilts ear marked for breeding from the boars until they’re of the right size, and invariably the teenage pregnancies were in girls we would deem as being too small.
The ability to run mixed herds makes our life much, much easier. By definition, smaller breeders like us just don’t have that much room. Our modest farm can run a couple of hundred pigs nicely, with everybody having way more room than any free range pig standard we’ve ever seen. However, having to double the number of paddocks to accommodate gender-segregated herds would really put a lot of pressure on that.
General Herd Management
Most women reading this will find my next statement self-evident: males are problematic. It doesn’t matter the species – pig, sheep, cows, goats, human – the males are invariably the hard ones to keep. This may be exacerbated with pigs as they are so very smart and stubborn, and adding hormones and giant tusks to that only makes matters worse.
You see it with any domestic pet, the vet recommends castration as it reduces the incidence of a lot of health problems, it increases the life of the animal, and it generally makes them more docile and happy. Now that doesn’t all translate well to stock management, but the castration of stock does make them much, much easier to manage. With pigs there’s much less fighting, less destruction of fences and gates, and a reduced risk to the people who interact with them.
In summary, castration helps by:
- Removing the risk of boar taint.
- Allowing us to run mixed herds without the risk of inbred teenage pregnancies.
- Makes the animals easier to manage.
Now the astute reader will look those points over and notice that none of them increase the wellbeing of the animal. We don’t castrate our male piglets because it makes their life easier or better, which is exactly why some people might, based on animal welfare grounds, argue against our decision. I completely understand those arguments, and support the foundation from which they come. However, we are at times faced with conundrums like this where there’s a decision between the happiness and wellbeing of our animals and the reality that is our day-to-day farm and commercial life. If you think about it, this is where intensive farming came from – people always choosing the best commercial path without thinking of the happiness or wellbeing of their animals. That’s not us though. We agonise over these decisions, and we often end up in the position that makes our life much harder. Read my blog posts on our feeding regime for the perfect example.
There are arguments that castrating the pigs removes their abilities to fully exhibit their natural behaviours. That doesn’t bother me so much though. It’s not like we’d put a litter of pigs in a paddock and let the boys fight it out Hunger Games style anyway, which is pretty much what they’d face in a fully natural setting. With testicles, the boys would live on their own, amped up and wanting to fight whenever a girl was within sniffing distance, and would live a much shorter life. I’m comfortable with changing that. No, when debating this within our family, the one barrier to us was the pain and stress on the animals.
Often castration of piglets is done without anaesthetic. This is normally the case when the piglets are castrated at only a day or two old. The arguments are:
- Being that small, the skin etc. is thin and the procedure is really quick.
- Waiting for anaesthetic to kick in adds extra stress to the animal.
- The drugs are really expensive.
I’ve met vets and intensive farmers, and even a couple of free-range farmers, who suggest castrating young without the pain relief. Again, we agonised over that for some time, doing a heap of research and speaking to a heap of experts. In the end, we decided to use anaesthetic. We believe that it gives a better outcome for the piglet, and to me, it removes the one remaining argument against castration.
Again, we spoke to our vet, at length, about how this all works. We’re part of the Herd Health Management program at Roseworthy Vet, meaning we come under their duty of care – they can train us and sell us the drugs with no problems. We had the vet come out, with a group of vet students in tow, to show us how to do it. There was the added bonus here of the vet students being able to have a go too. We love being able to teach the students by having them do some of our work. 😀
At this stage we’d watched it done at an intensive piggery without anaesthetic, and we’ve since done it ourselves many times with anaesthetic. I’m consequently super comfortable with our choice to pay the extra for the drugs. I’ve literally had piglets fall asleep in my arms during the procedure, so little pain did they feel. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a pleasant procedure, and not every piglet dozes through it. However, compared to the alternative of cutting them open without pain relief, I’m really very happy with our choice.
I don’t have a heap of pictures of the actual procedure, and I’m not sure I’d post them if I did. While this is fascinating to people like me, and while the outcomes are of interest to people who are invested in what we do, I doubt that many people want to actually see step-by-step pictures of how it all works. I will describe it though, just to give assurances as to the thoroughness of the process.
Stepwise, this is how it works, from the very beginning:
- Mum and babies are in their farrowing yard – this is a 4 x 4 area in our implement shed with access to their own individual free range outdoor yard.
- Normally the babies are asleep under the heat lamp, or playing in their bedding. In this case, we’ll lure mum outside with some feed and lock her out. We then grab up the boys.
- If the babies are outside or nursing from mum, or in some other configuration that will make this more stressful, then we wait. We castrate up to 3 weeks old, though prefer it to be around a week. This means that if we have to, we can put off the procedure until everybody is in a better position.
- We take the boys over to the house. This is for a couple of reasons:
- We want them as far from mum as we can get them. Any pig, not just the mum, will react to a squealing piglet. It’s actually a fascinating phenomenon – you’ll get every pig within ear shot wanting to come over and help the baby. With that in mind, we take them over to the house, which is a couple of hundred meters away, as quickly as we can.
- We have an external laundry that is perfectly set up for this. We have an old laundry cupboard with a swing-down bench that serves as an operating table. We have full access to water and sinks. It’s double-brick and so never too hot or cold. It’s easy to clean up.
- One person holds the piglet. The position we favour is holding the back legs, with the piglet’s back resting back against your chest, and their rear end tilted slightly up. This allows you to pull their back legs up against their body a bit, thereby making the scrotum area more taught. It effectively pops the testicles out and up a bit.
- The entire area gets a good wash with warm water and antiseptic.
- The piglet gets two lots of pain relieve:
- An oral paste that gives them longer-lasting relief.
- Two injections for each testicle – one in the scrotum where the cut will happen, and one up and behind the testicle where the vas deferens is pulled out.
- There’s a small wait for the injection to take hold on the first testicle. It’s fully kicked in by the time you get to the second one.
- A small cut is made in the scrotum vertically in the middle of where the testicle sits.
- You have to be a bit careful here. If you cut too deeply and cut the testicle, then it kind of oozes out and breaks apart. In that case, you need to try and get hold of whatever you can and pull it out. It’s messy though, and we’re lucky that the vet fully warned us and we’ve been really careful. Even with that, we had it happen once.
- Once the cut is made and is long enough, you can push back on either side and the testicle will pop out.
- You grip the testicle between your pointer and index fingers. You don’t grip it like you were picking something up, using your thumb. Rather, you have the backs of your knuckles touching the piglet, and the testicle is held on the inside of your fingers. In this configuration you are much less likely to lose your grip.
- You pull out and down sharply. What happens is the vas deferens breaks and retracts back into the piglet’s body. There’s no risk of cutting the wrong cord/tube, and there’s nothing left hanging outside the body.
- Repeat for the second testicle.
- Spray with antiseptic.
- Repeat with remaining boys, and get back to mum as soon as you can.
We don’t preventatively apply antibiotics, though we know people who do. We’ve never lost a single piglet to infection. In fact, we’ve never even had one get sick. Hell, we’ve never even had one that looked like it was slowed down in the smallest part. They go back to mum, run around, have a drink, have a tussle with a sibling, and rub their wound in the dirt. They actually do that last one a lot – the wounds are really small, but they invariably rub them in the dirt and mud. By the second day you can sort of see a small cut. After that you’d have to pick them up to see anything.
Like I said before, we spent a long time agonizing over the castration decision. There are a load of pros but also some valid cons. We did everything we could to reduce the cons to next-to-nothing, and I’m fully confident that we’ve managed that. I can say definitively, hand on heart, that our pigs feel very little stress during this process, and what they feel is short-lived.
The question here is this: Are the benefits derived from castration worth the price the piglet pays, namely the stress and pain? We reduce the pain and stress as much as humanly possible, but it’s not completely pain and stress free. I know that there is zero lasting negative impacts to the animal, and so I have personally answered this question. However, it’s a question that needs to be posed to any consumers or potential consumers of our pork. I’ve given you all of our rationale and described the process. In the end though, it’s a question that only you, the consumer, can answer.
ASIDE: You’ll often see people advertising “sow only” or “female only” pork. These are people who are effectively marketing their pork as free of boar taint. After reading my description of boar taint above, I’m sure you can understand why they’d want to assure people that their pork is taint-free. However, I always have to question those claiming to sell pork only from female pigs, and it often doesn’t stand up to logic.
If you’re buying small goods from somebody who claims to only use female pork, then it actually might be the case. There is, on average, a 40% annual turnover of sows in intensive piggeries. That’s a staggering number of sows every year who are culled because they didn’t get pregnant quickly enough, or because they came up lame after developing contact sores in their shed/crate. Much of that meat goes to small goods, so there’s a half-decent chance that your salami does only contain meat from female pigs. My point there would be that you have bigger things to worry about than boar taint. The meat you’re consuming comes from miserable animals and you’re supporting an industry that promotes this misery.
If you’re buying fresh pork, then I would strongly question how the meat can come from only females. Statistically, half the piglets born are male. If every business who advertised female only pork was using only females, then there would be a heap of spare boars running around. Not only that, the meat from a castrated male and a female is indistinguishable, so how would you know?
If you’re buying pork from a producer and they claim that it’s female only… well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that one.
Much like the terms “free range” or “ethical” have been subverted by people just trying to sell more of a product, “female only pork” is now an over-used and pretty much meaningless term. If you see anybody using any of these terms, then ask them the meaning. Ask them how those terms apply to their practices. Ask for specific details. If they can’t supply those details, then go somewhere else.