When I was a teaching assistant in grad school, I found that success was made up of a series of small failures. The program director liked to encourage these missteps as just part of the learning curve.
Couldn’t understand a word of Roland Barthes? Congratulations, you’re in the learning curve.
Spent all night grading student papers only to realize that you completely missed the deadline for one of your own graduate papers? Congratulations, you’re in the learning curve.
Coached and tutored one of your students, only to find that the student still failed the class? Congratulations, you’re in the learning curve.
Folks, we are IN THE LEARNING CURVE of farm operations. It does not feel like something to celebrate just yet, but it’s a necessary phase so we’re trying to maintain a sense of humor about it.
The piggies are one of our many ongoing learning opportunities. We followed the advice of many wiser and more experienced people and “fence trained” our pigs using electric netting. The theory with fence training is that it takes a considerable shock to deter a pig, and once they get shocked, they tend to run forward rather than back up. So you’re supposed to set up an electric fence inside of a sturdy physical fence, so when the pig gets shocked, they can’t just run through the fence. After a couple of shocks, they should learn to steer clear of it.
A fence-trained pig allows you to move your pigs around your pasture enclosed by nothing more than en electrified net. It’s not a physical barrier, it’s a pain (and therefore psychological) barrier. What you don’t want is a pig who learns that a little zap is a fair price to pay for free range of the property.
Our pigs have learned that a little zap is a fair price to pay for free range of the property.
We fence trained them, they all got zapped a few times, and lessons seemed to have been learned, so we graduated the pigs to an area enclosed only by electric netting. They happily munch away at the pasture all day long, but if I come to the fence to check on them, say hello, or bring them a snack, then suddenly they want OUT of the fence to be with me, and nothing can convince them to stay put.
One little pig bravely sizes up me, then the fence. He takes a few steps back, and then goes for it. The 3 more stoic pigs don’t even squeal anymore as they squeeze under the electric netting; they just suck it up and take the zap.
It’s not usually a big deal when they escape the netting. They seem to only do it when we’re home and paying attention to them. We have a large pasture, and it’s well fenced all the way around, so there’s nowhere they can really go. Except last night. Last night they somehow knew that the cattle gate was open, and they ran straight for it. They ran up the driveway and were headed for the open road when our two dogs, Ursula and Dusky, were shocked and delighted to see four little pieces of bacon-on-legs tearing through their rightful doggy territory.
It happened in an instant, but I could see the scenario unfold as clearly as if David Attenborough was narrating. Ursula, our poodle-Australian shepherd mix, saw a job to be done. Those pigs were not where they were supposed to be, and it was her job to fix this terrible situation. She was overwhelmed by the responsibility and started barking and circling. To her credit, she did halt the mad dash for the road and successfully got them turned around.
Unfortunately, Dusky, the border collie mix, was also immediately in the middle of the melee, and her instinctive animal nature is a strong chase/prey drive. Just as Ursula turned the herd around, they passed right under the snout of Dusky, who nabbed the littlest pig her jowls. That little pig also happens to be the most vocal, and he let out a shriek (which could even be heard over my own scream), and a combination of the screaming, and Dusky’s startled realization that this little pint size pig had the density of iron, caused her to let go. I was able to wrestle the dog away while Ursula chased the terrified pigs back through the cattle gate back toward their pen.
In the end, the pigs were all Ok. The little one had a couple of puncture wounds that we then had to treat with hydrogen peroxide (more screaming–only from the pig this time). We now know that the cattle fence needs to be kept closed, and one of our two dogs cannot under any circumstances be allowed in the same space as the pigs.
Congratulations, we’re in the learning curve.
But so are the pigs. They’re smart animals, so I’m cautiously hopeful that their negative experience “on the outside” might deter them from trying that stunt again.
The dogs are also not to be spared from the dreaded learning curve. From the moment we brought the piglets home, the dogs were fascinated. Too fascinated. They were glued to the fence. It was a focused obsession not unlike my own during a season of Project Runway. They needed to learn to give the piglets some space.
So we set up some electric wire about 8 inches from the ground on the dog side of the fence (electric fencing–there’s another learning curve, a story for another time). We turned on the energizer, and waited. It didn’t take long before the piggies grunted and squealed, Dusky got excited, and lunged toward the fence and the piggies.
WHAMMO! Mid-lunge, she got bit by the lightning pig, right in the nose. She came running up to the house, yipping, wondering what the hell just happened. Ursula watched this unfold and looked fairly smug, until she leaned toward the fence to sniff the piggies and ZAP! Bit by the lightning pig! She, too, yipped and ran for the house. It took Dusky a few more zaps to learn her lesson, but they’re pretty good about giving the pig pen a wide buffer zone.
Every once in awhile one of them forgets though, and gets curious about a pig and has to learn all over again. Just yesterday I heard Ursula squeal, and then run yipping all the way into the house, where she sat on my feet quivering. I hugged and petted her, and told her not to worry.
I said, “You’re in the learning curve. We’re all going to get through this.”
[Full disclosure: Josh and I have also been shocked by the electric fence about a dozen times, and it is honestly not that big of a deal. We’re not harming or abusing any animals here. It’s more surprising than painful. (Except when you walk into it forehead first. Josh said that time was genuinely painful. It was nice of him to do that research on our behalf.)]