This blog reports events and interesting tidbits from Rensselaer, Indiana and the surrounding area.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Everything is better with bacon (part 2)

(In the previous post about the grand opening of the Pig Adventure, we had just boarded the bus.)

The Pig Adventure is about a mile north of the Fair Oaks Farm Visitors' Center. Unlike the dairy tours, in which much of what you see is from the bus, the bus trip is only transportation. The fun does not start until you exit the bus and enter the building. And there you discover that they know that the modern generation wants a high tech experience. As you enter the first room, you are greeted by various employees from a screen that melds into a static picture of the barn.
 To get to the pigs, you have to go through the shower room. There is no actual water, and I did not hear the sounds of a shower, but the room emphasizes that the main reason that visitors are kept separate from the pigs is not to protect the people but to protect the pigs. When the workers go to work with the pigs, they take a shower before they enter the barn. (I am not sure if they take one as they leave the barn.)
 Once through the shower room, the visitor enters a long hallway going north-south. From this hallway three hallways extend to the east. The temptation is to begin with the central one, as I did, but it may make more sense to go to the one furthest south. It is the least interesting of the hallways because most of the rooms along it are empty. Only two had pigs when I was there.
 Because I was not paying attention, I had to ask what was going on in this hallway. To understand the answer, one must understand that this facility is only one piece in the raising of a pig to become pork chops and bacon. Belstra operates several other pig production facilities, but they are all unlike this one. In their other facilities they produce pigs to become mothers. The pigs shown above are some of those pigs. They were brought here as very young pigs, less than a month old, and in this part of the building they eat and grow up.

The Pig Adventure facility produces piglets not to become momma pigs, but to become food. None of the piglets that are born here will get a chance to reproduce. Their mommas are from a breed that has been created to produce great momma pigs. Their pappas are from a different breed. I guess that makes the piglets a hybrid, a hybrid that grows fast and produces delicious, tender pork.

From the north windows of this wing you can see the next wing, which is much bigger.
 You can sense that excitement of the middle wing as you enter. There is a pig dictionary. A gilt is a female pig that has not yet given birth (or farrowed, in pig talk). A sow is a momma pig. A boar is a pappa pig. And barrow is a castrated pig, or in the genteel talk of the board, one that can no longer reproduce. (I forgot to ask if all the male piglets were castrated. I suspect that they are.)
 This middle wing is a huge barn with no dividing walls. The pigs in here are either pregnant or waiting to become pregnant. Below you can see a feeding station, the area with a couple of bars on top. Each pig has an electronic tag. As it enters the feeding station, that tag is read and the appropriate serving of feed is dispensed. If a pig has reached its daily allotment, it will get no more food. (The pigs cannot pig out like many humans do.)
 On the north side of the barn the pigs are in individual stalls with paint on their backs. These are the pigs that are being artificially inseminated. The paint tags tell how many times they have been inseminated and what week of heat they are in. A pig has a "three strikes and you are out" rule. I did not ask what happens if they do not get pregnant, but my guess is that if they are part of the 5% of pigs that do not, they are replaced by a gilt in the south wing. And when they go to market, they do not become pork chops and bacon. They are a breed that produces mommas and they are not as tasty as their cross-bred offspring. They will be served up as sausage.
When a gilt or sow has almost finished her pregnancy (about 114 days, or three months, three weeks, and three days), she is moved to the wing that will probably be the most popular part of the Pig Adventure, the birthing and nursing wing. Below is the courtyard between these two wings. Notice the large fans that are common not only on large pig farms, but also on some other barns for large-scale animal production.
 The birthing wing has the longest hallway and it has very few displays other than touch-screen information stations. There are about a dozen rooms and each room has pigs at a different stage of the birthing/nursing cycle. On grand opening day the births were happening in the eastern half of room 4.
There is not a lot of activity--the sows eat and the piglets nurse. I heard a woman explain to her son that the piglets were getting milk from their mother, and the son was surprised that pigs gave milk. She then explained that that was the mammalian way and even applied to humans. Kids can learn a lot about the birds and the bees from the Pig Adventure.
These momma pigs each have 12 or 14 nipples and usually have litters to match. Those with unusually large litters will have some of their offspring taken away and given to sows that have unusually small litters, so in the rooms with older piglets, all the litters appear to be about the same size.

The guides (if that is the proper name for them) were very informative and helpful. I could not resist asking a couple what the most unusual question was that they had gotten so far. One said that some kid asked if the Pig Adventure had a milking parlor like the dairy farms had. I bet they get much odder questions in the next few months.

A highlight of the wing is the introduction to the public of a newly born pig. The human caregiver is behind glass and is heard through a speaker. To communicate with her, you must speak into a microphone on the wall. This little piglet mostly wanted to suck on her arm.
 In a three weeks the piglets are up to 15 pounds and are weaned. At this stage they are sold by the farm to other farms where they will be kept for about six months. At that time they will weigh about 250 pounds and will be ready to fulfill their destiny to become delicious bacon.
I have heard many people wonder if people would react to the Pig Adventure with the same enthusiasm as they have given to the Dairy Adventure. In the Dairy Adventure the product is milk. The fact that the cows will some day become hamburger is not denied, but it is de-emphasized. However, the only reason that these pigs are produced is so that they can be eaten. After going through the Pig Adventure and watching the reactions of the kids and people, I do not think this will be a problem.

The visitors' pavilion was larger than I expected it to be. (It is 22,000 square feet, while the barns below contain about 120,000 square feet.) The whole thing was really well done--it exceeded my expectations.  It is also very different than the Dairy Adventure in how the whole thing is structured. I cannot wait to see what Fair Oaks Farms does next.

With the addition of the Pig Adventure, there is more at Fair Oaks Farms than most people will be able to absorb in one day. Certainly it is no longer a quick stop when traveling on I-65; you can only scratch the surface in a short visit.

For more pictures, see here.

(I have a bunch more pictures, so there will probably be a part 3 of "Everything is better with bacon.")

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