My name is Lori Thomas and I was born and raised in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. In 2013 I graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia and accepted a job as a farrowing manager at a sow farm in Thompson, Missouri. I learned more in one year of production than anything I ever read in a text book. To a city kid from St. Louis, this experience has changed my life forever.
My father grew up on a small farm in southern Illinois, which has since turned into rented farm land and a place for the cousins to ride dirt bikes and race go carts. My older brother followed in my dad’s steps and is now a successful engineer and I…. I just love pigs. I was pre-vet (small animal) until my junior year in college when I was offered a job working with pigs. For eight months, I helped a graduate student with data collection and daily chores of eight boars (male pigs). Upon graduation, I was still considering vet school but thought a year in production would be very beneficial. Little did I know, 365 days later, vet school was no longer what I needed to be happy, pigs were.
I am very passionate about the swine industry and because of that, I am passionate about agriculture. I want to share my knowledge about swine production and my story of what I have experienced behind the closed doors of the sow farm. I think consumers struggle to understand why we raise animals in the environments that we do and they fear the welfare of the animals. Coming from a background without agriculture, I can see these struggles and fears. I get it, but hear my story.
I spent exactly one year employed at a sow farm with roughly 10,000 sows and I was tasked with managing farrowing. To my city friends, I explained this as being a nurse to a sow and helping her deliver babies and then caring for these animals until they are weaned. What could honestly be better than playing with piglets all day? Unfortunately, it wasn’t all glamorous. There was power washing, fixing feed lines, treating sick animals, and a list that goes on forever (seriously). A normal day was a 12-13 hour shift, starting at 5:30 am. Farrowing had 15 workers plus management and we worked 12 days on, two days off. Inside the closed doors of this barn, was a family.
I learned a lot in that year that will stick with me forever. I was fresh out of college and was faced with management of people and pigs. It didn’t take me long to learn and practice patience, respect and commitment, to the people and the pigs.
Patience. It takes patience to work with animals. I am 125 lbs and trying to move a 400 lb sow into a farrowing crate (when she has ideas of her own), can be very challenging. Or the constant communication barrier I faced with most of my employees. Trying to teach a job to someone who speaks a different language than you, certainly takes patience.
Respect. There were certainly times when your patience would spread thin. However; we never lost sight of respecting each other and the animals we cared for. For most people, this is a hot topic. What was the welfare of these animals locked inside of this barn? How was their quality of life? For the 365 days of which I was there, I think it was pretty darn good. My friends from home would ask why these pigs weren’t being raised outside, free range, instead of in a crate of any kind. I can see some of these thoughts, as I used to have them myself but at least for me, now it all makes sense. Recall, I was managing farrowing and when these sows farrowed, they were inside, in a crate. Why? With the genetics these pigs have today, they are capable of having several babies (12+, 25 in some cases). However; having this many babies without any assistance, can be challenging. By having them in crates, I am able to monitor the sow as well as her babies. We had 24 hour farrowing care, someone was always there. Not only assisting with delivering the babies (sleeving the sow, drying the babies, getting them up to mom to nurse) but also monitoring them in the days that followed. Are the piglets nursing? Is mom eating and drinking? Are the piglets warm enough? Is mom too hot? These ladies (sows) and their babies were cared for everyday in ways that wouldn’t be possible outside. Maybe having them indoors in a farrowing crate, isn’t so bad? She doesn’t seem to mind.
Maintaining respect of the animals was something we took very seriously. I always think about weaning. We had 60 farrowing crates per room and we would wean first thing in the morning. I would stand at the end of the aisle and count the piglets as the crew would remove them from the crate and into the aisle. I would get to 50 or so pigs and then we would run them out into the hallway. I remember a day when I was attempting to run them into the hall and these weaned pigs were not moving. No matter what method I tried, they were hardly fazed. It was extremely frustrating and apparently it showed. One of the guys, Auggie, stepped in and said he would try and he was instantly successful (he always claimed the pigs spoke Spanish and they weren’t moving because they couldn’t understand me). My point is we were watching out for each other. We didn’t want the others frustrations to get the best of them. We truly cared about the animals we worked with. Believe me, we spent a lot of time with them, they were part of the family.
My life was put on hold for this job (and I wasn’t the only one). Granted, this was a fairly large barn, and it was a new farm. We had our work cut out for us. But we did it and I don’t think I would have it any other way, with any other crew.
I would have taken anyone into our farm. I wasn’t hiding a thing. It is not all glamorous, but what job is? Agriculture is filled with many other professions outside of the pig farm, but I think the same principles exist: patience, respect and commitment. We are real people, with real emotions, who are passionate about what we do. I encourage you to ask any questions you may have about what we do, come and visit with us, hear our story.
Thank you for reading,