A number of components to farming, from the outside, can seem pretty strange. And maybe they are. But generally speaking, farmers continue to do things because those things work. Yet a growing population of small and hobby farmers, informed by resources that challenge the notion of “Do it this way because that’s how it’s done,” are examining strange practices and asking, “Is that really necessary?”
What am I talking about? In this article, I point specifically to docking, or clipping off, piglets’ tails.
If you weren’t aware this happens … well it does, but it’s hardly an act of thoughtless cruelty or an aesthetic choice meant to create a more attractive posterior view. There are reasons farmers snip the tails off their baby piglets, just as there are reasons many farmers choose not to dock tails.
Why Trim Piglets Tails?
First, why would anyone cut the corkscrew tail, such an iconic trait of porcine livestock, from a little piglet? The answer, in short, is because the modern way of raising pigs—confined in tight quarters—necessitates it. A recent study from the University of Minnesota found that when they placed eight, undocked piglets in pens, 41 percent experienced lesions on their tails from biting. In the end, there was a slight reduction in undocked pigs harvested vs. the docked control group (90 percent versus 97), but in those early days, that 41 percent number had a more pernicious meaning: pain. It hurts to have your tail bitten repeatedly by another little piglet, and docking takes that pain, as well as the threat of associated infection, right off the table. Other ailments are associated with tail damage that can follow a pig throughout its life, including spine abscesses and chronic pain.
How Is It Done?
So how is docking done? Typically, piglets are gathered at around three days old, when iron injections are given (it can be done earlier, but don’t dock at birth). A two-person team is ideal—one to hold and one to cut. The piglet is secured in a box filled with clean bedding, then the cutter takes the chosen instrument—teeth clippers (dedicated, not the ones used to clip wolf teeth), sharp scissors, scalpel blade or surgical knife, washed in soapy water and sanitized beforehand—and, in one, smooth cut, removes all but about 16mm of the tail. If done right, bleeding should be minimal and stop in less than a minute, at which point the cutting tool is returned to the sanitizer and piglet placed into a clean creep area. If bleeding persists, application of a tourniquet will usually allow a clot to form. (You can also cauterize the tails or use a burdizzo, which crushes the tail and causes it to die and fall off. An analgesia can help lessen the pain, too.)
It’s Not Always Necessary
Sounds easy enough, but I wouldn’t really know—I’ve never docked a piglet’s tail. Why? Because I don’t raise my pigs in a way the necessitates it—which is to say, the modern conventional method. While technically the cause for tail biting remains unproven, many believe that the close quarters associated with conventional pig production (combined with a near-total lack of stimulus available when pigs are raised inside) create a perfect storm of proximity and boredom that’s relieved by chomping on the squiggly tail in front of a piglet. And because pigs are prone to obsessive behaviors in enclosures, they usually don’t stop with a nibble. When you consider a modern confinement setup, which allows less than three square feet per pig as large as 50 pounds and employs a metal, slatted floor that denies piglets their natural inclination to root in the soil, it’s fairly easy to determine the cause of the tail-biting problem.
I let my piglets out to pasture within the first two weeks of life, and their early days are spent in a sizable farrowing barn with a big, dirt floor, at which they start nosing right away with wild abandon. In my years raising pigs, I’ve seen one with a damaged tail, which I sprayed with disinfectant and noted when it fell off a few days later. (It hadn’t been bitten, but rather crushed while playing.)
I’m no fan of conventional pig farming, but I understand we like bacon and ham too much to feed a nation via small-herd farms like mine. So, for conventional farmers, I fully support tail docking that reduces repeated pain later. But for hobby farmers who like to watch their piglets frolic in the sun, docking might not be necessary on the basis of “just because that’s how it’s always been done.”