We are right in the middle of sale season, with a lot of live sales and open barns going on the last few weeks and upcoming weeks in Wisconsin, I thought I might share a little insight on what to do when you get home with your project. Some might be well educated in this topic, but every year there are new customers and showman that are in their first year in the swine project. Some may ask questions, while others may be afraid to. The livestock industry, more specifically the show industry, is ever-changing and even experienced breeders or showman always have something to learn along with teaching the younger generations.
Man, have times changed just in the 20 years we have been involved in the show pig project. When we first started showing, we would get them home, fill the self feeder and turn them loose in a pasture (yes, I said pasture) where water was on one end and feed was on the other; that’s how they got their exercise. We didn’t train them to walk or condition their skin and hair and we washed them the day they went to the fair. We have learned so much by talking to other breeders and more experienced showman over the years. Now we hand-feed them, walk them daily, and use conditioner on their skin to give them that “pretty” look. We learn new things every year, if not daily.
So how do we get them to that “pretty” show ring look and trained so they walk like a dream? Time. Patience. Hard work. It seems simple because that’s ideally how you reach your goals, but this starts before you even buy your pig. Having the pens ready to go, having feed on hand, making sure the environment is fit for them to live in (ex. no sharp edges, access to fresh clean water, clean low dust bedding, heat lamp if needed) is crucial to the start of your project.
Next step: pick out your pig. Whether it be for a county fair, state fair or a national show, purebred or crossbred, this step is important. Starting from the ground up is how I like to start to sort them. Making sure their feet and toes all point in the right direction, making sure they aren’t bow-legged or cow-hocked and that their bone size is adequate for their frame size. Once I get those bases covered then I move to width of chest floor, depth of body, muscle shape and overall structure. However, muscle shape isn’t everything when they are that small. Just because they have the most “flashy” big topped look when you are picking them out, doesn’t necessarily mean they will be the best one. Sometimes the best one comes in a greener, more immature package, but if the feet and legs and correctness of structure are there, 9 times out of 10 overall shape can be fed.
So now that you have them picked out and home, where do you start? In the Midwest, we can’t necessarily get them out and start walking them right away due to colder weather. After giving them time to adjust to a new place and potentially new pen mates, we sit in the pen with them, try to brush them or scratch them to gain their trust and tame them down so they aren’t so spooky when we walk in the door. We also always have a radio on so they get used to noise and voices. Once the weather warms up (and hopefully no more snow falls) we take them outside. The first couple of trips outside we try to keep them calm and let them explore a little, as they have been on slats or concrete their whole life, so they don’t know what grass is. Letting them out morning and night, we gradually start to guide them with a show stick or a whip, some will come as naturals, others… not so much. Patience is key, especially when working with the more stubborn ones. The more frustrated you get, the more frustrated and angry they get, but with time and consistent hard work with them, they will get there. Start with shorter walks and build up their endurance by gradually stepping up how long you walk them, without overdoing it. I would advise starting right away trying to train/teach them to walk with their head up, as it gets harder to train as they get older, and some will be naturals while others will be stubborn and harder to train.
Now to get that skin and hair just right. Starting with just brushing them when they are little to get them used to the brush is key. Once they are used to you and the brush, we like to condition them at night after their walk and rinse them in the morning, especially on the hotter days to get the oils off of them. Using a soft brush to brush in the conditioner at night really helps as well. You can use anything from the fancy oils you can purchase from show tack companies, to simple coconut oil or aloe vera, depending what suits you and your program best.
Never be afraid to ask your breeder questions or for advice, that’s part of their job. They are always learning as well. Don’t be afraid to learn or grow as a showman or even a breeder. Some may have way different ideas of how to get started and on walking them/conditioning them, but this way is what works for our program.
Happy Spring Pig Shopping!