"Farming naturally", sure sounds really romantic. Very rewarding too. You get to enjoy the fruits of your labor without applying chemicals or resorting to "conventional" methods. No hormones, no antibiotics, nothing artificial... Just farming naturally. Sun, rain and soil. That's farming naturally.
And then - suddenly and without warning, one morning your female breeder pig is so sick she can't even stand on her own. The pig you had bonded with because she was expected to around for years. So sick in fact her time left with you is now abruptly counted in hours.
Suddenly all your bucolic wonderment comes crashing down around your muddy boots. She's sick and clearly getting worse with her every passing breath. In the nearby weeds her littermate comes to investigate and through misty eyes you see he's not well either. As you rise to a stand over her sickly and unconscious body, across the 7 acre paddock for 6 pigs, you see a third hog faltering in its stride. Within hours of the first onset of symptoms over half the herd is heading down at a pace thats less than hopeful. Have we failed? Where did we go wrong "farming naturally" I wonder as a lone tear falls to the muddy pasture. Farming naturally can suck.
Of course there's a juxtaposition here, really - symptoms, remedies, treatment options, phone calls to the knowledgable, discussion groups, internet forums, Facebook updates and Tweets all from the sick pigs bedside via the iPhone. Is that farming naturally or is that community farming in 2011 via 3G? When treatment options and diagnose confirmations come in from Australia and the UK as opposed to the empty farms that now are scattered across the local landscape am I still farming naturally? Is this sustainable?
Then there's the defining moments. The recognition that Olivanders cough from day one was likely a sub-clinical inflammation of his tonsils. That even though we practiced good decontamination procedures for him before his introduction to the herd, the Erysipelas causing organism (Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae) was still present and he passed it along. THAT'S why he hadn't been gaining weight the way he should have been! That's a risk from a factory farm animal. Painful lessons learned. Now - the boar we brought to the farm to breed generations for us is the source of an infection that may plague us for years because it lives in the soil for so long... and the outbreak now threatened all our pigs.
Then comes the moment you need to make a decision. The fork in the road that determines your future path. Our "hands on" daily interaction with our pigs allowed us to catch the Erysipelas before we lost any and it's highly treatable... with a couple of injections of penicillin. Is that farming naturally? Sustainable? Our only gilt (girl who can breed) is so sick she can't lift her head, can't (won't) drink, there's no alternative - it's either an intramuscular injection of an antibiotic or death. If we were certified organic our only choice would have been taken from us already and the backhoe would have been out digging a large hole. Others were clearly falling ill too - pigs that won't eat are sick pigs - to inject or not to inject. Is a natural antibiotic like penicillin when used to treat an acute infection and hopefully save pigs that would otherwise die NOT farming naturally? Is saving the life of an animal that we have done everything we could to provide it the best life we could - fostered an environment where a pig can be a pig as well best we could... does that animal deserve to NOT live because the solution to the aliment is an injection? If it was me or Kelli or your family member - would your moral high ground and abhorrence of antibiotics in "conventional" farming prevent you from administering a simple injection that would save a life? Hand me the syringe, I'm going in... maybe I care too much or maybe the moral high-ground is over rated.
Antibiotics were referred to as the "wonder drug" when they were discovered. Then over time they have become so overused their potency is limited by resistance. Somewhere in the "modernization" of the food industry someone decided that keeping low doses on antibiotics in overcrowded animal pens was a good idea too. The result is rising antibiotic resistance in bacteria all over the world - resistance that can make a simple surgery life threatening. People get a sniffle, claim its a sinus infection and demand pills from their doctor. All this made me wonder as I withdrew the needle from her shoulder, will this even work?
As I walked to the house in the dark the mud on my boots weighed heavier than you can imagine. Behind me was a gilt I didn't expect to see the light of another day. In front of me was a future where antibiotics aren't a "wonder drug" anymore. In my cold hand was a vial of penicillin and a used syringe. I was stumbling in the dark across a pristine pasture... farming naturally... to what end? In a year that has challenged me in ways I never expected, my mettle was being tested again and I felt it's brittleness cracking under the strain. Was the decision I had made right or wrong? Was that the last brush of my hand across her head? "I'll miss you little Hermione, you were a great pig" I said as I put the bottle of penicillin back into the refrigerator like so many other farms across America.
6 days of treatment later the herd is healthy again, Hermione and Ollie had become friends, hell, he was even gaining weight! The pigs had all stopped coughing and were more than happy to run from the far end of their 7 acre pasture to meet me when I came with apples and pumpkins for them to enjoy. 6 days of measured and orally administered tetracycline for all the pigs brought them all back from their fall into illness, or back from the precipice of illness. 6 days of treatment ensured that the organism was beaten back and the pigs imune systems could clean up anything that was left. It ensured that there would not be resistance developing, at least ensured that as much as any CORRECT usage of antibiotics can ensure.
The Road Ahead
Weeks later we consider ourselves out of the woods for now. We know there's Erysipelas here and that all our pigs are susceptible to it. We know we will be vaccinating Hermione and Ollie come breeding time. We know how to jam a massive 16 gauge syringe into a pig and administer the correct dosage of antibiotics. We know how to orally administer dosed antibiotics with a big syringe and lots of molasses. We know the risks of brining animals from outside the farm here too.
Our first broad sweeping disease outbreak and we have no losses. For that we are thankful. We are pretty confident we did the right thing for our pigs and our belief structure... but are we completely sure, I don't know - are you ever? We are hopeful we can eradicate the disease from our farm with rotations and immunizations going forward. As for the bottle of penicillin in the farm refrigerator... we struggle with that. Have you ever watched happy pigs running in the morning sun?