The French Pig (from salt to ham)

A Fine Romance

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Some of you know that the first thing I do when I wake up every morning is take a picture out the nearest window. This morning was no different save the fact that I am in France and it is a crispy cold day with frost on the roof tiles and the only cloud in the sky is caressing the top of that mountain over there.

Otherwise, I am the same disaster that I am every morning. Disorganized and confused until well into my second cafe au lait. That's when Josette comes to give us a Cliffs Notes version of what awaits us. This takes a little longer than we expected.

So we rush up the mountain, past the village of Lasse, past the sheep meadow where we saw our solitary pilgrim the first time, past the half constructed feeding shelter, and to where we had conjectured (correctly) that Jean Guenard's farm was.

It was a beautiful, bright mountain day. Jean Guenard had the sunny disposition to match it. After some quick handshakes, Kate and I ran back to the ham mobile (as we are now calling the van) to grab gear and change into boots. Properly geared up, we entered the first building.

I must admit, neither Kate nor I had expected such a big operation. It turns out that this breeding, farrowing, weaning facility (there are much lovelier terms for this in French) maintains about 500 sows at a time. Down from the 800 sows he had before recent regulations mandated group confinement as opposed to single stall confinement. The breeding farms are converting to comply to the new rules at the expense of the farmers. The two farmers we talked to are reducing their herds and repartitioning the buildings they have rather than building larger facilities. There is some debate about whether group confinement is better. It's a big, country-wide experiment in hopes of more humane conditions. The cleverer farmers will find the solutions to keep the balance sheets in their favor. Josette is doing the same with her animals on her smaller farm so we'll see how it works out over the next year, I guess.

Our first stop is the record keeping room, which also looked to be the locker room for the caretakers. The buildings are long structures made of cinder block with clay tile roofs, wooden doors, cement floors. Stepping inside one knows immediately this is no hobby farm. He points out a horizontal scroll stretched out on the wall of this room: a calendar. A fertility-pregnancy-farrowing schedule. I'm going to order one of these so I can try to figure out how they work. I like calendars. 

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The sows are kept in groups of 28 or so that move through their cycles together. Female pigs (sows) go into heat (estrus) approximately every 21 days. When it gets to be about that time, the sows are moved to a pen in the company of a boar (a male pig). This should get her ovulating if she isn't already. That means eggs are moving down Fallopian tubes ready to be fertilized by sperm.

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M. Guenard then points out the metal card catalog thing on another wall. Each card is a record of each individual sow's career. Each pregnancy is recorded: the number of piglets born, the number that survive, how much milk she gave, and anything else remarkable (like loss of weight or appetite, or complications during birth).

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Underneath the scroll calendar is a small dorm-style fridge. He opens it and pulls out these sealed plastic sacks with bar codes on them. These contain boar semen. Josette had explained to us how the semen is collected, tested for viability and um, she used a term like "washed" or "cleaned" (I guess I need to figure out what that means). Then it's put in a nutrient-rich solution that keeps the sperm healthy and viable.

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I must preface this by saying that we didn't witness this next part. Insemination day is always Tuesday. Our appointment was on Wednesday morning. But here's what I know. So you've got a batch of 28 hot-to-trot ovulating pigs. You take a bag of semen hang it from a hook on a stand next to the sow's stall. Attach that to a tube that is inserted in the sow's vagina until it enters her cervix. Then, drip, drip, drip. That is how the sperm is delivered to the waiting eggs.

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No roses, no champagne, no Al Green sound track.