This past weekend, we had to put ear tags on 17 weanling piglets and 2 young adult pigs. We'd been busy and let the task wait longer than it should have---plus, the piglets from our sow Cerridwen have been growing extremely fast this time around---so many of these piglets were significantly bigger than they usually are when we tag them.
If you've ever tried to hold onto a thrashing, screeching piglet, you know that they are made up entirely of muscle, wriggle, and squeal. I would much rather try to hold onto a 200 lb. ram or a 500 lb. calf than a 50 lb. piglet. So Ken and I weren't really looking forward to spending an afternoon wrestling 19 not-so-little squealers.
That's when I came up with a plan for building a catch crate to help us catch and hold the piggies so the ear tagging task would go quicker and easier for everyone. My premise was that piglets nip each others' ears all the time when playing, so the pinch of the ear tagger is not the traumatic part of the process. The part that makes the piggies panic and scream is when you grab them and either hoist them off the ground or otherwise try to immobilize them. So if our catch crate could let them keep all 4 feet on the ground, but still help us hold them still enough to do the deed, then it would be a win/win for animals and people too.
We walked out the the pig pasture with a yardstick and measured the height, width, and length of the pigs to make sure our crate would be the right size. We didn't make it big enough to hold full grown adult pigs, but it will hold just about every size smaller than that. (We raise American Guinea hogs, which are a smaller breed. If you raise a larger breed, you may need to adjust the size of your crate accordingly, or else just make sure to take your piglets at a younger age)
Then we scavenged around the farmyard for scraps of lumber and fence panels that were no longer needed for any other task. A little bit of discussion of how the whole thing would function, and then Ken set to work building the crate. Because of its very simple design, it took very little time at all to put together, and used only materials we already had lying around.
Here's the result. The framework and sides are made from 2x4s. The boards on the sides are spaced about 3.5" apart, which is too small for a piglet to escape through, but wide enough so that lots of light comes in and prevents the crate from feeling claustrophobic and "trap like" to the pigs. Our piglets were not at all scared to enter the crate when we used it, thanks to its light, open appearance.
The ends of the crate are made from sections of rigid metal fence panels. They slide down between the 2x4 frame and some extra pieces of 2x2 screwed in specifically to hold the grates in position. There is also a piece of fence panel forming a roof to the crate so no acrobatic piglets can jump out the top. This roof can be positioned on top of any of the side boards, depending on the height of your piglets. Because we liked having the roof panel be adjustable, we didn't fasten it permanently. It is just tied on with baling twine.
The grates at each end slide up and down between the wooden braces. You slide up one end so the piglets can go inside, then close it behind them, catching them securely in the crate. When you're done, you slide up the other grate to open the other end, and the piglet walks out.
Because we made our crate big enough to fit even our 7 month old young adult pigs, many of the younger piglets can easily turn and move around inside the crate. But that doesn't end up being much of a problem because no matter what position the piglets are in, you can easily reach in through the sides or down through the top and get your hands on the piglets to do the ear tagging (or whatever other procedure needs to be done).
To decrease the amount of room the piglets had to squirm away while in the crate, we allowed between 1 and 4 piglets into the crate at a time, depending on how big they were.
Our little dog Leeloo reluctantly agreed to demonstrate how the piggy crate works.
"Can I come out now? It's boring in here."
Thank you Leeloo. Good job!
To use the crate, we used feed to coax all the piglets into one of the lambing pens in the barn. Then we placed the crate at the entrance so that when we opened the lambing pen gate a little, the piglets would funnel themselves directly into the crate. For the most part, they did this willingly with no coaxing at all on our part, but when the last few piglets were slower to approach another little sprinkling of feed encouraged them to come right in.
Because there was still some room for the piglets to move around in the crate, ear tagging was still a 2-person job, with one person helping to keep the piglet still and the other wielding the tagger. However, nobody had to hoist any screaming piglets, and if one happened to slip out of our grasp, it didn't run away and need to be caught all over again, so the crate was a huge labor saver. A few of the piglets did still struggle against being immobilized, but others were so busy eating the sprinkled feed, they barely even noticed when they got tagged.
We did find out the hard way that we had to be careful when reaching down through the top grate that we had to be careful not to gouge our arms on the sharp, just-cut end wires. Ken says that if he takes the time to file the ends a bit, that danger can be removed.
Please note: The crate does NOT have a plywood bottom. It is just sitting on a piece of plywood for the purposes of picture taking. We had thought about putting a bottom on the crate, but decided that it was heavy enough that the piglets would not be able to readily lift it with their snouts and escape out underneath. In retrospect, we are glad we didn't put in a floor because while they were in the crate the piggies deposited a lot of piggy poop, which would have been a pain to clean out from inside an enclosed crate. But without a floor, we could just lift the crate up and move it elsewhere, then clean up the mess left behind afterwards.