So there we were, sailing along smoothly, with a bounty of piglets in a perfect little symmetrical cycle – two sows in with the boar, job done, a month later the sows come out, and then an average of eight little piglets per litter three months later, left to suckle for their first six to eight weeks before the whole thing would start again. Weren’t we clever? With 12 sows that meant we could produce over 180 pigs for meat per year. And that can mean nearly $200,000 revenue from just the pigs in our direct sales model with full control of the butchering and value adding.

And then one month there were no piglets. The next month (March) the two Marys only gave us 10. And the next month there were none. The ensuing months the decline continued, with some sows simply not getting in pig and others looming large only to deliver further small litters of just four and five piglets.

Stuart noted the decline and decided to start leaving sows in longer with the boar to give them a chance to cycle more times in hopes of getting in pig. To do this, he would leave the first pair in and then add another pair, and another until Borg would have up to six ladies in his paddock. This went on for some months and the situation actually worsened, with just three litters providing 15 piglets over three months. A litter of 11 was lost entirely to foxes when Pink farrowed unexpectedly in the middle of the paddock.

Stuart said he figured we might need a new boar. Borg (our original boar) was just over five years old at this stage, and Elvis was nearing three.

I told Stuart to make sure the litter record was up to date and do some analysis before we made a decision about whether we needed a new boar or new sows (our original sows Big Mama, Keen, and Pink were the same age as Borg). Very caught up in the butchery schedule, managing the still-new processes around the curing room, and overcommitted to my advocacy work for food sovereignty, I foolishly didn’t offer to help with the analysis. It turns out that Stuart wasn’t really sure what to do with the data we’d been capturing about the herd for the previous four years, and also that he’d been getting less diligent about recording all the data.

In May we bought a young boar (Prince) in readiness for when Borg was retired, be that sooner or later…

We knew that Big Mama had failed to get in pig over the past year, and at five years old we slaughtered her in May. It was emotional taking our first sow to the abattoir, but as a commercial farm we had decided years earlier that our sentimental selves needed to accept the realities of what we do – we raise pigs for food, and the breeding herd are all part of that system even though we grow quite attached to them. Being such big old animals we knew the muscles would be full of flavour, and chose to turn them into our farmstead cures of coppa, pancetta, and Eganstown air-cured ham. The size of the hams lend themselves well to curing for longer, and so these hams will be cured for a minimum of two years, with the names of the sows carried through to the packaging to honour them and offer what we hope is a respectful recognition of the part they’ve played at Jonai Farms.

At the start of July Stuart came in from the paddocks with a knitted brow and told me we were in serious strife, with not enough pigs on the ground to meet our commitments to our CSA members. He’d done a stocktake of exactly how many growers we had out on the paddocks and worked out we only had half as many as we normally would have. In May we had cut back from slaughtering eight to six pigs per fortnight as we were worried about the shortfall, but the new count showed we had to cut back to a mere three pigs per fortnight to make it to the end of the year. It was a blow.

I finally got my distracted head back in the game and swung into action. Updating the spreadsheet with Stuart’s memory of where he’d left gaps was a frustrating exercise to say the least. I think it’s fair to say the situation tested us as life and business partners, but that while it was difficult and stressful, we both handled things as generously and graciously as possible while feeling alternately angry and guilty for the part we’d both played in not identifying and addressing the decline in fertility earlier. But there’s nothing to be gained by simply pointing fingers and having tantrums – it was time to move forward.

Some pretty simple analysis with the spreadsheet quickly told me that Borg was the problem. He’d only sired two litters in the previous year to Elvis’ successful 12. Like with our first sow, it was sad to make the call to end Borg’s life, but again these are the realities of livestock farming – most of us can’t afford to treat our breeders as pets when they’re no longer productive, neither financially nor in land use.

We separated Borg from the girls to reduce the risk of boar taint when he was slaughtered, and at five and a half years old we turned him into the most delicious Cumberland sausages I have ever made, loaded with garlic-infused red wine, bay leaves, and heaps of fresh herbs from the garden. I used the fat from younger pigs to further reduce the risk of taint, and was surprised and delighted to find they had no trace at all of it.

At the point where we had at last gained clarity after six months of fumbling along we brought our vet in to preg test the rest of the sows to see what the next four months looked like for us. As expected, none of the sows who had been exclusively with Borg were pregnant, but happily most of those Stuart had joined with Elvis were.

We discussed all the variables that might have got us into trouble in the first place with our vet:

  • an older breeding herd;
  • lack of diversity of the genetics in a heritage breed;
  • a very hot, dry autumn, summer, and spring – high temperatures are known to cause seasonal infertility and we’d had three of those seasons consecutively;
  • the addition of cheese to the pigs’ diet – too much sodium could affect fertility;
  • overweight sows due to too much cheese in their diet; and
  • putting too many sows in for long periods with the boar, which could affect his semen count or even his interest in joining.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to say which of these variables have affected the herd over the past year the most. Clearly Borg was no longer viable, and we’re seeing regular litters again from Elvis and now also Prince, so that’s one problem solved (for now). But we’re still getting smaller litters than we were in the first few years – averaging six when we had reached eight when things were at their best. Overall our average pre-weaning mortality (stillbirths and squashing) for the past five years is 14%, but this year it went up as high as 26%.

We’ve just ordered another young boar to replace Elvis in the next year, and we’ve made the decision to bring in a Duroc terminal sire. Our reasoning is that with the limited lines available in Australia we’re at continued risk if we don’t ensure greater diversity in the herd to get our litter sizes back up. The Duroc genetics should also give us slightly larger piglets at birth so a higher survival rate would be expected. We’ll continue to select gilts from the purebreds to try to do our part to maintain the Large Black genetics in Australia.

We’re also doing more research on the pigs’ feed – we currently feed a mixed ration of a majority spent brewers’ grain from a local brewery, pelletised grain (primarily wheat, barley and lupins), and Stuart is just re-introducing a small amount of the seconds cheese to increase the protein (especially lysine) again without overfeeding and creating a fat or sodium issue. We’re also focusing on learning what fodder crops will work in our climate – hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters – in order to reduce our reliance on commercial grain while maintaining the appropriate nutrition for the pigs’ growth and reproductive health.

During the period of greatest crisis (between June and September), we made the decision to buy a dozen young growers from two other free-range farms we trust and grow them on to supplement the meat in our system. They were Large Blacks like ours, though a few were crossed with Berkshire. As a butcher I find different breeds on different feed can bring astonishing variations in meat quality. In this case, the pig carcasses from one of the farms had very poor structure in the meat and the fat. The flavour, while good enough and certainly not bad, lacked the sweetness of our pork. But it was the texture – the structure – that was strikingly different. It was flaccid, and the fat wasn’t the usual white, firm sponginess we’re used to, it was almost beige or light brown, and had an oiliness to it, as well as lacking structure. In one batch of bacon the fat actually rendered out – when I cut open a block there was just a pool of fat… we pulled that piece from production and ate it at home. Again, there was nothing really wrong with the flavour, but it didn’t sing like our pork and the sloppiness was quite unappealing.

When we asked the farmers about the pigs’ feed before they came to us, we learned that they’re fed primarily on cracked barley, but also get some linseed and hemp seed oil. That coupled with less groundcover on the paddocks in the more marginal country where they farm seems to have resulted in insufficient protein and perhaps trace minerals (?) to grow healthy, strong muscles. It was yet another lesson for us – we saw and tasted firsthand the difference the right feed can make (and yet acknowledge our feed may still be contributing to the reproductive issues…).

Aside from the fact that as a tragic optimist I can tally all of this difficult year up to be a sum total of massive learning and improving as farmers, the serious good news story to come out of this is the success of community-supported agriculture (CSA). Back in July I had the unenviable task of writing to our wonderful community of CSA members to tell them of our plight, and to ask for their support. While CSA is explicitly a risk-sharing model where the members are asked to support farmers through difficult growing periods and the vagaries of nature, we didn’t really think we’d ever have to test the model in this way. It’s fruit and vegetable farmers who are more vulnerable to fickle nature, right? A hard frost or a severe windstorm is the sort of thing that might wipe out a crop, but it doesn’t faze a hardy herd of pigs. Well, turns out fertility can be just as unpredictable as the weather…

I wrote to the members and told them their bags might not be as heavy as what they signed up for, but that I would add some of the high-value cures, bone broths, or extra beef to make up for it if that was okay with them. I pressed ‘send’ and held my breath… and then I wept as the responses flooded in… they were overhwlemingly supportive, kind, and appreciative of our transparency in all parts of the farm. Without our members, we might have simply copped a nearly 50% loss in sales, but instead we only suffered some 15 or 20% loss.

Nobody had to go get another job, we know a lot more about pigs’ reproductive health and nutritional needs than we did a year ago, and production is increasing steadily back towards normal. If our story helps even one other farmer identify fertility issues more quickly and avoid what we’ve been through this year then telling this story will have been worth it. And if the non-farming folk out there read this and have a greater appreciation for the complicated variables farmers deal with every day to get food to your table then it’s definitely worth it.

This was a hard story to write. While we’re committed to radical transparency to do our bit to repair our broken food system, sharing failures is scary and makes me feel vulnerable and conscious of the uncharitable ways some might use it to disparage our efforts. But there it is, we’re learning and sharing and doing our best.

In recollecting the past year with all the benefit of hindsight I’m totally exasperated by our early inaction to start addressing the problem systematically and seek the right advice. I’ve been banging on for some time about the importance of keeping good litter records, but your records are only as good as the data you collect, and they’re only useful if you analyse that data. And even once you’ve analysed it, there may be multiple factors at play and solving farming problems is a complex matter… and an incredibly interesting and rewarding one when you start to crack the code again!

To the farmers and vets out there - please feel free to offer your experiences, advice, and wisdom. We welcome feedback from those who know more or differently than us!

And here’s to a more fruitful and focused year ahead!