On Tuesday evening we were off on another rural adventure – to our first real (the 4H auction didn’t count) livestock auction. Our goal was to buy a pig for my 4H’er, and maybe, if prices were good, a ‘feeder’ for our freezer this fall. Knowing we would stand out as rubes I attempted to dress for the occasion. I put on a t-shirt and layered a long-sleeved flannel shirt (appropriately bought at Rural King, the farm supply store) over top of it. I added my dirty barn jeans and tucked them into my black rubber boots. Then I spoiled the effect by showing up in a mini-van. Two women and two little girls in a mini-van with the middle seat taken out and replaced by a huge dog crate. Yeah. We stood out like a sore thumb amongst all those pickup trucks and stock trailers!
Leaving Old Blue in the parking lot tucked between two F150 king cabs didn’t make us any less obvious as the auction barn was largely inhabited by worn and craggy old men in overalls and feed store caps who fiddled with their can of chew as they ambled around eyeing the livestock offerings, nodding to neighbors and commenting in a laconic and unintelligible (to the uninitiated) shorthand on the quality of the animals. “Humps his back” one muttered as we peered through the fence at a sizable black boar. “Umm” I replied, uncertain as to whether a humped back was a good thing or bad. The old farmer just looked at me and then spit a stream of tobacco past my feet before moving down the aisle. I hadn’t fooled him for one minute! I directed our party in the opposite direction.
My daughter’s eye was caught by a pen full of half a dozen black and white piglets – not big but not too small and my relative and kids went over to check them out – but I lingered by a pen with three big pink pigs, hefty with large haunches. They looked like Wilbur on steroids, all pink and plump. We had been told that the 4H pig had to be born after January 1st of this year and the idea was to buy a “January” pig. Our pig would compete against the other 4H pigs and since the point is to grow the pig to around 200 pounds a pig born in January would have a better chance of reaching that weight than one born in March or April. The black and white pigs were a bit smaller than the pink ones – maybe February or March pigs. Auction pigs don’t come with pedigrees – you just have to eyeball them. The other criterion was to pick a male pig. Male pigs (barrows) get bigger than female pigs and most of the black and white ones were gilts, or females. Two of the pink pigs were males.
About this time another farmer sidled up next to me and looked over the pink pigs. “They look good,” I said. He responded with a noncommittal noise and then turned and looked me over. “4H?” he asked. Since my daughters had just rejoined me it wasn’t much of a guess. And so began the conversation that was part information and part sales job. He also had a daughter in 4H swine club and quickly ascertained that we would be showing at the same fair this summer. So in a good neighborly fashion he offered advice to the newcomers – just what to look for in a good pig, what sort of price each would fetch (the pink ones would be pricey), what breed was the friendliest (not pink pigs), explained that female pigs were just as good as males (his daughter took reserve champion with a gilt last year) and so on. The girls wanted me to see the cute black and white pigs and he walked over with us – proclaiming them to be one of the friendliest breeds it was possible to find. I suggested they were on the small side compared to the pink pigs. He pointed out that the pink male pigs hadn’t been ‘cut’ and I’d have to find and pay someone to do that. That could raise the price by an additional $40. And the pig might die! He told me horror stories about ruptures complete with graphic descriptions. I eyed the cute, friendly, smaller, female black and white pigs with more interest.
Before long it was time to thread our way through the crowd and find a seat in the arena. We were reassured to see Katie, my daughter’s 4H swine club leader, sitting at the podium. She was going to point out the good pig in group for us. The auction started with the smaller animals – chickens, ducks, rabbits, and even a pot belly pig. I kept my bid number tucked securely in my pocket! Small animals out of the way it was time for equipment – feeders, tack, even egg cartons – and then, finally, the mid-sized animals. Goats went for great prices I was happy to see (although I hope to not sell ours at auction as the animals were very stressed out and unhappy). Then, my daughter tensing beside me, the doors opened and in ran a posse of pigs – small black and white pigs. We were up! There were about ten pigs in total, all running every which way, pursued by the auction assistant who slapped them on the rump with a big flat plastic paddle while the auctioneer warmed up the crowd and got the bidding going. The bid was buyer’s choice meaning the high bidder would choose the pig or pigs he or she wanted and then the bidding would begin again on the remainder until they were all gone.
Starting around $15 the price quickly rose in $5 increments. There was a lot of interest – the deadline for having your animal in hand for 4H is quickly approaching and there weren’t a lot of pigs on offer. The spotters kept scanning the crowd, picking out bidders and I made sure the one on our side of the arena saw me (while at the same time attempting to play it cool, just flicking my card up rather than leaping about and waving my arm) as the bids climbed. Finally the last bid was in. The price had reached $55 and I was the winner! As the auctioneer asked which pig we wanted, Katie leaned over the podium and pointed “the spotty one,” she proclaimed and that one was quickly cut out of the group and the action restarted. We were now proud owners of a small, friendly, female, black and white pig! Oh, and those pink pigs – you can probably guess who got one of those! 4H can be pretty competitive.