Spectators watching youngster and pig pairings in a showmanship competition at the Ontario Pork Congress this year might not have known the finality of that close relationship.
Due to biosecurity concerns the market hogs trained by the 4-H children over several months would be heading directly to the butcher shop post haste, leaving their young trainers to return home alone.
At similar competitions in the United States, those competing in showmanship competitions are allowed to take their trained pig from show to show.
Not so at the Bacon Maker Classic where it’s one and done for the show pigs, whether they finish first or last place.
“I cried the first time my pig had to go to the butcher,” said Kelly de Bruyn. That was three years ago when she first competed as a nine year-old with her pig appropriately/fatefully named “Bacon.”
With two more years of additional experience she has stopped naming the pig she has chosen to train for the competition to avoid becoming too attached. Many others in the competition did name their pigs, said de Bruyn.
In any case she managed to keep her emotions in check at the sudden end of the relationship this year.
The four-month-long relationship with her pig began with her choosing from among hundreds of piglets born on her parents’ 750-sow, farrow-to-finish operation near Salford.
Recalling the factors in making that choice in March she said, “It has to look nice.”
To someone familiar with good pig conformation that means not walking on tippy toes, no big arch in its back.
“And dad helped me pick it out,” said de Bruyn referring to her father and Ontario Pork board member John de Bruyn.
Once the favoured pig was chosen there was a period of getting to know one another. This was done initially with treats since pigs are known to like eating.
“I fed it cookies and eggs while sitting with it in the hallway,” said de Bruyn. This eventually led to walking the pig up and down a hallway in the barn.
Under rules of the competition the chosen pig must not weigh more than 25 kg. on March 21.
By the time her pig walked into the show ring on June 22 – many cookies and eggs later – it weighed 130 kg., one of the bigger pigs in the ring that day. Of course it then outweighed its trainer by a factor of two which puts an emphasis on the training aspect in getting a pig moving in the direction you want it to go.
“It’s interesting when a small girl walks into the ring with a big pig,” said de Bruyn. Lots of unexpected things can happen.
At least two hours every week were spent in getting her pig to respond to a touch on the shoulder with a cane.
De Bruyn admits she didn’t spend as much time in training as her brother who trained an hour every day.
However, as one of five de Bruyn children all having participated in showing pigs, she did take advice from an older sister.
“The judge told her she didn’t win because she wasn’t smiling more.”
No doubt smiling helps but placement of the pig in relation to where the judge is standing is more important, said de Bruyn.
That would be in a position always in the judge’s sight line with the pig in between you and the judge, she added.
Although a pig training for a show is separated into a separate pen on the farm with other selected show pigs, it does not fully prepare them for suddenly meeting stranger pigs amid the noise and confusion.
“Putting the cane in front of the pig will distract it from the other pigs,” said de Bruyn. Sometimes.
Several fights did break out between some of the show pigs as they paraded around the ring in the Bacon Maker Classic, separated quickly by those carrying plywood sheets for that purpose. Perhaps less emphasis was placed on temperament in the selection process there.
“Pigs like to bite everything. Sometimes it’s hard to make them focus,” said de Bruyn.
They also like to stop and sniff everything which can make it difficult to keep them moving in the fairly short time competitors have to impress the judge.
Judges don’t like you touching the pig, said de Bruyn, which adds to the challenge of making a pig positioned in a restful pose mobile.
As the critical show day approaches, a routine of gentle washing of the pig is begun to make the pig look its best. This is accompanied by a careful and thorough brushing just before show time.
De Bruyn said her goal is to some day win a placement ranking in the Bacon Maker (formerly the Jr. Barrow Competition) before she retires from training and showing pigs at 18. At that time she hopes to pursue another goal, to become a veterinarian.
“I did pretty good this year,” said de Bruyn, exhibiting a plaque showing she has competed for three years in a row.
There was free time, a quiet time, at the end of the show for a parting of the ways between de Bruyn and her pig of which she took advantage. She understands the reason things are done in preventing disease spreading back to someone’s farm, knowing how devastating that would be for her family’s farm.
In 2014 the showmanship competition had children directing yoga balls around the rings instead of live pigs because the threat of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) was so great.
“I got to say goodbye,” said de Bruyn with more emotion than she would have shown to a yoga ball but not to the point of tears this year.
There will be another pig, another year and if things go well, that top three placement. ◊