By Jon Offredo | 3/15/2010
During the most recent snowstorm, when the roads in some places were impassable and school was cancelled for days, Bernie Shank could only think of one thing – the Berkshire hogs he and other students care for.
“I’ll be at home and I’ll be thinking of the animals, they’re always running through your mind, are they okay, do they have enough water,” said the 16-year-old Hampshire County High School student and Romney resident. “I guess I’m trying to say it just worries you sometimes – it’s kind of like parenting.”
Shank and other students are part of a Hampshire County High School project dedicated to the breeding, rearing and care of several Berkshire hogs owned by the school. The students also take the hogs to be shown at various county fairs and competitions.
Isaac Lewis, the course instructor, said the program is in its third year and has seen relative success and growth.
Recently, one of the school’s hogs won top prize at a competition, with Shank the hog’s caretaker.
The hog was an unlikely winner. When it came time to pick hogs to show, Shank said no one wanted the hog, probably because it had several sunburns. So he took on the hog.
“It was sort of a Cinderella story,” he said.
To this day, Shank still goes and visits the same hog, which spends its time in a pen a few steps away from the high school’s agricultural building.
“I still go up and talk and play with her and stuff,” he said. “Animals are like people you can talk to, sometimes you can talk to them. It’s good to know you have a bond with the animals.”
Brooke Morris, another student in the project, always ends up forming an attachment with one of the animals.
“It’s so hard not to, but you always get attached,” she said.
After pigs reach their later years, the program sells the male boars on, and keeps the females for breeding.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking because you’ve worked so hard with them since they were babies, and you’ve worked with them and worked with them and then sell them,” she said. “It’s kind of life and you have to push it aside and get over it.”
Part of the students’ work is ushering the pigs through their development. They start working with the pigs before they are even born. The gilts, female pigs, are artificially inseminated and the students choose the boar sperm from a web site. The process is akin to online dating, Lewis said.
“You see them through their childhood years, them having children and then you become a grandfather,” Shank said.
Students like Morris routinely travel to the pens, sterilize piglets, wash down the mother and clip the ears of piglets to mark their sex.
When classes travel to the pens to clean and care for the hogs, Lewis does very little. Nearly all of the care is provided by students.
Students also help deliver the babies. Shank remembers the litter before the most recent one. It was the last class of the day, and Lewis had told him the babies were on the way. He immediately called his mom and told her he wasn’t coming home after school. Hours later, he was finished delivering the litter – at 1:30 a.m.
Most recently, a litter of seven piglets was born in January. Another was born as well, but all the piglets were stillborn and died.
“It was kind of heartbreaking,” Shank said. “We now have to figure out how to get a February litter. There’s always a speed bump or something in classes like this, like in everyday farming, but you need to know how to get around this.”
When the program first began, there was little space for the animals, Lewis said. Their first hog, a gilt, was kept in a trailer inside the agricultural science building. As the program grew, Lewis recieved funds and help from the local school board to construct a new building for the pigs.
Now, with the success and recognition the program has received, Lewis is hoping to start construction on what would be a new and advanced building for the hogs. The 3,420 square foot building would have more pens, a classroom, dedicated room for piglets and easier accessibility for students. Lewis said the overall cost will be a little above $100,000.
The new building is slated to be completed by June, just in time for the showing season. With its completion, students will have a better opportunity to continue their learning about livestock care, and about life.
“These animals could never survive without the help of you and it is just really special knowing that someone relies on you,” Shank said.”It’s great to know you have responsibility like that before you actually do become a parent.”
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