Birthing experience teaches lessons for a lifetime

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Members of Tari Costello's Large Animal Science class, from left, Brooke Schultz, Hannah Loomans, Selena Garibo (kneeling), Jennifer Schatz, Norah Ganske, Brianna Asmus, Vanessa Witthun, Mikayla Bruene, Mackenzie Rahn, Serena Freriks, Makenna Kunz and Amber Duscheck, show off a litter of newborn pigs that were born in the classroom.

While most of their classmates were home sound asleep, members of Tari Costello's Large Animal Science class were camped out around a farrowing crate in the animal lab at Waupun High School.

Snuggled into sleeping bags on lawn chairs, students — and a handful of staff members — kept vigil, watching Tia, a 575 lb. crossbred Hampshire sow as she prepared to deliver her much anticipated litter.

Prior to this, ag educator and FFA advisor, Costello said her all-female Large Animal Science class dutifully took notes about swine production, but overnight gained the valuable experience of watching Tia go through the stages of labor before the first piglet made its entrance into the world.

Staff and students gather in the large animal lab, waiting for Tia the sow to deliver her piglets.

Costello says that students were not required to attend, nor did they receive extra credit for staying overnight (and going straight to their first hour class the next morning).

"They were simply provided the opportunity to camp out at school and be a part of something they may never have the opportunity to do again, and that is being a part of one of the most fulfilling parts of production agriculture — seeing new life begin," she said. "I'm sure they were exhausted the next day, but the bonding that went on in this room was incredible."

30-year wait

In the three decades that Costello has been teaching agriculture, it has been her dream to have an animal lab for her animal science classes where students gain hands on interaction with the animals they are studying.

Thanks to the passage of a $36 million referendum in 2016, the Waupun School District was able to construct the Warrior Innovation Center that would provide students with technology education and hands on training in fabrication and welding, along with the new ag shop. 

That new facility "freed up" the space occupied by the old ag shop and Costello and her ag education colleagues were able to take possession of the much needed room last spring. So far agriculture classes have raised broiler chickens and turkeys and farrowed a litter of 10 piglets. After Tia and her babies leave, Costello says that a beef heifer due to freshen in mid-April will take up residence in the lab with two Boer goats and an assortment of companion animals including rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs and geckos. 

Eye-opening experience

In all her years of teaching, Costello says she has never had an ag class populated with all female students. Among those taking the large Animal Science Class are students who have never laid eyes on a real pig before and students like Norah Ganske who has been around pigs since she could walk.

Over the years, the Ganske family has shown pigs through the FFA at fairs in Fond du Lac and Dodge counties and Alto. But Norah wanted to take her pig raising experience a step further.

Norah Ganske assists in the delivery of piglets.

"Each year we send a pig to the Beaver Dam schools for my brother's kids, and (Norah) has been after me to let her bring one of her sows to school," Jason Ganske said. "As soon as (Costello) had the space, she gave us the go ahead."

Norah chose her sow Tia — gifted to her on her 14th birthday — to accompany her to school. The sow was slated to deliver her fourth litter of piglets on Feb. 5. In the days leading up to the big event, the students helped the Ganske's erect a farrowing area and kept Tia clean, comfortable and fed until her confinement date neared.

Big night arrives

As the large sow grew more restless, Ganske and Costello knew it was only a matter of time before the piglets arrived. After school on Tia's due date, students arrived with sleeping bags and blankets and dug in for the wait. 

Just before dawn, the big black and white sow delivered the first of her 12 piglets. Most students were surprised at how quickly the newborns were ushered into the world. However, on three occasions, Norah, her father, Costello and classmate Serena Freriks stepped in to assist the laboring sow.

"As soon as the piglets starting coming, classmates sprang into action, making sure to clear the nasal passages, drying them off with towels, sexing them and weighing them," said Norah Ganske. 

Vanessa Witthun is all smiles as she tends to her newborn piglet shortly after its birth.

Makenna Kunz was tasked with attending to one of the runts of the litter.

"I worked on massaging it to help it start breathing but she eventually died," Kunz said. "I've never been around farm stuff before and I had never had to deal with animals dying."

Continuing care

The day after their delivery, students sprayed the piglet's navels with iodine and clipped the sharp needle teeth. With Norah Ganske leading the way, students injected piglets with iron to help prevent anemia in the young animals. 

Students then notched the small ears of the pigs to help identify the animals. A final task for students will be the castration of the boars before they are 2 weeks old.

"Any time we have students take an animal science class we talk about animal welfare versus animal rights and the difference between the two," Costello said. "We talk about everything we do and make sure the students know why we're doing it so that they understand and have the ability to address those issues and have those same conversations with their peers or their parents."

Waupun ag educator and FFA advisor Tari Costello, left, watches as students find the injection site on newborn piglets during the Large Animal Science class.

Standing back, Costello is more than happy to let Ganske and Freriks (who also has experience raising pigs) take the lead and help mentor students.

"I see a lot of my classmates, especially the ones without a farming background, acting like I did with my first litter. They're so cute and you get attached to them," said Ganske. "But I was raised knowing that their purpose was to be livestock and meant to be eaten."

Freriks enjoys sharing her knowledge with classmates and other students who step into the lab to check on the progress of the litter.

"When they talk about the pigs their eyes just light up and you can tell they're genuinely excited to learn about everything the swine industry has to offer," Freriks said. "And for most kids, this is the first time of seeing pigs of any sort. And it's just such a special experience to have this at our school."

Word gets around

It's hard to keep a secret at school, especially one involving the birth of a dozen piglets.

"It's not your average occurrence at school," laughed Brooke Schultz. "People were really interested and had lots of questions."

Costello said staff members became so absorbed in the impending birth that she began sending out daily emails to keep them apprised of Tia's progress.

"The day after the birth, we probably had over 400 students and teachers come through the lab, checking them out. There was so much learning that went on that day," Costello said. "One teacher sent back an email saying how he used that experience to teach his students about supply and demand and cost of production. It was so cool to see teachers using this experience as part of the curriculum in their classroom."

One question often broached by students and staff was the use of a farrowing crate for the sow – a hotly debated topic among animal activists.

Tia the sow rests comfortably in her farrowing crate after delivering a dozen piglets at Waupun High School.

"I think we are in a good position to advocate for agriculture and the fact that the sow is in confinement right now is for the safety of the piglets and herself," said Waupun FFA officer Mackenzie Rahn. "Even though we're from a rural, small town community, a lot of people don't understand that and it's a goal of mine and FFA members to help educate the public."

According to Farm Bureau, the average American is at least three generations removed from the farm. Although Waupun is still considered a rural school district, Costello says that students enrolling in ag education classes – and even joining FFA – have fewer connections to farming.

"Everyone comes in with such a different skill/knowledge set: everything from a kid who has never seen a pig before much less has the ability to work with one, to someone like Norah who has been in the industry almost all her life," Costello said. "I tell the kids we are going to push them out of their comfort zone with some of these activities, but we are going to explain how we are treating these animals in the most humane way possible and why we are doing these things. We want them to both understand and trust us."

Before taking the class Hannah Loomans was on the fence about seeking a career in either the medical or veterinarian field.

"I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a vet or not but this class has helped push me towards a career in working with animals," she said.

Brooke Schultz, left, and Hannah Loomans enjoy the piglets despite their loud squeals.

After the piglets are weaned around 4 weeks, they will be loaded up and taken back to the Ganske farm. In the meantime, gates will be moved around inside the lab to make ready for another four-legged visitor.

"If we can get kids accustomed to pushing outside of their comfort zone and being OK with that, that's where real learning begins for a lifetime," Costello said.