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What 'heat' means to a Vermont pig farmer

A person bends down to pet a piglet in a bed of hay in a barn on a cold winter day.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Alessandra Rellini pets a week-old piglet at her farm in Panton. They have a new litter about once a month.

Vermont Public reporters are exploring the many meanings of the word "heat." As part of this series, reporter Anna Van Dine visited a farm in Panton, and spoke with Alessandra Rellini. Here's Alessandra in her own words:

(Note: this story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening, if you are able.)

My name is Alessandra Rellini. And I kind of have two hats. I am the owner of a farm — Agricola Farm in Panton. And I'm also a professor in psychology, and my specialty is the way that sexual responses exhibit themselves.

Right now at our farm, we have a flock of 90 Icelandic sheep, we have 180 pigs, a couple hundred chickens and a couple dozen ducks.

Heat is a word that's utilized to talk about the cycle when the female of a species become more likely to get pregnant. So, ovulation. For sheep, that happens seasonally. We have Icelandic sheep, so they tend to go in heat around October, November, when the days become shorter and the nights become longer. And for pigs, instead, they are much closer to us — to humans — and their cycle is 21 days. So every 21 days, they go in heat.

There are certain signs that you see that the ovulation might be occurring. The first thing is the vulva becomes really rich and pinkish, it really becomes engorged. And then they tend to assume the standing position. So if you put pressure on the rump, on the back towards their hips, they'll stand still. And the female pig will start mounting anyone around them, like other females, males, humans, just kind of exhibiting the type of behavior that she would like to be happening. And then the other thing that they show is actually there is a change in their smell: their breath starts smelling like maple syrup.

Six spotted piglets suckle in a corner of a barn. Their mother is laying on a bed of hay.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
This litter of piglets is about a month old; soon they'll be able to be separated from their mother.

At our farm, we are very much always talking like talking about bodily functions such as manure as much as heat, it's a daily conversation because our pigs get in heat on a monthly basis. And we do have litters every month with the pigs. So we always discuss, like, vulvas, we're constantly talking about which pig is in heat or which one smells like, like maple, which one is likely to be in heat, which one is not.

Also if we have a pig's that's supposed to be pregnant, but we noticed that she is in heat again, then we know that she had a miscarriage. So that's also when we can intervene and try to figure out what happened — maybe she's too old, or maybe something went wrong. And so also for her care, that's what we can do.

Two people stand in the entryway of a red barn with their arms around each other. They are wearing work clothes and mud boots.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Alessandra Rellini and Stefano Pinna run Agricola Farm in Panton. They raise pigs, sheep, chickens and ducks.

The important thing about farming is that you are really controlling how many animals you want or can handle at the farm to be successful, both financially but also to be able to provide them the right amount of space that you have, the right amount of care. If we were to let all our sows get pregnant all the time, we would end up with too many piglets.

When I think about my work as a scholar in sexuality and my work at the farm, I find it interesting that what's providing me the greatest amount of insight probably it's my work at the farm feeding into my work as an academic.

There's been many times when things I observe, things that I've seen with my animals, made me consider how would that play out in the human world. And the very sad thing about the study of sexuality is that in the U.S., it's pretty much a taboo. So there are often times this world is really the next frontier in terms of our lack of knowledge. And in this situation with animals, it's a situation when it's less taboo, and by working with them you get to see behavior, you get to observe things, and then you start wondering what the larger implications they have for all mammals. We are lot more similar to them as other people might think.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.