Think OINK project teaches Streator High School agriculture students lessons beyond the textbook

‘Each sow became a teacher as students got to compare and contrast the process’

Sydney Long, a sophomore at Streator High School, holds a baby piglet in the greenhouse at the schools FFA Think OINK project on Tuesday Jan. 25, 2022 in Streator. Long, was one of the students who cared for some sick piglets and came in three times a day including 10:30p.m. at night to help nurse them. Long has plans to study to be a veterinarian after high school.

In the sixth year of the Think OINK project at Streator High School, agriculture students are gaining an understanding for what they can’t control.

The program allows students to experience agriculture production by caring for sows and piglets before, during and after the birthing process.

A week ago, one sow, Pua (named after the pig in Disney’s “Moana”), gave birth to 18 piglets at Streator High School under the care of the students and their instructor. Three of those were stillborn. Four later died from causes that were out of the students’ control. Of those four, all were bottle fed and cared for, yet, they still died.

“As the students have seen this process, they have had the chance to understand there are risks taken and choices associated with production agriculture that is out of a farmer’s control,” said Riley Hintzsche, agricultural educator and FFA advisor at Streator High School. “You have to keep moving forward.”

As soon as students entered the classroom Tuesday afternoon, they observed the piglets behaviors. The piglets feed together and bunch up together, so spotting one away from the group can be a sign of issues, the students explained.

This year, the program had two sows give birth. Along with Pua, Hei Hei (also named from Disney’s “Moana”) gave birth to 11 piglets within the past week.

Brockman Farms, which sponsors the sows, bred too many pigs for the space at their farm, allowing for the program to learn from two sows.

“I don’t think we will ever go back to having one sow as having two has been extremely beneficial to the learning process,” Hintzsche said.

Students were able to compare the two birthing processes. Pua’s litter was larger and her piglets had some struggles because of the litter size. Hei Hei’s litter size was smaller and the piglets were more consistent.

“Naturally, the students noticed the differences in the size of the litter, problems with the farrowing process, and much, much more,” Hintzsche said. “Each sow became a teacher as students got to compare and contrast the process with each sow. I have said it before, this project teaches the kids on its own, but naturally, adding a second sow has increased the opportunity for natural, in-depth learning.”

The project puts much of the responsibility on students, who share many of the chores.

Sophomore Sydney Long, for example, makes trips to the classroom in the morning and at 10:30 p.m. to check on the piglets and feed the sows. She works at Countryside Animal Clinic and wants to be a veterinarian for her career, so she is finding the lessons invaluable.

“I really liked the whole birthing process,” Long said. “I was here when both litters were born and was part of caring for all the sick ones. Just caring for them, and feeding them, you get a feel for them.”

Sophomore Saige McNeill also was at the school for the birth of one of the litters and said it was a different experience than witnessing the birth of a horse, which she also has witnessed.

“I’ve grown up with livestock, horses and cattle,” McNeill said. “The birth of piglets goes by a lot faster. I feel like all the sow’s piglets were born faster than it takes a horse to have one baby.”

She said the best lesson so far has been watching the piglets grow and monitoring their attitudes as they change.

“You’re especially watching, and looking to see if any of them are struggling or looking out of place, or not getting enough milk,” McNeill said.

Another element of the Think OINK project is to share videos and photos on Facebook of the birthing process and give updates, allowing the public to get a window into the classroom.

“It’s important to teach our students that everything we do, everyday, derives from agriculture,” Hintzsche said. “From the food we eat to brushing our teeth and the clothes we wear to the extracurricular choices we make. Each item that is in our daily life, derives from agriculture.

“Although we work with many social media platforms to try and educate the world about swine production, we know that starting in our own backyard and educating our students is the most important place to start.”

Hintzsche said sponsors Crestview ShowPigs, HogSlat of Rochelle, Brockman Farms, Showtime Sires and Earlybird Feed have helped the program be successful.