Thursday Flop had piglets. Last night Blackie, a Large Black sow, had her winter litter. They are together in the open south end of the hay shed. Above you can see six of Flop’s piglets – the all white ones – as well as Blackie’s eight piglets all of which have markings.
Actually, Blackie probably isn’t just Large Black although she certainly look it. Based on the piglets that she has thrown and what I know of their fathers I suspect she also has some Yorkshire, Berkshire and maybe Tamworth in her. She is the “other line” of sows in our herd. All the rest of our sows, who primarily look like Yorkshires, trace their ancestry back to three common sisters that we first got about five years ago. All of them have piglets from time to time that indicate they have a mix of breeds in their blood line including Berkshire, Tamworth, Glouster Old Spot, Hampshire, Landrace and who knows what. In other words, All American pigs.
I mention that because people often ask me what is the best breed to get. Rather than focusing on breed I recommend looking at the pigs and asking yourself if are the pigs are showing the characteristics you want. For example if you want a lard pig then you want one that puts on a lot of fat and tends to be shorter in the body length – these are called chuffy pigs. If you’re interested in maximum pork chops and bacon then you want a bacon pig which is longer in the body and less fatty. There are pigs that are very lean like Tamworth and Landrace. There are pigs that have more marbling like the Berkshire and Mangalitsa pigs. Temperment, mothering ability, and litter size are also different with different breeds. You can read more about various breeds at this good web site.
I like the heterosis strength of mixed breeds and then selecting for the best of the best with each generation to improve our herd. Most of all, pick pigs that are local and already had several generations to adapt to your climate and the system of raising them that you want to use such as pastured like we do, penned, housed, etc. Pigs have wonderfully plastic genetics and reproduce quickly so they adapt readily. More about that another time…
Yesterday Lisa asked about the farrowing space. During the summer the herds are out on pasture and the sows farrow along the margins, typically in the brush. After about four days to a week they rejoin the herd with piglets in tow.
During the winter we open up the gardens in our central home area of about three acres or so. There are three sided sheds like Flop and Blackie are in. That one is on the end of the hay shed. They share that space with two other sows who are about to farrow, Petra and Flo. Being off together like this away from the rest of the herd lets them have some privacy like they would seek out in the brush during the warmer months.
We have other open sheds are in various gardens or the house end shed. Some we build with pallets in garden areas – these are easy to disassemble the next year. Others are dens dug into the hill and roofed over.
The mother’s bodies are 103°F which provides a nice warm heating pad for the piglets – exactly the right temperature. Sows that are co-mothering tend to sleep close to each other but not quite touching which creates warm area between them for the piglets. Interestingly, when they are without piglets the sows snuggle right up tight all year round. This suggests to me that the spacing is quite purposeful.
Flo, a sister of Flop, is drinking from the blue plastic barrel bottom above. She is very bagged, that is to say her breasts, e.g., udder, are enlarged. Her vulva is also very puffy. Both of these are signs that she’ll farrow her own litter soon, perhaps tonight. I think I saw her showing some contractions as I came in this evening.
Petra, behind and to the right of Flo, is almost as bagged but I think she has another week to go before she’ll give birth to her piglets. I know from experience that Petra tends to get very big breasted and have large litters. She’s an excellent mother although she can be a bit short tempered with the other sows. The last is a trait I want to breed her daughters away from but I’ve tolerated in her. Petra is an aunt to Flip, Flop and Flo.
The above is a typical sleeping scene in weather like now when it isn’t too cold. When the temperatures drop into the deep negatives the pigs disappear under the hay with at most a nose sticking up here and there.
Since we have no barns we work with the materials and spaces that we have. Ideally I think I would like to have greenhouse that would be left open on the south end. It isn’t cold that is a problem but rather wet cold like we get during mud season. A greenhouse would help there and be useful for growing plants to extend our short growing season. We built a simple, small greenhouse one year and it worked quite well for farrowing. For about five years we had a simple lean-too greenhouse running along the south side of the farm house and that was wonderful for us. A greenhouse for the pigs doesn’t need to be heated and can be open on the end for good air circulation which is better for the health. Good fresh air is important to prevent respiratory disease in livestock and farmers.
By having the greenhouse be used for veggies during the nine warmest months of the year we would not need to shovel out the accumulated rich bedding and manure. Instead it would compost in place giving the plants a great source of food. This is how we’ve built up our gardens.
When we first came to the mountain in 1989 we had awful gardens. The soil is nothing to write home about from a gardener’s perspective. Where the pigs, chickens, sheep and other animals have wintered the soil goes from being our typical poor, rocky thin mountain soil to rich organic gardens over the course of a few years. In the summers we grow tomatoes, vine crops, broccoli, cabbage and other heavy feeders – they do super w
ell in these gardens. By making the winter housing be greenhouses I would also be able to use some of the space for extended growing season – something we’re short of here in the mountains of Vermont.
Piglets to be Counted
By the way, counting piglets while their milling around can be quite the challenge, especially when the numbers get high. This is almost two dozen total (some not in photo) but when you’ve got four litters together the total may be 40 or more piglets.
A quick and easy way to count piglets is to get an overhead shot with a camera and then mark each image of a piglet with a dot as you count. I do this in Photoshop and a digital camera so no wasted paper.
Outdoors: 17°F/-1°F Overcast, Spots of Sun
Farm House: 55°F/42°F
Tiny Cottage: 54°F/47°F