Four Sows and Piglets


Sow Eating Pears

In the north home field just behind our cottage is a separate pasture where we had moved some of the mothers to be so they could farrow. The piglets do fine out in the larger fields and brush. The reason for wanting sows to farrow in closer is mostly so that we can interact with them. This gives us a chance to tame the piglets when they’re young while most of our 300 or so piglets graze in the other pastures.

The sow above is getting a treat of pears from our nearby trees. I had gathered up a couple of handfuls of drops on my way to the field. We plant pear and apple trees along the fence lines so that in the fall fruit drops into the fields to feed the animals. This saves us from doing most of the pickup of drops and provides additional fall food for the livestock. The fruit trees are protected by the electric fencing which keeps the larger animals off as well as preventing them from compacting the soil around the trees. In repayment, the animals fertilize the soil for the trees.

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While our apples, planted at the same time as the pears, have been producing for years, this is the first year we have gotten pears from the trees we planted back in the fall of 2005.


Charley Nursing Piglets

These are not Charley’s piglets she is nursing. We had weaned hers last week and moved her to the south field to rebreed. She spent a few days there and then returned up over the mountain to the north fields and from there broke into the north home field. She may well already be bred, I didn’t see it but I heard some breeding activity. Pigs are quite loud in, er, bed.

We’re starting to see some leaves changing color but it will likely be a month before the real foliage colors set in. It has been wonderfully warm. We’re appreciating all this good weather as we work on closing in the building for our on-farm butcher shop. In this month’s header photo you can see our meat processing facility under construction behind the sows.


Piglet Faces

These are a few of the piglets up on the top terrace of the north home field. They are standing in a nest. In this weather that is a fairly typical example of what a sow’s nest looks like. She plows a little down into the dirt, pushing stones and sticks to the side to make a raised perimeter, gathers grasses and pads the nest. Much like the story of the three little pigs.

Some of those piglets have racing stripes. We call them pajama piglets since the stripes only go from their butt up to their chest – it looks like they have striped pajama bottoms on. The stripes will vanish as the pigs get older. It may just be mixed up color pattern genes. Many baby animals have stripes that vanish like this with age.


Charley Nursing

The more adventurous piglets stayed to nurse as I came up close. Piglets tend to be a little skitterish until they have gotten to know people. This is why interaction is important. In time all of this litter will be tame and come up to me. Bringing treats for them and the sows helps. When I approach with treats I call out to them “Heeerrreee piiiig, pig, pig!” so they learn my voice and to come when I call. If I fail to announce myself and simply pop up they run but if they see and hear me coming from a distance then they are much calmer.

Piglets born out in the far reaches of the pasture take longer to train as they get less contact. Eventually we want to have it setup so there are more farrowing pastures like we have here in the north home field. Then all the piglets will be able to be born in the closer paddocks. The far fields will be used by bigger pigs who are quite willing to walk the long distance back to the home area to drink the whey and other treats.

My goal is to setup our pastures as a wheel of life with the breeding herds at one end, the pigs rotating up over the mountain as they grow and then down again to the lairage when they are market sized finisher hogs.


Long Faced Sow

The sow in the photo above is a long faced pig. Contrast her with Charley, who is from a short faced sow, is from a different line in our herds. The facial structure is genetic. In books and articles I’ve read they talk about domestic pigs having short faces and wild pigs having long faces. That is too much of a simplification. It isn’t a wild vs domestic issue. It is a breed characteristic. Yorkshires tend to have short faces. Tamworths have long faces.

Some of the breeds we have mixed into our herds:

  • Yorkshire – Dominant genetics in our pigs – excellent pasturing, mothering, large size, fast growth, good temperament, short to middle size faces dished.
  • Large White – Ancestor of Yorkshire – essentially same.
  • Large Black – Blacky’s, one of our top sows, foundation gentics we’re merging into our herd – excellent mothering, fecundity, pasturing, temperament, some marbling improvement, a little longer face than Yorkshire.
  • Berkshire – Strong in our herd and I would add more. I am looking for Berkshire genetics to add to our herd at some point – excellent marbling, short face and long legs in the American version we have.
  • Gloustershire Old Spot – The traditional pastured apple orchard pig – Our big boar Spot was an example, medium to short face
  • Tamworth – We have a pinch of Tamworth in our herds which shows up as the red coloration and longer faces – Long faced example in a domestic pig
  • Hampshire – We have a little bit of this in our herds – shorter face.
  • Landrace – Minor genetics in our herd – Longer faces, long bodied, leaner, “bacon style pigs” widely used in the commercial confinement animal feeding genetics.
  • Duroc – We might have a pinch of Duroc from a red boar that was the sire of some of our original pigs long ago. Known for fast growth, length and aggression with boar taint more likely although not guaranteed. Often called the “Red Pig” breed.

Update 2015: Currently we have the Yorkshire, Berkshire, two lines of Large Black and a Tamworth line as well as our cross lines of Mainline, Blackieline and Redline (non-Tamworth). This changes over time. Ultimately my goal is to merge our lines into one master line but that will probably take another decade, possibly longer. Always breed the best of the best and eat the rest.

Why are long faces bred away from in domestic genetics? Probably because the long face is “wasted” bone structure and tissue that could be put into growing meat. I think that some of the really scrunched up faces have gone too far to the short dish side of things. That results in loss of digging ability, loss of sinus, too short a jaw which could cause teeth problems (want to put braces on a pig?!?) and such. The result is I like moderately dish shaped pig faces like Charley above. Right now this is not a high selection criteria in our breeding program so we still end up with some long faces if the sow has lots of other good traits.

Interesting breeds we don’t have in our herd but you might heard of:

  • Kune Kune – Popular for backyard operations due to the smaller adult size, slower growing, short pug faces. See Lucy for a story of a Kune Kune and now has a visitor.
  • Vietnamese Pot Bellied Pig – Originally it was a pig designed to be small enough to be kept in a court yard in Asia and live off the table scraps of the family. For a while it was a fad pet. Now many people also use it as a small homestead or backyard pig due to the small size. Short pug nosed to an extreme in the ones I’ve seen.
  • Mangalitsa – A lard type pig. Short pugged nosed. Short bodied. It goes very easily to too much fat – so diet must be carefully controlled. This is fine if what you’re trying to do is produce lard. We don’t raise this breed at this time because customers are looking for meat not fat. I would consider it a specialty item. It is also slow growing making it not as good for raising for market.
  • Red Wattle – Looks much like the Tamworth, from the south seas, longer faced than Yorks, distinctive red wattles dangling on neck, lean.
  • Mule Foot – Looks a bit like the Large Black but has a hoof deformity called syndactylism that merges the middle two toes.

Check out the Oklahoma State University web site for a lot more interesting information about breeds of animals.

Also see:
Lard vs Bacon Pigs
Pig Page
Four Sows and Pigs
Classic Large White Sow

Outdoors: 67°F/41°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 70°F/65°F

Daily Spark: The first step to a solution is to eliminate the irrelevant. -Kirova

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor…

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22 Responses to Four Sows and Piglets

  1. AndItStonedMeToMySoul says:

    Hey, WJ. Long time listener, first time caller. How do you plan to break parasite cycles if you dedicate parcels of your pasture to stages in the wheel of life? My understanding (from my armchair) is that any continuous use of pasture promotes parasite persistence.

    Also, speaking of long faces, have you seen any trend in your herd towards more feral characteristics compared to your starting stock? Your operation seems to allow your pigs a lot of freedom “in the wild” (a good thing, imho) but I’ve read (armchair again) that this can promote shaggy coats, longer faces, bigger tusks, etc. as if the animals were reverting to a wild boar type.

    Finally, thanks for the word of the day: “lairage”. Didn’t know that one.

    • Actually, a section is made up of sub-sections, paddocks. This lets us rotate around leaving areas with animals off of them at times. For example:

      Breeding area:
      – Sub-divide into two boar groups
      – Sub-divide into five paddocks
      – Each grazed one week on, four weeks off.
      – Sows brought to a boar group for breeding
      Gestation area:
      – Sub-divide into five grazing paddocks and rotate sows
      Farrowing areas:
      – Sub-divide into six farrowing fields
      – Sub-divide each farrowing field into five grazing paddocks
      etc…

      That’s just an example: Don’t take those timings too hard – The on time is set more by grazing and growth rate and the off time minimum by parasite life cycle.

      The trick is how to do this without creating too many small groups that increases the work load for us.

      On the feral face, no, we haven’t seen a trend. But then my selective pressure is pretty strong. I’m constantly evaluating the breeding animals and potential replacements deciding who to keep and who goes to market. Every week some must go to market and some stay so we effectively do 52 cullings a year.

      They do have shaggy coats, in the winter, but that thins in the summer. There is definitely a seasonal change in their hair, just like with our dogs, the chickens and Vermonters (didn’t you know that Vermont guys grow beards for hunting season, good excuse, and then keep them all winter to keep their faces warm?) The pigs kept in confinement heated houses have less hair because it is always lit to be summer and warm so they’ll grow as fast as possible. Additionally, they lay in manure which eats away the hair. I’ve seen pigs come out of those sorts of places at the butcher.

      The boars do have very large tusks. Some as long as 11.5″ around the circumference. See Tusks and follow the links there for some photos. None of these are particularly wild boar characteristics though. In captivity many people cut off the tusks – this must be done regularly since they keep growing. I don’t cut tusks as I haven’t found it necessary although I was starting to wonder on Big’Un since they were beginning to make a complete circle. Usually they break off or wear down before that.

  2. David Lloyd Sutton says:

    A lot of years ago I was on a new country project in what was then the New Hebrides. For some unknown reason, suspected to be related to the presence of rare earths or possibly nutrient lack in the perpetually drenched and rock-poor soils, many pigs there are born intersex, or williwaw, hermaphroditic to some degree or other. Those variants are at the core of the male-dominated “Custom” culture, and are kept in earthen pits, fed soft food, pampered, all with the intent of allowing them to grow their lower tusks into varying curls. Upper tusks are pulled early. The domestic (and the feral stock, which I hunted a lot to feed my police and military students) seemed to me to be a blend of European and even American stocks. Pigs and people have some wierd interactions!! The airport on Espiritu Santo boasts a giant sculpture of a fully curved tusk circle.

    • Huh! How interesting. I can see why they pulled the upper tusks (how horrid too!) because the upper tusk rubs the lower tusk sharpening it and this process leads to them breaking off normally before they get too huge. You have had quite the adventures, David.

  3. Jared says:

    Walter,

    I see you do dock tails. What are your thoughts behind docking tails vs. leaving them as nature created them? Keep up the good work, very interesting blog.

    Jared

    • No, we do not dock tails. Some of our pigs naturally have short tails. It is a recessive gene that shows up sometimes. Additionally, sometimes when piglets are very small they’ll mistakenly suckle on a littermate’s tail and dock it. Personally, I like the longer tails. See Piglet Interventions for more details.

  4. Heidi says:

    We used to feed our pigs apples to flavor the meat. :) The ‘old spot’ pigs were orchard pigs, as we called them – my family is English – and were let loose in the orchards to clean up the mess’s. :) LOVE Tamworth meat – they are a ‘bacon’ pig also. Good dispositions in my opinion. :) LOVE to see the pigs running about!

  5. Brian Martin says:

    Too bad you didn’t have some male dear around, then you could have titled your post “Four sows and Bucks”!!! Don’t worry I wont quit my day job.

  6. mellifera says:

    Michener’s “South Pacific” novel has a whole chapter of tangent dedicated to Melanesian pig husbandry and its place in the culture. I can’t say how much of it is accurate and how much is “Look at these funny natives!” but man, does he dwell on it for a while. Mentions one fantastic pig who survived its tusks making not one, but two complete circles into its jaw.

  7. David:

    Have you seen the show “Meet the Natives” that chronicles 5 New Hebridians traveling to England and staying with 3 families there? Very interesting particularly as they stay with a pig farmer and compare their traditional methods on the New Hebrides with that of the English farmer. Worth a view on YouTube: http://goo.gl/IL7bC . Here is link to the episode with the English pig farmer: http://goo.gl/a7SW0 . Really like their dumbfounded reaction to the AI and their empathy for the poor boar.

    Wondering how what they show squares with your experiences?

    Thanks!

    • That was fascinating, Oliver. I just watched the pig farmer episode via the link you gave. (We don’t have telly here, no TV signal, no cable and even radio gets blocked by the mountains. If I’m very patient I can download a short video on the internet.) I am of the mind of the New Hebrians. I looked into AI a long time ago but the boars do such a good job at detecting heat and then servicing the ladies. And the sows do want more than just the injection of genetics. When they hit peak heat they’ll try to have sex with other sows, with sheep, etc. However, once they’re out of heat they don’t want to be bothered. Fortunately there are enough sows around to keep the boars busy full time. Ergo, I agree with the old guy, “poor boar” who just donates or excites and never gets to do the real thing.

      Will I ever do AI? Maybe… I’ve thought about it as a way of bringing in new genetics someday. But my preference would be to buy six Berkshire boar piglets which I raise and then pick the best of them, test them and start them breeding. One of the complications is that I will need to make sure they don’t bring boar taint into our genetics. Doing so requires time and a band of brothers.

      Something I noticed about the English pig farm is they too use the high tensile electric fencing like we do and they use hay, or perhaps it was straw. Maybe it was late cut hay. Straw and late cut hay are good for bedding, we use the hay as it makes good bedding and the pigs can eat it. His land is very flat. I wonder how the drainage is. It looks like he must be doing rotational grazing as there is grass in his paddocks in the background with the huts. Good to see.

  8. Emily Hebner says:

    Walter,

    Do you have a sketch or an arial view of the farm, showing the different paddocks and pastures. I am having trouble visualizing it all.

    Thanks!

    • Check out the Farm page in the Home menu. At the top is an arial photo map. Click on the image for a larger version. Down at the bottom of the article, above the comments, are links to other posts with maps and arial shots of our farm and forests going back to 1963. I also have some going back to 1939 which I’ll add at some point. It is fascinating to see how the land has changed over the years. What were open fields for almost two centuries grew back to forest and now we’re opening some of those fields up again back to their stone walls.

  9. Thierry Aumais says:

    Hello again!

    I was wondering: have you seen any dominance problems between breeds? I’ve worked this summer with a primarily Mulefoot herd, with some Berkshire and 5 Tamworths. From my observations, I saw that Berkshires were at the top of the hierary, being a lot bigger and violent thant the other breeds. The mulefoots were akoy, but the Tamworths… They really didn’t fit in and those 5 (out of 70 sows) were constantly being dominated. They became so skinny! No one let them eat!
    So anyway, back to the point: have you seen anything like this in your herd?
    Thanks!
    Thierry

  10. Mark Tripp says:

    Walter,
    I see you have a X of yorkshire in your breeding line. I was under the impression yorkshire is no longer a heritage breed?

    • Yorkshire are a heritage breed from which many of the other breeds, both heritage and non-heritage, were developed. Yorkshire are a foundation breed of so many herds because they are so good with fast growth, large size, hardy, pasture-ability, mothering skills, etc. Yorkshire are not an endangered or rare breed, which is perhaps what you’re thinking of.

  11. Walter,
    I am researching the pasture breeds and trying to figure out what breeds are suitable for me. So everything you write is fascinating for me. What puzzles me you never mention Duroc while I am under the impression that the Berk Duroc cross is the preferred pastured cross. What is your take on that?

    • The Duroc are known to be more aggressive and have a higher incidence of boar taint which is why I avoid their genetics. They are also known for a high growth rate, comparable with our Yorkshires. I have talked with some people who have calm Durocs and some who have Durocs without boar taint. Like with all breeds there is diversity so select to create a line that has what you need. I’ve never heard much talk of Duroc x Berkshire as a pastured cross but I suspect the idea would be to gain the growth rate of the Duroc and the marbling of the Berkshire because Durocs are a leaner breed.

  12. Joz says:

    Hi Walter,

    I was searching your site to try and find an answer, sorry if this has been written about :) I have a sow due to farrow in about 5 days and she is grazing with another sow who has 3 wk old piglets. The older piglets are sometimes trying to suck off the sow who hasn’t farrowed whilst she is lying down, and she lets them. I don’t think they are getting anything at this stage, but I don’t want them to take the colostrum that her piglets will need. Would you suggest I separate her from them? Or will they be okay?

    Also you say above, breed the best and eat the rest. What are your criteria to keep pigs as breeders instead of being eaten?
    Thank you

    • I would avoid this situation if you can. The older piglets will steal the colostrum the sow produces in the first three days which the new piglets need. Separate.

      I have a list of 36 criteria which I use in selection and rejection. I’ve written up a very long article that needs subdividing. Sometime I’ll publish it.

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