Blustery Piglet Day


PB Just Before Weaning

It certainly has been a windy day! And snowy. We spent several hours weaning, inspecting, notating and sorting piglets down from the mountain. It’s time. Everyone is moving off the high mountain pastures to the winter paddocks.

The sow above is named PB, short for Peanut Butter, and is one of the youngest in the BlackiexMainline genetics. Someone had asked what she would look like when weaning, wondering about condition on pasture.


PB Just After Farrowing

The above photo is from the article Peanut Butter Piglets which shows how she looked a few days after she gave birth to the litter we just weaned. She was in ‘fine’ condition, just like I like a sow to look when she farrows, carrying enough back fat to be able to produce the large quantities of rich milk that her piglets need to grow fast.

The answer to the question is she has lost some condition (back fat) nursing ten piglets but is still in excellent form. What I don’t like seeing is when a sow goes peakid during weaning – their spine shows as their back fat decreases. For over a decade we have selected hard for sows that can gain weight on pasture and then maintain their condition on our pasture/hay+whey diet and through our cold winters. That is what it takes to produce strong piglets and give them a good start on pasture life.

Years of hard work that has paid off in gradually improving herd genetics. That’s not to say we’ve reached the finish line. My targets are ever evolving and improving genetics. There is no perfect pig, just a journey forward.

Outdoors: 15°F/2°F 3″ Snow, Windy, A Little Sun
Tiny Cottage: 64°F/55°F

Daily Spark: Perhaps the problem was that Noah took two of each animal and eight people.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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24 Responses to Blustery Piglet Day

  1. Eric Hagen says:

    Do you have a list of criteria for moving into the winter paddocks? It seems like it’s been snowy there for a while, they still all got plenty of forage until now?

    • There is some forage still on the mountain but not much compared with how it was in the warm months. Moving into the winter paddocks is not an instant thing but rather a process that happens over a period of weeks. The older animals, the breeders, have been through the cycle before and know the routine. Younger ones learn it by following them. We open up the winter paddocks and start making them more attractive (add hay, chips) and then the pigs start choosing to move down the mountain to these more sheltered spaces. In the north there are still nine sows and Spitz who haven’t moved to their winter quarters but are in the ‘half-way house’ of sleeping on the bale of hay that we put out near the north whey trough. Their north field paddocks are basically eaten down for the most part and they’re eating the hay. In a week or so they’ll move down lower to their winter area. First we must move a group of younger boars south so they’ll not be right next to Spitz. Good fences make good neighbors but several fences are better.

      • Eric Hagen says:

        Thanks for the answer, that’s exactly what I wanted to know. Are the younger boars about to go through the selection and culling process? On a similar note, is there a speed to the genetic improvement? What I mean is, was your breeding more successful early on compared to the present? I could imagine making big improvements with the first couple rounds of breeding and then the improvements slowing down after a few generations. PB looks like a beautiful pig.

        • Actually, these ‘younger’ boars are the result of the selection process. They are the best of the best, the few who remain to serve rather than to be served, the select, the remainders, the left overs. Over the past year many hundreds of other boars got selected to go to market while each week these three got passed over as too good to go.

          One of the younger boars is the Tamworth boar, who is a bit older than the others and has already had the opportunity to prove his mettle in breeding. The other two are Blackieline and the infamous Mainline x Blackieline x Berkshire cross eight month old Spitzon, son of Spitz, who has out grown everyone in his cohort by 50% and is as big as the Blackieline who is four months older than him and as big as the Tamworth who is nine months older than him.

          I am very interested to see how Spitzon’s offspring will prove out. Is his phenomenal growth a freak? A result of hybridization? The result of our long selection? We have had other boars that have grown very fast and like Spitzon were very good tempered so they too got the chance to stay and pass on their genes. With every cohort I look for a few good men to pass on their genes. Only about 0.5% over the years have had the opportunity to stay on the farm and become long term breeders. Life’s tough on the farm when you’re a guy.

          A funny little side story on Spitzon is that he was in a research project I ran last spring on a herbal feed additive that might promote growth (and good taste). This is why Spitzon and some other pigs have ear tags while most of our pigs don’t. The herb did increase growth by almost 5% in the pigs who got it over the control group who did not get the herb. However, Spitz was in the control group. He did not get the herb. He far outgrew everyone. He was the same age but bigger at the start of the experiment – so much so that I had hesitated to include him but he was part of the cohort I was using for the research so I plotted his data too. At the end of the experiment he was still far bigger than everyone else, more so even. If I analyze the data with him in it then he shows up as a major anomaly throwing off the results. All the other pigs were paired up – a control and an experimental of the same size. With Spitzon there was nobody to pair him with because of his fast growth and initial size at the start of the project. If I took him out of the data then the results made sense and there was a clear improvement in growth for those who got the herb vs those who didn’t. This makes one wonder just how huge Spitzon would have been had he got the herb.

          As to the question of are we making more progress now or earlier on with our genetics I would hazard that we’re making more difference now. I don’t have firm numbers to base that on but that is my sense of it. It took several years to delve out the genetics of our pigs and then we were able to start really making a difference in conformation, marbling and other things. Additionally now I have a far larger pool of genes to play with. It is easier to make a difference when you have 400 individuals to select from than when you have just 40 or just 4. Improvements are about both individual selection and statistically significant sample sets. I think that we’ll make even more progress in our coming second decade of our breeding program.

          • Eric Hagen says:

            The breeding sounds really cool. About the past boars with similar growth and temperament as Spitzon, did their characteristics turn out to be heritable? Is Spitz one of those boars, or is Spitzon a surprise?

            I couldn’t find anything besides the ear tag post regarding the herbal supplement, have you decided if it’s cost effective yet? It’d be fun to do some statistical and economical analyses. Did the growth persist after taking them off? Did they maintain their size advantage or slow back down? Are you going to divulge the secret herb? I wonder if other animals get the munchies, that’d be a pretty funny herbal supplement.

          • I had been looking to inject more Berkshire genetics for the marbling. We already had some but I want to boost our marbling further with more Berkshire which is also known as Kobi, Kobe or Kurobuta Pork in Japan (I’ve seen various spellings). Spitz is a pure bred Berkshire boar we got from a farm in New Hampshire in 2012. He has proved out quite nicely and I’m very pleased with both his growth, conformation, flavor (I took a small bite), temperament and offspring like Spitzon.

            Spitzon is quite intentional. We have been breeding Spitz, the Berkshire, across to our Mainline x Blackie sows, as well as others, in an attempt to get the best of all three lines. The best of their daughters will then breed back across our Mainline, Blackie line, Tamworth line and 2ndary Large Black lines. In addition to Spitzon there were several of his brothers from previous litters which we taste tested and they were all delicious.

            Some of them, like Spitzon, were top of their class for growth. Spitzon is the peak which is why he stayed on. Unfortunately I have to pig just a few good men as we don’t need 100 boars on the farm. Only 0.5% of the boars get to become breeders. Ladies have it ten times better at more like 5%. This is actually remarkably similar to what happens in the wild. Evolution works but in this case, in addition to what Mother Nature throws at us, there is the guiding hand of Walter.

            I’m still running tests on various herbals including many we grow in our fields. We have some we use like the garlic for its Anthelmintics properties as a dewormer I’ve mentioned before and some that are more in the research stages. I’ll report more on it in the future on my findings as things progress.

            And no, it is not marijuana. :) Although the government keeps sending helicopters over our fields and forests looking for plantings on a regular basis… They found some at least once but it wasn’t mine – trespassers were growing it on one of our other mountain ridges.

  2. Christi says:

    Your long breeding program really pays off. She is a beautiful so and it is amazing to see how well your pigs gain on pasture. I have a hard enough time keeping our animals fit with a corn and grain supplement.

  3. I assume you monitor for sevaral animal properties (besides weight gain). But do you monitor chores?… I see on YouTube that Joel Salatin of Polyface farm says that the amount of chores needed for 40 pastured laying hens is as much work as for 400 (or something similar – say 10 times more). So he maximized the amount of animals to just stay within the time he wants to spend on chores. Have you found a similar trend, i.e the amount of chores is (to a (tipping) point) insensitive to the amount of animals (40=400)? Can you/do you breed for animals that require less chores? and if so, what is the most successful decision that you made?

    • Yes, we look at labor as one of the criteria. Sows that farrow with minimal to no work from us get high marks. Any that don’t get low marks. These scores are cumulative and there are many different things that get scored from the day the pig is born onward. Low scorers go to butcher.

      There are also definitely thresholds. There is a certain amount of setup even to do a single pig. I figure it is the same work to take care of one as four and almost the same as ten. We were just talking about this the other day and saying that 30, 40 and 60 sows all seemed like about the same effort.

  4. Dave Hall says:

    It astonishes me how good your pigs look, especially after farrowing and weaning so many piglets. I am in veterinary sciences. Everyone says you can not do what you are doing. Pigs are not cows and can not eat grass. Pigs must have corn and soy to meet their energy and protein requirements. Your blog is what now ten years of proving that wrong? The fact that your family makes its living farming in a way that is impossible according to the swine science industry tells me that there is a lot we do not understand about farming and animals. Pigs used to grow without commercial grain diets and you are doing so obviously the impossible is possible. My hat is off to you for challenging the convention and making it work. Bravo Jeffries!

    • Peter says:

      Dave: yeah there is A LOT we don’t understand about farming and animals…maybe in particular, why do we as a nation need to rely so much on factory-farming methodologies, when the the perfectly-obvious methods that served previous generations so well — pasturing, rotational grazing, etc etc — are avoided at great cost.

      Personally, I do think there is a lot to be gained from animal science methodologies — maybe the problem is absolutist applications of said?

  5. In our 4th winter now of raising hogs outside they continue to get only better and better THANKS TO YOU WALTER and all we have learned and applied to our own small farm. I giggle now at the other non CAFO farmers who hand deliver every single piglet born, save those who are best left to nature and baby them all with hot lamps, heating pads, water bottles and hot toddies before bed each night. Their pigs though each generation are weaker than the generation before. It is such a thrill seeing our sows become better mothers, piglets getting stronger, faster and tolerating the Illinois cold without problem because they know if they complain the Sugar Mountain pigs will make fun of them.

    • Julia says:

      I love the mental image of pigs mocking other pigs. . . .

      I’d think that in Illinois, keeping your pigs happy in the cold months is all about the windbreaks! Have you seen Sepp Holzer’s giant hugelkultur berms? He put in a bunch for a place in Montana and it’s made some nice microclimates.

      • Last year someone gave me a book about Holzer which I found quite interesting. He is essentially doing the same thing that we’ve been doing here since the 1980’s with berming, terracing, mixed pasture and tree culture, etc. He is in a similar climate and terrain. It is a beautiful example of how similar problems lead to similar solutions. We love the micro-climates we’ve created and it may be a big part of why we’re able to get through winter so well and deal with our short growing season.

  6. Emily says:

    That is one fine looking sow. And fine piglets too. I am very encouraged to see how your family farms. You are doing it the right way treating your animals with respect and the land with respect to. Good for you! Keep up the good work.

    PS. I buy your meat at the coop in Burlington. Love it!

  7. Mark Hamilton says:

    Lovely pig!

  8. J says:

    Yes, that certainly is an excellent looking pig.

    As someone who is interested in raising pastured pigs in the future, do you have any advice on what kinds of questions one should ask when looking around for a breeder to buy from, particularly if one is looking to keep a few sows and a boar for breeding? If you already have a post on this subject, could you point me in the right direction? Unfortunately, my family is in the midwest, so I wouldn’t be able to drive to New England to buy from you. Thank you very much.

    • Look for a breeder who is raising pigs as close as possible to the way you want to do it. Ideally they are local or in the same climate as you so that the pigs will already have a head start of generations adapting to the conditions. Ask about what feeds they provide, what forages are in their pastures, how the pigs perform through the winter (a concern in cold climates) or through the summer (a concern in hot climates). Temperament is a key trait that varies greatly with the line – you want to get animals from someone who has been selecting for mild mannered Clark Kent type animals rather than raging Hulk animals. Ask about boar taint – do they castrate their boars or not? Look at ears, in our cold climate the big floppy ears are a liability and the shorter, thicker upright ears are better able to deal with winter.

      • Peter says:

        Just a thought Walter, but knowing that you have sold off breeders before, what’s the farthest away that someone has come to buy a sow/boar from you?

        Given that you have stated that selling proven genetics is, in itself, another way of protecting the herd, it would be interesting to hear how far and wide it’s happened.

        And, in reference to “J’s” question….saying “the midwest” is an awfully generic term — I mean, that arguably encompasses everything from Ohio to the Dakotas, some of which may be relatively similar climatically to Vermont.

        • I think the greatest distance is about 2,500 miles. There are currently some inquiries that might be further than that – I haven’t checked a map. Note that we don’t ship pigs. We sell at the farm gate. A buyer is responsible for transporting their animals, vaccines, import paperwork, etc.

          I figure the full value of a breeder quality prime sow is about $23,000 for her lifetime production. I don’t charge the full price of breeder stock because I like the idea of spreading the genetics around so that in the horrible event that something happened to our farm I might be able to purchase back re-starter stock back from those farms who have bought genetics from us.

          A couple of people have suggested we start a registry. That is very much a back burner project since I have a few other projects right now. :)

          • J says:

            Thank you very much for your response. That was exactly what I was looking for.

            I hadn’t heard before that the big, floppy ears were a liability in cold weather. Do you know why that is? My climate is very similar to yours, so thank you for making me aware of it.

            I had heard before that pigs with floppy ears tended to be more docile than the ones with upright ears. The reasoning behind it being that the ones with upright ears can see better and thus get more curious and excited about what’s around them. Have you observed this in your pigs, or do you believe there is any truth in it?

          • The big floppy ears lose heat more easily than thick, stout, fury erect ears. You might notice that northern dogs like ours have the shorter, thickly furred erect ears. Same for foxes, bears, etc. I suspect this is to protect them during the extremely low temperatures and wind chill of winter.

            I have not observed the behavioral difference you describe. I have heard people say that but so far have no evidence to prove or disprove that theory. I have seen docility and aggressiveness in floppy eared as well as erect ears. I have been selecting hard for good temperament for a decade so that may have biased my sample population.

  9. Tim says:

    Paragraph 4 (starting with The answer to the question…) line 4 “…diet and through are cold” to be “…through our cold”
    In school, I preferred math/science to English as I was not a creative writer or fast reader ( I enjoyed reading but didn’t read quickly). I couldn’t afford to lose any points to misspelling.

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