Old Sow Piglets


Octavia with New Litter of Piglets

QuarterMane Octavia is one of our older sows and this is a small litter for her. She may be on the downslope at the end of her fertility run after nine years. The typical pattern is a sow’s litter count climbs by about 0.8 piglets per litter (parity) until she plateaus. Then she starts to drop off at the end of her fertility. The drop tends to be much steeper. Perhaps a litter of six, then four, then one and that’s all she wrote.
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It is almost summer now and Octavia will probably have another litter in the fall. That may be her last. Each winter I cull back the lowest performing sows as we go through the worst time of the year while they’re still at their peak of health from the warm season grazing.

Nine years is a very good run for a sow and she has done well. This means she has gotten a passing grade over 500 times as I do my weekly culling. That’s a very good record and speaks well for her offspring’s potential. Once she drops out of the breeder pool she’ll serve the farm one last time as high quality meat. A farm is not a petting zoo or old folks home. The reality is that a farm is a business that must pay the mortgage, the banker, the tax woman, the phone company, the power company, the petrol, the butcher, the baker and the candle stick maker. Money doesn’t grow on trees††.

The idea of retirement, of being “put out to pasture” is Disney cute but not realistic. Everyone pays their way on the farm, serving up to their ability. For a pig nine years is a very long life, and in piggy paradise no less. In the end everyone ‘goes to the island’ to make their final service to the collective.

There is a mistaken idea that sows don’t make good meat. I think that comes from factory farming where the sows are kept in cages, don’t get enough exercise and eat too much – conditions that will produce fatty bland couch potatoes.

Our sows are out on pasture, climbing the mountain every day and thriving on a healthy low calorie diet based on forages and whey. They get huge but they never get fat and the meat on the older sows is fantastically delicious. My absolute favorite cut of meat is the Boston Butt from an old sow, filled with flavor, tender and beautifully marbled. You won’t find these at the grocery store – those are finishers, much younger pigs who have not had time to put on the deep marbling and flavor. This is a well kept secret perhaps. Chefs know it and request sows so we tend to have standing orders for any available. These big sows are ideal for making some of the fancier delicacies like prosciutto, pancetta and other charcuterie as well as pulled pork BBQ and huge smoked hams.

Octavia has been a good sow so I will watch her last litters for daughters that can follow in her rather large hoof prints. She already has some who have made the grade. Perhaps a few more will get on the breeder track to pass on her legacy.

Outdoors: 60°F/54°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 66°F/63°F

Daily Spark: It’s interesting to me that the USDA food pyramid lines up very closely with the rations used to fatten hogs and and cattle. -E. Brown

I had originally identified this as QuarterMane but it is Octavia, her littermate sister who looks similar but not quite the same.

††Well, actually, money does grow on trees but that is another story for another day.

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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18 Responses to Old Sow Piglets

  1. JessicaR says:

    Walter how old are those piglets?? They are so tiny!

  2. Pittman says:

    Are they all from the same boar or multiple?
    There colors are all so different!

  3. Orrin Murdoch says:

    Hi Walter,
    Thanks for the post.
    Given your overall large number of piglets mingling into the group, how do you identify/differentiate them from each other?
    Cheers,
    Orrin

    • Mostly I simply have a very good memory. Every pig, or almost every pig, looks different, to me. I can identify more pigs than people. But then pigs don’t change their clothes. Something I find confusing about people. However, we may be switching to another ID system so that other people besides me can identify each pig. There is a little about that on the article Body Piercing For Science. More about that sometime.

  4. Patrick says:

    I bought two younger sows (18-24 month old sows that failed as moms for various reasons) from a farmer who sells me feeders. They became freezer fill. Like you said, if they are not making piglets they are eating the food needed to feed piglets. So I got two mature pasture-raised Berkshires at a great price (plus ten piglets, but they are still growing).

    I was surprised how good they turned out. The chops are nicely marbled and the hams were deep pink/red. We have cured some of the ham roasts.slices and smoked them out and they are excellent. The boston butts were carved into 1.5 inch “steaks” instead of the typical roasts – this was an accident on the part of the processor who read the instructions incorrectly (first time using that processor and we needed USDA, plus it was too hot for safe DIY). But the mistake works for us – those butt steaks are good on their own and will stretch over more meals being cut into more parts. We also made some guanciale and are working up some pancetta from the sides. So far all quite good.

    Your “old sow” advice last year (somewhere) seemed solid, and I’m glad we took it. We don’t farrow yet, but I have told the farmers I buy from (and trust) that we’re open to future end-of-the-road culls. Might even try a boar or two – the farmers don’t like selling them due to taint concerns, even though they say they haven’t had issues. I figure it might be a chance to taste the genetics before we invest in some stock a year or two from now.

  5. Tina Steiner says:

    I have two guilts that are two years old. They are full sisters. I bought them a unrelated boar that grew up with them in the same area. They have not bred or even seem to come into heat. What should I do. The boar has successfully bread another pig this winter with great results. Thank you in advance. I read your blog all the time and admire your farming practices.

    • They may be too old and have lost their fertility. I have read that females animals who do not breed by a certain age lose fertility and two years is often cited. If they continue not to cycle or take then they are meat animals.

  6. Malena says:

    I agree with you that “Everyone pays their way on the farm, serving up to their ability. … In the end everyone ‘goes to the island’ to make their final service to the collective.”

    We do the same, though we have kept some old hens because we got so attached to them. We’ve also kept our dog, even though she is too old to continue to patrol the farm. What is your approach with dogs who have grown too old to patrol?

    • I purposely train our dogs to many things. As they age to the point where they can’t handle hard work they do lighter work. This is much like humans used to do. Granpa and granma used to stay on the farm instead of going to a retirement home. They helped mind the children, gardened, etc. Older dogs do things like minding piglets and training them, taking care of chickens, etc. Light duty work that fits their abilities. That is why I phrased it as “Everyone pays their way on the farm, serving up to their ability.” Likewise children and puppies work to their abilities.

  7. am in the pm says:

    What was the oldest pig you had living on the farm ?

  8. Someone asked a very good question via email:

    Hi there Walter! I have enjoyed your blog so very much! I have read it for years now… we got into pigs a few years ago, and was wondering what your experience with 5 and up parity hogs? We have one sow that is on litter number 5, and having problems…

    In our experience once a sow has demonstrated herself as capable with P1 she is then good until her fertility fades which is around seven to nine years. Most sows I cull prior to that simply because I’m rolling my genetics forward but I have some sows that are nine years old. I’ve seen no problems after P5 other than the decrease in fertility that eventually happens with age around P15 to P20 or so. Don’t use those numbers too hard as it’s all approximation and non-significant sample sets up at that far end of the age spectrum.

    what I mean by that is she seems to be having inadequate contractions.

    I’ve not seen this.

    It seems from your blog that you do not “pull” piglets out.

    That is correct. I hear a lot of people eager to do so however my observation is that it is not necessary out of thousands of farrowings and hundreds of sows.

    Note that is not to say there does not exist some sows who need that. However, if I had to pull piglets I would cull the sow and her offspring to meat which would very quickly be the end of that genetics. Nature does the same strong culling. One thing I observe is that a lot of people don’t do hard culling. They become emotionally attached to the animal or mistakenly think they are financially attached to it and then make poor culling choices. Nature culls very hard and I follow her lead. This is how to improve the genetics of the herds.

    on the pasture the moms just do their job! I am inclined to agree with you, but this particular pig is my 8 year olds, and she was born on her 5th birthday (and she picked her out of the litter) so you see she is special.

    Hmm… See above.

    I have had to pull each one out now, and am wondering if we should bother to rebreed her?

    I would not. You’ll need to decide how to balance your emotional needs vs breeding needs. One solution would be to keep the sow as a pet pig but don’t rebreed her. It might be cheapest to have her neutered by a vet despite that cost in that case to avoid possible problematic pregnancies. Neutering is a culling although not to meat. Neutering achieves the same breeding goals while preserving your daughter’s emotional attachment. Only you can judge if your daughter is ready to learn the lessons of breed selection and culling to market (meat) which is part of farming.

    The boar and her are of the mindset that they NEED eachother -ha ha I am sure you understand!!!

    *grin* Aye, but I would not give them a vote as this is not a democratic process. Nature and evolution require voters to actively prove themselves and the sow failed the voter registration test. Perhaps the above would let the boar and sow, at great cost, have their goals partially met. If they are fully on pasture, which adult pigs can be, then the maintenance cost is far lower than if you’re bag feeding them.

  9. Eric Hagen says:

    Hi there Walter,
    I was wondering how long after a cull sow weans her last litter do you send her to slaughter. Do you let her regain condition for a few weeks? Thanks.

  10. Barbara Corson says:

    Hi, I am enjoying your web page.
    I’m a retired veterinarian and still do some small scale farming. I’m scheduled to give a presentation about farm animal behavior at a conference this summer and was wondering if I could use some of your pictures for illustrations. I would of course credit you for them. either way, my compliments on a well-done website and farm!

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