Of Milk Jugs and Lactation

Milk Jugs have nothing to do with today’s topic

In the On Site Inspector post Cara asked:

Do the piglets each choose one teat and pretty much nurse off of “theirs,” or do they all share? I am asking because I see some of her teats are obviosuly producing milk, while others seem not to be(?). Human breasts/mammary glands produce according to demand and independently of each other, so I imagine other mammals may be similar. Thanks, as usual!

I’ve heard many people say that piglets pick one teat and only use that. It is a myth. The reality is they switch back and forth between teats and if there are multiple sows available they’ll switch back and forth between sows. Co-nursing as we call it. The sows are very willing to nurse other piglets after the initial period. This can be a problem if older pigs come in on a new mother to steal milk from the newborn piglets that need the early colostrum. Experienced mothers will keep them away. This is probably one reason that sows go off to a private area in the brush away from the herd to build their nest to farrow their litters. Later they bring their piglets back to the group and resume herd behaviors.

Sometimes we’ve had a sow wet nursing other sow’s piglets when one sow wasn’t able to do it or in one case when we didn’t have enough winter birthing areas because an unexpectedly large number of sows all farrowed at once. In one extreme case Jolie adopted a total of 23 piglets and nursed them all. Very impressive since she does not have anywhere near that many teats.

Jolie has a daughter we named Happy because she’s always dancing around and, well, happy. Happy and Jolie both collect piglets to them. They can be quite easy to pick out in the field as they’re often surrounded by hordes of little ones or lying down in a pig pile buried under little bodies most of whom are not their piglets. They are adopters who love to babysit and wet nurse for other sows. Natural mothers to an extreme.

Speaking of teats, in the “industry” pigs typically have 12 teats. But there is variance. Some people talk about their pigs having as few as six teats. All of our sows have at least 14 fully developed teats and some like Petra and Blackie have 16 fully developed teats. Bagged up they look like Holstein cows in full milk production. More teats means more milk production capacity. This is why “tits on a boar” does matter.

The catch is that when they’re producing so much milk I have to watch to make sure they don’t get nursed down. Some sows can get peakid, their back fat is lost and their spine peak shows, from over nursing. Other sows like Petra, Blackie, Blue Lady and the F series sisters keep their condition even with heavy nursing. Maintaining the calories in their diet is important – as Holly says, eat lots of ice cream! Weaning the piglets in time is critical so the mother’s health does not suffer – a dozen little mouths pestering you can also get to be a bit much, especially when they each weigh 30 to 50 lbs and their combined weight can be greater than the sow’s weight. The sow’s solution is to try and lie on her belly to stop the piglets from nursing but then she can’t get up to go pee, eat or drink. When I see this I know it is well nye time to wean. On pasture it is more challenging to maintain the sow’s weight than with pigs raised on high grain diets so we have been selecting for this ability for years, one of the parts of our breeding program.

Just like with humans, if a breast/teat isn’t getting nursed then it does dry up independently of the others. As the piglets start to wean this happens because they’re not nursing as much. Then they start nursing some teats more than others. When we finally wean her she has about three days of engorgement before they dry up. The first day can be painful for her due to the back pressure of the milk. This back pressure is what tells her body to stop producing milk and begin the drying up process. Unlike with humans, when a sow dries up her gallon jug size D-cup breasts can shrink down flat against her chest and belly although her nipples will remain somewhat larger than they were before she nursed her first litter. With an older sow the breasts may not debag fully flat to her body after she’s gone through many repetitions of bagging up and drying off.

A politically correct myth, among humans, is that small breasts produce just as much milk as large breasts. It’s might be appealing to think but not true. What is true is breasts do tend to produce enough milk for the baby and react strongly to usage which relieves back pressure that would inhibit milk production. The reality is that the very well endowed cows, pigs, goats and other animals produce more milk. Since we’re all mammals I expect that happens with humans although my sample set is small in women. In cows, goats and sheep this is well known and we select for it also in pigs. Blackie is one of our very well endowed sows. When she’s full engorged she’s huge. She produces a lot of milk easily without losing condition raising up particularly large batches of large healthy piglets. The more milk they easily get the larger they are at weaning time. Exceeding her is Petra Pig. Even though Petra is tall her enormous natural (no silicone added) breasts nearly drag when she’s at maximum lactation and she creates literal fountains of milk. I’ve lightly test tugged on her teats shooting milk four feet up and six feet away on white crescent streams much like the old photos of shooting milk to the barn cats. Just before farrowing Petra leaks like sixteen faulty spigots.

This is not to say that all ‘endowment’ is glandular tissue – sometimes it is fat if an animal is over condition. An overly fat sow can actually end up producing less milk than if she was in better condition because the fat can take up space in the breast. This can particularly be an issue if the sow were fat when she was younger. Since our pigs are on a low calorie pasture/hay diet they don’t run into this. The same is true in cows and I’ve read this can be true in humans too. All of this is regulated by genetics, food and chemicals. I’ve seen some reports that suggest that endowment in humans may be increasing due to hormonal mimics, pollution in our environment, that also cause early onset puberty and feminization of males in many species from alligators to humans. Biology is quite the brew between herbicides, pesticides, plastics and other nasties. Eating naturally grown food and avoiding toxins is looking better all the time.

If you’re curious about more big breasted news on the farm, see this post about the Breast Ice Cream in Vermont for some fun… It is one of my wife Holly’s favorite posts.

So what’s with the milk bottles you ask…? Nothing much. I just needed an interesting photo for the topic of lactation and that one has been sitting in my files for a while. The milk jugs are cloches for protecting our plants from frost in the spring. They are merely metaphorically related to the topic at hand. On the farm we have no problem using the proper term for things although sometimes the euphemisms can be fun. In the background you can see our “big red dump truck“. Everyone needs a lawn ornament. I suppose I should plant a lawn to go along with it…

Outdoors: 47°F/31°F Light rain
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/56°F

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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14 Responses to Of Milk Jugs and Lactation

  1. Walter, your timing (or was it mine ?) was perfect. My husband and I just brought home our first group of Red Wattle Breeding stock today. One of the girls, a year old sow had just that morning had her babes weaned from her. By the time we got home , a three hour drive, I noticed 3 of her teats engorged. As a previous nursing mom myself I suspected the supply-demand theory and hoped she will reabsorb the milk when their are no piglets to consume. My question: Is mastitis an issue with pigs like it can be in humans and cows ? Thanks

  2. Jerry says:

    I can feel the "spirit" of your farm all the way over here in Alberta Canada. As I have said before, I am constantly astounded at this impression from what your family has built and is still building.

    I don't know if I'd ever have the chance but I wonder if you'd ever allow the odd tent-bearing soul to visit sometime? I grew up on a similar type of farm, only cattle and grain oriented, so I well know the aversion to strangers around stock as well as the lack of time available to babysit newcomers. I had to ask though. Your farm sounds like that rare a gem.

    Peace to you and yours.

  3. Bruce, maybe your piglets return to the same order but ours do not. As you say, it was super easy to prove that they switch teats all the time. We have observed this time and again, both my wife and my self have seen it from very early ages with the piglets. Our piglets don't need to get numbered with markers as we have plenty of litters with varying color patterns where it is extremely obvious that the teat switching is happening and sow switching is happening. If they are going to different sows then they are obviously not sticking to the same teats.

  4. Donna, I have only seen mastitis one time. It is normal for the breasts to get hyper-full, a little heated and then in a day or two it passes.

    Jerry, My wife asked me to stop giving regular farm tours because it was getting to interfere with the time we needed to get all the chores done and build new things like our new Big Project. We do occasionally have an open house like bonfire with swimming or sledding depending on the season.



  5. Bruce, this video shot quite a while ago proves my point. Piglets switch teats.

  6. Bruce King says:

    Walter, I had this exact same argument a while ago on my blog. Summary: Teat selection on their mothers sow is fixed. They can switch if the teat they select is defective, but they don't usually.

    there's a pretty interesting video where they painted numbers on the backs of nursing pigs, and then mixed them all up, only to have the pigs arrange themselves in exactly the same order, same teat.

    You can repeat this experiment if your pigs will let you handle them. Try it. Take a stock marker and number the piglets. Remove them from the sow, mix 'em up, and watch to see what they do.

  7. oshea12566 says:

    Will you keep us posted on the next open house?

  8. Anne Witherspoon says:

    Walt weve seen the same thing of piglets swapping teats and even their moms too. When we first had our own litter i had read that they fix on one tit but that hasnot been our experience in the three litters we have had.

  9. Jacki says:

    It is very strange how the denial runs that small breasts wil produce as much as big breasts. It just is not scientific. We are no different than other animals. Cows with bigger udders produce more milk. Women with bigger breasts can too. I know this from personal comparisons with friends. I am of course not talking fat I am talking real breasts. Weare all part of nature. Bravo to you walter for not being pc.

  10. Mellifera says:

    Milk production in people is definitely related to how much mammary gland tissue is present, but human boobs are also souped up with fat deposits to the point where breast size has little to do with how much gland tissue there is. Thus I am acquainted with flat girls who have no trouble nursing twins, and buxom ladies who can't nurse one.

    As you noted, most mammals' teats enlarge when nursing and shrink down to nearly nothing after weaning, and peoples' usually enlarge somewhat when nursing but (most) women have boobs all the time.

  11. Jill says:

    Actually young cows and some other animals have breasts too just like humans. Not when they are lactating or even bred yet. Just like with humans they get bigger with breast feeding and lactation. One more trait that is not uniquely human. We're all mammals and with that comes mammillary glands. Although, I must admit the all time winners in oversized mams seems to go to humans proportional to their body size.

  12. Mikel says:

    I bet you let your piglets suckle longer than the confinment pigs. I have read they take them from the mothers at 10 days but I bet if you are letting them nurse then they grow bigger that way on pasture.

  13. We wean at four to eight weeks most of the time. On occasion they go longer. I do observe that those who get extra time up to about eight weeks benefit from it but we also have to watch to make sure the sows do not get too milked down, peakid as it is called because their back becomes like a peak instead of rounded. Larger piglets can also pester the sow not letting her get to food or graze easily. Some sows do better than others at keeping their condition – those are sows we breed towards, keeping more of their daughters to improve the herd.

    From talking with other people not all pigs graze well and some don't graze at all. It is not clear how much of that is learned behavior and how much is genetics. We've been selecting for good grazers for many pig generations so over time I would expect the grazing behavior and ability to improve.

  14. James says:

    Piglets don't stay on the same nipple. Just watch them and it is obvious that they move around. They finish one and move to the next. The stronger ones push the weaker ones off. The weaker ones find an empty nipple. Anyone who thinks pigs always nurse on the same nipple has obviously never actually watched pigs nurse.

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