Piglet Interventions

Ellajac on the Fiber Improves Sow Welfare post Monday asked about cutting needle teeth and other interventions with piglets. We don’t cut the needle teeth, dock tails, do shots, etc. The reasons are:

  • Toweling & Iodine – Some people towel off and iodine the umbilical cord of new born lambs, piglets, etc. We did that at first. However we quickly discovered that it wasn’t necessary. Trying to catch the births is a lot of work without much return. In fact, there is the argument that it is best to let nature take its course so that over time you are selecting evolutionarily for animals that farrow (pigs) and lamb (sheep) without aid on pasture. In the long run this is better – survival of the fittest. My wife did insist on going to the hospital though…
  • Heat Lamps – We are very cautious of heat lamps. My biggest reason for not doing it initially was fear of fire. We’ve found that it isn’t usually necessary though so we rarely ended up going the heat lamp route. Time to time I have experimented with them and with heat pads. In extreme weather we sometimes setup heat lamps but generally lower power 100 watt bulbs as they don’t over heat as easily. The key we’ve found is simply to protect the animals from wind and wet. An open shed with its back to the wind, a deep bed of hay and their mother is what they really need. For the new born piglets, their mother’s body heat is key – she’s 103°F. A creep with a low roof and foil bubble foil makes a great hover.
  • Cutting Needle Teeth – We don’t cut the needle teeth on piglets. The reason I’ve read for doing it is to prevent damage to the sow’s teats and to keep the piglets from hurting each other when they tussle. I’ve only seen a cut on one teat on one sow in our herd of thirty so I don’t think this is necessary. It would be a lot of work and I could see it causing problems for the piglet when teeth are broken (cut). The only damage I’ve seen from biting is suckling on tails and cutting needle teeth (fangs/tusks) would not help with that – suckling is done with the tongue and upper front teeth which are not the teeth being clipped.(Note that the needle teeth a.k.a. wolf teeth are baby teeth so cutting, clipping and pulling them will not effect the adult boar and sow tusks which are adult teeth.)
  • Tail Docking – This is done in confinement situations (e.g., factory farms) for pigs to prevent tail biting in grower pigs. I’ve not seen this behavior with our pigs to any degree that I would think it necessary to do. Occasionally a very young piglet will suckle on the tail of another piglet during the first few days and that will cause a docked tail so we do have a few short tailed pigs. This happens most in very large litters (>10) as there are fewer tits to find. At this time we have three full grown sows who were from a large litter and all have short tails due to this ‘self-docking’. I would not bother doing docking though as usually they grow nice long tails which are handy for them to use in the warm weather for swatting.

    Update 20091224: Since I wrote this I have come to recognize that this short tailedness is a simple genetic trait. We see this at times. There does not appear to be any infection or contagiousness and it doesn’t appear to be tail biting or sucking either. The correlation with larger litters is more likely simply chance because some of the sows that happened to carry the genes are also superior mothers. The short tailed trait seems to be highly inheritable and doesn’t appear to negatively affect the piglets other than their tails shorten. Based on watching it over the years it appears to be a simple recessive trait. One of our boars, Archimedes, appears to have brought the trait in along with one of our original sows, Big Pig.

    Update 200140901: As of the late summer of 2014 we have not seen any piglets with short tails in the last over 200 piglets weaned. Through selective breeding we may be close to eliminating this recessive trait from our herds. This is not a major trait but I prefer pigs with long tails as it avoids confusion in the market place that might make people think we dock tails – we don’t. Ironically, this gene that we are eliminating is one that Big Ag might pay handsomely for since it would save them the job of cutting tails if their pigs had short tails.

    Docking is also done with sheep due to issues of fly strike. We have both docked and not docked our sheep. The lambs do not like having their tails docked, even with the banders. I have a neighbor who doesn’t dock so I tried it too. I’ve seen nothing ill of the undocked sheep. Perhaps in another climate docking for the sheep might be more necessary. One shepherdess told me that when sheep are on whet grass they have runnier poops and more need of docking. I’ve read that this is more of an issue in the south.

  • Vitamin Shots – We don’t do do this one either. What I have read is that pigs kept on concrete need the shots or they need to be fed fresh greens. Sounds like a dietary issue. Our pigs are out on pasture where they get plenty of greens and sunshine. During the winter they get hay which replaces the pasture. Pigs, unlike people, make their own Vitamin-C. A healthy diet is better than a shot of vitamins.
  • Mineral & Iron Shots and Supplements – Another thing we don’t do for piglets born on dirt – pigs are very good at getting the iron and other minerals from the soil, if you let them. If you are raising pigs on concrete then give them a shovel full of good dirt and that is enough to give them what they need. Personally, I suspect the pigs prefer to root than have you shoot them full of supplements. In the dead of winter is when this makes the most value. Kelp is a good source of minerals – something to try if your soil doesn’t have all that is needed. Get a soil test. So what about winter piglets? If you can, give them dirt. If you notice you’re having iron deficiency problems, which are more likely to crop up in the winter, then give iron shots as needed. A good mineral supplement is kelp and there are even organic sources. See Mineral Deficiencies.
  • Vaccines – I do believe in vaccination as preventative medicine. We vaccinate ourselves, our dogs and our kids. When I buy chicks I get them vaccinated for Merks Disease. I have not found it necessary to vaccinate the pigs as heavily as the literature suggests. Part of this may simply be that we are fairly isolated as well as the animals being outdoors in a low stress environment. For the sows I use FarrowSure Gold B or similar. If there were a disease outbreak in our area, I would vaccinate them as needed. Check with your state department of agriculture to see if there are any specific concerns. Rabies is the one I worry about as that is present in our state but our vet said not to worry about it for the livestock unless there is an outbreak here. Part of our dogs’ job is to keep off rabid animals – the dogs have the vaccination protection and thus protect us and the rest of the livestock.
  • Deworming – We feed whey, milk, garlic, cayenne all of which are natural anthelmintics, that is to say dewormers. I generally do not routinely deworm with commercial chemical wormers primarily because the chemicals end up in the soil and killing off good invertebrates, like beetles and earthworms, that live in the soil. I want our soil to improve in quality – adding toxic chemicals is not the route to better gardens and pastures. I also don’t like the idea of adding the chemicals to the animals we’ll eat. We also have harsh winters which kill off parasites – in a warmer climate worming might be more important. More importantly, we use intensive rotational grazing which breaks the parasite cycle by leaving them behind. That means healthier animals, healthier soils, less chemicals and less cost. All good things. If I had a sow that was having a worm problem I would use a dewormer if necessary. Better to avoid that if possible through good management – Healthy animals generally don’t have an issue with parasites.
  • Ringing – We do not ring pig noses. Rooting is minimal with managed rotational grazing and the chickens knock it down when they follow the pigs.
  • Weaning – We average weaning at about six weeks but this varies with the litter and season to some degrees within a range of four to eight weeks. Weaning is generally in two week old cohorts. If we have a small pig we may hold it back into another younger group to give it a chance to catch up. Weaned piglets go to weaning, taming and training paddocks where they learn about fencing and the sows go to dry for three days and then to the boar herds for rebreeding when they’re ready.
  • Castrating – We don’t castrate. I will castrate boar piglets if customers request it. I charge $10 for the castration. [I no longer offer this ‘service’ and almost nobody asks for it anymore.] The piglet does not like the process and neither do I. So why do a few people want it? There is the fear of ‘boar taint‘, which is a real thing in some pigs of some lineage. Unfortunately, it is hard to know if a pig has taint until you cook it. I have yet to find it in any of our test boars. I have heard through personal communications with Douglas L. Greger, PhD, Research Director, Templar Research and Development that some people can’t taste it but I’ve served boars to thirty [many thousands of] people so I don’t think that is the issue. He also mentioned that lighter colored pigs tend to have less of the boar taint. Other research has said that some lines of pigs don’t have it and that even some females have the taint, which is “due to the presence of high levels of androsterone and skatol.” One key the research talks about is that slaughtering pigs at a young age, the normal market weight of around 6 months, means they don’t have high levels of these chemicals and thus no boar taint. Pigs are normally slaughtered then so castration may be unnecessary at normal market sizes.

    I have been taste testing boar meat from our pigs for a couple of years now and am up to boars of 14 months old 8 years. I’ve not found any taint yet – everyone I’ve served the boars too have exclaimed at the quality and excellent taste. But, no guarantees on pigs from another lineage. This is one of those things where your mileage will vary with the pig. I’ll continue to do progressively older boars, all in the interest of research of course… For more on castration, read this article and this article links to research.

    [Update 2013: We haven’t been castrating for over half a decade. See taint.]

    [Update 2020: We haven’t been castrating for closing on two decades and thousands of boar pigs raised to size for meat. See taint information.]

    Another question on castration is temperament – are castrated male pigs, barrows, calmer than boars? We have had several dozen intact boars and all of them have been fine. I have heard stories of mean boars – I would make a meal of them right quick. I don’t want to be breeding boars for bad temper – it is only the nice that survive here. Same for all of the livestock from roosters to hens to rams to ewes to sows to boars, etc – Cull for the traits you want.

    Occasionally I get asked about castrating the females. Girl pigs, gilts, are not spayed, except as pets perhaps, and we don’t do that. With girls it’s all internal and it would take a vet to do the job. It is only the boys that have something easily accessible to lose but they hold it tight – With lambs you can band but with boars it’s the blade.

Hmm… That sounds like a list of don’ts. So, what do we do? Check out the Pig Page

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