Blackie’s July 2010 Litter
I love the color of the piglets. Our pigs are not pure bred but rather a mix of heritage breeds and this shows in the variety of colors. Unfortunately the red coats turn very dark with age.
Blackie, who looks like a Large Black but has some Berkshire, is one of our best sows and she continues to amaze me. She has consistently had above average litter counts with up to 19 piglets. This latest one is her smallest litter at 10 piglets, 9 of whom survived and that is still a high count . To paraphrase Garrison Kieler, I’m shooting for a farm where all of the pigs are above average.
In addition to having large litters Blackie also has several other tricks up her, uhm, sleeve that keep her at the head of the herd.
Blackie short gestates. This means that she has her litters a few days early. The average gestation for a pig is 114 days. Blackie’s gestation for this litter was 111 days and she’s done many litters even faster than that. By shaving off a few days on each pregnancy she does more litters per year. Most sows do only about two litters per year. Blackie has done 50% more than that. As paleontologists will tell you, a small evolutionary advantage like that makes a big difference after thousands of generations.
Blackie is one gorny hal. Most sows don’t rebreed until a week or more after they wean their previous litter. Weaning is generally at four to eight weeks. Blackie can’t wait to get back in the action. She hops* fences to get in with the boars at a week to ten days after farrowing and rebreeds early. Then she nurses her piglets while beginning gestation of the next litter. This shaves about another month to 45 days off her farrow to farrow cycle meaning more litters per year. She’s a talented tulti-masker.
Blackie has sixteen very well developed teats and is very well endowed with each breast being very large and even. This means she produces more milk. More milk means she weans bigger, faster growing piglets. All of our sows have at least 14 teats and some others have sixteen teats. Compare this with the fact that many sows have only 10 or 12 teats. Small differences that add up. Select for teat count and this is why teats on a boar really do matter.
Blackie does not lose her condition even during the winter with gestating and nursing large litters of piglets. This ability to winter is a critical trait in our cold climate. Wintering ability is one of the characteristics she brings in. Our big boar Spot does less well at wintering, losing condition, although Archimedes and Big’Un are excellent along with many of the other sows. One of those traits we’re working on improving with each generation.
The result of all of this is Blackie has three large litters of piglets a year and does it in good health. Generally I only keep about 5% of the gilts from litters for test breeding. I’m keeping back an unusually high number of her gilts with the goal to improve our breeding and piglet numbers. All of her gilt piglets who measure up will become breeders. Some of these piglets are already sold – they will go to other farms who have asked for Blackie’s genetics.
What does Blackie lack? After all, nobody is perfect. Well, she’s a little short in torso length which means less loin and bacon. However combined with our long boars she has thrown some beautifully long pigs.
She hasn’t, yet, grown as large as some of the other sows but what really matters is how fast her piglets get to market size – they do very well. Bigger sows are better at grazing but the difference may be nominal – her 600 lbs vs the really big 800 lb sows like Mouse and Petra. In fact, her not being so big could be viewed as a plus for farms feeding commercial feed.
Fashion models might caller her a bit hippy but I think she’s a beautiful ham. We think the runway models are scrawny. Blackie could have a bit more size in the shoulder but fortunately does not wear those absurd padded blouses that seem to be in vogue.
Blackie has flopped forward ears. Those are more prone to frost bite than upright ears – although she’s never gotten frost bite. The floppy ears are also more likely to get bitten by another more dominant sow. This has happened to Blackie and she has a split on one ear to prove it. Pigs are very hierarchal.
Crossing her and her offspring with our ultra-long boars with upright ears like Spot and Speckles helps to give her descendents these desirable characteristics. The huge shoulders in Big’Un and Archimedes have also come through. As a result some of her sons have gone to other farms to become herd sires.
With each generation we gradually improve the herds. As I tell people: Breed the best of the best and eat the rest.
By the way, Mouse, Petras, Blackie and some of our other very well endowed sows do not support the myth that little breasts produce as much milk as big breasts. The reality is more well endowed sows produce more milk and wean bigger piglets. Same in cows and I would bet in any mammal. This is not to say that small breasts can’t produce enough milk, just that the politically correct idea that all are equal is not true. Of course, there is a difference between glandular tissue and fat. Excessive fat actually reduces lactation so I make sure my ladies stay fit and trim. It’s called fine condition. Of course, artificial implants need not apply.
Also contrary to some people’s claims, the piglets don’t pick one teat and stay with that but instead will suckle any and all teats, switching back and forth. Bigger, more aggressive piglets dominate the dairy bar, pushing aside smaller piglets. This is very clear on a sow like Blackie, Mouse and their daughters who have piglets of many colors.
An interesting thing of note in the photo at the top is the second placenta on the ground. Pigs have two uteruses. Sometimes human women have this but it is less common in our species. The result is pigs can actually get pregnant, give birth and then two weeks later give birth again! Mouse and Abby, two others of our sows, has done this also. It was a big surprise the first time. With this litter Blackie gave birth to the first eight piglets in the evening, dumped the placenta from that uterus and then suckled piglets and rested. I thought she might have more as the second placenta had not yet come out although it was possible our LGHD‘s had come by and cleaned up. But then the next day around mid-morning out popped the remaining two piglets, one still born and the other healthy, followed by the second placenta.
Geese Marching Home
Someone recently asked the value of a sow. This is a good question and it rather depends on the sow.
Occasionally I see someone selling a bred sow for $300. I ask myself what is wrong with that pig? Why would someone sell not just a pig but a bred sow for less than the value of the meat? If you see a sow at that price, snap it up provided there are no health or other disease issues. It is way under priced.
So is she unproductive? Past her prime? A reality on the farm is that an unproductive sow is worth the meat for sausage if she’s no longer producing piglets. She would be termed a sausage sow. Figure live weight x 72% x 50% or so to get the meat for sausage. Even an old sow makes excellent sausage. At wholesale pastured pork sausage prices this makes $600 to $1,000 allowing for the costs of slaughter, butchering, sausage making and transport.
If she’s big she’s actually worth more than that because she can be made into specialty cuts like prosciutto where they want larger hams. I’ve had several chefs ask to put dibs on sows when they become available. The reality though is most of our sows, once they get past that first test littler, live out their lives here on the farm.
Note I’m not talking auction prices and I’m not talking about conventional antibiotic filled pork. Auctions are the best way to get the lowest price for when selling. Waste of time. I raise premium pastured naturally grown pork. Even as sausage sows ours are worth far more than conventional pigs.
But what the person was really asking about was live productive sows so let us move on to the value of a sow, not her meat.
A run-of-the-mill good guaranteed bred good sow is worth at least her own meat value plus a good portion of the value of the expected litter. Stud fee to breeder is $100 or more. That puts her value at several thousand dollars at minimum. Simply looking at it from the piglets produced point of view in that first litter she is worth a minimum of $630 + 8 x $150 = $1,830.
That may sound like a lot but grow those piglets out and the return becomes $5,000 plus you still have the sow to breed again. Deduct the cost of raising them to figure values. The return on investment time (4 months gestation + 6 months raising) is far shorter than with beef (1 year gestation + 2 years raising) or most other other businesses aside from flipping mortgages at your local AIG franchise. In six more months she’ll have another litter for you to repeat the cycle. Of course, one sow isn’t likely to pay the bills but a herd or two and your a pastured pig farmer before you know it. All without selling your soul to Wall Street.
On the other hand is a prime sow like Blackie who can throw three large litters a year, year after year, while maintaining her health on pasture without commercial feed supplements. She is a rare sow and worth her weight in gold. Well, 10% of her weight in gold at today’s inflated price. Over her lifespan she’ll produce more than $100,000 in premium pastured pork plus breeding daughters and sons to continue her line. At today’s gold prices that’s a more than two ‘London Good Delivery Bars‘ which are 400 troy ounces or 27 lbs each. I would not want to sell Blackie for anything less – she is foundation genetics. As the arachnid said, she’s Terrific.
Of course, value all depends on a willing buyer and a willing seller meeting on price. Good old fashion Capitalism at its finest.
Outdoors: 82°F/55°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 73°F/71°F
Daily Spark: In upstate New York, where the roads are long and sometimes a little rough, there’s a sign that says, “Choose your rut carefully; you’ll be in it for the next ten miles.”
*Imagine 600 lbs of short legged sow jumping a 3′ to 4′ fence. Now imagine the time that her boyfriend Spot doing that right next to Holly. He’s believable, it’s almost like stepping over the fence for him – just a little hop and there goes three quarters ton of flying pig. In a way, Blackie’s jump is more amazing since she’s so much shorter legged.
As a second year pig farmer in NH I find your blog invaluable for information which has a different slant than the folks around here who have been doing this for a long time. As someone looking into getting into the breeding game, this post was especially fascinating! The idea of a several hundred pounds of pig scooting around has made us decide that in addition to good looks and hardiness, we are most interested in a sow with good manners. Is this something you also consider when deciding which animals to keep back for breeding stock?
Yes, most definitely. Good temperament is a critical trait in what we look for in our animals. Temperament is highly heritable. We eat the mean ones. By doing this over the years and culling the lines where it showed up we got docile animals.
Walter, at what age do you usually start breeding your boars and gilts? Do you wait for the gilt to have a few cycles before she is first bred?
Generally the sows farrow the first time at one year which means they bred at about eight months. We keep them in large herd groups with the boar. If they haven’t bred by 10 months they usually go to market. If I was doing AI or renting a boar I would let them cycle a couple of times to make it more likely they would take when I spent the money on semen.
We don’t have pigs, but we have our first Dexter cow bred to calve in November. All I can say is, your pigs weigh more than our cow! Wow! After reading about Blackie, I am reminded of another quote from Charlotte, “SOME PIG!”
Can we sign up for some Blackie pigs? Probably about the same time we’ll be looking for an LGD puppy, which is to say in about 5 years…. : ) By then it’ll probably be Blackie grandpiggies, but that’s ok.
FWIW I think the lack of breast size/milk correlation rule only applies to people, since most of we see as “the human breast” is fat. You don’t see other critters going around with their mammary tissue sporting a faux-engorged look their entire life, do you? It’s just a naked ape thing….
You’ll have to be close by Millifera to get Blackie’s piglets or a pup. I just don’t like shipping.
On the breast tissue I’ve wondered about that. In the women I’ve known some had very soft breast tissue when they were pre-nursing and others firm – fat vs glans? Once nursing they certainly all increased in size as the glands increased. There is definitely a little deception going on with human women where they sport those glorious looking breasts to advertise their sexuality. It does work as men get attracted to them although it is obviously not the only attraction factor going on or we would have all women sporting huge breasts – like the development of the peacocks. During lacation, of the women I’ve known, it certainly seemed, both from friends’ reports and my careful, uhm, observations and experimentation, that those who had small breasts did not produce as much milk when nursing as those who had large breasts. But my sample set is too small to be considered statistically significant. I must work on expanding my research… :) Right now though I’m quite busy with other projects. :)
Fortunately, in any case, large or small they do produce sufficient for our human children to grow well. Even lady Lili and her mother Katia, some of our LGHDs, who are exceedingly lithe, produces enough for large litters.
Now I know why Holly keeps you so busy with project Walter! She wouldn’t want you going off and starting new research!!!!! You are right though. I am big and a fountain at nursing time. Embarassingly so at times. This is why they make bra pads for nursing mothers like me. Mooooo!
The information is great and I can just imagine Blackie jumping over the fence to get to her man. What a great story. Thanks for sharing.
That’s a good question, mammary glands are pretty complex anatomically (especially with people) so there are a whole lot of factors going on– amount of gland tissue, amount of fat, how well the ligaments that are supposed to hold it all up are actually doing their job, condition of lymph nodes in the area, and general gratuitous fluid that can vary from day to day. (For example, a lot of the post-birth engorgement is milk & enlarging gland tissue, but a lot of it is just edema since the onset of lactation often provokes an inflammatory response around the glands, and that causes swelling/edema.) And those are just the parts that occur naturally! Some peoples’ have even more fancy stuff in them like silicone and saline. : ) When keeping in mind that the human race can’t even totally decide if it has one uterus or two, that much individual variation in breast physiology makes some sense.
Despite its importance there’s still a lot we don’t know about the physiology of breasts and lactation, at least until recently. I remember reading a book on breast cancer where the researcher was working on one problem, and needed some basic information on how the milk glands emptied to the outside. Did each one have its own little outlet duct? Or did they all pool into a sinus that then emptied to the outside? Turns out that nobody knew. She had to contact La Leche League in order to find some women with functioning breasts so she could take a look and figure out how boobs work.
This was not the 1950s… it was the ’80s. Amazing. I can almost guarantee you that if the gland in question were testicles, there would have been at least a textbook chapter on the subject.
Speaking of testicles… well I don’t reckon you ship boar semen, do you? LOL That would simplify things (for other people, not for you). How big are the piglets when you wean/sell them? I’m thinking that in a few years a road trip to a couple farms up in Vermont will be in the cards anyway. If they’re still quite small, say under 50 lbs, one could pretend it’s a dog and make a road trip work….. Little covered trailer with some windows and lots of bedding?
Piglets are 4 to 8 weeks old when we sell them. Generally 20 to 50 lbs. Some people ask for them smaller or larger so there is a range and sometimes we week them younger or older since we tend to wean large groups out of the field at once – much easier than littler by litter. If you want little guys, just ask for small ones. They fit and travel well in a large dog carrier which can be in the back of a car or van – no need for even a trailer. This is how most people get them. Just don’t subject them to too much heat or too much wind on the trip – 65 mph winds get cold.
As to breasts, I guess other men just haven’t been paying enough attention to them… Otherwise there would be a lot more, er, research. Or maybe the subject is just too distracting. :)
Blackie is gorgeous! xo
Good to know about the piglets. It’s certainly possible to develop one’s own lines over several years of selection, but if somebody has already come up with delicious & hardy pigs, why reinvent the wheel?
There has certainly always been a great deal of male interest in the human breast, but not usually of the variety that does anybody else any good. I heard of a lecturer at a medical school probably about 20 years ago summing up all the medical students would ever need to know about breastfeeding as “The baby gets what’s baby’s, and Daddy gets what’s Daddy’s.” (Pointing respectively to a bottle and a model of a breast.) The fall and eventual re-rise of breastfeeding in America (and thus elsewhere, since everybody wants to be like the USA) is really interesting– the dysfunctionality of it all is fascinating.
My suspicion is that the fall of breast feeding in recent times was directly related to economics, to the profits garnered by the formula and then baby food companies. They marketed that mothers were insufficient to the task of feeding their children. My wife Holly breast fed our children and that is all they got for the first six months. Then they started eating off our plates gradually more until they had their own plates. We never fed them commercial baby food. It is a crazy fad. Fortunately breast feeding and the real food is on the come back.
My still all time favorit post of yours is the breast ice cream one. That was just priceless!
Ah yes, that would be this one. Holly really likes that one too. It was almost picked up by Vermont Life Magazine but then the editors got politically correct and changed their minds. Perhaps they were afraid of saying Boobs on Sunday.
Yeah, there’s definitely the commercial side, but let’s be honest– finding a way to avoid breastfeeding has been a popular option for anyone who could afford a wet nurse throughout human history. Other factors played a role (jealous husbands, anyone?), but I’m certain that a big part of the reason formula became so popular is because nursing is honestly just real hard on Mom. I know medical residents working 24-hour shifts who say nursing their newborn was the hardest thing they ever did.
Don’t get me wrong, nursing is the healthiest thing and it’s great– our kid is in her weaning stages now at 21 months– but I do think it’s a shame when it’s promoted without any word on how it’s also a royal pain, too often literally, and formula’s popularity is made out to be just from marketing. It’s a recipe for backlash. I’d prefer that mothers could all cope with the burden posed by nursing by being able to live on a slower scale so we can take the time to do that for our children instead of going to manufactured foods; but lying to people about how hard it is ain’t gonna lead to them planning a lifestyle that will allow good space for nursing.
Like anything there is variation. For my wife nursing is easy, far easier than the idea of formula or baby food, neither of which we ever did. I’ve known a lot of other women who have said the same thing, that nursing was easy and they enjoyed it. I’m more incline to believe that the commercial interests and fashion were the reasons for formula and wet nurses. Most importantly is that people have choices.
For me the first month was hard on my first one but then it got a lot easier. I am glad I persevered at the persistance of a friend of mine who also was nursing but on her third. Now Ive nursed four more and all went smoothly. It is so much easier to whip out a tit especially in the middle of the night than to make up formula and it also means I travel lighter. Just me and my baby, no bulky formulas and stuff. I know some women have a hard time but I wonder how much of that is that a generation lost the skill and didn’t model it. My mom didn’t so I didn’t get to see her nursing. I hope we as a society recover these skills and down with the corps who just want their greedy profits.