Easy Farrowing Times

Two Litters Belly to Belly

Two sows farrowed together in the south field this week. On Tuesday I had commented that this pair who were laying together, and four other sows, were looking ready to pop.

Turns out they were synced exactly. They had built a nest together and farrowed at the same time. This happens on occasion and makes me think there might be some trigger going on much like heat cycles being syncronized by scent. Synchronization is important because if the sows are out of sync and together the one that is not farrowing won’t have the right behaviors to protect the piglets.

They didn’t move into this belly to belly position until a little later. With the piglets between them the little ones are sheltered from the wind, have access to food and 103°F heating pads on each side of them. With this in mind there could be a certain evolutionary advantage to synchronized farrowing.

Later in the day as the sun warmed their area the piglets and sows spread out. In a few days they’ll be all over the field, following their mothers who will likely stick together, sharing nursing and babysit while the other goes to grazes, get water or whey. Generally the sows stay away from the rest of the herd for about a week or so. By then piglets are very nimble and ready to deal with the larger animals.

Katya Keeping Curious Onlookers At Bay

Normally I get to know the litter when they’re born so I know who is the mother of every pig. The herd sire at the time of conception gives me the father line – in some cases this is a pair of boars. In this case I’ll only be able to trace the “maybe mother” in some of these piglet cases. Based on piglet colors and what I know of the mothers there are a few in this litter who I know for sure came out of Quartermane, the sow on the left. But the all white ones will be more challenging. For feeder pigs this is less of an issue but for breeders I like to know who’s who and to whom they were born.

This area has been a favorite loafing spot before these two sows took it over. As soon as they are rotated off of it the grasses and clovers will spring back and it will green up. On pasture they mostly graze but they do root a little, especially if there is brush. I suspect that there are juicy grubs and tuber roots among the brush. Their digging is good for the pasture. They only go down a few inches, turning over the soil and aerating it. Sometimes we spread seeds behind them as I rotate them out of an area. Pigs are a great help for planting crops and renovating pasture. One of the effects of the pig’s gentle rooting is they bring rocks up to the surface which we collect for stone walls. They also bring up artifacts such as an old plow blade, a pottery shard, an iron hook, a bulldozer tread, ancient bricks and other interesting found items.

Earlier this summer two other sows had farrowed in this area too. Being a little raised up it stays dry and it is on the opposite slope of the swale from the mountain slope. The plastic panel and boards along the fence line are to keep the sows and piglets off the fence and to keep piglets from going through the stone wall and down over the edge of the field which has a short drop off there. As the piglets get older they’ll find the trail in the stone wall where they can go down into the brush during the heat of the day but they’ll not wander far from their mothers.

In the distance of the photos you can see dots of pigs, and boulders. It is hard to tell one from the other in the photo. Off in the far distance, about 800′ away, you can see the stone wall between the near south field and the far south field. Check this post for a map.

Visible in the middle distance are a bunch of ash trees I cut that are drying. These will be firewood for our tiny cottage in coming years.

Another interesting note in this photo is the dead tree with the bark stripped from it. It is the preferred rubbing spot in this paddock. Everyone needs a good back scratcher. Sometimes it is a fence post, sometimes a tree, sometimes a rock, sometimes my tractor. I try not to be a scratching post – Most of all never get between 800 lbs of scratcher and the post!

The stripped bark is the combined work of the sheep and pigs but the tree was already dead years ago before they started on it. The nibbling of the sheep and rubbing of the pigs merely took off the loose dead bark and polished the wood. After a tree dies the wood shrinks and the bark loosens. I’m going to cut that tree for firewood now that it is dry and leave the stump high so the animals can continue to have a rubbing post. The green flagging tape was my mark on it that I didn’t want it cut for this reason when we were clearing along there.

Proper Lie Down Technique

A good sow in proper condition lies down slowly, rising up a little as necessary to give piglets time to scramble out from beneath her massive bulk. A poor mother or over weight sow may flop down hard, crushing piglets in the process. This behavior is genetic. Select for it and keep your sows from getting overly fat. As a side note, I suspect that some of the ‘crushings’ people report are actually non-viable piglets who simply died shortly after birth due to congenital defects and were then laid on later. That is to say, not all pressed pigs are crushings. It is a question of did they die or get flattened first.

High Climber

Meanwhile, in the north field a litter of twelve from a new gilt also arrived. She did not yet have a name but is an excellent mother. It was high time I asked her what I should call her. Now that she is a year old and has farrowed she is a sow and should have a name. So this morning Hope and I visited with her and observed her markings. Hope is studying geography. We saw Greece in her birthmark. Hope and I named her Greta for the Greeks after trying out several variants with her. She seems to be very calm and a good mom. With her big litter I look forward to knowing her for many years to come.

Hope Petting Piglets

Piglet petting is a very appetitive thing, for people. The piglets don’t particularly like it though. They really don’t like being picked up. I suspect they are ‘ticklish’ – that is to say that the feeling of being lifted up makes them think of a predator grabbing them which is dangerous. Thus when they are picked up they scream bloody murder at about 100 decibels. This brings their mothers running. It is a uniquely piercing sound and a good way to get hurt. Since pigs do not pickup their young, unlike dogs, cats and humans, the piglets don’t have the mindset of being lifted up to safety. They can learn it but that requires a lot of interaction and what they need most right now is their mother’s milk and protection. In this case both sows had gone off to graze nearby – you can see Qmane coming towards us on the right – and Hope was gently and slowly stroking the piglets. No pickups allowed.

In building their nests, sows gather materials from the fields. This includes the occasional piece of white bale wrap plastic. They’re right that the plastic does make a great nesting material. We then pick over their nest when they’re done to remove found things from the field. Team work.

Update: As I finished writing this another of our sows, Torn, had eight more piglets. She may still have more to come so the count is not final. At least three more sows are bagged up and ready to go any day now. Clustering of litters like this is fairly common – feaster or famine. One time we had eleven sows all farrow in a few days time boosting our pig population by more than one hundred pigs in one big jump. I prefer it when they space the litters out at the rate of about two a week. I could segregate the boars away from the sows but frankly that is too much work, the boars and the sows would be unhappy with the arrangement and they do a better job of heat detection and breeding management left to their own devices. I just have to be ready to catch what they throw.

Forty-three more piglets born into beautiful weather. These are the easy months of summer. There are more to come in the next week. June through October are particularly fine months. We are caught up with the rush of spring piglet orders. Most people, neigh, almost everyone, wants piglets in the spring to raise over the warm season. I sympathize. I just wish I could keep up with the orders.

Unfortunately to serve the demand for spring piglets means farrowing piglets in the middle of the harsh winter months. Those are more challenging times. Farrowing in the dead of winter is harder indoors or outdoors. Greenhouses are great as are the dens and open sheds we have. Dryness is important – fortunately our winters are cold enough that they are dry. It is better to be at 15 degrees or below than at 32°F where everything turns to mud. Lots of hay is key in our cold climate as is a windbreak. In the summer the sows pick their own nesting sites out in the pastures, typically along the margins in the brush. In the winter we must separate them from other pigs who are out of sync with them. This gives them a simulation of the summer privacy they seek for their nests.

Sales of spring piglets compete with the need for piglets here on our own farm to raise to market size for stores, restaurants and CSA families. This means that we see a low finisher pig count during the late summer – e.g., now. It can be hard in the spring resisting the cash in hand for piglets vs the much higher reward six months later for the finisher pigs. It takes five months or so to produce a piglet. For another five months investment we get four times as much for a finisher pig. Someone tells me to sell fewer piglets in the spring so we can have more sales in the fall. What I want is to have more sows. Getting there is a gradual process – I won’t let us grow to fast or too big.

For now, like the pigs, I’ll enjoy the warm summer months and the easy farrowing. It is fun visiting piglets in their nests out in the margins of the mountain pastures. It is a pleasant walk about on a warm sunny late summer day.

Outdoors: 76°F/50°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 71°F/71°F

Daily Spark: “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.” -Robert Jarvik (developed artificial heart)

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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25 Responses to Easy Farrowing Times

  1. David Lloyd Sutton says:

    Walter, this is the most engaging glimpse of living alongside herds and packs of other species I have ever seen. I was about to print it out to leaf into one of my pig books when it occurred to me to ask you if you’ve explored taking your blog and photos into book form. Rodale Press comes to mind. You would need the most cursory of editing/spell checking to be publishable, and your material makes Gene Logsdon’s stuff look shallow, (though I like the old curmudgeon’s voice) You could assemble one of the all time good on-the-land volumes ever with material you have already composed and illustrated. Just a thought . . . Even segregating pig behavior and management into one book, large livestock guard dogs and their training into another, etc., might give you a series situation.

    • Glad you enjoyed the glimpse. I get writing from a photo and seem to go on and on. I worry that it is too long for a blog post. But I find it relaxing. It is something different to do.

      I’ve had many people suggest putting together books, from coffee table type books of “Photos from Sugar Mountain Farm” to series like you suggest. Several book publishers have approached me about writing a book. We’ll see what happens. On the one hand it would be fun to do but I also have to stay focused on getting the butcher shop up and running – our current big project.

      Right now I’m working on raising the $30,000 we need to pour the rest of the concrete and close in before winter hits so that we can continue to work on the facility’s interior over the cold season.

  2. Ann says:

    I second that David! I love these detailed looks at life on the farm. Maybe there is a market for two different kinds of books out of your writings. Books for people like me who are caught in the stress of the city and want the escapism of reading about the pastoral farm life. I dream of doing what your doing but I know it will not be soon. Maybe a little hobby farm in 30 years when I retire. This would be the picture book. Then there is the market for people who want to actually do farming and homesteading and need to learn how to do it. That would be the book I would buy later. Yes. I can see two entirely different series that could be picked off of your blog by a good editor! You have years of gems here that need just a little polish.

    So you mentioned a publisher coming to see you about this. I realize maybe it is all hush-hush and under wraps but can I guess….. Storey Publishing maybe? Chelsea Green Publishing? They’re both close by to you and do titles like this. Rodale Press as David said is another obvious candidate….. I have books from all of them. My escape while I save up enough to retire to the country. Exciting! Keep writing and make them long posts with lots of pictures!

    • Ann, You made some excellent guesses. We’ll see what happens. Nothing in concrete yet. Currently Vermont Livin magazine gleans articles each issue from my blog. They publish every other month in glossy paper form for newsstands as well as their web site. I must admit the check is a nice little bonus. Keep dreaming and saving. You’ll get to your goals.

  3. Walter ~ Please don’t ever think your Blogs are too long. We can handle it. ;) And I agree with David and Ann ~ write it and we’ll read it! I loved this post, and so timely, as we had piglets born yesterday to our gilt/first-time sow, Reba. She had 7 healthy pink satin wigglers. I appreciate what you wrote about the sow getting up and down. This is our 2nd litter. Our first was with a fine Mama who was very careful. We were keeping our fingers crossed for the same outcome and we are pleased to announce we have a winner. Reba is extremely careful and cautious, and gets up and down in exactly the manner you displayed. All day today, on the hour, I’ve gone to watch the piglets sleep, eat and toddle about ~ much like a mother looking through the nursery glass at the hospital in days of old. I don’t know how I can go to work this next week and miss this excitement! Did I say I love pigs? :) Here’s a peek at ours if you are interested: http://russ-stickacres.blogspot.com/2010/08/magnificent-seven-new-life-on-farm.html

    Walter ~ I also have a question for you and was going to email, but I’ll just ask here, if that is o.k. Perhaps someone else has the same question. We have an 80# boar and a 400# boar. Both are sweeties. Right now, they are by themselves, because we just moved pigs around with the anticipation of the birth(s) that occurred yesterday. Do you see any harm in putting these two together in a 20 x 35′ enclosure? We’ve never housed one of that size with a smaller one. I certainly wouldn’t want to put the smaller one at risk of harm. Thanks in advance for your answer.

    • Your sow and the piglets look great! It is amazing how they will fill out in just a few days going from such scrawny things at birth to rounded, rolly-polly piglets very soon.

      If the boars already know each other they’ll be fine. If this is their first meeting then that is a small space and there will likely be some shoving around. Because the little boar at 80 lbs is so much smaller they should very quickly establish that the bigger boar is boss and everything should be fine. Just watch them. We have our herds together out on pasture with mixed ages from piglets up to the half ton boars without trouble. The further apart they are in size the better they get along. The most fighting comes if they are even – then they must establish who is boss and it takes longer. Same thing happens with females.

  4. Thanks for the compliment on the sow and piglets Walter. I almost emailed you a picture of the sow I took the day before she delivered…her milk had come in and I was going to have you guess the birth date. ;) Didn’t take long after that… Hey ~ that might be a contest for you sometime. We can guess on one of your sows. ;)

    Everything you said makes perfect sense on the boars. They have “met”, but only through the boards of a wooden fence. I always marveled at your pictures of your huge sows and boars with little piglets scattered about ~ that is also our goal ~ slow and steady. OK ~ we’ll try it ~ seems now is a good time, better than later, as we plan to keep the two boars. My husband Russ felt spacing was a factor, and then of course feed and perhaps even the proximity of the females (their grunts getting the boars agitated…). I know with our cows, it is MUCH easier to keep the bull in with them. Cuts down on the calling back and forth. :) Thanks again Walter!

    • If you can pull milk then she’s within a day or so most times. They gorge and then stop eating as they begin nest building. Most of our sows start dripping milk right before they go. Looks like a dairy bar with those white fountains. The size would put certain ‘enhanced’ ladies to shame. Of course, 14 to 16 breasts should do it too… :)

  5. Ryan says:

    I was warned about the McClintock effect when I went away to college. It seams very reasonable that pigs cycles would synchronize.

  6. Update: Another sow went in the south field giving ten piglets. Two in the north herd look they’re about to go. We have fine weather for piglets. August, September and October are the final nice birthing months before winter sets in.

  7. mellifera says:

    Love that quote from Mr. Jarvick. My dad always loved to wax on about how entrepeneurs who take risks and do new things are what makes this country great– until I told him I wanted to do a diversified direct-marketing farm. “You wanna do WHAT? No! Get a real job!”

    LOL, Dad. LOL.

  8. DennisP says:

    Walt, you are an excellent writer and quite the renaissance man. I really enjoy reading your blog and getting an inside look at livestock farming. Wish you the best of luck with your on-farm abbatoir; it’s quite a job and I admire you for your skills. The books idea would be really interesting. Would take a lot of time, so you’ll have to proceed slowly given your other work, but eventually a lot of us would enjoy reading them.

    • If I do books it will take back seat to our main projects of the homeschooling, the farm, getting the butcher shop going, etc. It is an interesting project.

      There is a magazine who picks articles off of my blog for each issue. They pick one, ask, edit it, send me a copy for review (always looks great), let me know which photos they want high rez versions of (works easily as I have a coding method in the file names), they publish and send me a check in the mail. Wow, that makes it sound more complicated than it really is. From my point of view, since I already wrote the article for my blog, it’s only a few minutes work for each article. The magazine editor and layout person are great people to work with. I just got the most recent issue in the mail today which featured the obituary of Big’Un, our gentle giant.

      Update: Today I got a box of materials from the book publisher who had contacted me.

  9. mellifera says:

    Have fun in the farm p0rn business! (Er, that’s what my husband calls my Chelsea Green habit.) Good thing you already taught the dogs to pose….

  10. Walter, you have the uncanny knack of blogging about an issue just as I am getting ready to write you about it. Such as piglets being crushed, bad mama vs sick piglet vs DOA piglet. You are the man, and the sucess of our new hog operation (one year old Sept 30) is due in large part to YOU a man we have never even met. Many many thanks

    • You’re welcome. I’ve learned from others and from experiences. I’m so glad I can pass on something to save someone else from some of the less pleasant experiences and to help you enjoy the better ones. May all your piglets wean and all your weaners finish. :) (A swineherder’s blessing)

  11. Eric says:

    I want to just say how grateful I am that you share so much about how u do things. I have been wanting to do pigs for a long time and finally got my first weaners this spring basede on reading here about how to do stuff. They are wonderful! Freezercamp is next week for them and I can’t wait for all that delicious pork. We are sharing two pigs between three families. Better food and the pasture cut the feedbill tremendously! Im in Virginia but if I were closer I would get my pigs from you just to support you for al lthe help you have been!

  12. Margaret Rieser says:

    The image of the two sows with the piglets between them is lovely. I have two gilts who are due to farrow in the next several days. They have been together most of their lives, since I bought them post-weaning. I keep them on a quarter acre pasture with access to a box stall in the barn which they rarely use in warm weather. My experienced pig farming neighbors have advised me that to prepare for farrowing I should separate the gilts so I don’t run the risk of them harming each other’s babies, and I should close them each in their own indoor farrowing area so they don’t farrow outdoors in potentially bad weather. Also, the sows should be kept indoors for several days post-farrowing. I can tell that your farrowing system is different than my neighbors’ and that you have found it to be successful. Your method appeals to me. As a first time farmer of farrowing gilts, I am worried that I would be irresponsible to give them the option to farrow together, outdoors, in other words that I’m taking on too much risk when I don’t have experience with this process. One gilt looks at least a few days ahead of the other. Might it be a problem to have them together before the second one delivers?
    I don’t want to lose piglets, but I don’t want to unnecessarily upset the moms by separating them or locking them indoors, two things they have never experienced. Of course I also don’t want to appear irresponsible to the other pig farmers in town.
    Any thoughts you have about this would be appreciated.
    Margaret Rieser

    • During the industrial revolution there was the desire to control everything in a machine like assembly line fashion. This was applied to farming, both crops and animals. It is one way. I believe strongly that they are breeding out the natural mothering instincts and survivability of the animals to produce a sub-standard animal by doing that. If you take one of those animals who has lost the proper instincts for how to lay down, how to nest, etc and put it out in the field then there may be losses.

      We spent years breeding back towards mothers that have the right instincts. Things to look at are how does the sow lay down? Does she do it in a slow controlled manner or does just just flop down which would crush piglets? Look at her condition – fat sows don’t make good field mothers. But fields don’t make for fat sows as a general rule. Our sows are big, 700 to 800 lbs in many cases, but they aren’t fat so they have the strength to control themselves. Does she nest build? This is quite important.

      Another issue is are the sows in sync, that is are they going to farrow at the same time. If so they are more likely to do well farrowing together. Sows who are more than a few days or at most a week apart in gestation are not as good a candidate for farrowing together.

      Weather makes a difference. Warm weather is easier farrowing and they farrow together better. In the cold of winter they need spaces. This mimics the fact that during the warm seasons out on pasture they typically go and find a private place in the brush to farrow. A week later or so they bring the piglets back to the herd. That said, some sows do farrow right in the same nest.

      This brings up the size of the paddocks. If they’re in small pens then stalls are probably smart as they can’t get privacy. If they’re out on pasture then they have the opportunity to build private nests. Typically they use the nest for a few days and then move to a new nest, leaving the smell of birthing behind (blood scent) which attracts predators to the old nest.

      Separating them will likely upset them. Which way is hard to say is best without knowing the pigs but there are some thoughts to get you going in the process of thinking about it.

      As to your neighbors, I would not worry about them looking down their noses at you. It’s just the way they are. Some of them are taller and their eyes are positioned up above their noses. They can’t help but look down their noses at other people. :)

  13. Angie says:

    speaking of writing a book – is Hope keen to write?
    I bet real life farm adventures aimed towards kids, written by a kid, would be a huge hit.

    • Hope loves to write. She nearly always has a story that she is working on writing and has completed quite the compilation of works. She’s also a voracious reader. She and Ben tell stories to each other, often collaborating on a story together, as they work on the farm. It’s a great way to pass the time. Together they’ve written down many of these stories. Her stories tend toward adventures, often involving castles, dragons and ferrets. She’s a big fan of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, the Red Pyramid and similar series.

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