Natural Weaning – Not

Weaners Eating Pumpkin

Recently the topic of weaning has come up several time. People have asked at what ages and about natural weaning.

We do not tend to do natural weaning. We tried it but the piglets don’t want to wean and it can hurt the sow.

While the piglets start eating pasture grasses, clover and other things within a week of birth they don’t tend to want to wean when the sow is ready. This can cause the sow to become nursed down and peakid which can imperil her health since she is on a low calorie natural pasture diet without free access to high calorie foods like corn or corn/soy commercial feeds.

The sow ends up trying to force the piglets to wean by laying on her belly so they can’t nurse. But then she is unable to standup to go pee or poop, she can’t go get a drink of water and she can’t graze. The result is eventually she gives in to her needs, gets up and gets bombarded with hungry mouths.

Since it takes three days of weaning for her breasts to stop producing so natural weaning just doesn’t work. “Ah,” but you say, “It works in nature.” Well, in nature predators kill and eat most of the piglets so the sow is on average only nursing about one or two by the time weaning time rolls around. She can handle that without losing too much condition herself.

I’m not willing to lose that many piglets or feed the local predator population. Since our livestock guardian dogs keep the predators at bay that means the sows have to deal with eight to twenty piglets. That’s a lot harder on her body. The result is the sow can become dangerously nursed down. If she gets that nursed down late in the fall it can actually kill her over the winter because she’s not going into the cold season with sufficient body fat reserves.

Thus we wean piglets intentionally. We typically wean at four to eight weeks of age. By then they are big enough that they no longer need to nurse. They’ve been eating pasture for a long time and can thrive on it. They also get whey which replaces the milk to a degree. We tried later weaning times but found no benefit to the piglets and it did hurt the sows. Weaning earlier than 15 days was a problem for some piglets – they haven’t had enough time to transition to solids. The first three days or so when they get colostrum from the sow are critical. Even another already nursing sow is not as beneficial as a just freshened sow. The colostrum provides immunity to the piglets. Thus we tend to go for four to eight weeks of nursing with the piglets.

When we wean we generally do several litters at once creating a cohort or ‘sound’ who are within a couple of weeks of each other. This is easier for us and they’re already familiar with each other so it makes the weaning easier for them. About 20 to 60 piglets in a group is a goodly number.

The piglets get moved to a tightly fenced weaning paddock or garden such as the one shown in the photo above where they’re chowing down on the pumpkin. The sows get moved to a resting paddock if they’re nursed down or back to the breeding herd. In about three days they stop producing milk due to the back pressure in the glands and their breasts begin to shrink back down in size. Typically in three to seven days they’re back in heat and pestering the boars for attention.

So what’s the milk jug in the photo? It’s a pig toy. They’ll toss it around and chew on it. That garden has few dozen piglets in it and is about 1,000 sq-ft. After about one week they had completely cleaned it out and turned over the soil. Ben simply opened the door from there to the next garden where they found a delicious crop of beats, broccoli, clover and other yummy food. Now that it is late fall that garden will rest over the winter. If it were summer I would plant some fast growing food for the next group of pigs.

By the way:

A weaner is an animal that is being weaned from nursing.

A wiener is a hot dog.

Nary the two should be confused!

Before they were weaned they were technically suckling pigs although since we milk feed they stay ‘suckling pigs’ from a cooking perspective. Now that they have been weaned these little pigs are termed growers. Later they’ll graduate to roaster size, then finisher size and finally market hogs for 95% of them. A very small number, the best of the best, will get kept back as breeders. That’s about 5% for gilts and about 1% for boars. See the Frequently Asked Questions page for lots of factoids like this.

Outdoors: 58°F/35°F Cloudy, Light Rain over night
Tiny Cottage: 67°F/65°F

Daily Spark:
For the pointyer part
of the pregnant pig
here in the reariere
you’ll find the derriere
in the airier.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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13 Responses to Natural Weaning – Not

  1. Jeff Marchand says:

    Thanks Walter. Another very useful post.

  2. Walter,

    Long time no see or email, but I still keep up with your blog and am always interested in what you and your family are up to.
    MY QUESTION: Which pig to buy?
    I usually buy a half-pig (which I split with someone so really I jusat want a quarter pig) from my vegetable CSA, and they don’t seem to know much about pigs – they just grow a few and sell them when they feel like it.
    This season they tell me that they have 7 pigs, all 3-4 months old (very young!), and all different weights – from 40-100 lbs. They want to sell me a whole pig (instead of a half) and they want to do sell them all in mid-November. They will let me choose my pig weight.

    Will a really small pig not taste or butcher well?



    Peter (formerly of the Ethicurean)

    • Hi Peter,

      A younger pig is working on putting on muscle. It is not until the pig gets older that it starts putting on fat. At 180 to 220 lbs they start doing the marbling. At 250 to 300 lbs they start doing more back fat. Thus a younger pig like you’re looking at is going to tend to be very lean. This can be countered by feeding them a high fat diet such as corn or whole milk. The pork chops and other cuts will tend to be smaller on the smaller pig, of course.

      Now, that said, all of this depends greatly on diet, breed and management. A pig raised solely on pasture will tend to be very lean. A pig raised solely on corn or whole milk will tend to be very fat. This is part of why we use a pasture/hay+dairy as the foundation of our pig’s diet. It gives a nice 3/4″ back fat layer, excellent marbling and very good muscle growth.

      Some numbers:

      100 lbs live weight x 72% yield = 72 lbs hanging weight
      72 lbs hanging x 67% commercial cuts yield = 48 lbs commercial cuts + bones & oddments

      That’s not a lot of meat for a growing boy. That’s only 0.13 lbs/day. If you’re eating pork twice a week (easy) then that’s only about half a pound a meal. Have a friend over. Before you know it that’s all gone. My suggestion is that you get the largest pig and find friends to split it with if it is too much meat. A 100 lb pig is not going to be much meat.

      Lastly, that pig is small enough that the butcher probably won’t want to smoke and slice the bacon. You can do it at home though.



      • Thanks for the info. They tell me that feed the pigs a lot of vegetables that are not good enough for us to get in our baskets…other than that i don not know what they are fed.

        I may buy the largest one….

        • One concern with just vegetables for the diet is they may be low in lysine. Lysine tends to be the first limiting amino acid for pigs. If they don’t get enough they grow slowly and may not put on muscle mass very well. You might mention this to your farmers. Dairy is a good source of lysine – the reason I picked it to supplement our pastures. There are also things you can plant in the pastures such as legumes that raise the levels. This is how we improve our pastures – by seeding legumes. That has the added benefit of pulling a lot of CO2 and N compounds out of the atmosphere. In addition to helping clean the air we get free fertilizer to help build our soils. It’s organic and less expensive than using petroleum based soil amendments.

  3. I just got an email from them. The pigs eat biodynamic vegetables, old bread and flour from a bakery, organic corn and soy meal, and food waste from their table. I have always been satisfied with their pigs thusfar, but they usually weigh more than 50 pounds. Decisions, decisions…

    • The pork will probably be a bit on the lean side so take that into account when cooking. If you can get some lard, perhaps backfat, to use in your cooking with them so much the better. Some times one makes do. Think of it as a year of challenge. :) Sort of like a crop failure but on the pig level.

  4. Susan Lea says:

    Wow, I always learn something from your posts! I did not know that about lysine nor planting legumes in the pasture.

    We’ve been feeding our pigs mostly on pasture with some chicken crumble (the only food we could find that didn’t have pork in it!) Now we’ve been picking up acorns and throwing them a bucket at a time. What do you think of acorns as pig food?

    • Acorns are great food for pigs. I wish I had them. My understanding is to take them off the acorns the last two weeks and to also feed dairy to sweeten the meat and fat. Unfortunately I’ve not gotten to try acorns yet.

  5. Andrew Entestrom says:

    Thank you for this. I was sorely temped to just let our piglets nurse as long as they would but our sow was getting thin. You made me realize I need to take action and intervene sometimes. There’s all natural but theres also good management.

  6. lianne says:

    Thanks for the post! It seems that you really care and think about your piglets. You really try to make everything as smooth a transition as possible for them.

  7. Dave says:

    I weaned a litter last week, but now that the sow is back in with the boar he’s been sucking on her. I guess he knows a good thing… ;) Hopefully I won’t have to wean him again! :) Have you ever noticed a boar sucking on a sow that just weaned? Is that part of his job, like relieving the milk pressure that I imagine builds up as she dries up?

    • I’ve never seen this but it doesn’t surprise me. Humans do this as sex play. The boar might only be a year from weaning and well remember nursing. Generally he’s not going to be able to get enough milk to satisfy his hunger so I wouldn’t worry about that other than the possibility of nipple damage if he uses his teeth. The nursing may interfere with ovulation resulting in a smaller litter so I would be incline to separate her for a week to ten days so that she fully dries up. When she comes back into heat, recombine her and the boar. Across a good fence may be a good location for drying.

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