Winter Farrowing Question

Boar Pig Gathering Hay for Nest – Unusual Male Domesticity

JRC asked:
We have two gilts that will farrow within the coming week. We are planning for them to farrow in the eight by eight three sided metal sided shed with deep hay bedding. The front/open side is four feet high, the back three feet.

I’m dubious of success as we are in Northern Minnesota and I don’t see it being warm enough for the pigs to survive. Temperatures have been mild all winter and we may have some forty degree days ahead but it could easily be minus seven as it was yesterday overnight or colder.

I hung clear plastic over the front with slits every foot and a half to keep some heat in and wind out. Should the shed be as tight as possible? Ideally we should have more space or another shed for privacy I understand. What do you think? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

The cold is not such a big deal. Sure, the warm months are easier but it gets deeply cold here in the northern mountains of Vermont and we farrow all year round without closing the animals in. While winter is difficult for farrowing, and I don’t recommend it, there are other issues that are far more important than the cold. What the ladies need is privacy, wind protection and dry bedding that they pack into their own nest. Remember, the sow is a 103°F heat source for the piglets, the deep pack of bedding is composting to produce warmth and the nest creates a tempered micro-climate.

A simple open shed is plenty sufficient for housing. You do not want to close it in with plastic. Ventilation is extremely important for keeping the humidity down so that your bedding stays drier and so that the pigs have fresh air to breath. Lung damage can result from closed in spaces, for both the pigs and the farmer.

I do have some concern about the metal walls of the shed. As you probably know, metal and cold weather are dangerous. A piglet can get pressed up to the metal by its mother or litter mates and then stick to the metal freezing it to death. You might consider putting a 2×8 along the bottoms.

The 8’x8′ shed is sufficient for one sow. That is tight for two gilts primarily due to their inexperience. It is better, especially their first litter, if they have a more private space. The danger is that if they are not good nest builders, experienced mothers and precisely syncronized then the non-farrowing (2nd to farrow) gilt may snuggle to the farrowing sow crushing piglets while the first one is farrowing and during the time after. Thus give each gilt her own open shed. 4’x8′, so splitting the shed in half, would be enough for each gilt. Once they have a week for the piglets to get moving well on their feet you can let the litters join by removing the divider. For size reference, we have found that our ideal sow huts are 7′ to 8′ in diameter, that is about the size of the outside of the large sow’s nests. Gilts, which are considerably smaller, can make do with as little as 1/3rd of that space.

I emphasize that they do the nest building because they do it right. If you try you are too likely leave it loose or not get the right shape. Do not add hay to a nest after the sow has built it. Instead put a supply of hay nearby. If you must add bedding use wood shavings or something like that rather than hay or straw.

Outdoors: 17°F/-2°F 1″ Snow, Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 69°F/67°F

Daily Spark: As a young man I militantly favored world peace. Thank God and the federal government that I couldn’t get together enough plutonium.

About Walter Jeffries

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33 Responses to Winter Farrowing Question

  1. JRC says:

    Thanks for the information Walter. I should clarify a couple of things. The shed is wood frame with metal siding and roofing build on wood skids. I don’t think the pigs should come in contact with the metal but I can easily eliminate the possibility.

    The plastic is hanging from the top in strips similar to the doorways on some large walkin/drivein coolers or freezers so that forklifts can drive through but some of the cooler air in. In this case heat in. There is plenty of ventilation. In fact I am somewhat concerns about too much as the steel siding and roofing is corrigated so there is space at the humps, across the front at the top and along and under the roof that may allow too much air flow if there is enough breeze. Thus the plastic drapes in front. Good idea or bad? We need a picture so you can understand the situation better.

    I was considering dividing the shed into two four by eight stalls and have a plan to do so, probably this afternoon. Would it be good to split the pen outside to keep the girls separate until they farrow to elimate the possibility of the unfarrowed gilt entering the stall of the farrowed gilt? I guess I should explain that they are in the same pen and currently use the shed for shelter. I’ll also give them access to more hay outside the shed should they want more material to build their nest.

    I grew up raising feeder pigs but we farrowed inside a barn with 6 x 8′ pens and an escape area for the piglets with a heat lamp to lay under. This outside farrowing is a little different. A month later would help alot. The is the first time for my wife and children so a pile of frozen pigs is a big problem.

    Thanks for your insights. JRC

    • That’s good! No need to have pigs stuck on frigid metal. Story time: When I was a little kid I lived in Alaska, among other places (Base Brat), and being inquisitive at about three(?) years old I licked a metal railing. I have a pretty vivid memory of what happens when one touches ultra-cold metal. :}

      As to the plastic drapes, watch the humidity level. If it gets high, start removing drapes until you find the balance point. As you go into spring this will change.

      You can use a heat lamp with a creep, just be careful of fire. Foil-bubble-bubble-foil shaped into a hanging shroud is just about as effective as a heat lamp. Combined they create an intensely warm area.

      Just split the shed in half and also separate the outside to force them to be separate during farrowing. A week or so later they’ll be ready to join litters and you can remove the dividers.

      Our climate is much like yours, believe it or not. People tend to look at the Burlington area by the lake as the “Vermont” climate but is very non-representative of most of Vermont. The lake effect and low altitude keeps it much warmer. Likewise, Anchorage for example is very different than Fairbanks. We’re up high in the mountains and not near bodies of water so we’re a lot colder, more like Fairbanks than Burlington.

      Good luck with the piglets!

  2. JRC says:

    Thanks again. You’re success with winter farrowing in Vermont and the similarity to our climate is/was the inspiration for trying this. Never would have if we hadn’t read you blog. We’ll keep you posted.


  3. Regina says:

    Thank you Walter for all these tips. We had a disasterous first year of winter farrowing this year. I think we disturbed the sow too much and had it too humid like you talk about. The bedding got all wet. We added bedding and piglets got trapped under it. We should I now realize have just let the sow do it. I would like to avoid birthing in the winter but our boar jumed the fence and bred her. I think we jumped in too fast too. Next year we will make sure to breed them for later Spring piglets.

  4. Last week Walter the NY Times printed a misguided op-ed piece by Blake Hurst president of the Missouri Farm Board. In it he critisized pastured hog farrowing and tried (badly) to make a case for gestation crates. I wrote a rebuttal article but of course it was not picked up for publication. I am sure it is because if we independent farmers continue to be sucessful in raising our animals outside as is best, we might very well impact their business of raising crap meat for less. Once again, Water and family, thank you so much for all you do not only for us newer pig farmers but for the animals themselves.

    • It is interesting how threatened the factory farm producers feel. They and their fears are strongly represented by the Farm Bureaus and Farm Boards. Out of their fear these groups have been spreading lies and miss-information about pasture based farming. We aren’t their nemesis, we’re their salvation. Fortunately the public sees through the factory farm lies. My wife overheard a conversation in the grocery store when she was delivering our meat that really highlighted this. Two consumers were talking about just this sort of thing and how they couldn’t trust the big ag stories.

  5. Hi Walter —

    This isn’t exactly a winter farrowing question, but since it’s winter, I’ll ask it here. We are having an issue with sows having too few and/or oversized piglets this breeding cycle. We have had two sows and and gilt give birth in the last three weeks, all bred by the same boar (James), with poor results:

    Miggle: 5 piglets born in Feburary, two large with odd shaped heads died at birth. Remaining three lived several weeks, but eventually were either crushed or succumbed to cold. Previously successfully raised a litter of four (one stillborn) from a different boar last May. She is one-eyed and we suspect she may only have one functional ovary. She is a half-sister to James.

    Piggy (gilt): 3 piglets born late February. One very large piglet got stuck, had to be manually removed, two smaller piglets still born behind it. One uterine horn empty. This was a visiting gilt who had been brought her to be bred — farrowed on her home farm. Unrelated to James.

    Hazelnut: 3 piglets born this evening. Seems to be all there are, and they seem on the large side. (Hard to see, she’s in a pasture shelter and it’s very dark.) Previously raised 8 piglets born in August (birthed 13, lost 5 in a sudden downpour/temperature drop) — sire was James. Unrelated to James.

    James also fathered 13 piglets on Hazelnut’s sister last August (another guest gilt).

    Pigs are currently in a wooded area (not much pasture, it being winter and all). They get a 14% wheat/black turtle bean/vitamin mix ration, along with some hay. All pigs are Berkshire.

    Any ideas about what is going on will be greatly appreciated. We suspect the boar, but also wonder about feed or disease.

    Thank you very much,

    Erika Peterson
    Green Circle Farm

    • This could be genetic, dietary deficiency, toxicity (e.g., mold) or a viral or bacterial disease problem. Go to the The Pig Site’s Disease Problem Solver and see what you find. That may diagnose it so then you can act accordingly to solve it. The large piglets and depressed litter size sound like a virus. There are several that can cause things like this.

      The fact that Miggle has not had good litters before suggests to me that she is not good breeding stock. If she and James are both carrying lethal recessive genes you may be seeing this crop up in the offspring. Culling both would then be advisable.

      Let me know what you find out.

      • Well, from that site, it looks like PPRS or parvo virus might be the culprits. Do you have any suggestions for control of these diseases? Do you use any vaccines?

        Miggle is definitely on her way out. We do have one of her first litter currently bred, but we’ll see what happens with her. We have a new young boar (from an unrelated herd) around the place, but he’s not big enough yet to breed the sows.

        Thank you for your help,


  6. Even though they’ve all been exposed already? The Pig Site info seems to suggest that once the whole herd has been exposed, there isn’t much point in vaccinating.

    • Yes, definitely. 1) They may not have complete resistance. 2) Gilts will need vaccinating. If you have one of those you will need to now have a regular vaccination program. Once it is in the herd you won’t likely get rid of it short of nuking.

  7. Hi Walter,

    I’m currently in my first year of farming with Large Black Hogs in the Seattle area. I started with a boar and a sow, and had a successful first litter in January. I’m experimenting with moving the pigs every day using small electric fence paddocks and it’s working well so far. I had initially planned on farrowing twice a year to maximize production, but after giving it some thought, I’m thinking it makes more sense to do a once a year farrowing with the previous year’s gilts and sell or butcher the sows. This would allow me to have the most pigs on pasture when grass is growing the most, the temperature is warmer, and minimize the size of winter housing. I know that some farms use the technique, but presumably with different breeding stock and certainly without daily pasture moves. I’m willing to trade decreased piglet production for greater efficiency and more time to work on other endeavours (I know gilts aren’t going to produce as much as sows, plus they might not be great moms). My biggest fear is that the heritage breeds aren’t going to mature fast enough to come into heat in 8 months. I’m willing to experiment with cross-breeding and selection if this is a heritable trait, but I don’t want to get into a situation where I’m only farrowing every 13 or 14 months and I end up winter farrowing in a few years when the date gets pushed back. I’d love your thoughts.

    • That is certainly one way to do it and go for it if it fits your climate and lifestyle. We find that the gilts take at about eight months and have their first litter at one year. If anything, the Large Black are more fertile than other breeds. Condition makes a big difference.

      Yes, there are unproductive heritage breeds, but I would recommend not using those if you’re looking to make money farming. The unproductive, slower growing breeds with small litters are fine for hobbies. The reason the more popular breeds are popular is that they are productive. A breed can be both heritage and productive.

      There is some confusion about “Heritage Breeds” as I had someone say the other day that Yorkshires are not heritage pigs. The fact is that Yorkshires are one of the oldest domestic breeds and certainly a heritage breed. They are the foundation of many other breeds, originating out of England in the 1700’s. Their high productivity, good mothering, pasture-ability, fast growth rate and large size are all desirable traits that have led breeders to use these genes to found other breeds.

      I think your plan is fine and you can probably keep with a spring farrowing since most pigs will take in their eighth month. The biggest concern I would have is that not all gilts are fertile so you’ll want to breed several each year. Additionally, by having a small gene pool it will be harder to do selective breeding to improve your herd so bringing in new stock is going to be important.

  8. Robyn DiscoThistle says:

    Hi Walter,
    I am a long time fan of your site, but have never had cause to write you a question…. until today! I live on the west coast (mild/wet). I have two sows and a boar. All are heritage cross-breeds, I guess that makes them mutts. Both sows just had their second farrowing, and this time we were organized and had built them farrowing houses. (8×8, half-door at both ends, water nipples inside, bumper rails on the sides, one pushed out a little with space for a heat lamp — which the piglets love).
    So the question is about after the farrowing, when all seems good, and then…
    After 4 days I opened the door on Sophie, the first one to farrow. (13 piglets). We locked them into their birth-houses for a few days before farrowing, with plenty of straw, because last time we learned that providing a space does not mean they will use the space but instead perhaps make a big nest in the forest of their field which we were not into, considering the inclement weather.
    Persephone was four days later to farrow. (birthed 16, two stillborn, and two more squished/chomped within 48 hrs). So after a few days, we opened her gate as well. The sows had an altercation, just to see who was boss? but after that all seemed to be fine. (I am sorry for my long-winded description here, but I swear I am getting to the point!)
    Today, three days after having all the doors opened, the piglets seem to be getting quite mixed up. Earlier today during a nursing, Persephone had 15 piglets attempting to feed and Sophie a mere 10. Just previously we had discovered Sophie and 7 of her piglets at the other end of the field in her old, not-very-piglet-friendly-at-all-house, but she willingly followed me back to the new house and her piglets seemed happy to find the heatlamp. When I realized she only had 7 with her, I checked and all the others were with Persephone. (I should note here that my girls named the pigs, not me.)
    Should I be worried? Should I try and figure out which ones belong where and sort them back/lock them all up for a few more days? The slight problem about sorting them is that they are all black with various white noses, and the only real way I could tell them apart would be by size, the ones born four days earlier being somewhat larger. Though I noticed one of the runty/slightly injured ones from the earlier litter definitely taking advantage of Persephone’s offspring’s younger size by getting a snack.
    I have been inspired by your style of farming and have seen pictures of multiple litters/sows in a field and even a shelter, so i figure you might have some insight. Thanks in advance!

  9. Robyn DiscoThistle says:

    Phew! Thanks for relieving my anxiety. There are of course a few little ones… there are fewer teats than piglets. As of this evening, the numbers seem to be back the way they should be. So I guess they all know where they belong after all. (With 25 black piglets taking turns in each other’s houses, I was were quite concerned!)

  10. JRC says:

    Here’s an update on our gilts farrowing. They farrowed right on schedule with eleven piglets each. Unfortunately the first one was confused and rejected her pigs. Not sure what happened. We tried multiple things to gets her to take them but in the end we fed them milk replacer, peddled some and put the remaining with the second gilt and are supplenting with replacer and feed.

    The second gilt farrowed without incident. She and her brood are doing great. We are asking her to do super sow work by helping with the orphans and she is taking the responsibility with honor.

    The cold temperatures we were concerned about weren’t an issue as we have been having record warm highs and lows.

    There’s much more to the story, sleepless nights feeding every two hours and searching the internet looking for ideas, losing a few piglets that we put a lot of work into etc. but that’s basics.

    • Glad you had a good sow to take on the piglets. Some sows reject their litters or even savage them. We cull hard any sows that don’t farrow well and this results in improvement in the herd. Provided that the conditions were right for a good litter, my theory is that failure is because they are not releasing the right chemicals or don’t have the right receptors for the chemicals. It is genetic.

      The good news is other sows can typically easily adopt additional piglets. A sow is far better at caring for piglets than us. Getting the piglets colostrum which is produced in the first few days is critical. Just be sure to mark the moved piglets as non-breeders. They are terminal, for meat only, not for breeding.

  11. Heather says:

    I stumbled across your site as our first sow approached farrowing. I have had several feeder pigs in life but this is my first farrowing. And of course, I bought a sow due to farrow in January…in South Dakota!

    This site is AMAZING! Thank you for being so sharing with information and experience…it is a godsend to neophytes like myself!

    Here is my pig question:
    She was ultrasounded in pig when I bought her and showed all the proper signs of advancing pregnancy like clockwork as her due date approached (Jan 5). Her milk came in, her belly dropped and her vulva swelled. And then 3 days ago, it seemed to stop.

    Her teats are still swollen but perceptibly smaller than before, her vulva doesn’t look as swollen and doesn’t seem as “tipped”. We have had extreme cold the last 3 days (highs of -5 F, with windchills of -20 to -40). I can only think of 2 scenarios–she somehow “pulled back the troops” of pregnancy to wait out the worst of it (our horses do that all the time) or she had her pigs, perhaps dead, ate them (I have carefully checked her nest) and is now carrying on without them. Does either of those scenarios seem likely to you?

    • I have seen cases of sows farrowing as much as two weeks beyond their due dates so there is still hope. My understanding of biology is that it is the fetuses that set the time table with the release of hormones that tells the sow to farrow.

      • Heather says:

        Thanks for the reply! She is mostly GOS and several people have told me they tend to farrow later than the 114 day mark. I am going to cross my fingers and let hope and nature take their course!

  12. tina Nicholson says:

    we have a 30×24 barn with 4 sows, 1 boar & 6 piglets 5 months old. we hace 6 open stalls – 3 on each side and an open door at one end for them to go out to pasture. my question is that i hace 2 sows ready to farrow in the next couple of weeks. right now they mostly all snuggle together in one stall (for warmth) . should we gate off a couple pens and put the expectant moms by themselves? I’m afraid the newborns will be trampled
    if we don’t separate them,

    if i don’t s
    eparate tgem

    • In the winter it is a good idea to give sows private individual spaces for farrowing and the first week while the piglets become mobile. This mimics how in the warmer months they naturally seek out the margins of the pastures, build a nest, defend it and farrow. Then about a week or so later they join with other sows to form cohorts.

      Very good winter mothers how are closely synchronized can successfully farrow together. We have two that farrowed like this yesterday producing 20 piglets. If they were not synchronized their hormones would not be triggering the right instincts together which could cause the non-farrowing sow to snuggle too close, cause fighting by the farrowing sow who’s defending her nest, etc. Even in the warm months some sows will co-farrow like this.

      Wind block, deep bedding packs, fresh air, dry conditions are all important. The deep bedding packs generate a lot of heat at about 80°F near the surface. See the article Deep Bedding Pack.

  13. Renee Morris says:

    Your site is great! Thank you for helping those of us with less experience! This is our first year with pigs. We have a large black boar & a largeblack/tamworth cross gilt who is ready to give birth soon. We have always penned them together. I have read all your replies & posts I could find about farrowing, but still have some questions. You mentioned that boars are fine to be kept with the babies, but then also talked elsewhere about giving a gilt her own space for the birthing & the first week or so til the piglets are mobile. We have a 5×8 house:wood frame, metal sided, truck topper roof, door in the front side. We recently set up a 3 sided dog kennel with a gate & attached it to the front of the house forming a small “yard”. We currently use it to feed our gilt extra without the boar stealing her food. Should we lock her into the pen & house now since she is close to giving birth to keep the boar away from her & ensure that she farrows in the house? We were planning to leave her free so she could follow her instinct & build her nest, but we thought she would choose the house because it is the best spot. Another concern is how wet & muddy the pen is right now being spring. We live in woods with clay soil so the water puddles everywhere this time of year. The front half of the pen is especially bad because of all the rooting the pigs did last fall. The house & small yard are on a high spot, but large puddles & mud holes surround it. Is this just a disaster for farrowing anyway? What do you recommend we do? We considered bringing in loads of untreated poplar sawdust that we can get from the sawmill to try to fill the puddles & firm up the muddy spots. Not sure if it will even help. Any advice would be a huge help!

    • In the cold season I would suggest separating so the sow has the privacy she normally seeks out on the margins of the pasture. In the warm months we have boars in the same pasture but that is very different than being in a closer space in the cold weather. I would give her the best space and the others can be elsewhere.

      Large wood chips topped with wood shavings are very good. Building up a mound is very good. A base of stone is ideal, large stone.

  14. Renee Morris says:

    Thank you for your reply. Can I put the wood chunks with shavings on top into the muddy areas while the pigs are still in the pen or will their feet sink between the chunks & potentially get hurt? Also, is the seperation of the gilt for farrowing just during the birth & first week or so? If not, when is it safe to let the boar back into the main house with her & babies?

    • Out on pasture the sows tend to seek privacy for a week to ten days or so. Then they join up with other similar age cohorts. Larger nursing pigs can be a problem taking the milk from smaller pigs so beware.

      On the wood, use good judgement.

  15. Kristen says:

    Thank you for all the great info on your site! I have recently moved from raising feeder pigs to farrowing. I had/have two bred gilts, one farrowed one week ago and the other should farrow in the next couple of weeks. The mother is doing well and caring for her babies well but the gilt that hasn’t farrowed yet has become attached to her hip. They sleep in the same shed together and the non-farrowed one is always touching the mother. I lost two babies that seemed okay but I’m afraid they were crushed, should I have discouraged these two females from being so close together? Everyone seems to be doing fine now, but I’m afraid when she farrows that crushing will become a problem again. I have two 4×10′ sheds out for them but they consistently sleep in one together.

  16. Kristie says:

    I apologize if you’ve covered this and I didn’t find it. We are working on moving our pigs into a pasture rotation – it’s a lot of perimeter fencing for us and is taking some time. But, as we do so, we are trying to sort out the best way to put our breeding groups together. We currently have one boar we intend to breed to 5 sows and those sows are two groups of sister sows that are separated groups currently. We have a second boar that we plan to breed to two other separated sister groups. We have tried putting groups of sows together and they seem to argue quite a lot, rather loudly and we are not so sure about trying to put them together.

    Assuming that we put each group of sows with the boars separately, how do you handle moving the sows out to breed the next group? I understand that pigs are social creatures and so I am reluctant to have boars who live alone, but I don’t know how to prevent that and keep sows separate during farrowing / breeding sows on some sort of schedule.

    Our previous breeding went extraordinarily well; we had three gilts who bred within 2 weeks of our bringing in the boar. All farrowed without assistance from me (though I did watch!) and had litters of 12, 11 and 10 piglets. Every one of them survived. I was shocked. The only hitch was that the last two farrow was two weeks after the others and we elected to leave them all together in their large paddock and the last one to farrow ended up with two runty ones that weren’t getting enough milk because the other piglets would sneak in and push them out of the way. We gave them some supplemental bottles and they are thriving today. But we want to make sure we prevent that next time.

    Any advice would be much appreciated. I’ve learned so much from your blog and website content.

    • hen introduced they will fight to establish a pecking order. That can take weeks. Once things settle down they should be okay. I move sow groups around between breeder boar territories on a regular basis. They get used to it and are fine. Their social group expands to include sows they’ve not seen in a while. I would not suggest trying to keep boars alone. They are much happier with other pigs and far, far happier if there are at least some gestating sows around to check regularly on the chance they might be coming into heat.

      Two weeks is long enough between litters that the older litter will likely steal colostrum. Manage that through better fencing that protects the later litter.

  17. Kristie says:

    Thanks, Walter, as always your advice is much appreciated!

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