House of Straw

Tamworth Nesting with Piglets

In the old children’s story of the three little pigs it talks about them making their houses of straw, sticks and rocks. This is really what pigs do. They use the available materials to create a bowl shaped oval nest that redirects the piglets back in towards the mother’s belly and teats as well as lifting drafts up over the group. The nest above is classic architecture.

This nest building behavior is critical in pastured pigs. Without it they’ll not farrow good litters. In the confinement industry they see the same nest building behaviors, the attempts to gather materials, as “bar biting” which they consider destructive. As such CAFO, a.k.a. factory farms, try to breed out nesting behavior since they want the sows to lie quietly in stalls and crates. This in turn will make it very difficult for them to transition from crating to open housing systems.

In our pasture setting the nesting is critical. The sows must build good nests in good locations and defend those spaces so that they can have their piglets in privacy. This is why, if you want to have sows farrowing on pasture, you want to start with good pasture genetics and not just culls from the factory farm. You want strong natural instincts.

Generally sows pick a place that has some mix of sun and shade but rarely out in the full sun. Very often they’ll nest in the shelter of a fallen over tree, brush or under evergreens which make an excellent natural roof. Typically a female pig builds one nest for farrowing in, that is birthing, and then a few days later she builds a new nest away from that to leave behind bacteria, scents and scavengers. After about a week or so her piglets will be trailing her through the pastures and soon join the herd time to time.

This sow is a Tamworth bred with Hamlet, our Tamworth boar. She is part of the north herd which is now manned by Spitz our Berkshire boar. This week Happy, sister of Speckles our lead south herd boar, joined the north herd. By moving sows like Happy back and forth between the north and south herds we effectively breed the boars in those herds together as their genes become dominant, mixed with the selected mothers, over many generations. This is how one breeds two males on the farm without them ever seeing each other.

Hamlet is a purebred Tamworth – I’m looking to cherry pick his genes for what ever he can bring in.

Spitz is a good looking, affable purebred Berkshire which are renowned for the marbling.

Speckles is the product of our nearly ten years of intensive selective breeding for over twenty-six traits. He is a beautiful, fast growing, well tempered, prolific huge specimen of a boar in his prime.

In another decade we’ll be able to see the results of the three way mating we are conducting between these three boars: Hamlet, Spitz and Speckles. My continued goal is to produce well tempered, robust, big, fast growing animals that thrive in our climate on pasture with a minimum of interventions while producing top quality delicious, tender meat. In other words, pigs they way they should be and were back before the industrial revolution ran them over. Back to the future!

Happy Solstice!

Outdoors: 86°F/63°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 83°F/68°F

Daily Spark: Just because you don’t understand modern art doesn’t make it good.

A female pig is born a gilt and becomes a sow when she farrows, gives birth, to her first litter of piglets. Think of it as Miss vs Mrs in human society and hold the political correctness.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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10 Responses to House of Straw

  1. Susan Lea says:

    I love the picture and the explanation. Who knew pigs really do build straw houses?

    I’d love to see pictures of your three boars in one post so we can tell them apart. The pigs we’re raising (Spamela Anderson and Hammy Faye Bakker) are Berkshire crosses, as were our first two. I have no idea what they’re crossed with, but our butcher really liked their pork so we figured we’d found a good thing and bought them from the same man.

  2. Rebecca says:

    My husband and his family raised pigs for years when he was younger. Now we raise African Soft Furred Rats (Praomys natalensis) as a feeder animal for reptiles. He has often said how much caring for these little rodents is similar to keeping pigs. Even their babies look like piglets! Once I started reading your blog, I realized how right he is, right down to the nest structure, nutritional requirements, social needs, and other behaviors. You might be entertained to know that I have learned a few tricks to keep my rodent colony healthy and happy by reading about your pigs.

  3. Rachel says:

    I would be interested to know what the 26 traits are that you breed for. (I saw a few listed in your awesome post “Have you got the right stuff to be a breeder?”) Do you have a spreadsheet or something that you use as a “grading card” for your potential breeding stock, or what do you use to track their breeding history and genetic potential? How far apart genetically do you need your animals to be in the family line to avoid issues? (Do brothers breed their sisters? Do sons breed their mothers or grandmothers?) Do you bring in new boars that are not from your stock every few generations to keep everyone from being too closely related? (I’m assuming that complicates things a little though anytime you bring in something new that you don’t know 100% what his background is, etc.) I know Joel Salatin was “line-breeding” his rabbits with close relatives. The breeding side of raising animals is very fascinating, but also very overwhelming to me.
    LOVE your blog!!! Thanks for all you share!!

  4. Kylie says:

    Hi Walter,

    your site is an absolute Godsend for novices to pig-raising who want to do it right and ethically!

    My husband and I are considering raising pigs and want to get our research right before we start. You write that for sows to naturally farrow, they need to have strong natural instincts. Is this something you can observe (i.e. are there physical and/or behavioural characteristics that can be identified) before you purchase a sow?

    Also, you note that sows need good locations and appropriate materials available to build effective nests. We are thinking of using rotational grazing for our pigs and were thinking of having a separate paddock for sows to farrow – picking up on some of your comments about shade, sunlight, etc. Would we need to close this off to the other pigs during farrowing?

    What about access to water – can this be introduced to the farrowing paddock or is a natural water source a better option?

    What is a good size for this paddock (to house no more than 3 sows at any one time and allow for the two nesting sites that you mention in your post)?

    We were also thinking of locating this paddock so it ‘inserts’ into the rotational paddocks of our sheep, llamas and chickens – so that it is doubly protected from predators (which would need to get through the pigs in the adjoining rotational paddocks or the rotational paddocks of the sheep and llamas (who also act as ‘guards’ against predators (particularly foxes in our part of the world) [picture it as 2 jigsaw pieces with the one piece that has the protruding part as the pig paddocks (with the farrowing paddock as the protruding part) and the connecting piece, that slots around the protruding part, as the sheep/llama paddocks]. Will this stress the sows?

    Or are they likely just to nest in a place that is a reasonable distance from the fence boundary where they feel more comfortable?

    Finally (sorry for bombarding you!), what are the most ideal materials for sows to make nests from? We want to be able to design the farrowing paddock so that it naturally provides these for the sows (with as little intervention from us as we can manage). Thanks for your help and advice – you guys really are the gurus when it comes to this stuff!

    • The best way to get a good sow is to buy from a breeder with a good reputation and trust their word since it will be hard to tell just by looking at a sow. Even then, unless a sow is proven (as opposed to a gilt) there is no guarantee, just an improved chance of getting a good sow. The issue is you need to see the entire repertoire of behaviors from pre-farrowing nesting behavior all the way up to weaning to know if she’s good or not.

      A separate, private farrowing paddock is a good idea for all the sows that will farrow within a couple of weeks span or so of each other. The smaller the paddocks the more important this becomes. The colder the weather, the more critical. Each paddock needs all the things she’ll need such as food, water, shade, pasture, bedding material (some like straw, some like sticks, some like stones – yes, really).

      We have had paddocks of up to 30 sows farrowing in them which were ten acres but the sows were really only using about two to three acres of it – more there was privacy to get away from others.

      Having the paddocks as concentric wedges in a pie works well. Protectors on the perimeter. Vulnerable on the inside. This is how we like to set it up. The reality of the land topography on the mountain makes it less like a circle but the idea is there.

      By putting up fences that make them walk longer distances like a maze it effectively increases the privacy and the size of a paddock. The animals think linearly.

      • Kylie says:

        Thanks so much, Walter! If we separate the sows off into the farrowing paddock, is there a good timeline for putting them in (what signs to look for or so many weeks before expected litter dropping) and then letting them out again with the piglets? Do you recommend leaving the gate open every now and then so they can roam back into the main paddock or have access to other pigs in their group?

        • I would put them in the farrowing paddock when they start to bag up. If they are gilts they can be harder to tell on. If they start nest building then they’re very close. I would leave the gate closed unless you are monitoring it as you don’t want visitors going in.

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