Charley and Piglets from her Litter and Others
Piglets are popping out rapid fire on the farm in the winter farrowing bays. These are 30′ to 60′ long by 12′ winter paddocks that have an open shelter at one end and are open to the sky and weather at the other end. The purpose of these areas is to give the sows a semblance of the privacy that they naturally seek out in the warm months for building their nests and farrowing piglets along the margins of our pastures.
I am intending to build a larger greenhouse next year if all goes well. For years we’ve been experimenting with a collection of small open sheds and little greenhouses formed from stock panels. The pigs really like the greenhouse type structures with the bright sky. Given their druthers they would rather sleep out under the sky than in a dark shed, even an open dark shed. But put a translucent sheet plastic roof or greenhouse glazing on the roof and then the pigs like sleeping in the open shed.
I find that they use less hay for bedding if they have the roof so we’re moving towards these open sheds with translucent roofs. Think of them as greenhouses partial walls and lots of ventilation. The light helps to warm the space and dry the bedding, the roof keeps the precipitation off the bedding, the windward wall blocks the cold winter wind. The open sides allow for plenty of ventilation that keeps the humidity down. Life is more pleasant at cold temperatures with low humidity as the wetness conducts heat away from your body.
Chickens Preening on Kneewall of Bay 1 in South Field Shed
To keep newborn piglets in the safer inner bay area we have boards that the sows can jump over to get out to their whey trough, water and dung area. Later as the piglets are more agile these boards can be removed. They fit in slots in the pillars.[1, 2, 3]
Red Tamworth with New Piglets
These piglets were born just a few hours ago. They picked a beautiful day as it got up to around freezing. The day before and tomorrow will be colder and then much colder weather is coming up.
Charley checking out RedTam who’s nursing some of Charley’s piglets
The sows co-nurse. That is they open the bar and anyone can nurse. The piglets move around between nipples and between sows.
Four Sows and Piglets
The Large Black sow on the right, named Big Lots, has not farrowed yet but this morning when I checked her teats she gave a drop of milk. She will probably farrow on Monday or Tuesday putting all of the piglets in this bay within a week of each other which is idea.
Outdoors: 34°F/-4°F Partially Sunny, 1″ Snow
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/62°F
Daily Spark: Protect our right to farm gnus.
I’m wilde about your blog, Walter. Gnus from your farm is always welcome . . .
With co-housing — how many piglets get laid on by the sows? With the piglets feeding on more than one sow doesn’t that lead to the smaller ones getting pushed away? We were told never try to raise pigs because you loose so many to the sow laying on them and such.
Sows laying on and crushing piglets is an over rated issue. I don’t find it happens much. Good sows lay down very gently and slowly, if a piglet cries out they ease back up and try again. See this post. If you have sows that are crushing piglets then they are either poor mothers or possibly overweight and not able to control their lay down properly so they just flop down. In the former case they should be culled. In the latter case they should be put on a weight reduction diet.
Larger piglets pushing away smaller pigs can be an issue if the age spread of the piglets is too great. We try to cluster them in one to two week age cohorts. The tighter the better.
I found that most crushings happen during the night.
If the piglets are cold, are wet, they will try to get extra warmth by crawlin under the sows teats or leg, then the sow shuffles in her sleap, because it tickles her, and in the morning two piglets are crushed. ALL of my piglet crushings have happened within the first 4 days after birth. After this the piglets start sleeping in a pile right next to the sow.
How to prevent piglets from being crushed:
-Farrowing Rails on the Walls of each shed.
-Lots of dry bedding, i like sawdust and straw best.
Caution however with straw, because the week and young piglets will dig their way underneath and then get stepped on, so dont put in more then 1-2 inches of straw in the first 4 days, unless it is very cold.
– protected environment: a roof that protects them from the rain, sun and snow is essential in the first few weeks of a piglets life.
– seperate the boar from the sows: when sows farrow their vulva will expand, the boar will think they are in heat and try to mate with them, never let this happen, as it will cause stress for the sow an ussually some stepped on piglets.
Sorry if I replied to your post, Walther I meant it to be a comment.
-In nature sows will look for a isolated spot to give birth, then just lay around for a week, then rejoin the heard with their piglets.
We find much the same. As you note, most piglet deaths happen in the first couple of days. I find that almost all of them are in the first one to two days. This is because not every piglet is viable. Once their off the life support system of the womb and must survive with their own lungs and digestive tracts those who can’t quickly die off. I think that the sows get blamed for crushings when they simply laid on already dead piglets. Night time is definitely when most losses happen but from sitting up watching the situation I find that it is not the sows that are crushing piglets but rather the piglets often crush each other. That is to say, the weak and non-viable piglets end up on the bottom of the pile dead due to their own problems and not being able to move.
This, of course, assumes good sows. There are some sows that don’t lie down well and don’t get up when they lie on a piglet. We cull hard on this issue. After nearly a decade of culling for good mothering skills we now have a lot of sows who do it right. I suspect that on farms where they use farrowing crates the genes for poor mothering skills have developed and spread throughout those pig populations. In a pasture situation like ours without the farrowing crates and strong culling for mothering the genetics shift toward good mothers.
It is key not to add straw or hay to a sow’s nest. Rather place it a distance away so that she can gather it, chop it and pack it. Humans don’t do a good job of this.
Walter, is the co-nursing arrangement common, or are pigs sometimes proprietary about their piglets? With so many piglets running around, do the sows even know which ones are theirs?
I like the commune-style approach. It takes a pig sty!
I’m a little reluctant to admit it, what with the tough farm-girl image I’m trying to cultivate, but I also like pictures of piglets. I hope you will post many over the coming weeks.
Co-nursing is very common with the pigs. Basically the sow lays down and anyone can nurse and does. I do think that the sows know theirs by scent. If I graft piglets from one litter to another sow I make sure to scent adjust them with some dung or hay the adoptive mother has been laying on. I say it is common but we breed for this, that is to say, mothers who exhibit this are much more likely to be kept for breeders. Long ago I had some sows who do reject other piglets. They didn’t stay.
Enjoy the piglet photos, they’re one of the many joys of farming. The good thing is they get a lot less cute in six months… :)
Okay, I’ve been going around the website for more info on winter farrowing, and I see that this is working quite well… But one question remains: why farrow in the winter? What type of farrowing system are you managing? A two-litter per year?
Thank for you answer!
We get about 2.5 to 3 litters per year – this is the natural farrowing rate with free breeding like we do. We need to farrow year round because we deliver pigs to market every week so piglets need to be born monthly at least and preferably weekly. In addition we have a large market for spring piglets to people who want to raise their own pigs over the easy warm months and those piglets must be born in the winter to be ready for spring.
oh okay, that’s great. thanks a lot!
I have said it before, I think there is nothing cuter than a week old piglet! I also appreciate the ‘wet nurse’ mentality of the Mama Pigs. If one sow has more milk and needs relief, what works better? Or if one Mama has less I bet she’s glad her piglet can nurse on down the row.
I would really like to buy a bred gilt this year, is 4 hours in a horse trailer in Winter too much to ask from one?
Four hours in a trailer will be okay if you have a good wind block and give the her a deep bed of hay to snuggle in. We have bred gilts available. See the Breeders page for details.
I was just at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry with my girls. They had a “Farm Tech” section which was basically a celebration of our current industrial agriculture sector, with a giant combine for kids to climb into and a kitchen stuffed full of crappy processed food to show you how many things in the grocery store have soy products in them.
They had a display about hog CAFO’s, with a life sized plastic sow in a metal farrowing crate. I’ve read about them but that was the first chance I had to see one. It was as disturbing as you would guess–she could move forward or back but there was no way she could turn around. She had a metal feeder in front of her and was on a metal grate holding her up over concrete. She could only lie down on her right side if she wanted to let her piglets nurse. I don’t recall if this plastic sow still had her tail.
I am a hobby farmer and I have found your site a treasure trove of information. Over the past three years I have had pigs that simply died. They were less than 2 years old and one day they seemed fine and the next day they were dead. Do you have any insight into how this can happen? I wonder if the big boar is responsible or does this just happen? I realize there is no way for you to know without knowing me or my farm but do pigs sometimes just die overnite?
Not a lot to go on… My first guess is they ate something toxic. My second thought would be overheating. Pigs are prone to exertion over heating as they can’t cool themselves off and need something like a wallow to cool down and shade for protection from the sun. You mention a big boar. Were these gilts or sows that died? If so were they a lot smaller than the boar? A boar can kill a female or break her back during mating if he is massively larger, has poor footing and doesn’t support his weight. Another possibility that comes to mind is a twisted intestine. With that one sees bloating, loss of condition and then death so I would expect you to have noticed a lead up to that – it is also uncommon but can be genetically prone. Related to that is what is termed ‘hardware disease’ – e.g., they eat a piece of something that damages their intestines or stomach which then kills them. I would disassemble them to investigate – e.g., necropsy time.
Thank you for your rapid response. I was very disheartened by finding a pig who couldn’t get up and who seemed happy and healthy the day before. That’s why I wondered if the big boar might have been responsible. He is very gentle with me but somewhat bossier with the other pigs. Like I said this has happened twice before in 3-4 years and when it happens it feels like a punch in the gut. These guys are food but until then they are my buddies and I hate to see something like this happen. By the way, I agree with you on not castrating the male piglets. I have only castrated a few of my pigs over the years and have slaughtered a handful of males and no complaints of boar taint. Thanks for your blog and stay warm- the temps I see you are having in Vermont make me glad I’m in North Carolina.
Ah, I hadn’t understood that you thought the boar was attacking the pigs who died. If that is the case I would expect to see abrasions, bruising in the lower abdominal area (belly, ribs) due to tossing and cuts from tusks if the boar has tusks. If this is the case I would get rid of the boar. An aggressive boar, bull, etc is too dangerous to have around and you really don’t want the genetics from him.
I am really impressed with the drive and perseverance of you and your family. You’re a very focused and hard working people. You obviously think things through very carefully but that is not enough. Your analysis of the mobile butchering in that other article is very impressive and your obvious in depth thinking about all that you do impresses me. I’ve seen all too many people who make plans and then don’t have the stamina to carry out the plan. Big projects like your farm and your butcher shop and even your house all take not just a lot of planning but then the followthrough to make them happen. Three cheers for the Jeffries!
You mentioned here about the dangers of a boar breaking the back of a gilt if the size difference is too great. We have a 6 month old Lg. Black x Tamworth gilt that we’ve decided to keep and breed. I found a local Old Spot boar that the owner is willing to let me use here on our farm. The boar is 2 years old. Do you think that arrangement is too dangerous and that I should shop around for a boar closer in age to my gilt? Also, I realize there are some biosecurity issues in bringing in an outside boar, but I wonder if that risk outweighs the difficulty of a successful breeding for a first time breeder (that would be both me and the gilt, lol). What could I do to lessen that risk as much as possible; the owner of the boar keeps her pigs on pasture, same as we do here. And let me just give you a HUGE thank you for compiling all this useful information in one place for all of us novice pasture pig keepers, your site has been such a blessing to me.
The biggest issues are good footing and experience on the boars part. A huge boar can mate a small gilt if he has good footing and knows how to support his weight on three legs while mating. However if the boar uses the standard pig missionary position of standing on two legs and supporting his weight on the female then she must be strong enough to support him. This is where the large difference in size can become a problem, especially on slippery wood floors, slopes or ice. A 2x weight difference is not significant. At two years of age (400 to 600 lbs typically) he should still be within the range of mate-able to an eight month old gilt (~250 to 300 lbs). Biggest thing is experience and footing.
So how do you know if the piglets are warm enough? Have you lost a litter simply due to cold? It’s dipping into the 20’s nightly here, which I suspect is not as cold as many of your pigs have birthed in. The babies are nursing but shivering constantly. Since this is our first winter birthing of course I am over worried! LOL
They have 3 sides of shelter (one sow has 4 sides) and are out of the weather, but it’s cold and extremely damp right now.
I watch their body language. Shivering is just a natural way of generating heat. They also get heat from the sow’s hot body and the deep bedding pack which is composting. There is a micro-climate where they are. The dampness is the biggest issue. Add dry wood shavings to the bed.
The coldest we’ve seen a litter born in was -24°F just outside the north bay of the south field shed. The sow chose to build her nest just beyond the shed roof. She had plenty of deep pack bedding, wind protection and the litter was fine. See the post “End of Winter Piglets.” Note that it take good sows to winter farrow and winter is certainly by far the hardest season. It is much easier to farrow in the warm seasons.