Crisply Cold Like Broken Glass

Toasty Piglets on a Cold Winter’s Night

It is cold. This has been a relatively warm winter, like last year, which I like but we’ve had two brief cold spells and we’re in one of those now. Today was -15°F (-22°F – I just recalibrated my thermometer) which is about the coldest its been this year – Not the -25°F or worst we get most years or the deadly -45°F which we sometimes get that makes each breath taste like burning cold liquid in your lungs. I’m glad not to have a year like that.

We just got in from loading pigs for the weekly trip to market. Our boots sound very loud and crisp on the snow. Very different than when it is warmer and the snow muffles the sound. This is more like walking on broken glass. The snow powder, no crust, but very loud.

Insulation Layer in Piglet Creep

This is cold enough that you must not touch metal with bare hands – you’ll stick to it. The wind bites and can give frost bitten cheeks quite quickly. Blocking the wind is key to keeping the animals healthy – thus why we build their shelters in the hollows of the landscape.

Interestingly, it is -15°F outside but in the open sheds where our pigs sleep the thermometer reads 29°F. There is a lot of heat coming off their bodies and from the composting deep bedding pack. When they root down to make their nests steam billows up. Warm toes and bellies. Their backs are heavily haired this time of year and with good reason.

Foil Layer of Creep

We have spring water for our house and the animals. We leave the water running slightly at all times. When I put in our plumbing I set up a special valve in the cottage just for this purpose. All winter it drips to keep the water moving and prevent frozen pipes. I have a second valve right there that lets me open it if it does freeze so I can drill out the pipe using the residual hot water in our hot water tank should it freeze up. This has happened when I had the drip too slow and it got too cold. Even with the pipes insulated and buried the frost can travel along them. On metered town water this would not be as good a solution. Here on the mountain the water is free. It isn’t a waste as either way it just runs down the mountain continuously from the springs – through our pipes or across the ground.

Piglets Happily Ensconced in Creep Brooder

With some help from Ben, Will retrofitted the chick brooder to be an insulated piglet creep to help our newborn piglets get through these deeply cold nights. It is crude by Martha Stewart standards, no Home and Gardens awards here. But it does the job. The pink foam insulates, the foil-bubble-bubble-foil reflects the heat back to the piglets and the plywood protects the foil and insulation from piglets and chickens.

I do not like heat lamps due to the fire risk but we’re going through a spell of deep cold where I take the risk. The humidity in the piglet creep is so high that the chance of fire is low. Outdoors the thermometer dipped to -16°F. In the shelter of the sow’s open shed the temperature was a balmy 29°F. In the brooder at the floor level the temperature was a toasty 42°F. Directly under the 100 watt incandescent light bulbs it was much warmer.

What really matters is not the degrees on the thermometer but how the piglets arrange themselves. Out in the sow’s area they had been sleeping piled four high – that can crush weak ones on the bottom. In the creep brooder under the lights they spread out to just one to two piglets high. Pigs do like sleeping in a pig pile but best to not let it get too deep.

After a couple of night the sows and the piglets learned the routine. Now the little ones file into the creep at night. There is also yogurt in there for them and they are visiting it during the day to get a bit of extra food as well as the warmth.

Update: I have an aversion to heat lamps because of worries about fire and animals electrocuting themselves. There are heat pads but interestingly our piglets don’t seem to like the commercial hard plastic heat pads. I haven’t figured out why. Sometimes we use heat lamps but we’ve also found that creeps and hovers built like this one work pretty well even without the heat from pads and lamps. True of both chicks and piglets. The biggest issue with this sort of space is humidity so good ventilation is important.

Outdoors: -8°F/-22°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 62°F/59°F

Daily Spark:
When fish unite it is called a school.
When wolves unite it is called a pack.
When politicians unite it is called a party.
When workers unite it is called union.
When vegetarians unite it is called a herd, or lunch.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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8 Responses to Crisply Cold Like Broken Glass

  1. Pablo says:

    I have that same foil layer wrapping my cabin. I suppose it keeps me warm too.

  2. Orrin Murdoch says:

    Hi Walter,
    How old do the piglets need to be before they don’t need any supplemental heat during the coldest winter periods?

    • Simple answer: Below zero degrees Fahrenheit is where I start to think about heat lamps, if you must farrow in these conditions.

      But, it is more complicated. It is a hard question to answer because there are too many variables. Our coldest winter temps are -25°F to -45°F which on occasion has lasted for weeks. During those times the brooder creeps or greenhouses are essential for successful winter litters. Thankfully it isn’t that cold right now and looks like we won’t get that this year.

      Let me rephrase the question, if our piglets are in a shed where the temperature is above 20°F they do well, above 40°F and they sleep easily not over layering. The biggest issue is not having the humidity too high and not having wind. If they have deep bedding then they have warmth coming up from below and if they have plenty of hay to safely crawl into where they won’t get stepped on then they have a very warm micro-climate by ‘crawling under he covers’.

      The further complication is what breed line line of pigs are you talking about? Our main line herds which we’ve been breeding for about a decade are much hardier than other pigs we got last year – the Tams and the secondary Large Black line. The main line are much better mothers, deal better with our cold winters and the piglets thrive better than the new lines. This is probably because we have spent nearly a decade selecting very hard for pigs that thrive in our climate. Pigs that were not in the top 5% didn’t stay on the farm as breeders. Now with the new lines we must bring them up to par too. I would hazard that our main line herd has about a 10 to 20 degree greater tolerance advantage over these newer breeding lines we have. I hope to have improved the new lines some years down the road.

      In the spring, summer and fall we do not see as great a difference between the breed lines. The warm months are much easier. My recommendation would be to avoid farrowing in the dead of winter if you can. It is a lot harder, we do a lot more work and stay up around the clock in shifts to make it work since we must farrow 12 months of the year.

      • Orrin Murdoch says:

        The question for me was really in terms of thinking about infrastructure as we design our systems. I would not intend to farrow in the winter but instead focus on the shoulder seasons. We are in Nova Scotia so not quite as cold as you but still with the potential to get below 0F.
        Thanks again.

        • Farrowing in the shoulder seasons as you call them (great term) is an excellent goal. If you have to have cold weather farrowing, even on the edges of the bad season, consider making insulated creep brooders with the reflective foil. This hover reflects the animal’s own heat back down to the young animals, blocks drafts and captures the heat for composting. We have found this to be very effective with chicks and piglets. We make them so they can take a heat lamp if necessary for the worst seasons. Our chicken hoop house is effectively a giant hover. Greenhouses are great – we leave them open at the end for ventilation and they produce a wonderful microclimate.

  3. skeptic7 says:

    I love the brooder. How many piglets does it hold? It looked quite large when the chicks were living there, but piglets are bigger. What keeps the sows from trying to get in and wrecking the brooder? Those piglets look very small, how old do they have to be before they can walk into the brooder on their own at night and walk out and find their mothers? Do you go around and put stray piglets into the brooder at night, or back out with the sows during the day.

    • It can hold about 30 to 40 young piglets, less as they get older and bigger. Piglets are born ambulatory. The sows don’t do anything to help a newborn piglet. Once born the piglets must clean themselves off and walk around to find the sow’s teats to start nursing. Sows are pretty knocked out on the natural drugs their body produces during farrowing – not that you should mess with a farrowing sow because with enough stimulation she will get up and may be aggressive.

      Yes, for the first few nights we do herd the piglets in. After the first night they start going into the brooder by themselves during the day. Some will go in that night but others need a little attention for several days.

  4. Nance says:

    I love that top photo of little piglets under the comfort of the heat lamp. I know how they are stretching their backs and basking.

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