A Dabble of Color Genetics and Winter Pigs

An Even Dozen Piglets

This past week we’ve had a surge farrowing with over 30 new piglets. There are many more to come from our winter sows who are in their late weeks of gestation. This group of sows were bred by Spitz in the north and have all migrated south for winter farrowing. Snow White, the Mainline sow above is in an open shed on the strawberry level with her newly born dozen piglets. The roof keeps the mud season and early winter precipitation off her bedding and the north and west walls block the wind.

We have a lot of variety in the color of our pigs. You’ll notice all of her piglets are white. Spitz is a pure bred black Berkshire boar with white stockings and a white blaze on his face. What this tells me is that Snow White above is almost certainly a pure white pig, coming down from her Yorkshire ancestors. That is to say she only carries the white color genes. Just using this dozen white piglets gives odds that she is pure white of roughly 99.9756% which is a good bet.

In humans genetics, blond hair is recessive and dark hair is dominant. But in pigs it is the other way around, blond, a.k.a., white, is the dominant color and black is a secondary recessive followed by red, brown, yellow, etc. It’s not quite that simple but that will do for today’s lesson.

Those piglets above are all white because of the dominant white gene expressing it’s color and suppressing any other color genes. They will be carriers of both Snow White’s white gene and Spitz’s black gene. If any of them were to have offspring we might see color in that secondary generation. Genetics is fun. It’s like the game of Master Mind or Black Box where you poke and prod to figure out the colors and placements.

This is winter, whether officially nor not – We’ve had snows for a while. The sows who are farrowing at this point are all experienced winter tested sows. I figure our farm work is about six times harder in the winter and some days one doesn’t actually get anything done – we just try not to slide down hill on the ice of life. For this reason we have most of our farrowing in the warmer months but we still need some piglets born over the winter to supply next summer’s demand for finishers and this coming spring’s demand for feeder weaner pigs. Winter is part of why spring piglets are so expensive, on top of the higher demand.

Yes, winter is hard. Like the old saying says, when the going gets tuff only the strongest thrive. I’m always looking for those thrivers in our climate’s worst weather – Sows who can farrow in adverse conditions and raise up large litters of strong healthy piglets to weaning. Winter is a time that separates the warm season genetics from winter-ability. Selecting breeders who thrive through winter improves the hardiness of our herd over the long run. That’s how evolution works.

Those pigs who aren’t at the tip top of their class become feeders and finishers, going to market, culled from the gene pool. The cold season is not a time for gilts to learn to farrow but rather a time for the proven sows who have demonstrated their nest building ability, shown that they know how to lay properly and are winter survivors, nay, even thrivers, proving their mettle.

To get to this point sows have already proven themselves good mothers during the warm season and they grew up and lived through at least one previous winter. Now comes the advance degree work. Mature sows who prove themselves in winter conditions assure themselves of tenure in the breeder lineup for years to come. In turn their sons and daughters get bonus points and are more likely to get selected as breeders too as they were born of winter mothers during winter conditions. They are thrivers.

On the farm, as in nature, most pigs go to feeders, to finishers, to market, to market. Only about 5% of the females (gilts) become breeders. For guys (boars) the odds are much stiffer with only 0.5% making the A-List.

Breed the best of the best and eat the rest. It’s my motto, one I learned from Mother Nature.

Outdoors: 36°F/20°F 4″ Snow
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/60°F

Daily Spark: The tricky part about getting the ball rolling is sometimes it rolls over you.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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8 Responses to A Dabble of Color Genetics and Winter Pigs

  1. jayessdub says:

    Walter, is there a book you would recommend that talks about pig genetics?

  2. We have the same motto Walter about saving the best and eating the rest..I sure I stole it from you. Not easy at first but we’ve learned the hard way. Keeping a sow because she is “pretty” or “sweet” isn’t enough. They must be able to farrow on their own without my playing classical music for them or bringing them ice chips to chew on and use good sense in doing so. Dumb girls who give birth in the middle of a pasture without even bothering to build a nest let alone find a warm space to farrow (we have plenty to choose from) are scheduled for a freezer full sausage. I am still learning about the genetics as far as looks go and each year we get through I learn more. Thanks again for all the info you share.

  3. skeptic7 says:

    Those are such cute piglets. Pink piglets are so very cute. Do you cull a lot of sows after their first litter? Is this sow in one of your greenhouses? Will you be putting the piglets in a chicken brooder for their first week? You wrote that you did that last year.

    • A minority of P1 sows (first timers) get culled. It used to be more but now as our genetics have improved over the years the mothering instincts are better and more widespread.

      Last year there were some litters right next to a chick brooder and they were given that as a creep during a particularly cold spell. Sort of a situational opportunity. These ones are in an open shed that has a northwest wall and roof plus a bed of hay and wood chips. It is situated down in a hollow out of the wind.

  4. mamonson says:

    Any tips/tricks on record keeping? How do you best balance field work vs desk work?

    • If you want the government to not have access to your records then keep them in your head.

      Otherwise paper notebooks work. Spreadsheets and text files on a computer are great.

      Photographs are very helpful.

      iPodTouch, iPhone, iPad are great in the field for note taking and checking documents.

      Or a simple little note book works.

      Or memory.

  5. Patrick says:

    Winter has lost its appeal for me these days. I grew up in Northern New York and liked it in the past, but today even the mid-Atlantic winters are annoying. Of course, part of it might be here in middle earth we just get cold wet days and no real “winter”. For instance, it was 25 degrees a few days ago and this weekend’s highs will top out near 70. That’s still warm for us (typical is 40), but you get the idea.

    But even here, winter work is harder. Overnight lows are typically in the 20s, so water lines freeze. My years in the north taught me how to work with it, and to use materials bred for and forgiving of natural freeze/thaw cycles. Still, occasionally a fitting goes “pop” and comes flying off due to ice. When the thaw comes the water goes running out of the remote tanks. So the cycle of observe/repair/rebuild/replenish increases.

    We did not do pigs this winter. I consider myself too new to the pig game to go through our first winter in the first year we raised pigs. The family wanted them, but I pushed back. The water was the biggest issue for me, and just for giggles I kept the systems running and primed even though the fields are empty. Sure enough, I am out there seeing all kinds of little issues creeping up that would be big issues if we had animals waiting on food/water. This year’s practice run will make next year successful.

    As it stands, I got flocks of chicken/ducks/geese to tend to. My “peckers, quackers and honkers” are work enough. They are also closer to home and have running water from an underground line (still have issues with the above-ground bits). The pig fields are further out and I have no well out there. Maybe next year.

    If I take my little homestead and explode it into 300x, then I can imagine the work you have. No amount of raw labor could salvage that kind of operation, so experience and engineering are obviously the keys. Thanks again for sharing a little of each with the rest of us. It helps in innumerable ways.

    * On a side note, the Berkshires we raised came out better than expected. I processed them myself and have been sharing with friends and family. Already I have pre-orders for pigs next year. Our little experiment worked, and I think it gets bigger next year. We learned a lot and can go forward with more confidence, now.

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