End of Winter Piglets

Spits and Ladies

We have had seven litters in the past ten days. There are two more to go. This is a surge as we near the end of the winter litters. We purposefully separated the guys from the gals for two months last fall so that we would have a hiatus from farrowing during the dead of winter. This will let us concentrate on finishing construction of our butcher shop’s initial meat cutting phase. After this cohort the next litters should be farrowed after the Spring Equinox as we go into warming weather. There will still be snow on the ground for a while then but it won’t be in the deep cold we can still be getting for another two months.

One Sow and Piglets

This sow is in with our boar Spitz and his ladies. She’s separated off from the group by a fence to give her some privacy – something she would naturally want out in the summer pastures. I had thought she was going to go next week but she went a little early. That can happen, pregnancies are always sows be willing – Nature and I don’t necessarily keep the same calendar.

I’ve often been asked how cold can piglets take it. It’s cold out but they’re doing fine. Some of the piglets in this surge were born at -24°F which is the coldest it’s been this year. That’s pretty typical for our winters. We’ve had a few nights up into the 20’s recently which is unseasonably warm but appreciated.

The sow is a 103°F heating pad. I measure her surface temperature at about 70°F using a radiant heat gun. The bedding is even hotter. It is a deep bed pack that is composting and producing heat coming up to their bellies – this is an important little detail for winter livestock in cold northern climates.

Keeping dry is key and our coldness helps there. The bedding packs start with large chips on a sloped surface. The pigs are nestled down into the nooks and crannies of our farm to keep out of the almost ever present wind. The wind may actually help as it blows away moist air. We build our winter spaces to take advantage of natural wind blocks as well as strategically placing hay bales in the fall to create more wind shadows. Most of the sows are farrowing in open sheds although two chose spaces in hay bales like the one above even though they had readily available sheds.

We have creeps in most areas that sows would be farrowing. These give piglets a more sheltered area they can go into. Sometimes I’ve used lights but I loath to because of fear of fire. When using a light the outlawed incandescent 100Watt are the best because they’re cooler than the more intense heat lamps and thus not likely to start a fire. However we find that a hover creep ideally of the foil-bubble-bubble-foil on deep bedding is sufficient and that reduces my worry of piglet flambé.

Keeping dry is important. Too much humidity can lead to greasy pig which is a endemic bacterial infection that is carried by the pigs normally but can become a problem for piglets. You’re more likely to see it in places that have had multiple rapid fire litters farrowed and too high a humidity. Iodine baths help tremendously at combating greasy pig by killing off the surface bacteria and giving the piglet’s own immune system a chance to win the battle. Good air circulation, plenty of dry bedding and a rest period for nursery spaces between litters all help a lot too.

In rare extremely cold very windy nights we bring the youngest litters indoors with us. Doing that requires feeding them in the night or they can get hypoglycemic. They go back out with the sows during the day so they can nurse. This is something we used to do more of. The good sows with a good setup don’t need this as they pay attention to their piglets. Genetics matters.

All that said, I would recommend not winter farrowing if you can avoid it. We do it only because we market year round. Winter is a lot harder in all ways. Instead I would suggest that you use the golden months of the warm season if you possibly can. This is one of those “Do as I say, not as I do” things…

Finisher Pigs Spread Out

The worst thing you can do is close animals in where the bad air and humidity builds up. Fresh air is very important for animal, and farmer, health. Our livestock are all outdoors on Sugar Mountain. Even the chickens spend their days outdoors and many of they sleep outdoors on fences by their own choice.

There are open sheds with roofs where the pigs, chickens, ducks and geese can choose to be but they generally prefer sleeping out under the stars. During the day they spend most of their time out away from the roofed areas in the winter paddocks where they keep the snow trampled down, like deer yards out in the forests.

The photo above shows finisher size pigs who are perfectly spread out one pig deep. Two pigs deep means they’re cool but okay. Three deep is a concern. Pig piles deeper than that would result in crushing although little ones on top of big ones is not a concern. In the winter we tend to sort the pigs more by size and keep the herds smaller than in the summer where the herds are larger and more mixed size. This means that in the winter there are more groups to take care of since the same number of pigs must be divided into more groups for the winter paddocks.

The pigs in the picture above are sleeping on a hay pack. They add more hay to the bedding as they want from a round bale just off to the right of the photo and eat the pack down as well. The pack is composting which makes it more digestible as well as creating heat that warms their bellies.

I mention the composting hay above. This may be one of those key little details that makes feeding hay on our farm work.[1, 2, 3] Pigs in nature eat things that are decomposing, rooting up stuff in the forests and fields, chewing up and ingesting even dead trees. Think of it as like how we make yogurt and cheese using bacteria to decompose milk. The deep bedding pack gives food this through the winter when the normal pastures aren’t available because everything lies buried under deep snows. Hay is our winter pasture, canned and saved over for the cold season just as we can veggies for our family’s table.

Outdoors: 29°F/11°F Partially Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 64°F/56°F

Daily Spark:
Prisoner before firing squad is given his last request, a cigar.
As the sargent lights it up the talking smoke alarm to go off which yells…
Fire! Fire! Fire!

Interestingly, there is a white rooster who sleeps on top of their roof away from most of the other chickens.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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9 Responses to End of Winter Piglets

  1. Bill says:

    I love this. Me, I can hardly venture outside with a stiff breeze on a mildly cold day. Meanwhile sows are farrowing at -24. Just goes to prove how awe-inspiring these animals are.

  2. Someone asked about relative humidity of bedding packs and hoovers…

    That is one of many. For more or larger piglets, scale that up. That particular one is small and best just for the first few days after birth and works great in extreme weather. We have explored lots of different ways of making creeps, hoovers and brooders for piglets and chicks over the years. You’ll find many different designs on my blog. The ones I like best don’t need a heat lamp as I’m not a fan of fires. We’ve experimented back and forth with the lights and end up rarely using them.

    As to what is too humid, feel the bedding. Would you want to lie in it? Is moisture condensing on things? Frosting on spider webs and fence wires isn’t an issue. Damp wet on surfaces is an issue. If it’s just rising up from the composting bedding and moving away in the air then that is fine. This is why you want open spaces, not closed in.

    I’ve never measured the relative or absolute humidity out in the winter paddocks. I suspect it would vary from extremely high right at the surface of the bedding when a pig stands up (which is not a problem) to dry on the pigs’s backs.

    What I look for is how clean are the pigs in the winter. If they’re good looking then the bedding is good. See the photos above for a visual reference of good looking pigs that are nice and dry as is the upper level of their deep pack bedding.

  3. Bill Harshaw says:

    FWIW: the NYTimes had a piece on pastured hogs at http://nyti.ms/1aFtOZ4

  4. Sally Sievers says:

    1) I’m a devoted reader but am confused by your reference to hoovers. A search indicates you never used the term prior to 2014. I’m assuming you’re not keeping the piglets in a vacuum cleaner bag! What the heck is a hoover?

    2) The Scientific American that just came (Feb?) had a nice article on chicken society; the breadth of their vocabulary and their ability to be sneaky and deceitful and empathetic, for which they’re usually not given credit. I doubt that much would be surprising to you, but you might enjoy it (and/or it might be grist for the home school).

    • Whoops! That’s because I misspelled it. Sorry about that and thank you for catching it. ‘Hoover’ should be ‘hover’ with just one ‘o’ as in to hang over. Check out these articles that talk about hovers for piglets and poultry.

      Thank for the mention of the Scientific America article. I’ll look for it.

  5. Eric Hagen says:

    For the greasy pig syndrome, have you used iodine baths a few days after farrowing, or is it only effective right away? And is that just one bath?

    • It isn’t common enough that I would want to do it regularly on all piglets. We’ve only used it if we see greasy pig rear it’s literally ugly head. Far better is to have a good dry environment which prevents the greasy pig from flourishing. Generally that works.

  6. Linda says:

    So what is greasy pig?

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