Winter Sows

Sows in Winter Garden

During the warm months our pigs graze on about 40 acres of pasture using managed rotational grazing techniques that we originally learned with our sheep. This produces most of their food from the land, distributes manure and urine naturally where the plants need it, improves soil health and stimulates forage growth.

In the winter the animals pull inward on our farm to about ten acres of winter paddocks. These are much like deer yards out in the forest. By keeping the snow packed in a wind sheltered area in a tighter group the animals fare better through the cold season. We give the animals hay which is pasture stored in bales for winter just like we can and dry veggies for our own family table.

Early on I figured out that genetics make a huge difference in winterability of the pigs. Some have the ability to tolerate, even thrive, in our cold northern Vermont mountain winters. Other’s don’t. This is not random. It was also not a matter of breed but rather genetic lines within the breeds. We have Yorkshire, Berkshire, Large Black, Tamworth as well as crosses of these which are our Mainline, Blackieline and Redline. There is a little Glouster Old Spot mixed in with our mainline as well. Within the lines I could clearly distinguish genetics for winterability. We’ve been selecting hard for these characteristics so now our pigs are hearty and in great condition through the winters on a diet that is primarily hay with the addition of some whey, apples, etc. (See this post for more about our pigs’s diet and follow the feeding links for details.)

How the individual pigs themselves fare through the winter is not the only important wintering characteristic. The sows must also be able to farrow in our cold climate. With confinement operations they have bred out good mothering by using farrowing crates for birthing. If you just take confinement genetics and dump that sow on pasture to farrow naturally she may do poorly because she doesn’t have the right instincts to build a nest and farrow without assistance. Even harder is that a sow who may farrow fine in the warm months on pasture may not farrow well in the winter months. Farrowing is a set of genetic traits that I can trace through our lines. Over the past twelve years I’ve been working to choose those who farrow best through the entire year, both cold season and warm, to produce each subsequent generation of replacement gilts. Only about 5% of gilts ever get to test as breeders and how their mothers performed is one of the scores they get. This hard culling pays off in improvements in the sow’s farrowing ability without the need for any crates or heated buildings.

Conventional agricultural wisdom is that animals must be closed in, especially during the winter but that is a bad idea. Just like a too tight house is bad for people, confinement is bad for the animals because it produces ill health, respiratory disease and greasy pig as is common in confinement operations. The animals need sunlight, fresh air and the ability to move around. CAFOs use antibiotics and such to fight the problems confinement produces.

We have a different strategy, using open wintering sheds and the best ones are open greenhouses. These have bright sunlight that naturally kills bacteria, plenty of fresh air and warm deep bedding packs. The open structures are at most three sides and a roof with a cross flow vent to allow for good healthy air flow.

Good genetics means better wintering and better litters without having to close the animals in or use medicated feeds. It is a more natural healthier system that works and is good for us as well.

Outdoors: -22°F/4°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 64°F/58°F

Daily Spark: I know the price of success: dedication, hard work and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen. -Frank Lloyd Wright

About Walter Jeffries

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9 Responses to Winter Sows

  1. wackyinternetcommentguy says:

    Genetics controlling temperment and instinct would always be a factor, but do you ever notice any behavioral traits being passed through your herd? By that I mean non-genetic, like a pig that starts flipping rocks and then all of them start flipping rocks, for example. I expect you’ve noticed the youngest learning to socialize in the herd, what sort of behaviors do they learn and how do they learn them? I have noticed dogs and foxes engaging in behavior with pups that appears as if they are actively teaching the pups and not just repremanding unwanted behavior or simply leading by example, do pigs do the same thing? Have you had any pigs that seemed playful or are your pigs more the suit and tie crowd?

    • Yes, there are definitely social traits. For example, our sheep taught our pigs to eat pasture and hay. Those sows then taught their offspring to eat these things. It is not the education of schooling but rather a learning at the snout of their mothers. They see and smell what the older animals eat and then eat those things preferentially.

      Within our dog pack which is six generations long here there is a definitely learning, socialization, that has been passed down from generation to generation including technology, how to use things, and language, how to communicate.

      I suspect that there is a degree of this in all animals with memory. They see others do things and pickup things which they pass on to their offspring, provided they raise their offspring. Thus you would see less to none of this in salmon, sea turtles, pigs in a factory farm, single dogs in human homes, etc.

      As to playful, generally piglets are playful but as adults they lose that and become much more business like.

  2. am in the pm says:

    I’ve seen previous mention of mainline & blackieline herds but redline is new . They composed of Tamworth lineage ?

    • Actually, no, the Redline is a line we have had since before even the Blackieline. They don’t look red as adults but are more of a deep mahogany color, almost black, so the untrained eye doesn’t tend to see them as different. There is also two other possible sub-lines I’m tracking that I may split out. The goal isn’t to have a lot of breeds but eventually to bring them all together as a single cohesive whole but that takes a long time, perhaps another decade or two. We’ll see. I want to see the genetics stabilize more. That’s what each of the lines are, fairly stable genetically just like with the separate breeds. We then cross from them to each other and to the pure breeds to keep watching for characteristics of interest that might be brought back in.

  3. Mike says:

    I think you had mentioned on another site, a while back, a study(s) that concluded heterosis may not be as important as once thought. What were the findings?

    • Yes, I think it was a Canadian study but I don’t have it at my finger tips. What I remember is them saying that selection was more important than heterosis. This also fits with a lot of other things I’ve seen. There’s research and math that says linebreeding produces a suppression of fertility however they fail to account for selection but instead are merely looking at random pairings. This failure to take into account the effects of the farmer or Mother Nature’s highly selective process of choosing who grows up to be old enough to mate, who succeeds in the mating competition, who goes as meat is a deciding factor in real world evolution, be it on the farm or in the forest. I’m a big fan of Mother and take her lessons seriously.

  4. Nance says:

    yours: ‘There are also two other possible sub-lines I’m tracking that I may split out.’ This is interesting to me. My brother had his DNA test for our Family Genealogy. We didn’t fit any ‘known’ family of our surname line. We were close to 2 or three tho so they ‘split us out’ as a sub line. I just find this amusing . . . and amazing : )

  5. charlie says:

    Why don’t you purchased or build individual farrowing huts instead of using a hoop barn for your farrowing? With using a hoop barn for farrowing, will you still be able to classify your pork as free range?

    • We have some individual huts, in fact a whole collection that we’ve made over the years. See the housing articles in the topic cloud in the right column. The “hoop house” as you call it is open, not closed in. The pigs will go in and out as they like just like they do now with the various open sheds we have scattered around. Read the other posts about the greenhouse for more description. It is simply an open shed with a wall to the north and a translucent roof, not a hoop house like the closed in ones nor a greenhouse that is heated or closed in. This is not a change in management, merely a larger open shed.

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