Wild Farrowing

Private Room with a View

This gilt sow wanted a private room. She was willing to go to extremes to get it. Three times she broke out of the south Ark gestating paddock in search of a place of her own. The third time Ben found her walking north along the road by the Sugar Shack. We brought her back and rather than continuing to fight her nature we simply fenced her in by this hay bale at the loading dock. She likes it there and immediately built a nest.

Piglets Nursing

These piglets were born just before the extreme cold snap where it got down to -34°F, without the windchill. With windchill it was about -90°F over that weekend. They not only survived they thrived. They all get points for being winter born pigs, her for farrowing well in the winter and for surviving an extreme. Points are good because I score our pigs on about three dozen criteria. 95% of the gilts go to meat. 99.5% of the boars go to meat. Only the best of the best will pass their genes on to the next generation.

A sow that seeks out and defends a private nesting spot is a good sow. This is a good mothering behavior. Sows that do this and produce good litters are on their way to being keepers. Each time they up their odds of beating the cull in the next round and getting another chance to prove their stuff. I cull weekly.

Parity is the number of litters a sow has produced. P1 means she’s had one litter.
She was a gilt until she farrowed and earned the title of sow.

Over the early winter I cull extra hard. That is a time when new P1 sows have had up to two chances over the summer to prove themselves. As fall snows turn into winter pack I look the sows over and cull the least of them, those with the lowest scores. This reduces the carrying count as we switch from fresh pasture to dry hay over the snowy seasons. A gilt sow, a.k.a. a P1, proving herself in the winter gets extra points as it is a much hard season.

So what does a sow want in a farrowing spot?

Privacy is a big concern for sows. They need a place they can farrow without having other pigs lay down next to them. Good sows don’t crush their own piglets. But other sows and pigs who are out of hormonal sync may do so. In the warm season months the sows go off to the margins of the pastures and pick a spot, generally under brush or tree cover, where they can defend it from other pigs and from predators.

Wind block is another issue – the sow wants somewhere that has good fresh air but not a lot of heat stealing wind in the colder months. Our entire year is cold months compared with some places as even in the summer it is normally only in the 70’s during the day and 50’s at night. Our record summer high is 86°F which Texans would scoff at. We get a lot of wind so for the sows it is important to find a spot where the landscape, trees, a bale or something blocks that wind from hitting their nest.

Bedding is important. In the hottest months a sow will build an earthen nest of dirt and stones but for most of the year she wants sticks and straw or hay. Yes, the story of the three little pigs’s homes has a basis in reality! During the warm months a sow gathers branches, leaves and grasses from an area as large as about 100′ in diameter around her chosen site to build a nest. During the winter we provide deep bedding packs typically of wood chips topped with hay. This composts producing heat and food.

Fresh air is critical. Disease is more common in closed in spaces due to the build up of bacteria, viruses and foul air. A good flow of fresh air is critical to healthy livestock and healthy farmers. Don’t close them in. An open shed is superior to a heated or insulated barn. Dug in dens, open sheds, simple hoop houses of panels, a hut, the Ark, and such are great. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

It is important to let the sow build the nest herself. You should not add loose fiber bedding to the nest but rather set it off at a distance for her to gather. You simply lack the right instincts, strong jaws for chopping, massive weight and sharp pointy hooves for properly packing the bowl of the nest. Nest that humans build tend to be too loose so piglets are more likely to get caught in the material. Besides, she enjoys the process and it gives her something to do.

A roof is a nice extra for keeping the precipitation off the nest but not absolutely necessary as this sow is showing. We’ve had more than a foot of snow. When it is cold she fluffs up some around her and disappears with her piglets. Then the next day she moves things around and rebuilds her nest neat and tidy as needed.

All of this is instinctual behavior. These are maternal behaviors that help pigs thrive in the wild and pasture situations without the need for crating or human intervention. These same behaviors in a confinement operation are a problem because the gathering turns into bar biting and other destructive behaviors. The defense of nesting site produces agitated aggressive sows because they’re packed in too close to each other. For this reason these maternal instincts have been bred out of many confinement lines of pigs. An instinctual behavior that is vital for survival in one situation, like our pasture farrowing, is problematic in another situation.

With good sow genetics and a good pasture situation there is little in the way of interventions. You don’t need to dry off the piglets – they’ll do that themselves on the bedding. You don’t need to clip their umbilical cords, teeth or any other body parts either. No iodine or other chemical baths are needed. You don’t need to move them to their mother’s teats – they’ll walk around her and find the milk bar on their own. We’re here for emergencies in many cases but most piglets are born without any interventions and often without our presence. If I ever have to intervene to help a piglet, for any reason, then I mark that piglet as a feeder, never to be a breeder. Even if it is just a matter of luck – breed for lucky pigs.

Breed the best of the best
eat the rest.

That’s how to improve your herd genetics. This is the lesson Mother Nature teaches us: Evolution works.

Outdoors: 20°F/-3°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 52°F/61°F

Daily Spark: The average gun owner has almost two arms. -From Walter’s little black book of correct but meaningless statistics.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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29 Responses to Wild Farrowing

  1. I don’t know when to be near my sows during farrowing. We were too present with our first sow and lost a lot of pigs. There were other factors but I don’t think my presence helped, we have left them completely alone since.

    What about emergencies? How do you spot something wrong if you’re not there or perhaps not there long enough to see something subtle?

    • I hear a lot of people worry about emergencies and having to pull a piglet. In thousands of piglets born we’ve never had todo that. I suspect this is more of a fantasy worry than real but it might be that with some genetics it is more of a problem.

  2. Bob Mattie says:

    What about iron shots for the piglets? Do you do that?

  3. Amy Savina says:

    Do you know all your sows by sight, or do you have a marking system?

    • I know them by sight. Telling pigs apart is easier than telling people apart because pigs don’t change their clothing. I also use a marking system to record other data than who the pig is. Sometime I’ll write about that in detail. The article is written and awaiting polish.

      • Amy Savina says:

        Looking forward to that article! I go by sight as well, but I’m concerned as I grow to more than 10 or 15 sows with their offspring. Many look quite alike. It could get confusing.

        • I find I can keep track of several thousand pigs just using sight but the problem becomes one of communicating with other people thus some of them, notably breeders, get names. Over the last few years as my son starts taking on more on the farm I’ve been experimenting with various marking systems. The small round button tags work pretty well if placed close to the skull and up high in the ark of the ear but even with the best placement a percentage still gets ripped out by other pigs, brush, etc. I dislike the metal clip tags as they are metal on skin which can create frost bite in our cold climate. Those are required for shipping by our state so breeder pigs who leave shipping to other out of state farms get them. I don’t like the large notching system favored by 4H and breed associations because the notches can interfere with blood flow in the ear. A small nick does work. Tattoos don’t work well on our pigs because they are very hairy and of many colors.

          • Amy Savina says:

            I’ve taken photos of my breeders and given them names based on their markings. “Dottie” for a dot under the eye, “Smiley” for two large black arcs that look like a huge smile on either side of the mouth. It’s a bit old fashioned, using a notebook and such. But, it works for me for now, and my family can look at the notebook if needed. We’re in central NH an I worried about the same things you mentioned. Thank you.

  4. Sarah Bernhard says:

    “Breed for lucky pigs.”
    I love that sentence. Why not, after all?

  5. Becky says:

    Your operation inspires me! Thank you for these tidbits of wisdom!!!!

  6. aminthepm says:

    You have one advantage with your pigs as they vary in color and patterns. Much easier than if you chose just one breed like Yorkshire.

  7. Paul Smith says:

    My family and I are just starting out breeding some pigs. We have over five partially wooded acres in rural Fairbanks, Alaska. I have been concerned about the weather and baby piglets coming early in spring. After reading your story, I am reassured and confident that our two, sows to be, will do just fine. We have them in a small enclosure right now but plan on letting them out to pasture soon. The temps are up in the 40s in daytime now. Thanks for the information.

  8. Farmerbob1 says:

    “Even if it is just a matter of luck – breed for lucky pigs.”

    Hrm, have you ever named a lucky pig Teela? If so, be careful what you feed her!

    If you don’t get the reference, let me know, but I have a sneaky suspicion you will.

  9. J.D. Ray says:

    I mentioned elsewhere that we’re planning to start a grower operation next Spring by purchasing a litter of weaners. In further talks with my sister, she seems to think that we should pick a couple or three of the litter as sows and have them bred so we don’t have to buy weaners the following year when (presumably) we grow to a larger operation. What advice do you have for us? Is that a sensible scheme? Is it reasonable for us to leap into farrowing that quickly, or should we work on expanding a grower operation first?

    • J.D. Ray says:

      …I suppose that would be “gilts” instead of “sows”, but the point is the same.

    • Your sister has a good plan. The first year raise a group as feeder pigs and pick the best few to become breeders for the following year. This lets you get some experience before you jump into breeding. If you decide you don’t want to go that far, you have more bacon. Grow slowly.

      • J.D. Ray says:

        On 2.5 ac of pasture, should we plan to keep two gilts? I presume they’ll be around 500# each by the time they farrow in 2018 (at one year old), which means two of them would apply 1000# of animal pressure to the pasture. If each produces a litter of 10, which average 100# each by the time they go out, that’s another 2000#, so that’s 3000# of pressure on 2.5 acres, right? Maybe just a pinch heavy, but something manageable?

        • That would be pretty remarkable growth for one year of age. I suspect they’ll be more like 300 lbs each live weight.

          Yes, 2.5 acres of pasture divided up into many paddocks would be suitable. I would make a minimum of four paddocks but ten or more would be far better. More smaller is better than few larger so they can move faster. Better for the animals. Better for the soil. Better for the forages. Worse for the parasites – rotational grazing breaks their life cycle.

          Figure one acre per sow to allow for piglets. See the article One Day of Rotational Grazing and follow the links from there for additional information.

          • J.D. Ray says:

            Which brings to mind another question (really, I’ve read a lot on this site, so I’m trying to ask only what I can’t find for myself): How often does someone need to check on the pigs? The horses on the farm all get attention twice a day, mostly because the paddocks aren’t set up and they all need to be fed. But if pigs are in paddocks and getting rotated out every few days, do they need much attention between rotations? If so, how often and what sort?

          • If the pigs are out on good pasture with reliable water and shade then they do not need daily checking. Good setup minimizes management.

            If you want them to grow faster then you may want to provide additional supplemental calories and protein. This can be done daily manually or with a self-feeder if you’re using a pelleted feed.

  10. Hey Walter,

    I appreciate the work you are doing, and your willingness to help many others in this kind of work.

    I have 1 gilt and 2 boars together. They are all Kunekune. We finally figured out she was pregnant, and will be due shortly (1-3 weeks?). They are rotationally grazing and she will have access to hay to build her nest. She has plenty of shelter under trees and it should be in the 80-90s by the time she is ready. It is just a bit difficult on the logistics to separate them along with our fencing and watering systems. She is second in command, but is bigger than the main boar.

    My question: How important is isolating her from the other boars during farrowing?

    • With experienced boars it can work fine having them around farrowing sows. In experienced boars may get confused and think the sow is heating and ready to mate and then trample the new piglets in the process. I would separate if possible.

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