|Outdoor pigs are happy pigs.|
In the midst of all important world news I'll bet you were unaware of one of the most vital issues; how best to farrow piglets. Yes, national leaders are sitting around old farm tables with big glasses of raw milk and whiskey chasers (or maybe that's just MY farmhouse) discussing how sows should drop their wee ones into the world.
Today, lucky fools, you get my take on the matter.
I'm not going to discuss the confinement approach vs the pastured hog approach (this time) but instead will just talk about how we manage farrowing, outside, here on South Pork. The idea for this post came from The Beginning Farmer who asked other farmers opinion on farrowing specifically in winter. In addition to farrowing I'll cover in general our whole hog breeding cycle.
Let's start at the beginning. We did it very badly back then. Well, not horribly but certainly it could've been better but in this area, back 15 years ago, 99% all hogs were raised in long metal buildings and all those pigs lived on concrete. We had few folks to ask for help and I was unaware of the blog world. So our first farrowing event ended in disaster. Mama sow and piglets all died despite our frantic efforts to save them.
She was overweight, the night was cold and rainy, we did not expect the birth when it came, the sun was in our eyes (quite the trick when it is also raining) etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We vowed to never try it again. But we have short memories.
We did try again but we did more research first. The blog of Walter Jeffries was priceless (really, it was, he charges nothing for all his great advice) and after reading all his posts, literally, we then visited a few pastured hog farmers in northern Illinois and Indiana. The last five years we have raised primarily the critically endangered Red Wattle Hog and here in a little more than a nutshell is what we have learned.
1. Housing. We do group housing. Our 2 breeding groups, consist of one boar and 2-4 sows at any given time. Mad Max's group has the large Hogcienda Keith built in the midst of a large pasture and Wally's group has a large barn stall connected to a large pasture. Both groups can enter and leave the sheltered areas at will, having pasture access 24/7, year round. When winter approaches Keith places our very large square bales in the shelter's wide openings leaving rooms for hogs to come and go but sufficiently blocking a large amount of the wind, snow and rain. Bedding is deep and of organic straw, a requirement of the national organic program. As the hogs tear into the bales of hay partially blocking their doorways, what isn't eaten becomes more bedding to the inside of the hog condos.
|Our biggest hogcienda which houses one boar and 3-4 sows. Behind it is the same|
size shelter but with opening on narrow end to reduce wind and give hogs
deeper area to burrow into in winter.
Some housing things we DONT do. we do not use fans or heat lamps. When its hot we provide lots of water and deep water holes, mud pits. In the winter we provide deep bedding, face our hutches/hogciendas to the south, provide shelter from rain and snow and use large bales of hay to block wind and provide additional feed.
2. Breedings .Our boars breed the sows they are shaking up with as the sows allow them too.We don't schedule our breedings, we let Mad Max and Wally schedule their own dates. They even get to pick their choice of wines, but still the sows rule while the boars drool. Most of our sows breed back very quickly, usually within days of their litters being weaned from them. Our oldest sow Deb may not breed back immediately but if not, then she always ends up pregnant the next month. If we had a sow who took longer than that, she's be next weeks Italian Sausage pizza.
3. Gestation. The sows stay with their boar until they are about two weeks from farrowing. Then they are moved (via a bucket of milk soaked grain and a livestock trailer) to another area of the farm that is quiet and has a private, smaller pig house called an E Hut. The hutches are well bedded with doorways that are wide enough for the sow but small enough to limit wind, rain etc. The moms -to- be then start getting milk and grain on a daily basis . In the early years we lost more piglets at birth due to protein deficiency in the mamas.
Note: we tried leaving the sows in the bigger group when they farrowed but because we do not have wooded areas where they can escape for privacy they farrowed inside the large hutch and other bigger hogs would crush or step on the babies. Our Red Wattles are quite social when it comes to other sows piglets but they are big and clumsy. If we had more acreage and more vegetative cover we would not pull the sows away and place them in separate hutches, but we don't, so we do.
|Cross bred sow after farrowing large litter in deep grass at far end of pasture.|
4. Farrowing day. When signs of impending birth are noted, such as nest making, lack of appetite, keeping to ones self, ordering Baby Gap online, we will overfill pans with water and feed. Then WE LEAVE THE SOW ALONE. Some folks report they will stand by and assist with the birthing, resuscitate non breathing babes, offer ice chips and Brad Pitt movies for distraction but we have learned to stay away. Our philosophy is this, if the mama is not taking care of the pigfants on her own then we don't want her as a mom in the future. If we rush in to save runt pigs or deformed pigs then we'll be spending lots more time and money on animals that won't make good breeders or feeders. So we take the tough love approach.
5. Post farrowing. About 24 hours after the sows big day we'll remove any dead piglets, provide more water and feed and do a general head count. We find that very few piglets die after they reach the 48 hour mark.
|Sow in our mid sized farrowing hutch which used to be used for calves.|
Note piglets in corner about two weeks old. Picture taken in Spring
6. Post post farrowing. At about one week piglets will be popping their heads around the corner of the hutch and larger piglets are big enough to hop over the bottom threshold of the doorway. We'll watch now and then to make sure they find their way back. Seems there is always a
dumb wandering one in the bunch. Momma sow will continue to receive hay, water and milk soaked grain while she is in this heavy nursing stage. This is also the preferred age (for us) to castrate the males. They are small enough to easily handle and old enough to have the strength to recover easily. Again we put mama in the heavy duty, escape proof trailer when we are castrating. We leaned the hard way that an angry mama pig can leap tall buildings with a single bound if the school bully (with a hooked scalpel) is after her babe.
|8 week old Red Wattle piglets . Our smallest hutch called the E-Hut behind them|
Works best for first time farrowing gilts or small sows under 300 pounds
7. Weaning. Our weaning rule is hard and fast. We do it when the yard gets resurfaced. We've noticed that at about 4 weeks the babies will go under the electric fence and investigate other parts of the farm. They stay pretty close. At 6 weeks they start meeting our customers in the drive causing them to oooo and awwwww with their fat arse cuteness. At 8 weeks they will venture too close to the midlife farmwives rose bushes and weaning will commence immediately.
Mother sow is returned to her boar or perhaps we mix it up and put her with the other boar. Depends on our breeding mood at the time. (Now return to step two above)
Keith then takes the 8 week old babies and puts them in a large stall in our barn with a small outside run made of escape proof, mostly escape proof, livestock panels. At one end he will run a live electric wire right at their nose level. When they hit the wire they make scoot forward but the panel keeps them from going any father. Missing their buddies they scoot past the live wire again getting another little bite. Within a couple of days they avoid the wire completely.
|Piglets on the loose hours before their furlough was cancelled|
8. Post weaning. At about 12 weeks we move all piglets to a big pasture with three sided large hogcienda where they have tons of room to play, dig, run, eat and grow to market size. This usually takes 6-8 months depending on time of year. We want them to be about 230-250 lbs live weight when we take them to locker as most of our customers prefer a hanging weight of about 200 pounds give or take a pork chop or two.
So there you have it, our basic hog breeding cycle with additional info about outdoor farrowing. Hope it helps those of you who asked. Those of you who fell asleep at "hello" can always check back tomorrow. Research demonstrates that 1/4 of my posts are actually worth the readers time.