Friday, August 22, 2014

The dogs

From left:  Pretty, momma, zena, boy, kat and at right, Red.  
These are my livestock protection dogs... well, sort of.  I often wonder what people really mean when they say that.  For some folks it means a dog that basically lives with the livestock that they are guarding, and that they offer minimal support to.  For others it means that the dogs have a duty to guard, but also have other duties, like herding.  Still others basically call their pet dog a guardian dog, and I wonder if they have any contact with livestock at all.

This is my pack; and there's a litter of puppies right now as well, so we're up to 12 dogs.  I'm really not feeding them right now; between the rats and other small critters that they kill, trimmings from slaughter and birthing losses of piglets, they're all pretty well fed.  I do have a sack of dog food, which I offer them free-choice, but they don't eat it.

Given the choice, these dogs will eat the raw meat and prey that they catch in preference to anything else, and it really shows in their coats and overall robust health.  They run everywhere; and every day they make a circuit around the perimeter fence, a roughly 2.5 mile round trip, and inspect every tree and bush and rock along the way.

They're big terriers, and as with any terrier they have a strong prey drive.  This means that I'll find them digging furiously after something or running down the unwary rat.  When they do catch something it's very quick -- much less than 1 second.  Snap-shake-dead.

They are big-game dogs, and they do well around the pigs.  I keep a pack of them because I don't have to worry too much about a single dog being lured out by a coyote.  They're more than a match for a coyote on an individual basis, and on a pack basis, too.  The same as true for other small to medium predators, which suits me just fine.  for the carnivores, the sound and smell of the pack keeps them outside my fenceline, and that is good for everyone.

I really love airedales.  Super loyal, tough, gritty, determined.  Perfect farm dog.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

So you want to be a farmer... august edition

For a contrast, here's the winter version of this post.

Caring for pregnant pigs

A reader named Dan asked me a question about sows, and I think it's worth talking about:

"Bruce do you ever have two sows farrow together in the same shed? We have met some people locally who say that they do but when we have tried it we ended up with a lot of squashed babies..." 

I've honestly tried just about every different style of farrowing housing.  All the way from individual pens to group housing, farrowing crates to pasture.  I've tried domes, huts, straw bale structures and sheds.  

After 8 years of experience, here's what I've found:  

Sows naturally want to be separate from the herd when they give birth.  If they are allowed the space, they will separate themselves from the herd a day or two before giving birth, and stay away from the herd for 3 or 4 days after birth, returning only to eat if they can't find enough to eat where they chose to give birth.  

So I don't feel bad about separating a sow that is near giving birth --  that's what they do naturally.  

Once separated, I'll do one of three things; depending on the sow and the time of year, and where the herd is housed.  
Sows napping together in the shade of the barn.  It's 90 degrees today.   

A little background:  

We run our boars with our sows in group housing.  all of the pigs are fed in one area, and all of them have several areas they can choose to be in; an area with mud, one with dry bedding, one with shade, one with sun.  If they're in a barn, that's pretty easy.  On pasture we use portable shelters and feeders and waterers to give them the same choices.  The pigs choose how they spend their day.  Most of them like being physically close to the other pigs, so you'll often find a raft of pigs sleeping shoulder to shoulder.  
The piglets are napping also, but off in another area of the barn.  They sleep apart from the sows mostly. 

We check the pigs twice or more a day, and watch for sows that are going to give birth.  When we see one, we look at our experience with that sow and move her out of group housing into birthing quarters.  That could be a section of a field that is fenced off from the other pigs, a mobile shelter that is also fenced off, or a different barn or pen.   This varies based on summer, winter, spring, etc.  

Some of the sows aren't very good with piglets; and this usually is because they feel the need to stand up and "defend" their piglets from other pigs.  These sows we take note of and either put into private stalls that are visually blocked from other pigs, or into a farrowing crate, depending on the particular sow.  
A sow in a farrowing crate.  We do this to save the pigs when the sow isn't a good mother.  

Private stalls and farrowing crates are higher-maintenance than group housing.  We separate the pigs because we get a higher survival of piglets to weaning, not because it's easier.   

After the sow gives birth, we'll keep her separate from the herd for 2-3 weeks, allowing her piglets to get big enough to recognize (and dodge!) mom and then we'll move the sow into group housing for nursing sows.  
Sow and piglets in individual housing; she's about ready to go to group

The risk here is that larger pigs in the same group housing will steal the milk from the other sows, and basically stunt the growth of the smaller litter.  In extreme cases the smaller pigs will get no milk and die.  We don't mix pigs that are more than 7 days apart at this early stage.  '
a group of piglets of different sizes from group housed sows.   
So to recap:  

  We separate sows who are going to give birth to individua housing
  We keep them separate for 2 to 3 weeks, giving the piglets exclusive access to their mother
     Separate can mean an individual stall, a farrowing crate, or a shed or stall.  
  We move the mother into group housing after that, and wean the piglets at 6 to 7 weeks of age.  
  The sow is rebred when she moves into group housing by the boars housed with those sows.