Thursday, March 25, 2010

Notes on using a farrowing crate

I run a pastured animal operation, and for the most part allow the animals to roam pretty freely. In doing this I've had an unacceptably large mortality in my piglets, and I've tried all sorts of things to reduce the number that die.
A farrowing crate is a commonly used device that is custom-designed to reduce piglet mortality, and I'm working with it now after trying all sorts of other things.

I've written about the losses when I allow the sow to pick her own farrowing spot in the pasture or when they've chosen a bad spot here, about my experiences with a farrowing pen (good and bad)

The black pig on the right is an experienced mother; she's had a litter in a farrowing pen, one on the pasture (total loss), and this third litter of hers in the farrowing crate.

Summary of my experiences with the farrowing crate, by sow/gilt:

Big Mamma, 4 year old sow. 14 at birth, 2 currently alive. Farrowing crate. I've lost the last 2 litters from her entirely, so having 2 pigs survive is an improvement, but I need at least 5 piglets per sow to break even on just the feed costs. She's not an economic pig at this time so she's got to go.
BUT... the farrowing crate made this decision easier. Normally I'd find her after she'd given birth somewhere and there'd be dead piglets all over the place, and it was impossible to figure out what had killed them, for the most part. It's easy if she steps on one, but harder if she lays on one. In this case, in the farrowing crate, I was there when she was giving birth, and most came out stillborn. Lucky that I was there, but if I hadn't been there, it would have eliminated her laying on them as a possible cause of death. I don't know what's causing her stillborns -- she's one of my oldest sows and a very friendly girl. I hate to see her go, but I've given her every chance and seen no improvement. She'll go to market after weaning her current 2 piglets. I moved her into a farrowing pen 1 week after birth with 3 live piglets, and she squished one of the 3 that night. the other two have survived so far.

Black Pig: 3 year old sow. 16 live at birth, 6 died within 24 hours. 3 were just tiny, one got kicked by mom, and one had problems in birth, likely brain damage due to suffocation in the birth canal. One died for unknown reasons. She did a pasture farrow last time, and lost her entire litter. In the litter before that she was in a farrowing pen and lost 12 out of 14 pigs there. So the farrowing pen is a clear win (at least so far) for the black pig. She stays.

White faced pig: 250lb 13 month old gilt, first litter. 9 born, 6 alive now, farrowing crate. She had the piglets overnight; temps in the 40s, and they were dead away from the heat, so might have died from that.
The white faced pig is on the left in the photo at top; she's a purebred berkshire, and I moved her in right after I moved big momma out. I'd like to see if the smaller sow has a different experience. So far so good.

Here's big momma in a farrowing pen with her surviving piglets. She's a 500lb sow, and the feed costs are prohibitive to keep a sow that size without any piglet production. That's the difference between a farm and a hobby.

I've talked about the experience from the farmer point of view, and from the sows point of view, but there's really an important party that I need to talk about here. That's the piglets themselves. The piglet experience in the farrowing crate is actually pretty good. There's a warm spot, they're safe, it's unlikely that they'll be squished to death or suffocated, and there's the wall-of-mom, the cliff of goodness as shown in that picture, above. Seeing more live piglets is really my goal in this, and while I feel mixed about confining the sow for a week until her piglets are oriented and able to dodge mom, I hate buckets of dead piglets more, so that's how I got here.

I'm open to questions and comments.


Anonymous said...

I really like your deductive approach to the problem. It seems you really think through all your options and weigh them before making decisions. Good luck with raising your piglet survival rate. Thanks for posting so much; we learn a lot from you. And thanks for posting the photos of the piglets at different ages and sizes.

Anonymous said...

How vexing! Like you point out, at least the crates are removing a variable, so you can tweak other things to find what works better. Is it nutrition? Genetics? Disease or parasites and the need for more or less meds? Toxic plants? Those late fetus deaths seem mysterious, like what is going wrong that she's growing them almost to term, but then they are perishing so late in the game?

Looking forward to what else you may learn! Good luck!

Anonymous said...

This is Heath.

I suspect you'd have to change genetics, nutrition and vaccination schedule to get anywhere close to industry averages.

I know an excellent breeder who could teach you to breed and farrow pigs, but you'd have to travel to learn, and pay him for his trouble.

If you just want to get some Berkshires that work well in crates, I can help you with that. You'd still have to do the vaccines and worming to get the largest number of pigs from them, but they'd at least be selected to do well in something like your system.

craig said...

Bruce, have you ever tested your soil? Since you run a outdoor operation and your pigs are rooting maybe your pigs are getting too much of something or the lack of. Have you ever talk to a nutritionist? Your sows are lacking something and a nutritionist might be able to help.

Bruce King said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I'm feeding all of the hogs a prepared hog chow that is (in theory) a balanced feed, so I'd hope that they'd get what they need from that alone. They also get forage, which allows them to satisfy cravings for things that might be missing. I'm not sure what a soil test would tell me -- they're mostly aimed at crops, but I'm open to that idea.

One thing that bears mentioning here -- piglet mortality is a normal part of a farrowing operation. Everyone who has a sow loses piglets at times, for all sorts of reasons. I've just been losing more than I would like, or than is economical.

You will see a lot of pig producers who claim a small mortality, or claim to be able to produce pigs with very little mortality. In a recent blog post on one of the farming blogs I follow, the fellow posted a picture of a sow that had recently farrowed. Shown in the picture are 5 very young pigs. No mention of mortality, but my opinion is that he's already lost half the litter from the sow, and chances are good that he'll lose a couple more before they wean. Either that, or his sow is very low fertility -- which is a problem in itself. I'm working on getting pigs weaned alive -- that's the problem I'm trying to solve.

damae said...

I agree with Craig, something must be awry for that sow to consistently lose so many piglets. What kind of minerals are your pigs getting?

Bruce King said...

OK Craig and Dinkleberries -- I'm open to the soil testing route. So please point me to the soil test that you think is applicable, and who administers it, and the cost.

I'd also like to know if you have ever done a soil test for this sort of situation, and what the circumstances were. Or if you know anyone who has, and what the outcome was.

Craig said...

Bruce, contact your local extension service about testing and cost. Also, they might have a livestock specialist who can help with the problems of the sows. The reason I mention soil testing is because in a earlier post you said part of your property was once a scrap or junkyard and that you could have some soil contamination which might be effecting the sows.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce, I just weaned 72 piglets from 9 sows - 5 of which were first timers. This was during some pretty awful rainstorms. Most of them farrowed within 2 weeks and I had to divide them into 2 groups as some of the older piglets would have certainly caused problems for the newborns. I just ran a hot wire to separate them for a couple of weeks.

The sows are mostly Tamworth with a couple of Old Spots with a little wild blood in them. The Old Spots are by far the best and gave me 11 and 12 pigs each.

I used homemade huts made out of feed silo halves attached to skids. I bedded the huts with straw and packed it tight in the gaps in the front and back of the hut. The entryway for the sow is high enough that the piglets can't get out for the first week.

I tried to be on hand for the farrowings by keeping a close eye on the sows behavior.

In my experience, recipes for farrowing failure include:
1.Too big of an area during inclement weather.
2.Unbred pigs in with farrowing pigs (will molest sows if in heat when farrowing).
3.Lightweight huts (sows will crush piglets when moving huts with snout).
4.Moo-tels as farrowing huts (rough on sows teats when entering and exiting- and lightweight)
5.Moving sow at last minute before or after farrowing.
6.Not enough or too much bedding.

Good luck Bruce. When it goes well it seems easy, when it goes bad it seems impossible. Also, to find out if piglets are stillborn you can see if their lungs float in water. If they are stillborn they will sink.
I really enjoy your blog. -Jim

Anonymous said...

This may or may not be of use, but...

Dr Weston Price of California, lists Vitamin A deficiency as causing problems with the development of the eyes, ranging from impaired sight, to blindness, to being born with no eyes (anopthalmia). Dr Price also reported damage to the nerves leading to the ears, and therefore impaired hearing, ranging to total deafness. Prolongation of the gestation period and long and difficult labour were reported in rats. Calves were reported as being born small and less likely to survive. Farm animals generally were reported to have had less successful reproduction and lactation, and less resistance to infection, where Vitamin A levels were less than optimum.

Lack of Vitamin A in the diet of pigs resulted in ‘extreme in coordination and spasms’, and a tendency to abortion and farrowing dead piglets. Another researcher quoted by Price showed that lack of Vitamin A produced disturbances in ‘oestrus and ovulation’, leading to sterility.


And here's an interesting note about vitamin A from wikipedia (

The conclusion that can be drawn from the newer research is that fruits and vegetables are not as useful for obtaining vitamin A as was thought; in other words, the IUs that these foods were reported to contain were worth much less than the same number of IUs of fat-dissolved oils and (to some extent) supplements. This is important for vegetarians. (Night blindness is prevalent in countries where little meat or vitamin A-fortified foods are available.)


My first thought was that there's no way that your pigs could be suffering from vit A deficiency with all the fruits and veggies you're obtaining for them.

Anyway, just another data point for consideration.

Anonymous said...

Check for PRRS disease. Your symptoms are 100% spot on. I am a pastured pork producer 100% outdoor and almost never have a crushed pig. Disease is the problem here and you must vaccinate to control it even under organic conditions.