Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Question from Email: 

"Hi Bruce, I have 4 pigs; 3 sows and a boar, and we just had our first litter.  Unfortunately, none of the 11 pigs that were born survived.   We have them in a shelter on pasture, and I'm wondering what your experience has been with giving birth on pasture?

Thanks, Mike"

Sorry to hear that you lost a litter, but don't blame yourself too much.  If you have and keep animals you'll lose some despite your best intentions.  I've written quite a bit about my experiences with losing pigs.   Do a search for farrowing (upper left hand corner of the blog window) and you'll see at least 50 entries about this.  I've thought about this a lot, and I've had a lot of experience with it on my operations. 

Fair warning:  We are talking about piglet mortality here -- so there will be pictures of dead piglets in this entry. 

Farrowing in a shelter
 This is a sow that farrowed in an 8x16' shelter that I constructed from plywood and heavy timber.  The bedding is dry and warm, and relatively level.  There's plenty of room for the sow and the piglets.  But she's managed to lay on most of her litter overnight. 
There's still a live one back against the plywood behind her, and she's protective of it -- but she's pressing it against the plywood too.    This shelter might be improved with "pig rails" - boards that are nailed to keep the sow away from the walls by 8" or so so she can't press the piglets against the wall, but the three that are dead (center of the picture, above) got squished in the center of the shelter -- probably under her as she rolled over.   

Farrowing in a calf dome

Before I build that shelter, I tried portable calf domes.  They weigh about 100lbs, they're 7' across, and about 5' high.  Bedded with hay or wood chips, they provide excellent shelter. 
 But the problem I've had over and over again is no matter how well I bed them or try to stake them down or block them down, the sows love to move them around.  A sow is in a different world from a piglet -- she's hot on all but the coolest days, insulated by a thick layer of fat.  So she pushes the dome around until she can find some mud and then typically lays down in it.  It's a disaster when she has her pigs into the cold mud. 
It's heartbreaking. 
 So what we've switch to is farrowing crates.  The sow is confined for a week or so while her piglets get big enough and agile enough to dodge her.  Once we're sure that everyone is doing ok they go to a transition pen -- a fenced pen with a calf dome in it. 

Here's a sow in a transition pen.  After this we wean the piglets and them usually put them in a sale pen until they're sold.  For those that we're going to be finishing we wean them, put them in separate housing for a couple of weeks to make sure that they're weaned, and then out with the rest of the herd they go.  If we let the piglets continue to suckle on mom past 6 weeks they take her out of condition -- takes quite a few calories to feed 10 growing pigs. 

We've been gradually increasing the number of farrowing crates to be able to handle the groups of sows farrowing.  Having a sow in a crate is actually more work for me than having them in a pen or with the herd.  I'm not doing this because it's easier, I'm doing it to save the pigs lives.  I've picked up too many buckets of dead piglets.  I'm done with that. 

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