Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winter farrowing, and pastured farrowing in general

I'm running about 100 sows right now, and have 4 boars that run with the herd, and the herd is fed as a group, primarily off of produce. 

We have a number of sows that farrow each month; somewhere between 5 and 10 each month, and we farrow year-round. 

The piglets are pretty important to us.  Every piglet that we wean becomes immediately saleable, particularly in the spring when the price for each approaches $150, which puts a value on a litter of piglets at $1500 or so -- that's big money.  Even at more normal prices, the pressure is there to keep as many alive as possible, and, honestly, there is nothing that I hate more than picking up dead piglets.    With 100 sows, our gross sales of piglets approach $100k a year.  It would be safe to say that piglets are a big part of our farms total sales. 

We also need the piglets to produce our finished pigs each year, and there have been times we've purchased piglets because we cannot produce enough to fill the demand. 

So for all those reasons, we try very hard to wean the most piglets we can.  Notice that I specify wean; you'll see many people with pictures of their sows with 12 or 14 or 18 piglets -- but until they're off the sow they are at risk.    Once weaned, they are unlikely to die.   I am pretty skeptical about folks who claim to have low or no mortality when they're pasture farrowing.   When third parties, like universities look at survival rates the usual death rate is between 20 and 30%.  On the farming blogs I often see claims that are downright miraculous. 

We have tried over the years pasture farrowing (pigs on grass, pigs in brush, pigs in shelters, pigs in domes, pigs in hay structures, pigs in barns, and pigs in farrowing crates.  Our climate is wet and cold; it's between 30 and 50 degrees most days, and we usually get one to two weeks a year when it's below freezing. 

If you can keep piglets dry it really doesn't matter what the outside temperature is, honestly.  With all of our attempts, having the sow there to provide a wall of warmth for the piglets means that our survival rate did not vary much no matter what the temperature was.   You don't have to worry about temperature if you can keep them dry. 

But on my farm, in my climate, it is nearly impossible to keep them dry if the sows are allowed onto pasture in the winter.  It's fine in the spring and summer and into the mid to late fall, but when the rains start in earnest, and we're talking about late October to late March here,  you cannot replace the bedding fast enough.  This matters most when the pigs are newborn to about 2 weeks old.  after a week or so the piglets can find their own warm spots and generally do very well, but that first week in the winter is brutal.

For this reason we prefer to farrow in a barn, under a roof, in the winter, and we pen the sows with the piglets and keep them on dry bedding for the first week or two, depending on how the piglets do.  We do this either in pens on wood chips in a barn, or in farrowing crates -- depending on our experience with the sow and and the overall weather.   If the sow has done well without the crate we'll usually pen her and let her farrow in the pen.  If she has had problems with pen farrowing, we'll crate her for the first week.  Some sows are excellent mothers and very careful with their piglets.  Some suck.  Having farrowing crates available means we can do an intervention when warranted, or put the sow in a place where we can easily observe her or treat her if she's having some sort of issue.  It is actually more work for us to have a sow in a crate; it takes more labor, and costs us more in feed, but we do this because we want to give the piglets the best shot at weaning we can. 

Overall, with judicious use of farrowing crates, we usually wean more than 85% of the piglets born, and that really makes a difference for the bottom line, and it makes a big difference for the farmer, too.  Happy, bouncing, squealing live piglets are like having kittens every month.   A lift for the heart and fun to watch and a constant reminder of renewal and life. 

This post is prompted by farrowing discussions on two blogs.  You'll fine one entry here, and the other one here


Hostetter said...


As you stated in this post. Some sows are good mothers and some suck. With your attention to detail and interest why don't you at an exprerimental level pick out the best mothers and start breeding for this quality as well as those that seem to have strong piglets that do well in your climate. It doesn't look like your going anywhere anytime soon maybe a couple of generations down you have something more valuable than a weaned piglet?

Just a thought. Have a great holiday

Bruce King said...

I do select sows for various characteristics when I'm breeding; mostly lowline and attitude, but I haven't noticed any link between good mothers and bad. I'm working on my 3rd generation of pigs right now (it takes 2 years per generation).

I think that there are a lot of folks on the internet who over-use the term "genetics". it's a buzzword that people don't question - it must be true if it's said on the internet. But if there is a link between good mothering skills I'll probably end up with more of that because most of the pigs that survive to be bred are from good mothers -- bad mothers don't wean as many.