To Breed or Not to Breed © Mandy Garbutt

“What on earth will we do with all these piglets?” After spending the night recently delivering a litter of 16 piglets this is the question I asked myself. Before you decide to breed pigs you really need to think about the end result and give it a lot of consideration and do a lot of research.

The first question you must ask is, why you want to breed? You may wish to help conserve rare breeds, take up showing or maybe you have a farm shop to supply. You have to decide if breeding is for you and if it will fit into your life. Many people rush into pig keeping by buying in-pig gilts thinking this is an easy, safe way to get into pigs and then when the harsh realities of the roller coaster world that is pig keeping hit home and they can’t shift their piglets and can’t face sending them to slaughter and can’t afford to go on feeding them and that’s when we see herds/piglets dumped on the market.

Or maybe you’ve decided you want to breed because you want to keep that nice little gilt you bought to fatten because she’s lovely and cute and you couldn’t face taking her to the abattoir and it might be nice to have a few piglets; I’d suggest you think again. She was sold as a meat pig for a reason. The breeder decided she was not good enough to breed from or show and she may not have been registered and just what will YOU do if she has 16 piglets? So please, please before you take the plunge, consider how you would cope.

Keeping stock is huge commitment and will have a dramatic effect on your day-to-day life. First of all, you will have stock to look after 365 days of the year. You will see a significant increase in your workload. Stock needs to be cleaned out regularly, wormed twice a year, fed twice a day, watered, bedded up whatever the weather and have permanent housing suitable for both summer and winter and you’ll need a plan for what happens if you become ill or injured or need to leave your herd for any length of time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow many pigs will you keep? A pig shouldn’t really be kept on its own as they are sociable, herd animals so this is another consideration you will have to take into account if you decide to breed. We have gotten around the problem in the past by keeping a couple of fatteners with the pregnant pig and timed so they go to the butcher as she is due to farrow. Even with one sow and some very careful management you will probably end up with three litters in two years, each litter will be 10-12 piglets on average so you need to consider the timing of your litters and have an idea of what you might do with all those piglets. We tend to keep three or four as porkers and try to make sure the rest are sold to good homes but it can be difficult depending on the time of year. Last year we ended up having to keep nine piglets as there was oversupply in the marketplace and we couldn’t sell them or give them away!

If you decide to breed you’ll need to find a boar for your lady pig or consider artificial insemination. Good boars are always in demand and can be difficult to source and you cannot always find a boar when you want one. So another big consideration is whether to keep your own boar or not. For a single sow it’s not really viable but if you have 2 or 3 he’ll always have company. Some breeders take in pigs to their boars on a B&B arrangement, (we offer this service), and some breeders will allow their boar to come to you. Artificial insemination can be used but we would suggest getting someone experienced to do it for you the first time. We personally have never had any luck with it and our girls seem to prefer the real thing! So take these facts into consideration for your breeding programme and plan well ahead.

The breeding cycle is approximately six months from start to finish and most breeders plan to have litters in January, July and September especially if they have a showing herd. Your pig will need to go to the boar about four months before you want piglets. A pig is pregnant for about 116 days, (3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days). A sow will then feed her litter for 7 – 8wks before they are weaned. After weaning she will come back into season and the whole cycle can start again. We generally find that a sow gives so much to her piglets that we allow her a few cycles to get back her condition before sending her back to the boar. All these things need to be factored into your breeding programme. Your calendar will become a rainbow of colours as you make your plans!

Planning is a big part of pig keeping although it’s Easter 2010 we’re already making plans for next Easter’s pork which means our sow needs to go to the boar at the end of May to have piglets in late September to allow them six months to grow into pork for Easter 2011 which is in April. The Christmas pork cycle began way back in February so you can see the importance of dates and how vital your planning is.

pigspart5-2 And then there’s the actual farrowing on top of that. You’ll have to arrange farrowing facilities with rails, a crèche and electricity for a heat lamp and lights particularly in winter. You will need to plan your life around your farrowing times; no holidays around the farrowing date and when the piglets are actually born you may need to take time off work to look after your sow for the first few days or so to let her in and out from her piglets for feeding and doing her ‘business’ and if she has a large litter you may find yourself hand feeding every couple of hours if she can’t cope with all those mouths to feed. So bear these factors in mind when deciding whether you can cope with keeping breeding stock.

When you decide to keep stock you will find your overheads increase. Breeding pigs will not make you rich. Unfortunately 8 week old pedigree piglets do not command the same kind of prices as pedigree puppies. Prices average between £40 and £75 depending on where you live. We have five stock pigs and they eat 20kg of food a day, we go through a tonne pallet about every 45 days or so. A pallet of 25kg bagged natural pig food costs about £250 (cheaper brands are available). If you manage to sell 8 weaners at £40 its only a pallet and a quarter of pig food so do the maths as you will probably not have only your stock to feed but any fatteners you decided to keep as well. You will find not only an increase in your feed bills but you will also need to take into consideration other costs including straw, water, electricity and possible vets’ bills.

As we’ve written this article it has become apparent that there are lots of things to think about and it all sounds awfully hard, time consuming, and at times expensive work. I won’t make any bones about it, it sometimes is but the sight of your first litter will bring tears to your eyes and you will feel so proud of the piglets your girl has produced and what you have achieved together. My favourite moment is when a new litter goes out into the paddock for the first time and they race and gallop about in the sunshine on new grass.

So do your research, consider as many of the outcomes and eventualities as you can, be prepared and remember that pig keeping is supposed to be enjoyable. Happy pig keeping :.) Oh, and by the way, those 16 piglets – 14 lived to be weaned and we kept 5 and managed to sell the rest. Phew!