So you want to keep pigs? Part 6

Farrowing © Mandy Garbutt

weanersOnce your gilt/sow has been to the boar or has been artificially inseminated it will be approx 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days before she gives birth. So this gives you plenty of time to make your preparations.

First of all you need to make sure you will be around near the birth date. Don’t plan any holidays for that time and I warn my place of work we have a litter due and provisionally book a couple of days off, thankfully they’re very flexible and know the dates will move around depending on how early or late our pig gives birth plus they’re as excited about the impending birth as we are!

Next decide where you’re going to farrow. Each sow/gilt needs her own area to farrow in. Many breeders farrow their pigs successfully in arks outdoors and it depends on your particular situation and necessity as to whether you follow this path. The down sides of farrowing like this is limited access to your pig, especially if you need to get in the vet , no electricity for a heat lamp in winter or lights, risk of piglets wandering off into the cold and if you have no rails there’s a chance your sow might squash her babies when she moves around.

Our personal preference has been to farrow in a converted stable (see photos) with an outdoor concreted area for exercise. We decided upon this because we felt this environment was better for both pig and keeper. From the pigs point of view it is warm and safe, there is a self filling drinker and access to the outside, a crèche for the piglets to give mum a break and rails to provide an escape route when mum is lying down. From the keepers point of view access is good with room to stand up with electricity for lights and a heat lamp plus its closer to the house for those during the night dashes!

farrowing bars The other piece of equipment we decided to invest in was a small CCTV camera which sends pictures wirelessly back to a small monitor on the stair landing windowsill (its where we get best picture reception as it overlooks the stables) The camera & monitor cost around £90 but I have to say it has more than paid for itself in the number of piglets it has saved and the time that I would have spent trekking in and out of doors waiting for a birth. We normally switch it on the day before the due date and it means we can see and hear anything happening. Of course you can’t always be there and there’s always the sow that will give birth unexpectedly and catch you out! Those of you who are more technologically gifted than us could probably set up some sort of web cam system.(Left: farrowing house)

We have not mentioned the use of farrowing crates as we have never used one. They can be useful if you have a sow who has proven difficult at prior farrowings or for a first time gilt, especially if you can’t be there for the event.

Generally a week before the first due farrowing date we move our gilt/sow into the farrowing area prior to this she has been wormed and vaccinated for Erysipelas. This gives her time to settle into her new accommodation. We have found that pigs very rarely give birth on their due date and can be anything between 4 and 7 days past their due date which can be frustrating. As your gilt/sow waits to give birth you will notice some changes in her, her belly will start to drop significantly and her teats will become more prominent. At this point we keep our farrowing kit close by, it consists of a dozen or so old towels (hand size ones are about the right size or cloth nappies, charity shops are a good source of these), a pair of sterilised scissors (for cutting umbilical cords that are too long), iodine spray (for spraying umbilical cord ends) and thin rubber gloves. We also have a scrupulously clean bucket ready in case we need hot water to wash hands prior to assisting a piglet out and an empty feed sack to put bloodied straw, afterbirth, piglets that have died in the womb or shortly after being born, used gloves etc which is then immediately burned at the end of farrrowing.

Most but not all pigs will make a nest prior to farrowing and once they start to paw straw back instead of carrying it in their mouths they’re close to giving birth. You may also be able to squeeze droplets of milk from the teats. We try to spend time just sitting with our pig before farrowing so she is used to somebody’s presence and won’t object to one of us being there during the birth. Once she lays down on her side and begins to strain we move to her rear end with our pile of towels, scissors and iodine. As the first piglet pops out we pick it up clear its mouth of goo, dry it with one of the towels, check how long its cord is, spray with iodine and then put it close to mum’s tummy so it can find its way to a teat. It’s amazing to see this little wobbly creature takes a first suckle, sometimes you may need to help a weak piglet take its first drink. All our piglets seem to be born in 15 -20 minute intervals, if there is more than 45 mins between piglets and your pig is straining and nothing is happening you make need to wash and rinse your hands well in as hot water before you insert your fingers into the vulva to see if a piglet is stuck usually trying to come out bottom first. If you do intervene we advise giving your pig an antibiotic jab afterwards just to be on the safe side in case of any infection and a painkiller if her vulva is particularly bruised & swollen. Once its all over and you have seen the afterbirth which normally looks like a lump of slimy liver in two parts come out, dry your pigs bottom gently, remove any bloody straw and birth matter, refresh if necessary with new straw and if she is suckling her babies happily you can leave her for a few hours and go and have a well earned cup of tea or something stronger!

Your pig may get up and move around during farrowing or she may just remain in a trance like state throughout, so long as she is calm and seemingly happy do not disturb her. If she is fractious or she is upset by the piglets (A first birth can be a shock and a painful experience for a gilt) and won’t let them feed you might have to put the piglets in the crèche under the heat lamp until she settles. The piglets need to have her colostrum (1st milk) in the first 6 hours after birth as after this it starts to recede, if it looks like your pig is not going to settle a jab of Stresnil from the vet to calm her down may be required and once it has taken its effect you can latch the piglets onto her to suckle. It has also been known for a pig to attack her offspring killing it and being vicious to anyone who approached her. On these occasions it is best to retreat to a safe distance until she either calms down or is too tired to fight again we suggest a jab of Stresnil if you can get close enough to administer it. It can be stressful and frightening when this happens and we have taken anxious phone calls regarding such occurrences. Generally there is a reason behind such behaviour in these particular instances the pig who attacked her litter had been sold a few days before giving birth and had a long trailer journey and was expected to give birth in new surroundings and with strangers, the pig who wouldn’t settle was far too young (9mths old) and just couldn’t cope. Its for these reasons that we believe in-pig gilts/sows shouldn’t be moved if they’re within three weeks of farrowing and gilts shouldn’t be put in pig until they’re at least 8/9mths old. Most pig’s behaviour relates to how they have been handled and managed during their life.

Sucking About four or five hours after the birth it is a good idea to get your pig outside to do her business, have a walk about and have a feed. We give our pigs a sloppy first feed of milk and pig nuts( her normal ration) and a bucket of water to drink. While shes outside the piglets generally crowd together in the straw and you may wish to clip the piglets teeth to stop them injuring mum’s teats at this point. Some people also give iron but with free range pigs we find mum gives them enough for the first week to ten days of their lives. Generally she will let you know when she wants to go back to her piglets and when she goes back in you’ll hear her grunt at them as she prepares to lie down. One of us tries to be with her at this point as we’ve found it helps to gather the piglets while she lays down again for the first time especially with a gilt, and to make sure they are all getting a feed particularly with a large litter. We try to introduce them to the crèche between feeds which at first will be every half hour graduating over the next few days to every two hours. It important to make sure your pig drinks plenty of water in order to make loads of milk and to stop constipation. If your pig hasn’t excavated her bowels within 24hrs of giving birth a good walk round the farmyard can usually do the trick though we have resorted to bran and molasses mixed in with her feed to get things moving. It’s normally at this point you think thank god you booked some time off work. Once you’re happy your pig has established a routine and is happy and settled you can leave her to get on with rearing her litter. For the first 2 or 3 days or longer if its really cold we keep the stable door closed and let our gilt/sow out at regular intervals, morning, noon, evening and night, we’ve found that doing this we can split her feeds into smaller palatable quantities as she now needs extra feed to cope with her growing family. We increase her feed very gradually until by time the piglets are 3 weeks old she should be on maximum ration. We allow 1/2lb (approx 450g) feed per piglet and then her normal ration on top of that. You will find your mum will let you know if she wants more or less food but beware if she won’t eat this can be a sign of more serious illness related to farrowing (more on complications later). At about 2 – 3 weeks old you will find the piglets start to pinch mum’s food so you can introduce them to creep feed (smaller pellets) and we find they also start to take water from the drinker.

piglets feedingOnce the piglets are feeding well and if the weathers not too bad we open the lower door of the stable and let the piglets and mum have free access to their yard. Ensure it is piglet proof as they’re escape artists exceptionalle! It’s a great when you see them racing about, after about a week we put in regular lumps of turf to build up their iron reserves and we put in some logs for them to chase about. They also like to play in the sacking we drape across the open part of the door. Piglets are incredibly inquisitive and will find mischief wherever they can!

Hopefully your pig will rear her family successfully up to weaning. At 7 weeks we take mum away from the piglets. It’s best to take mum from the piglets as this is less stressful for them, we leave the piglets together for a further week to make sure they’re all eating and drinking okay before they go off to new homes. After a few days if she’s not too out of condition your sow can be put back in with the boar so the whole cycle can begin again. We normally give our mum’s a cycle off to gain condition before going back to the boar.

As we have said before these are our experiences and we hope you will be able to take something away from them to adapt to your own set up. As ever the forum is there to help if you have any questions or comments to make. Happy Farrowing

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