What kind of piglet care should you be prepared for when raising pigs? Fortunately, the sow normally does all of the hard work for you. There are a few piglet care procedures that many farmers use when raising pigs. There is also the low possibility that the sow would not be able to take care of the piglets right away or leave them orphaned. Being ready to step in at the appropriate time could be the key to saving the piglets lives. Occasionally, there is the sad fact that the piglets are not going to make it no matter what we do as caretakers. All of these scenarios can occur when raising pigs.
Basic Sow and Piglet Care
Starting with the normal course of events, a sow is mated with the boar. Three months, three weeks and three days later, give or take, the small but hardy piglets arrive on the homestead. You should be warned that this is the cutest of all the farm animals right from the start. I really enjoy watching the piglets grow. Prior to the expected farrowing date of 116 days from breeding, prepare the farrowing area, stall, or run-in shed. Plenty of straw and wood chip bedding should be placed on the ground. Not only is clean bedding more hygienic, the thick bedding will insulate the piglets from the chilly ground. Farrowing pigs will appreciate a soft clean bed to farrow the litter. Piglets stand soon after birth and find their way to a teat while the rest of the piglets are born. This process doesn’t usually take too long. We have missed it by small amounts of time, returning to find the happy family nursing and content. The strongest, first born, piglets often choose a teat close to the front of the sow. The first few hours of life are a good time to do a quick inspection of the litter. The farrowing sow is often tired and easily distracted by a bucket of molasses water and a pan of pig food. Keep the pig board with you, in case she feels the need to protect the piglets.
Checking on the Piglets After Birth
The first order of piglet care is to simply assess the litter for size and general health. Check the umbilical cord and trim if it is over four inches. It shouldn’t be dragging on the ground. Trim and swab or dip in iodine. The umbilical cord will dry up and fall off in a few days.
Make sure that all the piglets are nursing and getting some colostrum. If any piglet is struggling, or too weak to nurse, you can squeeze out some milk from a teat and try to feed with a syringe. Unfortunately, there are often one or two weak piglets in a litter and despite our efforts, not all of the weak piglets survive.
In most cases, if you lose piglets, it will be in the first few days. Piglets are easily chilled, stepped on by the sow, and pushed away from the pig pile by the others. A creep area, under a heat lamp, is a space where the piglets can get away from the sow, stay warm and not get stepped on. Take extra care that the heat lamp will not ignite any hay or straw in the building. Piglets need to have warmth of around 90º F, gradually decreased over the next couple of weeks. Some of the heat will be provided by the litter mates when they all snuggle together.
The main causes of piglet death before weaning are being stepped on, laid on, or starvation. In some cases with underdeveloped piglets, they just aren’t strong enough to suckle. They can’t eat enough to thrive. Even attempted syringe feeding, tube feeding or other means of support are not always successful. In any litter, there is the probability of a runt piglet or two.
Iron deficient anemia is a concern in piglet care. The sow’s milk is a complete food for the piglets except for it lacks iron. Iron can be administered by injection in the first day or two. Another school of thought is that piglets get iron from rooting in the dirt. If the piglets are not kept on a concrete floor and have access to the earth, this may be all the iron they need. Piglets begin rooting early. It is not uncommon to see two-day-old piglets imitating the sow while she roots.
Other Piglet Care Tasks to Consider
Clipping the sharp wolf teeth or needle teeth is a task that some farmers carry out on the second or third day of life. The baby teeth are razor sharp and can tear the teat or cut another piglet while playing. This was something we did for the first couple of litters farrowed here. Since then, we have not clipped teeth. No injuries have occurred. The procedure is just as it is named. The sharp ends of the teeth are clipped off. Piglets protest loudly but it is more of an outrage at being away from the litter than of pain.
Tail docking and ear tagging or notching are other piglet care tasks that some farms choose to use. These are best left for days two or three of life after the piglets have had plenty to eat and are warm. All of the handling is stressful, although in many cases it needs to be done. Choosing the best time for the tasks is good management.
Castration of the male piglets is done between four days and two weeks. There are various methods used to castrate the piglets. If possible, observe an experienced pig farmer take care of the job. Leaving the males uncastrated can lead to unwanted mating and litters. Some people object to the odor of intact boars at butchering. This is referred to as boar odor or taint.
Often, routine care recommendations are based on large confined housing situations where the animals have little room to get away from an aggressive sow or litter mate. I am only guessing here, but since we pasture raise our pigs, they have plenty of freedom to wander away or run from an unpleasant litter mate. The sow will let a piglet know if it is being too rough or if she just doesn’t want them to nurse right now. The piglet will often reply with an outraged squeal but I have not seen any blood spilled over it. Tail docking is a routine task but one we have not found necessary on the farm. Tails can be caught by other piglets and bitten off, but I would again guess that this occurs in more confined housing situations.
Caring for Orphan or Disadvantaged Piglets
If circumstances leave you with a litter of orphaned piglets or you feel that the weaker, less developed piglets have a chance at survival you can try to completely care for them. This will lead to intensive care for the next couple of weeks. All of their needs will be provided by you when raising piglets. Warmth, food, and safety will all be your responsibility.
Starting from the beginning, try to get colostrum from the sow if possible. You can also use goat colostrum if you can buy that. Warm the milk to body temperature. You may need to force the bottle or syringe into the piglet’s mouth until it realizes that you are providing food. They do catch on quickly. It can be hard to hold the piglet still while feeding. Using an old towel or blanket to wrap the piglet can help hold them still while they eat.
The feedings need to be frequent during the first few days. It may need to be as often as every thirty minutes to an hour during the day. Some farmers report that they can go a few hours at night if the piglets are fed frequently during the day. As the piglets grow and eat, the length of time between feedings can be extended. As the piglets near three weeks, they may be eating a bit of pig food every day too.
If they were still with the sow, they would be trying to sneak bites of her food. The closer they get to weaning, the more you should notice them eating the pig food and drinking water. Most pig breeds are ready to wean after a month. You can continue to feed the orphan piglets, but often the sow would be starting to chase them off as they attempted to suckle.
Raising piglets will add a whole new dimension to your farm life. Sometimes you may also be able to save the life of an orphan or struggling piglet. Have you raised piglets? What piglet care tips would you add?
Originally published in 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.