By Jodi Cronauer, Patton, Pennsylvania –Springtime! The time of rebirth, awakening, and babies! For those of us raising piglets, this is a time of little ones running through the fields and nursing in the sunshine. We raise Idaho pasture pigs as well as Kunekune pigs, but most of the information we are going to talk about will apply to other pig breeds that are raised on pasture.
Raising piglets and farrowing on pasture requires that you remember a few important things. First and most importantly, sows like to be alone to farrow, so if at all possible section off a separate area where she can be alone and have adequate food, water, and shelter. We use A-frame housing for the sows to farrow in. The shape of the A-frame allows a place where the piglets can be protected when the sows lay down. We fill all of our shelters with either grass hay or straw for bedding during the cooler months, but to farrow, we recommend straw bedding because it provides additional warmth and cushion and doesn’t pack down as quickly. If using a run-in shelter area, just make sure it is big enough to allow room for the sows to comfortably move around without stepping on a piglet.
When given the appropriate housing, sows are amazing mothers and do a great job raising piglets. Our sows will sit down and lay down in stages to allow time to check where her piglets are. If farrowing in an area where the pigs are together with other sows or a boar, the concern is that they will not be as attentive to the piglets when lying down and the chances of a piglet getting laid on increases. Within a day the piglets are usually up and running around outside, playing, and learning to graze. Because we’re raising piglets on pasture, they are outside from birth they have a very good immune system and are a much heartier animal.
Pigs, unlike many other animals, are very true to their due date and we usually have our piglets born within a day of the actual due date. If you can witness the actual breeding you will have a very good idea when the piglets will be arriving. Now that’s not to say that they can’t be earlier or later, just that more often than not they arrive right at or by the due date. If only our own babies could arrive like that!Raising Piglets: Is Your Sow Ready to Farrow?
The next step in raising piglets is to get ready for the birth! So what are some signs that your sow is getting ready to farrow? First, they start to get milk pouches instead of just a big belly. A day or two before they farrow they will get a rounded area surrounding the nipple. This is referred to as a doughnut. Sometimes the doughnuts will turn a pink or an almost red color the day of delivery.
One very good sign that your piglets are on their way is that the sow starts nesting. She will carry hay, straw, grass, leaves, sticks and basically anything else she can get into her mouth into the house and make a nice protective nest for the piglets. Most of them will position the birthing area to a protected location, so the piglets have less of a chance of crawling in the wrong direction while the mom is delivering. Some sows calmly gather things, while others have a more frantic need to get it done. Either way, you can expect piglets usually within 24 hours. Not all of the sows “nest” the same, but if you are paying close attention you will usually see some signs. Again, all of our experience deals with the Idaho Pasture Pigs and the Kunekune pigs, but a lot of this information also applies to the other breeds of Pasture Pigs as well.
When your sow actually goes into labor it is a good idea to keep an eye on her, especially if she is a gilt and this is her first litter. Our pigs usually go into a birthing trance once labor starts and they just lay there and deliver piglets. This is a nice time to check each piglet to make sure they are breathing well and see how their overall health looks. You do not want to disturb your sow, so be limited in the handling of the piglets until you know how your sow is going to react. If your sow gets upset, she will stand up to check on her piglets and the chances of a newborn getting hurt because she either steps on it or lays back down on it in her need to push another piglet out, is very high.
As they arrive, the piglets will instinctively know where to go and will start looking for a teat almost immediately. You can pinch off the end of the umbilical cord and dunk it in iodine, but if you have a clean, dry area to farrow in, the umbilical cord will break off and dry up in a couple days without any complications. As the piglets emerge, you will notice a thin sac covering them. Go ahead and pull that off or wipe them down with a towel to remove it. Make sure to remove it from their nose and mouth so that they can breathe easier. If you notice a piglet having a difficult time breathing or that it has a “watery” sound to its breathing, you may want to gently run your finger into its mouth to make sure none of the sac covering has gotten inside and is causing the problem. It is always a good idea to have your veterinarian’s phone number handy in case of an emergency.
Pigs have two horns in their uterus, so it is possible for a portion of the placenta to arrive and have more piglets born. As long as the sow passes the entire placenta at the end of delivery, everything will be fine. Some people get nervous when they see a portion of the placenta and start to worry that something is wrong. This is usually not the case and more often we see her pass some of her placenta before she is done delivering, instead of having all of the piglets out and then passing the placenta like we would expect.
If you do see signs of complication such as prolonged pushing without a piglet arriving, there is a possibility that a piglet is stuck in the birth canal. If this does happen, the piglet may have to be pulled out to prevent the death of the mother as well as the other piglets still inside waiting to be born. If you are not a seasoned farmer and have not done many pig births, I would recommend calling your veterinarian. Most often, the birth will go fine and the piglets will arrive without any complications. One thing you can do to prevent complications prior to birth is to make sure you are not overfeeding your sow. If she is overweight it will greatly increase her chances of having complications during delivery. You can end up with piglets that have grown too big to fit easily through the birth canal as well as have a smaller birth canal due to excess fat deposits.
After the Birth Day
After the piglets have arrived your sow may not get up and move around much for the next day. That’s okay! As long as the piglets are nursing well, she has passed her placenta and doesn’t show any signs of distress, let her relax and recover — she just delivered a whole litter of piglets! Whether you see the piglets as they are being born or a couple hours later, it is a good idea to watch and make sure that all of them are latching on and nursing well. If your piglets are born on the ground (with a bunch of straw as bedding) they will automatically nose at the dirt and get iron from it. If you are farrowing in stalls inside a barn then it is always a good idea to get a shovel full of dirt to put in with the piglets. We do not give iron shots to our pigs because we have found that simply providing them with the necessary natural substances, such as dirt, gives them the necessary iron their bodies require. Likewise, we do not vaccinate our pigs. Again, one of the greatest benefits to raising piglets and raising pigs on pasture is that they build up a wonderful natural immunity. In the same aspect, we do not clip teeth or notch ears.
What to Feed Piglets
Our pigs are truly pasture pigs and eat mainly grass and hay, but we do supplement with some pig feed to make sure our pigs are getting the necessary vitamins and minerals that our ground is missing. One thing to remember is that your sow is now feeding a whole litter of piglets and whether that is five piglets or 15 piglets, it is still an added stress to her body and she is going to require extra food.
What can pigs eat after they give birth to a litter of piglets? A lot of people are under the assumption that because she just had babies that she immediately needs extra food. The problem that then arises is that the piglets can get the scours (diarrhea). Scours is one of the most common causes of death in piglets. We recommend not increasing the feed for three days, so that she does not produce excess milk and thereby decreasing the chances of scours. When you do increase her feed, make sure to do it based on how many piglets she is actually feeding. Again, there is a big difference in five to 15 piglets. So make sure you are not overfeeding her. If there is ample grass, she will definitely graze more and you can also supplement with additional hay (grass, clover, or alfalfa hay is the best).
The noted gestation period of pigs is 114 days. In our experience of raising piglets, we have found that our pigs’ normal gestation is 116 days. If you live in warmer climates, then the need to plan your breeding according to the weather is decreased. Those of us who live in climates where we have a lot of snow and cold weather during the winter months have to be more cautious of when our piglets will be arriving. We personally like to have the bulk of our piglets between April 1 and November 1. This usually allows us to have two litters of piglets per sow each year and also allows our sows a period of time each year when they are not pregnant or lactating. We wean our piglets between 4 to 8 weeks old, based on how well they are eating on their own and their overall health. When we wean our piglets, we move the sow to a new pen and leave the piglets in their original pen. This gives them a safe place where they are familiar with everything.
The benefits of raising piglets on pasture are both healthier and heartier pigs. The other benefit is that they have plenty of room and are cleaner pigs overall. The meat itself is higher in Omega 3 fatty acids, is a juicier meat, and also has a sweeter taste than traditional pork. The meat is also a lot darker. If beautiful green pastures full of happy, healthy pigs makes you smile and delicious plus nutritious pork makes your mouth water, then pasture pigs may be in your future!