Sow care during gestation, farrowing and lactation is the key to healthier piglets. When piglets have a strong start in life they are more likely to thrive, develop quickly, and wean easily. Providing optimal care for the sow will contribute to the best economic return from breeding. The three main areas of concentration should be the farrowing environment, the pre-farrowing condition of the sow, and the post farrowing nutrition and water intake. Piglets that receive adequate nutrition during the first few weeks of life will grow quickly and wean easily.
Sow Care and the Environment Pre-Farrowing
As you anticipate the arrival of piglets on the farm, begin to ready the farrowing pen. Commercial pig farms that are breeding for high pigs per sow per year will prepare and move the sow to a crate a few days prior to farrowing. If you are raising a few pigs for the family table, you may have a less confined set up for farrowing. We have run-in stalls that can be closed off with gates and used as farrowing stalls. This set up gives the sow more room to move around. Since our pigs have a free-ranging lifestyle over a large piece of wooded property, this is the most comfortable transition. The other pigs can see where the sow is but can’t access her or the piglets, for safety reasons.
The farrowing pen or stall should be cleaned thoroughly, allowed to dry and be re-bedded with clean straw during the final days of gestation. Any type of housing for pigs that you choose for your farm will work. It will keep the sow and piglets safe and dry and allow them to nurse undisturbed by other pigs or livestock.
Before leading the sow into the pen, wash her belly and teats to minimize any transfer of bacteria to the piglets. Worm the sow at two weeks prior to farrowing. As the final few days approach, bring the sow to the farrowing pen or stall. Make sure she has plenty of clean fresh water at all times. Feeding can continue as normal unless she is constipated. If that occurs, cut back on the grain ration and add 25 percent oats or two percent Epsom salt to the feed to act as a laxative.
Other Infrastructure Concerns
Even when we have missed moving our sows into farrowing pens, they have delivered in the stalls anyway. Moving them ensures that they are in a safe place, away from rain and other pigs, but they will find the best place on their own if you miss the opportunity.
In addition to the farrowing pens or stalls, you will want to be ready with pig farming equipment. Clean buckets, smaller water troughs, and a pig board to place between you and the sow are essentials.
Farrowing – When the Sow Delivers the Pigs
Keeping breeding records will help you know when farrowing is close. If you are unsure of when breeding took place, there are signs. Near her due date, the momma may become restless and get up and down often. Frequent urination and a possible discharge from the vagina may be seen. Especially in older sows, a visible milk line will develop along the lower body as the teats and mammary glands fill with milk. The milk may drip from the teats. You may notice the sow looking back at her rear end or sides.
When delivery is close, the sow will lie on her side. She may pant slightly but in most cases, they look hyper-focused and without too much discomfort. The piglets will begin to arrive from the birth canal, one after another with fifteen to thirty minutes between them being the average. In most cases, full farrowing is completed within five hours from the time labor begins and the sow lies down. Average litter size is eight to 10 piglets with the norm reaching out from that point in both directions.
Should You Intervene?
Be careful when interacting at the point of farrowing and immediately after. Some sows can be irritable or even vicious at this time. Overweight and extremely underweight sows are more likely to have difficulty farrowing. This is another reason to keep your pigs in good condition before breeding and during gestation. The pig should look filled out and have a good top line layer of fat without being obese. Visible ribs and hip bones are a sign that the pig is underfed and more at risk as a breeding sow.
Each piglet will instinctively stumble and crawl around the sow’s legs or over as it makes its way to the teats. At this point, if a piglet is having trouble releasing from the birth membranes or doesn’t attempt to get to the teats, intervening can save its life. Clearing the membranes and helping it latch on may be all the help it needs. Careful observation and calm reactions can save those at risk. A brisk rub down with a dry towel can stimulate a piglet to get moving.
Observe the momma and new piglets, making sure each has nursed and received colostrum. Receiving colostrum from the sow during the first few hours increases survival rate and passive immunity to many illness-causing pathogens.
Post Farrowing Care of the Sow and Piglets
In most cases the piglets are frisky, sleepy or eating throughout most of the day. During the first few days keeping a close eye on the pigs will give you the best outcome and survival rate. Scours, not nursing, and infections can quickly kill piglets. The care of the sow is important because she has a big job to do these first few weeks of the piglet’s life. She is feeding them concentrated, nutritious milk, making sure they stay warm, and teaching them rooting behavior. As the piglets grow and begin to forage in the open space with her, she will teach them about the electric pig fence if you are using one. If momma dies or can’t nurse the piglets, you have acquired a heaping work load in addition to your other tasks.
One thing we can take away from large commercial pig farms is the careful observation. Make sure the sow is doing well. She should be offered a drink soon after farrowing. If it’s particularly hot weather, adding an electrolyte drink such as Gatorade can be a benefit. During cold weather, offer her warm water with a cup of molasses mixed into five gallons of water. Make sure that no piglets are being rejected and not allowed to nurse. Monitor both sow and piglets for signs of infection and scours. Mastitis should be investigated and treated promptly.
Feeding the Sow Post Farrowing
In addition to plenty of water, the sow will need an increase in grain ration to produce the milk for the piglets. Free feeding is the goal within the first few days. You can work to this point gradually by feeding frequently. Watch for constipation and add laxatives if necessary. Using 25 percent oats to grain ration is the simplest remedy and readily available at feed stores.
The amount of feed needed will vary depending on litter size, breed, and amount of forage you have available. One suggested amount is six pounds of grain per day plus an additional half pound of grain for each piglet the sow is nursing. A litter of eight piglets would equal 10 pounds of grain per day for the sow. It is important to maximize her feed intake to ensure a strong lactation. I wouldn’t be surprised if our sows don’t eat more than this. Each sow will have an individual calorie level to be met.
Maintaining a healthy sow will provide your farm with healthy piglets. You then have the choice of growing some of them out for your own family use or selling the excess piglets to others. You might even want to retain a promising gilt as a future breeder.