Winter/Spring Farrowing 2014

February 21, 2014

Farrowing Huts in Hoop Barn

This is my newest farrowing setup.  Last winter/spring when I had all that trouble in March with snow and cold, I decided I would try putting the farrowing huts inside a hoop barn.  You can see by the ice on the bottom of the closest hut that it’s still cold in there, but I shouldn’t have as much of a  moisture problem as I did outside in the snow and cold.

Since I stopped farrowing in my parents’ heated barn in 2011, I’ve tried four different ways of farrowing:

The warm, dry months of July, August , and September are ideal for farrowing outside.  I’m convinced that if sows had plenty of space and material to build their own nests, no predator problems, and feed and water, a farmer could do absolutely nothing and would average over 8 piglets weaned per litter during this perfect time.

Farrowing in huts on frozen ground with snow and ice surrounding is what I tried last winter/spring.  I managed to wean 7 piglets per litter,  but it took tons of bedding and manual work and was stressful.

Farrowing in huts in the warmer months is easier than when it’s cold.  I probably sleep the best with this method as I know if a sow and her litter is in a hut with a roller on the door to keep the piglets in, they are safe from predators and the elements.

Finally, farrowing in a hoop barn with homemade pens is the first method I tried in January of 2012.  This worked surprisingly well except for a couple of litters born when the temperature dipped to zero F.  I made temporary pens out of wire hog panels, giving the sows plenty of space, removing the panels when the piglets were a couple of weeks old.  It was quite a bit of work, letting the sows out of their pens for feed and water twice a day, but it was a nice environment for the pigs and the farmer.

So putting huts inside a hoop barn is my fifth iteration.  I plan to use this system only until mid-spring, then I will go to huts outside.  As always, I plan to keep statistics and share the results by the end of the year.


Goodbye to Cow 521

November 26, 2012

We pregnancy-checked my parents’ spring-calving cows a few weeks ago.  Cow 521 came up open.  I have always liked this cow and I posted a picture of her a couple of years ago, shown below.

I am tempted to add her to my fall-calving herd which is in the midst of breeding season now, but instead I chose to buy cow 447, which the vet said he thought may be pregnant, but only a month along.  447 is a better bet than 521 because it’s unknown why 521 is open.  She may have reproductive problems which render her infertile.

Still, it’s sad to see her go.


Artificial Insemination of Swine II

November 12, 2010

I wrote about how we use Artificial Insemination to bring new genetics into our swineherd in one of my very first posts, “Artificial Insemination of Swine.” Click on the link if you want to read about our AI protocol.

I didn’t use any pictures in the beginning, because I didn’t have access to a camera.  My sister bought us a digital camera, and I’ve loved it.  So easy. When we AI’d some sows in October, I snapped a few photos.


Breeding Season II: Problems

August 10, 2010

My early July post, “Breeding Season Starts”, was full of optimism.  We started breeding season with five, virile bulls, breeding 131 beautiful cows.  We now have one, extremely popular bull, with 131 cows.

The bull in the bottom of the picture above, “New Chapter”, fought with the other bulls instead of breeding the cows.  We took him to market after he hurt the other five-year-old bull, “New York.”  “New York” is refusing to rejoin the herd and is recovering his confidence in the back pasture.  “Red Direction” and “Judge” are lame and limping along with the herd.

But “Julius”, “Julius” is thriving!  Look at him in action!

Even though he’s busy, he still makes each cow feel special after he puts a kink in her tail.

We’ve kicked around some options to make sure the cows get bred.  We could take the yearling bulls out of the heifer pasture and put them with the cows.  We could buy bulls, but we may not find quality bulls on short notice.

We’ve decided to watch and wait.  We aren’t seeing many cows “in heat” now.  We think the bulls settled many of the cows during the first heat cycle.  A cow’s cycle is 21 days.  We are nearing the end of the 2nd heat cycle, so a decision needs to be made because the 3rd cycle is their last chance to get bred.  All cows that don’t breed are butchered.

We won’t know for sure what percentage of the cows are bred until November when a veterinarian pregnancy checks them.  I’ll let you know how we did, then.



Breeding Season Starts

July 6, 2010

Our cowherd at the end of June.  We turned the bulls in with the cows on July 1st.  This means they are due to start calving about April 8th.  This is early enough for us as we remember early April snowstorms.

Cows have a tremendous ability to fluctuate their weight based mainly upon environmental conditions.  Low-cost managers time the peak nutritional requirements of the cow with the time of peak nutrition in the environment.  Put simply, calve in late spring.

May and June pastures in the driftless region are tremendous.  Our cows gain at least 100 lbs. from calving in April and May until breeding in July.

The picture below shows a cow in excellent condition in the foreground.  The background shows two cows engaged in homoerotic behavior.  This is common for cows when they are ‘in heat’.

This is a good sign, because it shows the cow is ovulating.  It takes good genetics and good management to keep cows on a yearly reproductive schedule. They need to calve, lactate, and have their reproductive tract return to normal so they can start cycling again.

Our breeding season last year was six weeks for the heifers and nine weeks for the cows.  We only had two cows calve in the last week of calving, so I’m thinking of shortening our breeding season to eight weeks.

Ian Mitchell-Innes is a South African rancher I heard speak at a Mob Grazing seminar.  He claims to have a 30 day breeding season.  I wonder how short of a breeding season we could have.


How We Decide: Listen To Your Gut!

February 9, 2010

As I struggled with my personal life last fall, our farm struggled.  We have only four new litters of pigs when we normally would have twenty.  The reason?  I failed to listen to my gut!

I’m reading an excellent book by Jonah Lehrer titled, “How We Decide.”  It’s about what’s going on in our heads when we make a decision.  In the second chapter, Jonah talks about how experts typically make a decision.

“Although we tend to think of experts as being weighed down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast amount of explicit knowledge, experts are actually profoundly intuitive.  When an expert evaluates a situation, he doesn’t systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information.  He doesn’t rely on elaborate spreadsheets or long lists of pros and cons.  Instead, the expert naturally depends on the emotions generated by his dopamine neurons.  His prediction errors have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows him to tap into a set of accurate feelings he can’t begin to explain.”

I used three littermate boars for breeding this past fall and they failed to successfully conceive a single litter.  I had a bad feeling about these boars from their birth, probably before their birth.  But I failed to listen to my intuition.

These boars were sired by artificial insemination, (AI), using semen from a boar housed in Iowa at a company called Swine Genetics International, (SGI).  I like SGI and have had a lot of good luck working with them.  We have had a closed swine herd for fifteen years.  This means we haven’t brought any new swine onto the farm.  We introduce new genetics using artificial insemination.  I joke that the only swine we buy is delivered by UPS.

SGI helpfully separates their boars by breed, and further separates by type and expected function.  For example, boars may be classified as maternal, meaning they will sire excellent mothers, or terminal, meaning they will sire excellent market hogs.  They also have high marbling lines, high growth, high lean, and other types.

The type that gets us in trouble is the Showpig line.  These boars are always very attractive to look at, but usually end up disappointing us in the end.

The sire of our three boars which couldn’t breed was a Yorkshire from the Showpig line and his name is “Be Bold.”  That is a fitting name, because we were, even though we knew better.  But look at his video, isn’t he awesome?  Can you see why we were tempted?

The three boars we kept out of him looked awesome as well.  Dad even said they were the best-looking boars we’ve ever had on the farm.  So we turned them in with the gilts and proceeded to work on corn harvest and didn’t pay much attention to them other than at morning feeding or a casual glance walking by their pen.

The problem was they couldn’t extend their penis out of the sheath.  Boars have a long, pink, corkscrew-shaped penis.   Here is a link to a diagram of a boar’s penis.

 They would mount the right end and get all tight in there and get that orgasmic look in their eyes. But their penis was not going into the gilt.  They ejaculated inside the sheath.  That’s why I even saw the cervical jelly the boars produce which is usually a sure sign something is getting bred.

Now I probably could have pulled the penis out of the sheath and helped them get started breeding.  Some farmers would do that.  But by the time I figured out the problem, I was so frustrated I was looking forward to letting Johnsonville make bratwurst out of them.  And I had other boars which had grown large enough to breed.   

This isn’t the first time we’ve been disappointed.  In fact, it happens so often, I’ve been toying with an idea that would be a safeguard.  The problem is this idea also slows genetic progress. 

Here’s the idea.  Only keep gilts out of AI litters, no boars.  You see, on our farm, a boar can produce 200 offspring in a year while a gilt can only produce 20.  If I end up liking the gilt, then I can keep gilts or boars out of her later.  That way I  introduce the new genetics into my herd, but at a slower, safer rate.

I’ve already implemented this idea in some fashion.  If a gilt or sow has a litter and is a poor mother, or there is a genetic defect in the litter, or any other reason for not liking the litter, I don’t ear notch the piglets in the litter.  That way, five months later, when I am selecting replacement gilts, I’m not tempted to choose a gilt from that litter. 

I keep detailed records and write down any problems that may have occurred.  But I have been known to justify keeping a gilt from a problem litter because she looked so good.  If she is not ear notched however, I have no records on her, and the cautious curiousfarmer of five months ago, trumps the reckless curiousfarmer of today.


Pregnancy-Checking Cows

November 14, 2009

IMG_7478

 

Sixty-seven cows waiting in the corral.

We pregnancy checked our cows last Tuesday and Wednesday.  The vet. checked 129 cows.  10 cows were not bred, which is “open” in farm-speak.  That makes 8% open or 92% bred in a 60 day breeding season.  I was hoping for less than 10%, so I’m happy.

Five cows were not checked because we are taking them to market because of old age.  All 134 cows were in one herd with five bulls.  This is the 2nd year of mob-grazing and the results are better than last year.


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