Farrowing Sows Need More Space

March 14, 2017

 

“I don’t know how you do it.  We tried that years ago and it was terrible.  The sows laid on most of their piglets.  We’d have sows wean two, three piglets.  We didn’t do that long.  That’s when we got into beef cattle,” said the old farmer I was visiting with at a free lunch at the Bobcat dealership.

“We farrowed in A-frame huts.  We made bumpers to keep the piglets away from the sow.  We even had a corner where we hung a heat lamp.  Nothing seemed to work.”

 

The sows in these photos average 11 piglets each.  After hearing other farmers’ horror stories about not using confinement to farrow, I figured if I could average 7 piglets per sow I would be happy.  It turns out that switching from confinement to farrowing huts has not come with any drop in production as my sows consistently average 9 piglets weaned.  I have been pleasantly surprised and attribute this success to a few factors.

The one factor I think farmers think of first is the genetics of the sow.  Even though I studied genetics in college, I think this factor is overrated.  My Duroc sows, while not farrowing as many piglets as my Landrace, still wean a good average.

I think it is possible to find a line that doesn’t work well outside of confinement, as mainstream genetics are not being tested for farrowing success outside of confinement.  Consequently, I look at genetics as more of a pass/fail type of trait.

By far the bigger factor in my mind is giving the sows enough space, and getting out of their way.  This is difficult for farmers, because we have a craving to control and a strong work ethic.  Its taken me awhile to understand this, but I’ll explain my thinking.

First, I remember my Dad’s stories and my personal experience as a kid.  Dad built A-frame huts and farrowed in them with little success.  Dad transitioned to all farrowing crates in a heated former dairy barn.  He would have to move the sows from their gestating pen/pasture to a farrowing crate before they farrowed.

Being busy, sometimes Dad would miss a sow and she would build a nest and farrow in the pasture.  Remarkably, these sows would consistently raise large litters on pasture with no shelter.  We always attributed the success to the quality of the sow.

I had an inkling that space could be a factor, so I purchased the English style farrowing hut, which is the largest I could find.  They are 9 ft. by 5.5 ft, whereas the basic farrowing hut is 7 ft. by 4.5 ft.

I didn’t plan to use a heat lamp or bumpers to try and keep the piglets away from the sow and I’m glad I didn’t.  As these “solutions” would just confine the sow more, and common sense tells you newborn piglets want to be as close to their mom as possible.

The final thing I do is allow the sow to build her own nest.  Apart from making sure the bottom of the dirt hut is dry with a little bedding to absorb moisture, I place loose straw or hay outside the huts and watch as the sow carries mouthful after mouthful until she has determined the nest is ready.

Sometimes it appears to me the sow has carried in too much bedding.  The sow in these two photos built her nest and started farrowing sometime between 4 pm and 7 am.  I found her with new piglets this morning as the thermometer read 11 degrees F.  I actually had to remove a little bedding so I could fit the roller on the door of the hut.

 


Farm Dogs: Rottweiller

January 10, 2017

We’ve had a lot of dogs on the farm.  Thinking about the Rottweillers.  I guess we had only two.

The first one had kind of a weird looking head.  Gus was his name.  He had seizures so we had to put him down.  I think Dad got what was considered a good buy, but of course it didn’t turn out to be.

The second, Hans, is the one everyone remembers because he got so big.  Well over a hundred pounds.  He was a pretty good dog.  He showed some aptitude for livestock herding, but was generally too rough.

I remember one time loading hogs with Dad.  Hans bit into the rear of a hog and a chunk of quivering ham fell out onto the ground.  We stopped having him help us load after that.

Another time we were checking cows with new calves out in the pasture in the spring of the year.  The dogs liked to run along with the jeep or ATV and most of the time the dogs were very aware of the momma cows as they are protective of their newborn calves and will charge dogs or anything else that looks threatening.  Hans never paid any attention to the cows.  He just trotted along like the top predator he was.  He must have gotten too close and one of the cows decided to chase him away and started towards him.  Hans didn’t appear to notice her until the last instant when he turned and ferociously bit her on the nose.  That’s all it took for the cow to hightail it away from him.

When we ran the calves through the corral for vaccinating and castrating, we always locked the dogs up because its already stressful for cattle to be corralled and seeing dogs just makes it worse.  But dogs, at least every dog I’ve ever been around, always know what is going on in their surroundings, and when we let Hans out of the basement, he ran straight down the hill to the corral.  We forgot about him until a couple of hours later when we saw him waddling up the hill, his belly visibly distended, filled with all the testicles of the calves we had castrated that day.

Hans was never trained as a guard dog, but he had some natural instincts.  The dogs slept in a non heated porch in the warm months of the year.  My parents would latch the screen door shut last thing at night.  One morning when my Dad went out to do chores, he found the screen door broke open.  He was kind of upset until he went to open up the driveway gates and found a golf club lying in the driveway.  Someone, we never found out who, so it may have been someone with bad intent, was down our half mile dead end road opening up the gates into our yard at night. Hans sensed trouble and met them at the gate.  They didn’t get the gates open, and they never came back for the golf club.


Resilient Swine

December 18, 2016

dscf2453

 

December 18th, 2016, 4 pm.  3 degrees below zero Farenheit, 17 degrees below zero windchill.  8 week old piglets with their mothers.

Pigs are resilient.  I continue to be amazed at just how resilient.  My background and education in the commodity swine industry tells me these piglets should just die in this environment, but I’ve always tried to be one who observes what is actually happening, rather than closing my eyes and “knowing” what should be happening.

I have a hoop building cleaned and bedded with feed in the feeder.  I’ve been trying to let the piglets self-wean for a few days, and even though they are going in the hoop building to eat feed, they prefer to spend their resting time with their mothers.  I guess I’ll corral them one of these days to finish the weaning process.

 

dscf2458


Weeds

September 7, 2016

dscf2396

 

I’ve learned some psychological coping tricks to deal with weeds.  I learned which are edible and take great pleasure in eating them.  Some I appreciate for the wildlife they support.  Some are eaten by my animals.  And some provide a service of conserving soil by opportunistically covering bare soil.  So I’ve had a laissez-faire attitude toward weeds, but that is changing.

My Dad had an uncle who claimed that velvetleaf, Abutilon theophrasti, seeds could survive in the soil for thirty years, because he hadn’t let a velvetleaf plant produce seed the entire time he had been farming, but he still had velvetleaf weeds in his fields.  So I figured what is the point?  But I’ve let some weeds go to seed and watched the results and am not happy with what I am seeing.

Below is a photo of dozens of small burdock plants in a pig pasture. I had let some large burdock plants go to seed the prior year and the rooting of the pigs provided a perfect environment for the seeds to germinate. Above is a photo of a dandelion and its long taproot, showing you how tenacious some weeds can be.  Weed control is a concern and is moving up on my list of priorities.

 

dscf2411


Grazing Hay Fields with Cattle

July 11, 2016

 

 

DSCF2424

I’ve always made dry hay for my cattle and swine for winter feed.  I make big, round bales when it seems the weather will cooperate.  In this part of the country though, when it’s “hay-makin’ weather,” as the old-timers would say, it’s past the best quality point of the hay.

Based on the maturity of the grass, late May to early June would be the best time to make hay.  But we seem to get rains every few days until late June or July when the hay would be way over mature.  One solution many farmers in this area use is to make haylage or balage, the former is silage made from hay, and the latter is hay baled wet and wrapped in plastic.  I’ve never wanted to deal with all the plastic and also prefer to not transport and move and feed all that extra water.  But, I’ve struggled in the past, getting hay rained on, making hay that is too wet and having it ruined, making hay when it’s too mature, etc.

Last year I made a lot of hay that was too mature.  My cattle are used to eating very high quality forage in the grazing months and they don’t want to eat this hay very well.  You can see on the right of the photo below all the hay I have left over which I will largely use for hog and cattle bedding in the winter months.

Not wanting to repeat this mistake, I started brainstorming solutions.  One possible solution that Joel Salatin uses is to graze his hay fields until he’s ready to make hay, thereby keeping the quality high.  Since all my fields have a good perimeter fence, and it would just take some electric fencing to subdivide the fields so I could rotationally graze, I thought this would be a good idea to try.

 

 

 

DSCF2397

 

My cattle were tired of eating hay and they were eating the permanent pasture and woods down to nothing, so I decided to turn them into the first hay field April 14th.  It seemed too early and I feared I would damage the forages in the field.  But one strategy I planned to use was to only leave them on the forage for a week or less.  Keeping animals on a forage for a week or less should prevent overgrazing.

Overgrazing occurs when a plant’s regrowth is bitten off, because a plant is the weakest when it has used its root reserves.  A plant is using its root reserves to regrow when there is no green or very little showing, because when it can, a plant will use photosynthesis to meet its energy requirements to grow.
DSCF2445

Well the experiment worked very well as far as the cattle were concerned.  They had plenty to eat.  And the forage wasn’t damaged at all as far as I could tell.  But it regrew so well, and the grass is so intent to go to seed, that it was tall and mature by the time I came back with the cattle to graze a second time on June 7th.  It had been rested since April 21st, so that is nearly a 7 week rest.

Maybe too long, as the top and bottom photo show the cattle back in that hay field.  In the bottom photo you can see the neighbor’s alfalfa field in the background which he harvested for haylage twice as I grazed twice.  The calf in the bottom photo is a fall calf which probably weighs around 500 lbs to give you a reference.  The heifer in the foreground of the top photo is 20 months old weighing over 1000 lbs.

The good news is even though you can see all that tall orchard grass headed out and mature, the grass and alfalfa and clover down lower was mostly new regrowth and higher quality which the cattle enjoyed grazing.  The other concern for me would be potential eye problems with the cattle reaching through that tall grass to graze.  But there have been no problems.

The second and third photos in this post show another hay field from the same vantage point.  The second photo is May 16th with the cattle grazing.  The third photo is after I cut the field for hay on June 27th.  It was rested from May 20th to June 27th, a little over five week rest.

Even though there was quite a bit of tall orchard grass which is what makes the hay look so light in color, there was fresher regrowth down low.  I baled it up and have fed one bale to the cattle.  They are munching on it, so I’m thinking I may have made better quality hay than last year, even though I made it later by the calendar.

One benefit is it was very easy to make dry hay as the weather and ground had dried out quite a bit compared to a month earlier.  I plan to give it another five week rest and then take a second cutting which should be very high quality.

DSCF2416


Pick the Best Sow Contest: Conclusion

May 4, 2016

DSCF2373

 

This is the conclusion of a contest to pick the best of four sows.  The best defined as the sow with the most live piglets at one week of age.  The previous two posts give you more background in case you missed them.

Previously I wrote that sow #3 had 13 live piglets and sow #1 had 10 live piglets.  At a week of age, sow #3 still had 13 piglets and sow #1 lost one and had 9 piglets.

Since then, Sow #2 farrowed 11 piglets of which she has 9 left.  The third photo is of her red piglets.

Sow #4 farrowed 17 beautiful, live, piglets, top photo.  At 24 hours, she still had 15 live piglets and I was counting chickens and thinking about setting a new farm record and awarding the prize to Valerie who guessed sow #4 with 13 piglets.  Sow #4 was also my guess so I was feeling a little smug.

But as is so often the case in farming, my celebration was short-lived.  It rained all day and in another 24 hours, 13 of sow #4’s piglets had died from diarrhea.  The next photo shows two live piglets and one dead.

DSCF2384

 

Sow #3’s litter of 9 piglets.

DSCF2376

 

The two remaining piglets of sow #4 are doing fine.  She has joined her litter with the other white sow #3’s litter.  The photo below is of those 15 piglets.

The red sows are choosing to keep their piglets segregated as of now.  Probably the longer they can stay apart from the herd, more of their piglets will live as some may be crushed or starve if competition is too great.

I really appreciate the pasture mothering ability of the red sows.  The white sows are more unpredictable, but I like the extra numbers they produce, so I’ll probably keep some daughters and incorporate their genetics into my herd.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the contest.  Congratulations to Gordon who picked sow #3 with 12 piglets.  Gordon is a new farmer in Iowa.  Edmund came in a close second, picking sow #3 with 11 piglets.

I decided to give a $25 Kiva gift card to each of them.  Let me know guys if you don’t receive an email from Kiva or have trouble redeeming your card.

 

 

DSCF2394


Pick the Best Sow Contest: Update1

April 28, 2016

DSCF2360

 

Two sows have farrowed and contest entry is closed.  Remember, the contest is which sow has the most piglets alive after one week.  So here is the update:

Sow #3 farrowed 4/27, 17 piglets, 13 alive after 24 hours.

Sow #1 farrowed 4/27, 11 piglets, 10 alive after 24 hours.

Guesses:

Dave Perozzi, #1-14 piglets

Cathylee, #2-11 piglets

Ellie K, #2-9 piglets

Gordon Milligan, #3-12 piglets

Edmund, #3-11 piglets

Valerie, #4-13 piglets

My guess is Valerie will win, but all the guesses are reasonable.  I really like my red sows, #1 is my favorite phenotypically, (how she looks), but it is hard to bet against the white sows because they are half Landrace and the Landrace breed is know to crank out the piglets.

Both of these sows are good mothers and made nests, the #3 sow worked all morning carrying hay to make her nest.  Its cold here today, in the 40s F, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

DSCF2362