“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.
To me this looks like the way to farrowing. Its like a little pig neighborhood with row houses. Your pig looks happy too. I bet with you farrowing in the hoop house it is somewhat like a green house and stays warmer in there than it does outside. I think the sows probably feel less aggressive than they would in farrowing crates. I remember going into a farmer friend of mine farrowing barn where he had the sows in crates and when I came in the sows were really agitated. I bet this way they wouldn’t be as agitated as much if a stranger walked in. Thanks for sharing this Mathew I don’t know if I will breed any hogs but might buy feeder pigs to butcher but could raise them in a small hoop house.
Thanks, Gordon. It is nice in there, doesn’t even smell like pigs. My hoop house cover doesn’t let light through, so its not really a greenhouse effect, you can see the snow along the edge which had yet to melt.
They can still be aggressive if you mess with their piglets. I’ve found the best thing to do to process the piglets is to remove the sows for the hour or so it takes to do the job. Safer and less stressful for everyone.
If you decide to buy feeder pigs, know that the commodity feeder pig market fluctuates wildly so if you are willing to buy at an off time you could get a real deal. They tend to be the highest in winter to early spring.
Good job! Do you ever have problems with two sows making a nest in the same hut?
Hi Bill, Its not without problems, but that one never seems to happen. I noticed the sows sleeping two to a shed until they got close to farrowing and then they naturally wanted to be alone and would choose an open shelter.
A bigger problem is the sows choosing to not use a shed in warmer weather.
I’m curious about the feeding program. I assume you limit feed the sows until they’re lactating. How do you accomplish that if you have a mix of done farrowing and still pregnant sows?
I try to farrow in groups and/or keep them separate until very close to farrowing. This last group farrowed very tight as they were artificially bred except for one the boar got which farrowed 4 weeks later.
I have the roller on the door of that one keeping them segregated, but I think I need to move her and her litter somewhere else because the month old piglets are renegades and I fear they will rob the milk from the little ones once the sow and her litter start venturing out of her hut.
Is that hoop rated for snow loads?
Not sure how much snow load it could stand. The snow does seem to melt and slide off quite well with any kind of sunshine.