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.

 


Resilient Swine

December 18, 2016

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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.

 

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Pick the Best Sow Contest: Conclusion

May 4, 2016

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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.

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Sow #3’s litter of 9 piglets.

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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.

 

 

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Pick the Best Sow Contest: Update1

April 28, 2016

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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.

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Contest: Pick the Best Sow

April 25, 2016

Dave Perozzi commented on my last post about valuable pasture swine genetics and asked me to show pictures of “good” vs. “bad” sows.  You can read my reply here.  I told Dave that is a great idea for a blog post, so I came up with this idea for a contest.

Out of the four sows pictured below, pick the sow who will have the most live piglets at one week after farrowing.  I’m using one week as a stand-in for weaning because any death loss after the piglets start leaving their hut is minimal and difficult to measure.  As a tiebreaker, guess the number of piglets the winning sow will have at one week.

Contest entry will close Thursday,  April 28th at 7 am.

The winner of the contest will receive a $25 gift certificate at Kiva.  Kiva is micro finance, an idea I love that helps connect lenders to borrowers, often in developing countries which may have limited access to capital.

A description of each sow is below each photo.  The red sows will be having their fourth litter.  The white sows will be having their second litter.  I’ll talk more about each sow in my comments and in a future post.

Good luck!

 

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#1: Slightly erect-eared red sow

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#2: Drooping ear red sow

 

DSCF2349#3: Drooping ear blue-butt

DSCF2354#4: Drooping ear white sow


Valuable Pasture Swine Genetics

March 31, 2016

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This is not valuable pasture swine genetics.  This is the sow who helped me realize how valuable pasture swine genetics are.

Sows that are able to build a nest and farrow unassisted in a hut and nurse and wean a large litter are amazing.  I didn’t fully appreciate them until I brought in some new genetics via AI and farrowed the resulting offspring.

I’ve always liked the Landrace breed and have used Landrace semen in the past with good results.  Landrace are known as a maternal breed, but I also know there is tremendous variability within the breed.  Back when I was a student at Iowa State using ultrasound to evaluate thousands of hogs, some of the craziest hogs that came through my chute were Landrace.  And out of all the hogs I evaluated, I found three with loin measurements of over 9 square inches, (very muscular), and all three were Landrace gilts.

So I used semen from two different Landrace boars resulting in four litters.  The Landrace boars were from two different, but well-respected Landrace breeders.  Right away I could see a difference in the piglets. Two of the litters had the more traditional Landrace look with larger ears and deep bodies.  The other two litters looked more thin-skinned with smaller ears.

I kept sixteen gilts as breeders, roughly four per litter.  Eight are farrowing their second litter now.  I couldn’t tell much difference last summer because of the problem I was having with piglet scours.  The diarrhea was much more of a problem than sow behavior, sometimes affecting a whole litter, other times leaving a litter untouched.  Many piglets died, as I wrote last fall, but as I hoped, the disease worked though the herd and I’m seeing no evidence of it now.  Patience and experience helped me have faith, as it is always very difficult for me when my animals are not healthy.

Now with their second litter I can see a difference.  The larger-eared, deep-sided sows calmly picked a hut and made a nest and are raising nearly all of the piglets they farrowed. The leaner, thin-skinned sows were agitated before farrowing and it continued for the first few days after farrowing.

The worst sow farrowed twelve nice piglets and crushed five.  This is the sow in the photo.  Possibly she would have done better in confinement?

So I continue to learn.  I will cull the sows that do poorly, and incorporate the genetics of the good ones, joining my herd of excellent red sows and boars, which I appreciate now more than ever.

 


Fall Calving, Fall Farrowing

November 15, 2015

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100% or above calving percentage through four fall calving seasons, but it has not been without some work on my part.   I don’t want to overstate my contribution, as a good herd of cows will wean 90% without any effort from their farmer, but that last 10% usually requires some effort.  100% calving percentage means every cow has a live calf and raises it to weaning.  90% means 9 out of 10 cows wean a calf, etc.

The first two fall calving seasons I did absolutely nothing and the cows weaned 100%, but I had a feeling I was using up my luck. The most recent two have had problems, including death loss, but twins have made up for the losses.

This season started with a small calf born dead out of my oldest cow, 465, who has been in photos on my blog.  It was most likely born early, but it looked fully developed.  I’m going to sell the cow, because she doesn’t have a chance to contribute anything until next fall, and she’s eleven years old.

Had a few live calves and then one morning I checked and a cow, 612, was with two calves, but as the sun rose she started walking away from where she spent the night and calling to her calves.  They both tried to follow, but I could see she was only concerned with one of them, and that has been our experience in the past.

So I called my Dad to come with his ATV and help me get the cow into the pen by the barn.  I picked up the calf that was being abandoned and carried it in on the ATV.  With patience we were able to walk the cow and calf into the pen also.

Something didn’t look quite right, as there was a large difference in size between the two calves.  I checked the other cows and 8110 had a small new calf with her.  I conferred with my Dad and realized what had happened, something out of the ordinary, but something we had seen before.

8110 had twin calves in the night.  612 was in labor and her maternal hormones were kicking in.  She “claimed” one of the twins as her own and probably let it nurse.  She then had her own calf.  8110 walked off with one calf by the time I checked them and found 612 with one of the twins and her own, larger calf.  It also helped my diagnosis that I knew 8110 had twins the year before.  There is a genetic component to twinning.

At this point, it had been enough trouble getting 612 into the pen that I was willing to let her nurse both calves if she would let them.  The larger calf was strong enough, and 612 was calm enough, that I was able to push the calf in the right direction and he started nursing.  612 quickly began to claim both calves, so I decided she would get to nurse two calves and kept them isolated for a few weeks so that there was no chance of one of the calves being separated.

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I have nine fall litters doing very well.  The weather has cooperated for the most part.  There is no sign of the piglet scours which plagued my herd last summer.  As I hoped, I believe my herd has developed immunity to the disease.