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



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.

Spring is Here!

April 10, 2009

Spring is here!  Baby calves, baby piglets, planting oats, and 70 hour workweeks.  Spring is the perfect thing to follow long winter hibernation.  I feel I am a part of nature, not apart from nature.  Do you have seasons in your life?

My niece’s third grade class is planning on hatching chicken eggs and they asked me to furnish fertile eggs.   I have been providing fertile hatching eggs to one class or another for several years.  So far, everyone has had success incubating and hatching baby chicks from my chickens’ fertile eggs.  I’ll explain my protocol. 

One rooster is recommended for every ten hens.  House the roosters with the hens for at least two weeks prior to saving eggs.  Save eggs for five days or less prior to incubation.  Only select clean, well formed, normal eggs.  I put fresh straw in all of the nesting boxes to ensure cleanliness.   Store the eggs in egg cartons at 60 F.  Elevate one end of the egg carton and switch ends twice a day.  This prevents the contents of the egg from sticking inside the shell.  Place all the eggs in an incubator and follow the directions. 

Embryos will not start to develop until placed in an incubator or a hen begins to sit on them.  This is how a chicken can lay eggs over several days and still have all the chicks hatch at the same time.

The natural option is to allow a broody hen to sit on eggs.  A broody hen is one that wants to sit on a nest of eggs.  Most modern chickens have the broodiness bred out of them as they stop laying eggs once they become broody.  I still have some hens that exhibit broodiness and will allow some to sit on a nest and raise their own chicks. 

Everyone is excited when the chicks begin to pip through their shells.  Sometimes a chick is not strong enough to break out of its shell and will die.  An environment that was perfect for development becomes a confining prison resulting in death. 

Spring is here!  Pip, pip, away!

Artificial Inseminaton of Swine

January 31, 2009

In Brief

Artificial Insemination (AI) of swine is common.  We have used AI exclusively since 1994 to incorporate new genetics into our herd.  While it is not difficult, a little information can increase your chance for success.

In Detail

We use no reproductive drugs to assist in breeding.  Consequently, we only AI sows as they exhibit a more consistent estrus compared to gilts.  Estrus is when a sow is fertile and will allow herself to be inseminated.

Swine semen is usually collected and shipped fresh, not frozen.  It will stay viable for about a week after collection, but its potency is reduced as it ages.  So it is important to synchronize estrus in the sows you want to inseminate so the semen will be used promptly.

The best way to synchronize estrus in sows is weaning.  Sows consistently exhibit estrus 4-7 days after weaning.  We wean the sows 4 days before our semen arrives.

The boar stud we use is Swine Genetics International (SGI).  SGI collects its boars on Mondays and Thursdays.  Semen is shipped next day air UPS and will arrive at the farm on Tuesdays or Fridays.  So we wean sows on Fridays or Mondays.

Sows are housed as a group adjacent to a boar or boars.  The sight and phermones of a boar stimulates return to estrus.  If a boar is not available, an aerosol can of boar phermones can be used.  Sows are fed ad libitum, (all they can eat).

Sows will begin to act squirrelly as they approach estrus.  They will vocalize more and begin pacing around the pen.  Their vulva will swell.

On the afternoon of the second day the boar is removed, preferably to another building.  If the boar is allowed to remain next to the sows it will make estrus detection more difficult.  This is because sows tend to fluctuate throughout the day in their expression of estrus.  They will exhibit estrus strongly for several minutes, get tired, and then lie down and rest.  If you are not observing constantly you will miss estrus detection in some sows.

On the morning of the third day, the morning before the semen arrives; we move a boar back within walking distance of the sows.  We use our hydraulic trailer, which lowers completely to the ground, and have the boar locked in the front.  We let two sows out of their pen at a time and gently walk them towards the boar.  If they are in estrus they will stop by the boar and lock their legs.  This is called ‘standing heat’.  Often, their ears will waggle and they will emit a characteristic growl.

To test for standing heat, put some weight on the sow’s back with your hand.  If the sow is in estrus she will stay locked in one place.  If she is not in estrus she will try to move away from your pressure.

We wait and watch for a couple of minutes.  Sometimes a sow will take a few minutes to lock into standing heat.  If a sow is in estrus, she receives a chalk mark.  If I suspect a sow is close to being in estrus she receives a different colored chalk mark.  The sows are removed from the boar and put back into another pen.  This continues until all of the sows are heat checked.  We check for estrus twice a day, as close to twelve hours apart as possible.

Why don’t we just let the boar stand by the sow’s pen and observe the sows in their own pen?  Some sows are less aggressive and will not exhibit estrus in this situation because they don’t want to crowd next to the more dominant sows which are standing near the boar.

Research has shown that on average, sows ovulate 40 hours after the onset of standing heat.  To become pregnant, live sperm need to unite with ovum. Timing is the crucial element for successful insemination.

Once a sow is observed in standing heat, she is inseminated 24 hours later.  She is inseminated a second time 12 hours after that.  If observation of standing heat was accurate, this protocol should result in live sperm uniting with ovum.

Insemination is similar to heat detection on our farm.  A boar is placed in the front of the hydraulic trailer.  Two sows we want to inseminate our let out of their pen and shut in the back of the trailer.  They should still be in standing heat and will lock themselves in place which makes it easy to work with them.  A trick we use if a sow is uncooperative is to place a little feed on the floor of the trailer.

We use a paper towel to clean off each sow’s vulva.  We then insert a breeding rod into each sow’s vulva angling the rod upward so it doesn’t enter the bladder.  We use a foam- tipped breeding rod.  Some rods are corkscrew shaped to resemble a boar’s penis.  You must turn these rods counter-clockwise as you enter the sow’s cervix.

We gently push the foam-tipped rod into the sow until we feel we’ve entered the cervix.  Gently tug the rod backwards.  If there is some resistance, you are in the cervix and ready to inseminate.  If the rod slides back easily you need to reposition.

The boar semen is in single serving plastic bottles designed to inseminate one sow.  Boar semen is priced from $5 to $250 per bottle.  We have found a way to stretch our dollar that seems to not affect conception rates or litter size.  If we have two sows in heat at the same time we will use a half bottle for each sow.

Boar semen needs to be kept at 64 F until used.  We store it in a double cooler in our basement.  We also use a cooler to transport it to the breeding area.

We take a bottle of semen out of its cooler and cut off the tip with a pocket knife.  We put the bottle in the end of the breeding rod and apply very gentle pressure.  If a sow is expressing estrus well, she will actually have contractions that can suck out the contents of the bottle in a minute or less.  This is almost too fast though and we are not concerned if it takes five minutes.   If we are splitting a bottle we remove it from the rod when it’s half empty and use the rest on the other sow.

When finished, we pull out the rods and discard.  We don’t reuse as this will prevent passing an infection between sows.  Rods are priced at about 50 cents a piece.

Sows are returned to their pen.  It is important to not overfeed sows the first month after breeding as this has been shown to reduce conception rates and litter size.  We reduce their feed intake to about five pounds.  It is also important to not stress sows for the next month.  If they need to be moved to a different pen or group, moving immediately is best.

We have had conception rates from 50% to 100%.  The average is around 70%.  We have had the most success breeding in the March through May period.  August is the worst month for successful breeding.  We have not used AI in the coldest winter months as our facilities are outside and we are afraid the semen would freeze.