Outdoor Swine Genetics, Part 1

July 3, 2017

 

Kevin, a reader of this blog from Missouri, asked me for some pointers on outdoor hog genetics.  His son has been raising hogs and plans to expand his breeding stock herd to meet a new marketing opportunity.  Since he wants to expand quickly, he’s going to need to purchase females, either gilts or sows.

I recommended he find one herd to purchase from for health reasons instead of purchasing from several different herds.  For outdoor swine genetics in Missouri I recommended contacting Kelly Klober ,as he is the expert down there.  If he wanted to try conventional genetics, I’ve been pleased with the offspring from AI from Waldo Genetics in Nebraska.

I’m a believer in keeping your females from within your herd, usually out of your best sows.  I guess I’m also a believer in keeping your boars from within your herd, as the last time I brought in live breeding stock was August of 1994.  To get new genetics, I’ve purchased fresh boar semen, almost exclusively from SGI in Iowa.

I used to pick my AI boars based on figures and phenotype.  This is the more expensive option as SGI charges more if you pick the boar.  The last few years I’ve had the salesman pick the boar as I realized they know the boars better than I.  I almost always ask for mothering ability and meat quality.  A couple times ago I asked for an aggressive natural breeder and they selected a boar called Wonka, and sure enough, his sons were excellent breeders.

I’ve never had any problem with any line of hogs not wanting to graze, especially if they are limit fed.  If they are on full feed of grain, they will spend more time rooting out of boredom and less time eating forages.

The sows and gilts in these two photos are receiving three pounds of grain each.  This is roughly half of what they would need if they had no access to forage, and only a quarter of what they would eat if they were on full feed of grain.  So these hogs take grazing seriously and don’t spend much time rooting except for in their wallow.

I have however experienced gilts and sows who had poor instincts for outdoor farrowing.  Even with many generations farrowing outdoors on the mother’s side, the wrong AI boar can sire nervous, poor instinct, mothers.

The sow in the top photo is out of an AI Landrace boar called True Blue.  All the sows out of True Blue are excellent outdoor mothers, farrowing and raising large litters.  Samsung is an AI Landrace sire I used at the same time and added several of his offspring to my herd.  These sows however, farrowed large litters, but were nervous and crushed up to half of their offspring.  They also showed very little instinct for nest building.

That’s the problem with using AI from conventional producers.  It’s hit and miss.  There are so few producers farrowing and raising outdoor hogs, there is really no knowledge of these instincts.  I’m sure the daughters of Samsung would have worked fine in confinement.  Much better probably than my red sows which grow to over 600 lbs and would not even fit properly in the gestation and farrowing crates that most of the industry uses.

Maybe some sort of organization for outdoor swine breeders would be nice.  But I’m not much of an organizer.  I guess the best I can do right now is share my experiences and read about others’ experiences on their blogs.  My next post is going to go into more detail about my breeding philosophy.


American Toad Tadpoles

June 20, 2017

 

May was a wet month with rain every couple of days.  My pig wallows filled with water.  One wallow that had yet to see pigs this spring was used as breeding grounds for the opportunistic American Toad.

The frog species on our farms almost exclusively use my parents’ pond for breeding since it was built in 1992.  Toads are not as picky and will breed in any standing water, sometimes to the detriment of the resulting tadpoles as often these water holes will dry up if the rains stop.  And that is what happened here as the first two weeks of June saw warm temperatures and no rain.

I was looking forward to thousands of baby toads in my yard, so I intervened with a garden hose, adding water every day or so until we got two inches of rain a few days ago.  Now I’m starting to find the little toads hopping around.

The tadpoles almost seem to shrink as they develop legs.  Its as if the fat tadpole body repositions itself into the skinny legs as the tail shrinks.  I love the American Toad.


2017 Spring Calving, Fatty Udder Syndrome

May 21, 2017

 

Some years we can’t remember helping a single calf nurse.  This calving season has been difficult, with one problem after another.  Sometimes we have had more than one problem pair in our corral, which is where we keep the pairs separated if they are having problems until they can be on their own.

Admittedly, a big source of our problems this year has been our decision to keep and calve very old cows.  Cows that are productive into old age is a nice problem to have, and one that I largely attribute to a better nutrition and feeding strategy.  Better rotational grazing has improved the green season nutrition, and unrolling round bales of hay has improved the winter nutrition.  Unrolling the hay instead of feeding in feeders reduces the competition with younger, stronger, cows, and it is also easier to chew as the hay is loose after unrolling instead of packed densely.  Older cows teeth wear down, resulting in more difficulty chewing which can become a nutrition issue.

Unfortunately, older cows udders break down over age and the teats become larger, sometimes resulting in teats so large a newborn calf fails to get started nursing.  We get the pair into the corral and the cow in the catch chute and help the newborn calf nurse.  Usually one or two nursings will be enough for the calf to get the idea and start nursing on its own.  When we see the calf nursing on its own, we turn the pair back out to pasture with the herd.  Annoying, but doable.

But the problem which has baffled us this spring and a couple of times in the past few years, is when a heifer calved without problem, but failed to produce any or enough milk for her newborn calf.  Until a few years ago, we had never seen this problem.  But it has happened again, and this time with this beautiful heifer, 527, pictured above.  We called our local vet and she took the heifer’s temperature and palpated her udder, assuring us there was no discernible health issue.  The udder is soft, not hard as if it had mastitis.  And there is no pussy discharge, just nothing.  The vet didn’t have a theory, which is frustrating, but also a relief that the heifer wasn’t sick and we weren’t having a disease problem.

So we started brainstorming.   What is different about our herd?

Genetically, the base breed going back to my Grandfather’s cattle was Shorthorn.  We used some Lincoln Red genetics in the 80s and 90s, an ill-advised foray into Maine Anjou genetics in the 90s, and finally, when we could no longer find good Shorthorn bulls, we started using Red Angus genetics around the year 2000 and have been very pleased with the results.  Our cattle are moderate- framed, thick-made, and able to finish on grass, which worked great when I began to direct-market grass-finished cattle around 2008.

Red Angus genetics didn’t seem to change the udders of our cattle very much.  I would say the conformation of the udders would be a little better and they give a little less milk.  Shorthorns are known for producing a lot of milk for a beef breed, so it makes sense that Red Angus would decrease the amount of milk, but not by much. I don’t think the problem is genetics.

We have improved our pastures and especially the rotation and resting of the pastures as we’ve implemented our own version of mob-grazing.  And we’ve started grazing some hay pastures during the summer slump when some of the cool season grasses are growing very slowly.  The end result is our cattle are gaining better than they ever have, with some of the fastest-gaining calves gaining close to 3 lbs per day from birth to weaning.  We recently viewed an old vhs tape of our cattle in the 80s, and the difference was remarkable.  Without video evidence, we never would have believed how much better the pastures and how much thicker our cattle are now.

Why am I writing about how fast the cattle are gaining?  Sometimes I have an insight or notion which I’m not sure where it comes from.  Maybe I read something sometime.  I don’t know.  But I woke up one morning with a theory that the reason these heifers have no milk is that during a critical stage in their mammary development, they were gaining weight so rapidly, instead of normal mammary development, their udder became fatty.

I asked the vet and she didn’t think it made much sense.  We even stopped in one day and visited our old retired vet from Mineral Point, and he didn’t think this theory made much sense.  Undaunted, I was going to put this theory onto the internet and see if any of you concurred.  But a little research, and a few key articles later, of which I will link to, I’m 99% sure this is what is happening to these heifers.

The reason we need to decide on a theory is because it will affect our decision making.  If for some reason these heifers are genetically deficient in milk, we would want to purchase bulls with higher milk epds, (expected progeny difference).  But if my theory is correct, and these heifers are actually receiving too much nutrition, then we would want to select bulls with lower milk epds.

The first article I found that pertained was written by University of Illinois extension in 1999.  They talked about the five different stages of mammary development and how sometimes mammary development is isometric, (growing at similar rates as the rest of the body), and other times mammary development is allometric, (growing at two to four times the rest of the body). A key allometric stage is prepuberty, 3 to 9 months of age.  This paragraph was particularly illuminating:

“Prepubertal nutrition can have a significant effect on future milk yield. Raising heifers on high planes of nutrition during prebubertal mammary growth has been shown to have a negative effect on milk yield. Feed restricted heifers can have up to 30 percent larger mammary glands at puberty. Furthermore, mammary tissue on heifers fed ad libitum was over 80 percent fat, while heifers fed a restricted diet have around 65 percent fat, and 13 percent more parenchymal tissue (tissue that will eventually become milk producing tissue) compared with heifers fed ad libitum. It should be noted that mammary parenchymal tissue grows into a layer of fat referred to as the fat pad.”

Ok, are you convinced yet?  I also found this article published in Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Science.  Both articles are written pertaining to the dairy industry, as most dairy heifers are raised in confinement on a diet that can be regulated.  They suggest a feeding strategy which restricts the diet at critical times during mammary development, and then more feed at other times so as to not waste time and money as the sooner a heifer is producing milk, the more profitable the industry feels the dairy producer will be.

However, I’m wondering if the dairy industry is thinking about this wrongheaded?  A big problem in the confinement dairy industry is how quickly cows are “burnt up”, (culled for one reason or another).  I used to think the reason that cows fell out of production so fast was because of the way they are managed as cows.  But actually, dairy cattle are on a fasttrack from birth.

Maybe the dairy industry should go to a policy of raising their replacement heifers slowly on a high forage diet.  Maybe they shouldn’t worry so much about rushing a heifer into production by age two, and instead should be satisfied with a heifer calving at two and a half or three years of age?  Most of the big dairy farmers in my area are outsourcing the raising of their dairy heifers.  There may be an opportunity for farmers to do a better job with this?  I don’t know.

As far as our problem, so far we have had a very few that exhibited this problem.  I would hate to change the way we are managing our cattle and pastures as the whole herd is doing so well with our rotational grazing.  I’m thinking our problem is rare and only affecting a very few heifers that may be very early maturing, thereby coinciding the allometric mammary growth phase at just the wrong time when they are gaining 3 lbs per day.  Not sure, but I will continue to monitor.

 


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

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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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Weeds

September 7, 2016

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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.

 

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