We had our first batch of piglets born here on the farm in May.
Actually, they were born on Mother’s Day! It was such a sweet, memorable day – and our sow, Boo, is a fantastic mother.
Honestly, farrowing was the easiest part.
We were so nervous about having piglets here, since we’d always purchased our pigs as weaner pigs at about 7 weeks old.
To make matters worse, it seemed that there really weren’t any good articles online about caring for piglets. The ones that we could find were either overly succinct or too scientific for us to skim through quickly.
My husband has a degree in wildlife biology, but some of the information was just too dense to make heads or tails of quickly – namely, when we had ten piglets in front of us and needed to make some quick decisions.
Luckily, we learned how to do things on our own pretty early in the process- and I’m here to pass on some of that information to you.
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In my experience, piglets require a great deal more attention than any other type of animal. Baby chicks can be put in a brooder and as long as they are given plenty of heat, food, and water, you can more or less ignore them.
Baby lambs are even easier – mom does everything for you. She even supplies the food! You just have to make sure mama is comfortable and that’s about it.
But piglets…piglets are a whole new story. You have to make sure they are warm – a challenge in upstate New York in early spring – and you have to make sure your sow doesn’t roll on them. There are a lot of things you need to do to make sure they are not only comfortable, but that they survive.
Here’s a step by step guide.
The Farrowing Process: Be There or Be Square
The average gestation period for a sow is 114 days. Not sure if your sow is pregnant? You’ll definitely be able to tell later in the game, but for now, if you aren’t sure, take some time to check out my tips on determining that here.
Boo waited exactly 114 days before giving birth – we have heard that pigs are usually pretty spot-on when it comes to the delivery date. There can be some variation in gestation date, particularly if your pig is a first-time gilt or if she has an exceptionally large litter.
Make sure you are prepared for farrowing in advance by stocking up on any supplies you might need. Your sow should be tucked away in a clean, warm, and sanitized farrowing facility.
When I say that, don’t think you need to go through and bleach every surface your sow touches at every second day. Just make sure she is in a barn that has been cleaned within the last few days, and you’ll be fine.
When it comes to the farrowing process itself, try to be there for when it happens. Not only is it incredible to watch, but you want to be there to assist in case there are any problems.
We knew Boo was due on Mother’s Day, and due to the holiday, had already made plans to leave that morning. I woke up at 5 am and just had a feeling – instinct? – so I went out to the barn and found that she already had given birth to six piglets – she probably started in the wee hours of the morning.
Pigs are pretty self-sufficient when it comes to the actual birthing part – they release piglets quickly and you usually won’t need to assist unless a piglet is breach. Luckily, this was not something we had to be concerned about.
That being said, piglets are not as lively as other livestock (like lambs) are at birth, so you need to be there to make sure they suckle.
When I jumped into the barn that morning – we have a Dutch door and had the bottom portion locked to keep the sow in, necessitating that I jump from a height of about three feet down into the barn – I got extremely lucky.
One of the piglets had made its way from its mother, who was still farrowing, all the way over to a dark, cold corner near the door. I missed jumping on her by about two inches.
The other blessing here was that I entered the barn when I did, or that piglet would have died. Which leads me to my next point…
Make Sure They Are Warm
First and foremost, when your piglets are born, you need to provide an extremely warm setting. Unlike lambs and other livestock, which are born large and able to hold their own, piglets are born extremely small and extremely fragile.
Our piglet by the door – who ended up being the runt – was almost completely frozen by the time I found her, yet luckily still alive. While I watched Boo give birth to the other piglets, I hooked up our heat lamp and tried to encourage this piglet to lie under it. After fifteen minutes under the heat lamp, she was still freezing, so I unbuttoned my coat, unbuttoned my shirt, and put her against my bare stomach.
My husband came out not too much longer later, and we alternated putting the piglet against my belly and underneath the heat lamp, against a hot water bottle. Eventually – within about four hours – she warmed up.
That’s a long time to be chilly when you’re a piglet – to this day, I can’t believe we didn’t lose her. A Mother’s Day blessing?
Provide Lots of Bedding and a Secure Spot Away from Mom
When your piglets are born, make sure you have the following set up and ready to go:
- A heat lamp, providing temperatures of a minimum of 90-95 degrees: This should be able a foot away from Mama and as far away from a draft as possible.
- Plenty of warm bedding: Straw, if possible – and make sure you have plenty of extra bedding on hand because not only will the piglets soil it quickly, but the process of farrowing is messy and you will end up throwing a lot of it out.
- Water bottles: Have water bottles on hand that you can quickly heat up and place under the heat lamp.
- Towels: You will need to dry off the piglets when they are born to help prevent their body temperature from dropping.
- A black pad: Put a black pad underneath your heat lamp. This will absorb heat and provide a nice, cushiony area that will protect your piglets from the cold floor underneath.
The rest of the work the piglets will mostly do themselves. If you have a nice, warm location set up away from their mother, they will curl up into a pile and sleep on top of each other.
Now, when your piglets are first born, you will need to make sure they have a safe spot to sleep away from their mothers.
I mentioned earlier that there’s not a lot you need to do in order to assist with the farrowing process. The more important time for you to be with your pigs is right after they are born.
During this time, you will be dealing with a 300+ pound sow along with numerous piglets – most of whom will probably weigh a few pounds or less. They’re also not terribly mobile, and their main concern in the first few hours of life is eating.
What a lot of people don’t tell you is that piglets are born with razor-sharp teeth, and when they begin to nurse, it can be extremely uncomfortable for the show – especially a first-time mother. She will let them nurse, but she may roll and shift her weight occasionally.
Within her first hour of farrowing, Boo rolled on three of her piglets without even realizing it. Luckily, my husband and I were out there with them, and we were able to move her off the piglets before she crushed them.
She wasn’t doing it on purpose, but pigs really don’t know their own size. Therefore, it’s important that you have a “roll-away” box or some other type of area where your piglets can get away from their larger-than-life mama.
Many people use farrowing crates for this reason, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to do that. Instead, we set up a roll-away area so the piglets could lie under the heat lamp – and Boo couldn’t sit on them.
Within the first few hours, it’s important that you make sure your piglets nurse. This isn’t always a matter of instinct – you may need to guide them to a teat. If your sow does not have enough teats to go around for all of your piglets, you may need to bottle feed them with storebought colostrum.
Colostrum, also known as “first milk,” is incredibly important. It protects against disease and helps your piglets get up and get going.
When your piglets are little, they will feed almost constantly. Your sow should take to this naturally, but if she doesn’t, again, you may need to bottle feed. They’ll start nibbling on food when they feel ready, but for the first few weeks will rely solely on their mother’s milk.
Allow Them to Root
Some people try to discourage their piglets from rooting and use nose rings to help dissuade this behavior. I don’t believe in that. Rooting is instinctual for piglets, and it helps them pick up healthy bacteria from the soil. Just make sure your pen and barn are nice and clean, and you shouldn’t have to worry about any issues.
Many veterinarians recommend iron shots to help prevent anemia in piglets. We’ve heard they can cause diarrhea and other side effects, so many farmers choose to allow their piglets to root around and obtain iron from the dirt instead. This method isn’t foolproof, though, so we risked the side effects and gave the piglets iron shots instead.
There are a number of potential injection sites on a piglet. I recommend giving an intramuscular injection with a medium-gauge needle right behind the ear. We originally tried giving a shot in the hind limb but there wasn’t enough muscle on the piglet yet to inject at that site.
Make sure you have the equipment necessary to administer an iron shot. You’ll want the following:
- Disposable syringes (you can reuse these, but it can be a pain when you’re trying to deal with screaming piglets)
- Iron supplements – you will need a full 200 mg dose (you can split this up into two doses, but we preferred to just handle the piglets once – it really stressed Mama out!)
- Clean rags to wipe down the injection site
- Iodine to sanitize the injection site
- Blu Kote
The Blu Kote may not be necessary, but we liked having it on hand. A couple of times, the piglet bled a little more than we would have liked when we gave them their shots, so this made sure they didn’t get any infections or bleed too much.
When you give your iron shots – or administer any other kind of medical care – make sure you take the piglets as far away from their mother as possible. Piglets like to let out an unholy scream every time you handle them, and this will really agitate your sow.
Parasites aren’t usually a concern for us when our pigs are out on pasture. However, when your piglets are first born, you will need to keep them in a barn so that they can be exposed to the heat. If your pigs are going to be in the same spot for a long period of time, you may want to treat your sow with a dewormer prior to farrowing.
Clipping Teeth, Castrating, and Docking Tails
These three items are VERY controversial. However, they’re worth mentioning.
Clipping teeth is done to young piglets within the first week or so of life. I wanted to avoid doing this, as I didn’t think it was necessary. This is primarily designed to make sure the piglets don’t injure their mother or each other, and I thought since Boo had enough teats to go around, we wouldn’t have to worry about either of those issues.
In fact, the majority of animal welfare articles you read advocate against clipping teeth, claiming that you can reduce injury to the mother or to other piglets by a) breeding sows to produce smaller litters and b) keeping sows in free-farrowing systems.
I don’t really buy either one of those.
We did not have an abnormally large litter – 9 made it, with 1 stillborn. The sow had plenty of milk. She also farrowed in a free-farrowing system – not a farrowing crate. She had access to all the food, water, and space she needed.
Yet we still found that she was rolling on piglets because they were biting her teats so hard they were drawing blood. In addition, within the first week after farrowing, one of our piglets bit another piglet’s tail clean off for no apparent reason.
I understand that clipping teeth can be a stressful process for piglets, which is why we did everything in our power to prevent it. But I think, when it really comes down to it, the idea of animal welfare is not a black and white system. We gave our piglets and sow the perfect conditions – yet something was still amiss.
At the end of the day, we knew we were going to have to subject the piglets to a somewhat traumatizing experience in order to save their lives, so we decided to clip teeth. I’m not saying that teeth clipping should be your go-to – but if you’ve already taken all the appropriate steps to improve environmental conditions, then it may be necessary.
If you decide to do this, wait no more than seven days. The sooner you do it, the less trauma it will cause to both the piglets and the sow. Use clean, sanitized tools (you will need specialized clippers) and disinfect the area before you clip. Monitor your piglets carefully and make sure you don’t nick and gums or cut too low.
Castrating male piglets tends to be much less controversial than teeth clipping. Castrating is necessary to prevent boar taint – which is when the testosterone from the boar spoils the meat of the adult pig at butchering time.
This was the part of raising piglets that I was least looking forward to – it’s surgery. Unless you are very confident in your ability to do this, have a veterinarian come. Luckily, in our case, we didn’t have to do this, as our father-in-law has castrated piglets before and came up to the farm to help us.
You’ll want as many hands on deck as possible – two people to hold a piglet and one to cut. I won’t go into the details of how to castrate, but what you need to know is that you will need everything to be thoroughly disinfected and you really, really want to train yourself in how to do this. Cut incorrectly and you could kill your piglet.
The final step that people take in processing piglets is tail docking. We did not do this, as unless you are raising piglets in a factory farm setting, there’s not really any reason to. With the exception of our one piglet who for unclear reasons lost his tail very early on after farrowing, piglets won’t usually go after each other unless they are extremely bored.
That being said, I understand that if you are raising pigs in confinement, this is somewhat that should be done early in the pigs’ lives to prevent constant suffering and potential cannibalism. Again, with castration, make sure you know what you are doing.
Once your piglets are about three or four weeks old, you can begin the process of weaning. This happens somewhat naturally – your pigs will start to become curious about food. I recommend introducing dry food pre-weaning – we have an open feeding system for our sow and our piglets naturally started exploring it. You can also use a creep feed that smells and tastes like sow milk, which will encourage your piglets to explore it.
There’s not much you need to do to encourage weaning – Boo, who was a fantastic natural mother, took care of most of this on her own. She would roll over or stand up when she decided feeding time was over, and gradually began restricting teat access so that the piglets couldn’t suckle whenever they liked. She had a natural instinct to begin cutting them off, which was truly remarkable to watch.
However, again, if they aren’t doing this on their own, consistent access to creep feed – along with providing reliable feeding schedules – can help encourage them to wean on their own, too.
Moving to Their New Home
When your piglets have been weaned, they can be moved to their new home. Here’s what you need to know in order to raise your young pigs.
Pigs don’t need a lot in terms of shelter, especially if these are pigs you are only going to be raising for meat (and not keeping through the winter). As long as they have a roof to get under during times of extreme weather (heat, torrential rain, etc) they will be fine.
You should provide them with plenty of fresh, clean bedding in there – it will make them happy and will provide more sanitary sleeping conditions. Pigs are remarkably clean animals – if anybody tells you that pigs are filthy, they’re lying.
In our experience, chickens have been 10x grosser than any pigs we’ve owned! Pigs will generally maintain separate areas for sleeping, eating, and pooping – and it’s rare that they will sleep anywhere they have pooped.
You should provide consistent access to feed and water. We have auto-feed and nipple water systems so that we only need to fill each about once a week when the piglets are young, and every few days once they reach full size.
Give your pigs as much space as possible to roam. They like being pigs, and providing them with lots of open pasture to root up not only helps till your land for you but it also reduces their exposure to parasites, eliminating your need for chemical dewormers.
And that’s about all you need to know! Have you raised piglets before? Let me know your best tips in the comments below.
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