Domestic animals never cease to amaze me, but I've not been so amazed in a long time as I was last weekend when one of our Mulefoot sows decided to deliver a fine batch of winter piglets out in her wooded pasture. She looked like she was a few days off so we chose not to move her to an outdoor farrowing pen that morning -- had we watched that Mulefoot sow more carefully, we would have known she was planning for piglets on the winter pasture. I'm glad we weren't on top of her because I would have missed an amazing lesson. This particular pig chose to build her nest in a private A-frame hut that's well away from the yard where the rest of the pigs spend most of their winter days half buried in hay they pull from big round bales.
The day was cold ... high of about 25 and there was nothing but dirt on the floor of the A-frame hut at 9 AM.
The sow in question was lounging with the group and hogged her share of feed at about 6 PM.
The sow in question was missing the following morning -- temperatures had dipped to nearly zero degrees.
I wasn't particularly concerned that she wasn't with the pig herd in the morning, but I was quite amazed when I saw that the door to the A-frame was stuffed tight with hay. Huh? So I hiked out to the hut and pulled back the hay to see a momma pig with at least 5 baby pigs all enclosed in the most magnificent hay nest I have ever seen (it's hard to count black piglets in the dark). And she would have had to haul that hay -- about 200 pounds of it -- from the pig yard. Yes, she selected mouthful after mouthful of hay from the big round bale, carried it off to her pasture hut and arranged it just so, obviously knowing that she and her babies would need substantial protection from the ensuing cold
Nearly a week later, the sow and all of her piglets are thriving, having spent several nights in sub-zero temperatures. This particular nameless sow has the survival skills to go feral, I am sure. Luckily she likes people. I plan to keep her daughters for breeding purposes because maternal characteristics are highly heritable and I plan to keep at least one of her sons to breed some of my less motherly sows.
She's since compacted her nest hay a bit and we've propped a piece of wood over the door to keep the curious members of the herd from meddling with her. She knocks the door down once a day to come outside, discipline the curious onlookers and take care of her sanitation needs. We bring her water and feed twice each day and revel in the soft chorus of grunting that emanates from perfectly satisfied pig and piglets.
Sometimes animal husbandry skills include knowing when to leave things well enough alone. I learned that not all piglets need to be meddled with at birth and that even in the dead cold of winter some sows know the best way to keep their babies alive. Isn't that amazing?
Photos courtesy Karen Keb.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.