Raising Pigs on Pasture
Springtime! The time of rebirth, awakening and baby animals. For those of us raising pasture pigs, this is a time when piglets can be seen running through the fields and nursing in the sunshine. We raise Idaho Pasture Pigs as well as Kunekunes, but most of the information here will apply to pastured pigs regardless of breed.
Shelter is key
When farrowing on pasture, there are a few important things to remember, starting with sows like to be alone to farrow. If at all possible, section off a separate area where she can be alone with adequate food, water and shelter. We use A-frame housing. The shape of the A-frame provides a place where the piglets can be protected when the sows lay down. We fill all our shelters with either grass hay or straw for bedding during the cooler months, but at farrowing time, we recommend straw bedding. It provides additional warmth and cushioning and doesn’t pack down as quickly.
If using a run-in shelter area, just make sure it is big enough to allow room for the sows to comfortably move around without stepping on a piglet.
When given appropriate housing, most sows are amazing mothers. It’s a quality worth selecting for if you are trying to improve your herd. Our sows will sit and lay down in stages to allow time to check where their piglets are. If farrowing in an area where the pigs are together with other sows or a boar, the concern is that they will not be as attentive to the piglets when lying down, and the chances of a piglet being laid on increase. Within a day, the piglets are usually up and running around outside, playing and learning to graze. Because they are outside from birth, they have a very good immune system, rarely need iron shots, and are hearty.
Pigs, unlike many other animals, are very “true” to their due date. We usually have our piglets born within a day of the estimated due date. If you can witness when breeding occurs, you’ll have a good idea when the piglets will arrive. They can still be early or later, but more often than not they arrive right around the due date
A day or two before they farrow, sows start to get “milk pouches” – a rounded area surrounding the nipple – instead of just a noticeably big belly. This is referred to as a doughnut. Sometimes the doughnuts will turn a pink or almost red color the day of delivery.
Another good sign that your piglets are on their way is when the sow starts “nesting.” She will carry hay, straw, grass, leaves, sticks and anything else she can get into her mouth into the house and make a protective nest for the piglets. Most of them will position the birthing area to a protected location so the piglets have less of a chance of crawling in the wrong direction while the mom is delivering. Some sows calmly gather things, while others show a more frantic need to get it done. Either way, you can expect piglets within a day or two. Not all of the sows nest the same way, but if you are paying close attention, you will usually see some signs.
What to expect
When your sow goes into labor, it is a good idea to keep an eye on her, especially if she is a gilt and this is her first litter. Our pigs usually go into a “birthing trance” once labor begins, and they just lay there and deliver piglets. It is a good time to check each piglet to make sure they are breathing well and see how their overall health looks. You do not want to disturb your sow, so limit handling the piglets until you know how your sow is going to react. If your sow stands up to check on her piglets, chances are good a newborn will get hurt if she steps on it or lays back down on it.
As they arrive, the piglets will instinctively know where to go and will start looking for a teat almost immediately. You can pinch off the end of the umbilical cord and dunk it in iodine, but if you have a clean, dry area to farrow in, the umbilical cord will break off and dry up in a couple days without any complications.
As the piglets emerge you will notice a thin sac covering them. Go ahead and pull that off or wipe them down with a towel to remove it. Make sure to remove it from their nose and mouth so they can breathe easier. If you notice a piglet having difficulty breathing or it has a “watery” sound to its breathing, you may want to gently run your finger into its mouth to make sure none of the sac covering has gotten inside and is causing the problem. It is always a good idea to have your veterinarian’s phone number handy in case of an emergency.
Pigs have two horns in their uterus, so it is possible for a portion of the placenta to arrive and have more piglets born. As long as the sow passes the entire placenta at the end of delivery, everything will be fine. Some people get nervous when they see a portion of the placenta and start to worry that something is wrong. This is usually not the case, and oftentimes we see our sow pass some of her placenta before she is done delivering.
If you do see signs of complication such as prolonged pushing without a piglet arriving, there is a possibility that a piglet is stuck in the birth canal. If this happens, the piglet may have to be pulled out to prevent injury or death to the mother as well as other piglets still inside waiting to be born.
If you are not a seasoned farmer and have not done many pig births, I would recommend calling your veterinarian the first time around. Most often, the birth will go fine and the piglets will arrive without any complications. These animals are amazingly instinctive and proficient when left to their own devices, in most cases. One thing you can do to prevent complications prior to birth is to make sure you are not over feeding your sow. If she is overweight, it will greatly increase her chances of having complications during delivery. You can end up with piglets that have grown too big to fit easily through the birth canal, or your sow can have a smaller birth canal due to excess fat deposits.
After the piglets have arrived, your sow may not move around much for the next day, and that’s OK. As long as the piglets are nursing well, she has passed her placenta, and doesn’t show any signs of distress, let her relax and recover.
Healthy and happy
Whether you see the piglets as they are being born or a couple hours later, it is a good idea to watch and make sure that all of them are latching on and nursing well. If your piglets are born on the ground with straw bedding, they will automatically nose at the dirt and get iron from it. If you are farrowing in stalls inside a barn, then it is always a good idea to get a shovel full of soil to put in with the piglets.
We do not give iron shots to our pigs because we have found that simply providing them with access to soil gives them the necessary iron that their bodies require. Likewise, we do not vaccinate our pigs. Again, one of the greatest benefits to raising pigs on pasture is that they build up a natural immunity. In the same respect, we do not clip teeth or notch ears.
Our pigs are truly pasture pigs and eat mainly grass, hay and roots, but we do supplement with some pig feed to make sure our pigs are getting the necessary protein, vitamins and minerals that our soil is deficient in. One thing to remember is that your sow is now feeding a whole litter of piglets. Whether that’s five piglets or 15, it is still an added stress to her body and she is going to require extra feed.
A lot of people are under the assumption that because she just had babies, she’ll immediately need that extra food, but too much too quickly can cause scours in the piglets. Scours is one of the most common causes of death in piglets. We recommend not increasing the feed for three days, so she doesn’t produce excessive milk, and thereby decreasing the chances of scours. When you do increase her feed, make sure to do it based on how many piglets she is actually feeding. If there is ample grass, she will definitely graze more and you can supplement with additional hay. Grass, clover or alfalfa hay is best.
Noted gestation period for pigs is 114 days. We have found that our pigs’ normal gestation is 116 days. If you live in warmer climates, you won’t need to plan breedings according to the weather as much. Those of us that live in climates where we have a lot of snow and cold weather during the winter months have to be more cautious of when our piglets will arrive.
We personally like to have the bulk of our piglets between April 1st and November 1st. This usually allows us to have two litters of piglets per sow each year and also allows our sows a period of time each year when they are not pregnant or lactating.
We wean our piglets when they are between 4 and 8 weeks old based on how well they are eating on their own and their overall health. When we wean our piglets, we move the sow to a new pen and leave the piglets in their original pen. This gives them a safe place they are familiar with.
The benefits of raising pigs on pasture are both healthy and hearty pigs. They have plenty of room to roam, and they’re cleaner pigs overall. Their meat is darker, juicier and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, and it has a sweeter taste than grain-fed pork. If beautiful green pastures full of happy, healthy pigs makes you smile, and delicious, nutritious pork makes your mouth water, then pasture pigs may be in your future! It’s certainly a worthwhile endeavor.