Sunday, September 23, 2012

Killing them with kindness

All three of our Wessex saddleback sows produced their second litters with very poor outcomes, a total of ten robust healthy piglets out of thirty-three born. Very different from their first litters when we had thirty-three happy healthy piglets.
So what went wrong this time?
It turns out I killed them with kindness.
The sows were just too fat and the piglets just too big. It’s very disappointing to sit with the sow giving birth and stillbirth follows stillbirth. It’s probably no coincident that those that did survive the birth were all the smallest piglets.

 After talking to pig farmers with thirty odd years experience breeding pigs, I now have a better understanding of what is required. I learnt that new born piglets around two kg or more birth weight are way too big, turns out we should be aiming for around 900 – 1000 grams for these old breeds.
The extra size is obvious, at four or five days old these piglets are large enough to feed while mum is standing.

 While suckling large litters the first time round, the sows lost a lot of condition very quickly even though we were feeding them ten kg a day of a high protein lactating sow pig feed. By the time the piglets were weaned at around ten weeks, the sows were looking a little tired and a little bony - in pig terms around a fat score 2.5   This time I was going to be better prepared and doubled their daily feed ration during their pregnancy. I thought I was doing the right thing, the sows all looked fat, contented and happy but they were hiding a steadily developing catastrophe. A lot of that that extra feed went to create ever-larger piglets.
Ten fat happy little pigs

At least we were able to prevent such problems with our Tamworths. I immediately reduced their feed   and while they are still overweight two of our Tamworths have produced sixteen healthy little Tamworth piglets and the  third sow due in a couple of days. 

Meave, registered name Glen Eyrie Elaine X273, with her eight piglets.

Only hours old, they enjoy the heat lamp.

I must be a little soft for I hate seeing old pigs in the sale yards, they always seem to get so distressed, a lifetime of service to be reduced to low value pork. The young animals are different – insular and confident in their surroundings. For our breeding sows Leven River Farm is their home for the rest of their natural life and as a pig can live ten to fourteen years this takes a serious commitment. I find I am not alone in this attitude, I know of at least one farm that ceased to operate a commercial piggery many years ago and the breeding herd has slowly shrunk to a single elderly sow contentedly wandering the paddocks around the piggery where she grew up.

It has become fashionable to label pork bred free range where the piglets are born outdoors and move into an intensive growing shed as soon as they can be weaned at around three weeks of age, but we have chosen the opposite direction, our piglets are born indoors and grow up free range. The sows come into the heated farrowing pens just before farrowing and return to the paddock three or four days later with their piglets in tow. I think this is best for their welfare as we can minimise the risk of the sow lying on her new born piglets and also keep them warm while young and vulnerable.


  1. I agree you will never believe until you have try it! great post!

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