Piglets

The past few days have been exciting in multiple ways. After reading anything and everything we could find about the whole process of farrowing and piglets, we now experienced it with the birth of the first litters of our two gilts. It was quite a mixed experience and no doubt it will continue to be mixed over the next days and weeks as well. Since not much we do with our pigs follows the ways that are considered conventional it remains an experiment.

All external signs of the gilts developed as described, the behavioral signs were different though. Both were calculated to farrow last Wednesday. The plan was to lock them in in the corral at the moment they would get busy building a nest. We provided hay for their nests last weekend, then we waited and observed.

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On Tuesday around 11 AM we could not find one of the gilts. It turned out she was outside, on a slope, already giving birth. She had shown no nesting behavior whatsoever, and seemed to simply have dropped down when the moment was there. Already three piglets of considerable size were around her, they all had problems to reach her because of the slope. The place was only partially covered, so the newborn piglets were in risk of sunburn. Our presence made the gilt nervous and it seemed to us she was now interrupting the farrowing. What to do? We decided that it was better to let her finish farrowing, so we withdrew, checking her regularly. About one and a half hours later there were 6 piglets and she seemed to be done farrowing.

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All piglets were struggling with the slope, the first born showed signs of sunburn, but at least the gilt was calmer now and allowed us access to her and the piglets. After helping the little ones to drink without constantly tumbling downhill, we put them in two crates to carry them to the corral. That again confused the gilt, she had problems understanding where the piglets were as soon as she lost sight of them and wanted to go back to look for them. Keeping the piglets in her sight we managed to get her under the roof and lock the door.

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Once inside her nervousness lead to several close encounters between her hoofs and the piglets, and when she stepped on one and it screamed she only got more panicked. Eventually she calmed down and from then on it went a bit better. She now made a shallow nest of the hay to give the piglets some shelter.

That evening we were hit by a severe thunderstorm with much stronger winds than we ever experienced before. More on that storm at the end of this post. When checking on the litter after it, one piglet turned out to be missing. We still haven’t been able to find it. The corral isn’t totally closed, so the piglets have ways to escape getting crushed by the gilt. Maybe in all the noise of the storm this piglet got confused and wandered away after falling outside, instead of getting back in. Later on Wednesday we lost a second piglet because of internal damage after being stepped on. The next day we lost a third one in the same way. The gilt was too easily distracted from her piglets by our presence. This was all very disturbing!

This morning, early AM, the second gilt farrowed. She built sort of a nest the day before and she delivered 8 piglets. She was also way calmer than her sister. We’re several hours later now and all 8 are still OK.

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The first gilt seems more aware now of the piglets as the piglets are also more aware now of the movements of their mother. We keep our fingers crossed there won’t be more losses. After thinking it all through in the past days we have decided to focus completely on minimizing distractions and just leaving it completely to both mothers to nurse the little ones through their first week. We try to remind ourselves constantly on what we try to achieve:
– gain understanding by observing without pushing everything our way
– respect the pigs and let them run the show
– if this works out it would be great, if not we can always fall back one step and buy piglets again instead of breeding on the farm
– excitement in ourselves needs to be brought under full control when being close to the pigs, because it transfers to them and they can loose their focus on the piglets too easily.

Part of our own excitement and stress these days was the thunderstorm I mentioned before. It came with severe wind shear that blew off the roof of a shed next to the house. It picked up the roof build over our car and threw it down meters further (luckily the car did not even have a scratch) and it nearly lifted even the roof off our house. Just when we felt it was going to blow to pieces the winds died down. Pictures of that stressful event below.

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Over the next weeks we’ll evaluate how things turn out with both gilts and their litters. Lessons learned will be used to design a new corral. Until now we built temporary corrals only, while moving the pigs over our land to clear out area after area. This group and new ones will move to a new permanent location.

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