Raising orphaned pigs is beneficial both for the piglets and your farm.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
I slipped Smilie's harness over his fat little shoulders, attached the
leash and we began our midday constitutional along the
banks of Idaho's glorious Salmon River. Pretty soon, a
pickup truck came up the twisting river road,
and — with a protest of brakes — it whipped to a
stop beside us.
"By golly!" the driver exclaimed. "Now I've
"I like pigs," I answered with a big grin — and I'll bet that once you've had a chance to share your
home — if only for a few weeks — with one of these
delightful creatures, you'll come to be fond of them, too.
When little orphaned Smilie was only three weeks old, for
instance, he already thought he was a person. He would clip
up and down my kitchen floor, playing with the cat and
squealing for chow.
But, keeping a pig in the house? Yes
indeed! Many piglets have shared my home for two or three
weeks, until they could build up enough strength to survive
on their own. In fact, a pig is — or can
become — more mannerly and intelligent than a dog
(we've even had pigs that helped us bring home the cows)
and as clean as a cat. Plus, swine don't shed hair!
However, unless you intend to keep your orphan for
breeding, don't make it a real pet: It's simply not a good
idea to become terribly attached to an animal that may be a
future Christmas ham. On the other hand, do be kind to your
porcine babies. Any infant — even a pig — needs
love if it's to thrive.
Why Raise Pigs?
When you consider the price of meat today, you'll realize that
the loss of a litter of pigs — or even of a single
runt — can be an expensive proposition. During the last 10 years, I've had many occasions to rescue from one to 10 piglets at a shot — and each of those efforts has
been, in my opinion, time and trouble well spent.
Furthermore, the little animals (which, in many cases,
would be doomed if someone didn't adopt them) can be a
source of free livestock for the farmstead-on-a-budget.
Check with pork producers in your area, find out a few
farrowing dates and ask whether you might have (or
buy, at a very low cost) an orphan or a runt from one of
As a last resort, you can settle for a cripple. Even these animals can sometimes be saved. For
example, Felix — our last foster pig — had been
pen-injured. He was unable to stand when we got him, and
spent part of each day hung in a sling made from torn
sheets. Felix is now a picture of health, weighs 200
pounds and will soon be ready for the smokehouse.
How to Raise Orphaned Pigs
Once you have your orphan, there are several facts to keep in mind. First, more baby
pigs die from being chilled than from any other cause. They
come from a warm womb (more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and must be kept at
90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first few hours of their lives. From
then on, the tiny sucklings will thrive in 75 to 95 degree temperatures.
Second, a piglet's surroundings should
be kept as clean as those of a human baby (I even boil my
orphans' eating utensils for the first few days), because
shoats are born with no immunities at all. The young
animals normally get such biological safeguards from
colostrum (the mother's first milk), and if a baby pig is
denied this protection, it will be quite susceptible to
Third, remember that the poor mite has
been rejected. Its mother is dead or sick, or perhaps the
piglet has been shoved away from a life-giving teat by
stronger, more dominant siblings. Either way, it will be
hungry and cold when you bring it home.
For all these
reasons, as soon as I acquire an orphan, I bathe it in
warm, soapy water by paying particular attention to hoofs,
ears, eyes, and the sides of the face. (It may take more
than one bath to soak off dried dirt.) My husband has often
brought me a limp little newborn . . . shivering and
scarcely breathing. You'd be surprised at the new life a
good soak in warm water will put into such abandoned
Once the tiny creature is clean, you can wrap it in
a warm towel and rub it briskly (but not too hard) to get
its blood circulating ... and, thereafter, keep your new
charge warm and out of drafts.
How to Feed a Piglet
We always have a little stock of pig suckle
on hand for emergencies. (Several brands are available at
feed stores, but don't try to substitute lamb or calf
suckle, as the protein requirement for each type of animal
When raising Smilie, our first orphan (he
was given to me by a friend before our family began to
raise pigs), I used regular baby formula, but the wee one
had some trouble digesting it. If you don't have access to
pig suckle, though, you can use cow's milk served at
100 degrees Fahrenheit. Don't add cream or sugar, but skim milk
powder — at a ratio of one tablespoon per pint of fluid
milk — is a worthwhile supplement.
If you have only one
or two pigs to feed, forget using a bottle, which will just
make weaning more difficult. Instead, use a teaspoon.
Here's how: Once your new piglet is clean, warm and
wrapped tightly in a towel, gather the baby up against your
left side with its head facing right (or the reverse, if
you're left-handed). Hold its body with your left arm and
its head in your left hand, then — with the teaspoon in
your right hand — force the warm suckle into its mouth.
The piglet will struggle and spill a lot, but be
persistent. Feed it a bit every hour at first, and
gradually space out the meals. After each feeding, simply
wipe off the pig's face and put the baby in a box to sleep.
The small creature has a built-in alarm and will soon begin
to let you know when it's hungry. Early on, however,
especially if the baby is weak, you'll have to do its
As your little boarder learns to eat, graduate
him or her to a tablespoon and then — as quickly as
possible — to a teacup. Within a day or two, you can
soften a few baby-pig pellets in the formula, and increase
the quantity day by day to thicken the gruel. Before you
know it, your pig will be running to you when it's hungry,
and eating from a long-handled dipper or fruit ladle.
this point, you'll want to plan for the time (within two or
three weeks) when the piglet will be out of the house and
more or less on its own. We've built an orphanage just
outside our kitchen door. It's a small pen with a discarded
bird feeder for shelter, and a self-feeder that I keep
stocked with pellets and leafy greens to encourage
the little porker to broaden its eating horizons. This
setup saves me a million steps because I can just pop out
with a dipper and feed the current occupant. The whole pen
is portable, too, which makes each orphan's eventual
transfer to the regular pigpen an easy task.
How to Care for a Litter of Orphaned Pigs
One pig can be a pet, but
eight pigs are simply eight little hogs. One is always
hungry ahead of the rest and that one will unfailingly
awaken the entire crew, which makes feedings downright
So, when I find myself with a whole orphaned
litter to care for, I generally resort to using big
soft-drink bottles, fitted with lamb nipples, at feeding
time. These groups of little ones live in a huge furniture
box spread with lots of newspaper and a layer of straw.
Beside it, I keep a big straw-filled "dining room" tub. The
solid footing provided by the straw helps the piglets feel
secure while they have their meals. I've also
found that they eat better if their heads are higher than
A second sleep box is always kept clean and
ready. Then each pig in turn is put in the diner, given its
bottle, cleaned, and transferred to the new box. This way,
none of the animals is slighted, and the first "dormitory"
can be immediately cleaned and made ready for the next
goround. (Once, when a litter managed to tip over the
sleeping box and get out, all eight of the little pigs
instantly rushed to the tub and stood on their hind feet,
hanging onto the only "mother" they knew in hopes of a
Bottle feeding does make it more difficult to add
pellets to the babies' diet. Therefore, it's best to get
the group out of the house and into the orphanage as
quickly as possible, so you can begin to feed them from a
shallow, non-metal tray or trough. (Sour grain and milk can
become toxic if served in metal containers, and could
slowly poison your pigs.) Put milk or suckle in the trough
and add a few pellets. At first the piglets will waste more
than they eat, and you might have to combine trough and
bottle feeding for a while. Gradually, though, you'll be
able to wean them from the bottle. While doing so, keep the
self-feeder full at all times, and always provide plenty of
Your most serious problems — when dealing
with orphaned litters — will likely be waste and dirt. Keep
both pigs and equipment clean, and never allow the food to
go sour even if you have to dump some uneaten gruel on
the compost pile occasionally.
And remember that wherever
you house the pigs and no matter how many there are,
they'll need exercise. Prepare some "playground" space as
soon as the animals begin to eat solid food.
How to Keep Pigs Safe and Secure
One orphan is easy to care for indoors
for a couple of weeks without the bother of the box system
that I use for a whole litter. It's simpler, I've found,
just to keep the floor clean in a blocked-off area.
Furthermore, a single pig can be trained like a puppy:
by leaving a few thicknesses of newspaper in a specific
A lone infant will want a security blanket — pigs
like to cuddle and be wrapped up. Mine often make do with
an old coat. In fact, Ozzie — our little
Duroc — used to pack herself into her "blanket" sleeve
every night, looking like a sausage with two eyes and a
You must also be sure to protect the tykes from
dogs. Even a usually gentle mutt will
sometimes go after the little strangers — and keep in mind
that a pig from a litter that's never been handled will be
a bit wild. It might be half-starved, but it can probably
still run like a deer and hide like a professional. Should
such a piglet get away, you may never catch it.
don't be discouraged if you don't save every single runt or
orphan you adopt. After all, without your help none of them
would have survived. Mothering is always a bit of trouble,
but the rewards — in terms of inexpensive pork and
plain old self-satisfaction — are well worth the