If you've cared for weaned piglets and want to take the next step in swine herding, the author has a lot of advice on how to breed pigs.
In a previous article I tried to pass along all the know-how necessary to rear eating-size porkers from weaned feeder pigs. Of course, a number of folks will want to set up a year-round breeding operation. If you're thinking of learning how to breed pigs, however, you should know right off the bat that rearing newborn piglets is a somewhat involved and risky undertaking. In fact, from 30% to 40% of the baby swine born in the pig-breeding business in this country die shortly after birth!
But a small scale homesteader is able to provide more conscientious caretaking than can most large enterprises, so you should be able to save almost all your curly-tailed youngsters ... and successfully raise an average of 16 hogs per sow (from two litters) each year. All it takes to achieve the goal is a lot of tender loving care and some solid know how.
Obviously enough, the first step toward rearing healthy piglets is making sure the intended mother is mated! A gilt (a young female hog) should reach sexual maturity at five or six months of age, and be receptive for two or three days of each subsequent 21 day cycle. You can be sure that a sow's in estrus (heat) if the female has a swollen vulva. She also may or may not have a slight mucus-like or bloody vaginal discharge, act restless, urinate frequently, twitch her tail, hold her ground when you press down on her hindquarters, or try to "ride" other sows.
You should mate gilts on their first day of heat and older "gals" on the second day. (Both young and old sows should receive a second mating 24 hours after their first.) As for the male partners in a porcine union, an 8- to 12-month-old boar can usually service 12 females in pasture or be "handmated" (matched individually in a barn) with 24 gilts or sows. A yearling (or older) boar can service 50 sows in stalls or 35 to 40 pasturing females.
The gestation period for your pregnant sow will be approximately 113 days, or as the old saying goes, three months, three weeks, and three days. But there are some important preparations to be made before that magic moment of birth arrives.
For one thing, you should in advance take steps to help keep diseases from striking those fragile newborns. So be sure to worm (for parasites) and spray (for lice) each sow about two weeks before her due date. You should also immunize an expectant mother against erysipelas to strengthen both the sow's and offspring's resistance to this most common—and usually fatal—swine disease. Likewise, good sanitation is a vital part of preventive health care, so thoroughly clean the farrowing pen (and keep it clean) ... and wash the pregnant porker with a mild detergent and warm water before you pen her up for delivery.
Another important prefarrowing job is building a proper "birthing nest." Little piglets need a very warm environment. The baby porkers will thrive at 80° to 90°F... suffer at 60° to 70°F... and die if when the mercury dips to around 50°. The youngsters' mother, on the other hand, probably has three to five solid inches of insulation (better known as lard) around her middle ... so she's more likely to suffer from overheating!
The different temperature needs of a swine mother and her children can create quite a problem. While the little oinkers will try to cuddle up against Mom to stay warm, the parent pig will just as likely be trying to cool off by continually standing up and sitting down. And every time the mother settles back down, she runs the risk of landing on and perhaps killing a baby squealer.
To avoid such a calamity, your farrowing pen should incorporate a separate heat source for the piglets so they won't need to scramble up to their mother for warmth. Most folks use electric or gas-powered heat lamps for this purpose, although a few innovative individuals have taken to building solar heated farrowing pens.
Your pen should also have some piglet "guard rails" that stand 8 to 10 inches off the floor and extend 1 to 12 inches out from the farrowing pen walls. By crawling under the rails, the little ones can curl up and sleep safely in their own heated spot, and scramble out after Mother only at mealtime.
A few days before the piglets are due, you'll want to move the expectant sow into her new quarters so she can adjust to the changed surroundings. (Be sure, though, to let her out for two 10 to 15 minute periods of exercise every day that she's in the farrowing pen to help the beast ward off constipation and nervous stress.)
Around that same time, you'll need to gather together all your nursery items (such as iodine, clean rags, and plenty of bedding). And don't forget to keep a pitchfork or shovel around as well, so you can keep the farrowing area "clean enough to sit in with your Sunday best duds on."
You'll know that the sow is ready to bear her young when she gets restless and tries to make a nest in her farrowing pen. Once the mother actually starts giving birth, you can help events proceed smoothly by talking to the sow reassuringly—or if you feel foolish conversing with a pig—by giving her a small portion of laxative bran meal. Then, as each baby is born, dry the new arrival with clean rags (before it hits the ground, if possible). Also, paint the piglets' navels with iodine by either spraying the disinfectant on each youngster's severed cord or by firmly placing the tot over a wide-mouthed bottle of iodine so that its navel cord hangs down into the container and then deftly turning both bottle and pig upside down.
It's probably best to keep the newborn piglets in a heated corner (or box), away from their mother while she undergoes her birthing throes. Then, once they're all born and you've disposed of the afterbirth, make sure each newcomer has the chance to nurse and obtain some of its mother's precious colostrum. This "first milk" is high in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antibodies. (You might even milk some extra colostrum from the sow to store in ice cube trays in case you later encounter a mother who won't allow her piglets to nurse.)
Finally, after you've gone on to clean out the soiled bedding and made sure that both the new mother and her piglets are comfortable, you can go back to bed and try to make yourself comfortable. Don't expect to get much sleep, though, because farrowing inevitably finishes just in time for you to begin your morning chores!
A sow's milk is naturally deficient in iron, so one of your first piglet caretaking tasks will be "recharging" the newborns supply of that mineral. If your youngsters are starting out life on a dirt-floored pen (or if you provide a boxed supply of soil in the nursery), the little ones may get all the iron they need by rooting in the earth. But if, like most folks, you choose to raise the piglets in a more sanitary environment, you'll need to give your one- to three- day-old critters either an injection of 150 to 200 milligrams of iron, or a feed that contains about 36 milligrams of iron per pound.
The youngsters' main diet from birth until they're weaned at four to eight weeks of age will, of course, be their mother's milk. But you should also provide your growing oinkers in the first week with an at hand supply of high quality feed (use a creep feeder so that the sow can't get at the goodies) containing at least 18% protein ... and all the essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Most pig raisers will want to remove the tips of their piglets' eight needle teeth on the same day the "swinelings" receive the iron supplements. Simply nip off the tips of the teeth with wire cutters or with special tooth clippers designed for the purpose . . . otherwise, the little pigs can use their tusklike biters to hurt other youngsters or accidentally harm their momma's udders.
Any males that are not going to be raised for breeding stock should also be castrated while young to prevent uncontrolled mating and to keep their meat from developing an "off" or "boarish" flavor and odor. If you perform this operation when the piglets are around two weeks of age, your task will be relatively easy and non-traumatic for the young animal.
To castrate a shoat, have a helper hold the piglet up by its hind legs while you wash the animal's genital area with a disinfectant. Then use a sterilized knife (either a hooked blade castrating tool or a regular scalpel that's been outfitted with a No. 12 blade) to make a long, deep incision over the length of each testicular bulge.
Many novice castrators will make this cut too short or shallow. Such a failing will not only make testicle removal more difficult, but also—by not providing adequate drainage for the wound—cause much more swelling (and pain) for the pig, and increase the likelihood of infection.
So don't be shy when you wield the knife! If you make the incision correctly, the testicles will either fall out of the scrotum or be easy to press out by hand. Then simply grab each "mountain oyster" and pull it gently away from the pig until the connecting artery and cord stretch and break off. The subsequent snapback will force the artery to contract and quickly choke off the flow of blood. (Cuffing the vessel, on the other hand, can cause a lot of bleeding.)
After you've performed the simple cut and pull procedure, spray or powder the exposed area with an antibiotic, and if the operation takes place during fly season apply a protective dressing. Then let the newly castrated male (now known as a barrow) loose in a cleanly bedded pen. In a few days the cut will heal, and the little fellow should be as good ... well, almost as good as new. (And by the way, the leftovers from your work make delicious beer chasers when washed and fried in an egg batter.)
Raising pigs "from scratch" definitely takes more commitment, work, and know-how than simply fattening up some purchased weaners. Along with careful handling of the mating, the farrowing, and the infants' upbringing, you'll need to keep complete records on each sow's productivity (including the weights of her litters when weaned) so you can cull the poor producers from your herd and promote overall breeding efficiency. (Of course, you should also keep track of vaccination and worming dates and all other medications used.)
All in all, though, breeding your own pigs can take you one step closer to true self-sufficiency, provide you with the opportunity to start a worthwhile homestead critter-raising business, and give you a heck of a lot of satisfaction.
Two fine books on swine rearing are Dirk van Loon's 263-page paperback, Small-Scale Pig Raising (Garden Way) and Jerome D. Belanger's 226-page hardback, Raising the Homestead Hog (Rodale).