Tips for Raising Pigs During Sow Farrowing Time

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You might have gotten the impression from reading my discussion of farrowing in MOTHER’s article “Homestead Hog Management: A to Z,” that “pigwifery” is a tricky and hazard-fraught area of amateur pork production. But it usually isn’t — and it never has to be — if you’re well-armed with the information I’m going to give you right now.

Most of my veterinarian friends agree that trouble-free farrowing begins with a clear understanding of the birth process itself. Before we turn our attention to problems of parturition, then, let’s talk a bit about sow physiology and the things that happen in the course of a normal porcine delivery.

Sow Birthing Process

First, it’s important to recall that — unlike most large animals — a hog’s reproductive system is Y-shaped. At estrus, the gilt or sow deposits a string of 10 or 11 eggs quite similar in appearance to (but smaller than) a string of pearls into each arm of a V-shaped uterus … and, at farrowing, baby pigs are delivered from either side of the womb into a common birth canal.

During delivery, the mother may expel piglets first from one side of the “V,” then the other, then the first side again, etc. Alternatively, the sow’s delivery mechanism may — after the first four or five infants arrive — shift to one arm of the uterus, empty it, and shift back. (Also, mama may expel some of her afterbirth during delivery, or save the entire “package” until later.)

Just as unpredictable as the order of their arrival is the head/tail orientation of newborn pigs. Some infants slip out feet first in their slippery, transparent sacks … while others slide headlong into the world.

Then there’s the occasional fat little rascal that’s too large for his mother to expel without help regardless of his orientation. This isn’t as common an occurrence as you might think (one old-timer I spoke with told me that in 10 years of hog-raising, he’s only had to pull one pig), but — in the event that you do find it necessary to assist mama with the delivery of one of her young’ uns — here’s what you should do:

  1. Scrub your hand and arm to the elbow with a medical detergent. (A strong household detergent can do as much damage as no soap at all.)
  2. Tuck your thumb under your fingers and enter the sow’s vagina slowly, palm down.
  3. Identify the infant’s orientation (and don’t let its wiggling scare you). If the animal is coming head-first, grasp the back of its neck … if feet-first, lock its hind legs between your index and ring fingers.
  4. Now pull firmly and (above all) slowly.

Remember, try not to overreact to what you think is a crisis. Under normal circumstances, a sow’s delivery will last between two and three hours … which means you shouldn’t assume that anything’s run amuck unless 30 minutes or more have elapsed since the last infant emerged. And even then, it’s a good idea to let the mother do as much of her own delivery work as she can, because the likelihood of blood vessels being ruptured in and around the birth canal is vastly increased when you decide to assume the role of a midwife.

Increased Swine Diseases Risk

Experts say that a sow’s chances of experiencing health problems rise sharply after she gives birth, particularly if the mother is a first-litter gilt. And by “health problems,” we generally mean one or more of the MMA diseases: mastitis, metritis, and agalactia.

Mastitis is a bacterial-caused inflammation of the milk-producing glands in which the area around the affected teat(s) becomes rock-hard and feverish (a condition known in layman’s terms as “caked udder”). This is accompanied by a drop in the production of milk and — depending on the type of micro-organism involved — the sow may develop a temperature of up to 107 degrees Fahrenheit (as opposed to the normal 102 — 103 degrees).

Metritis is an inflammation of the uterus (sometimes — but not always — caused by infection) that generally appears within 36 hours of farrowing. Symptoms include a white to yellowish discharge around the sow’s vulva, a depressed appetite, and a temperature of up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Once again, the animal’s udders will feel feverish and full. Left untreated, metritis will cause the mother’s normal flow of milk to stop completely.

Agalactia (literally, “without milk”) is simply a reduction in or cessation of milk flow, and frequently occurs in conjunction with the two conditions described above. Sows that suffer from agalactia often refuse to expose their udder, experience chilling and constipation, have a depressed appetite, and may run a temperature as high as 106 degrees. Also, the udder will feel hard and feverish.

Obviously, the reduction in milk flow brought on by these three conditions can spell disaster for an entire litter … unless you remain alert to MMA symptoms and seek the counsel of a veterinarian upon the first indications of trouble. (Chances are, your vet will want to inject the afflicted animal with a commercial MMA medication consisting of a steroid, an antibiotic, and the pituitary hormone oxytocin. In addition, the doctor may — in an extreme case — advise you to put the piglets on a commercial milk substitute until the ailing mother is well again.)

Protection against Disease

Unfortunately, there’s no sure way to prevent the appearance of MMA syndrome … but there are ways in which you can lessen the chances of an outbreak. Authorities say, for instance, that pregnant mothers which have been overfed and allowed to become lazy seem to be prime candidates for the MMA diseases. So a strict diet and plenty of forced exercise, are definitely in order. (With regard to the former, swine nutritionists recommend a five-pound-per-day 14 percent protein ration for the first 75 days of gestation, with an increase to 16 percent protein in the feed thereafter.)

Since MMA syndrome is particularly prevalent in first-litter gilts, another thing we can all do is hang onto our older sows and breed them until they’re too old to farrow safely. (About four years of service is considered maximum.)

In addition to feeding and exercising our pregnant hogs properly and holding onto productive mothers, we can further reduce the incidence of MMA syndrome in the future by the careful selection of our breeding stock. In short, don’t breed the offspring of afflicted mothers. (You can notch the little ones’ ears to make it easy to tell them apart from their “breedable” peers.)

When a sow is healthy, her performance during lactation depends on four very important factors:

  1. ADEQUATE NUTRITION. By the third or fourth day after farrowing, the mother’s feed requirements are going to double. For a typical homestead sow confined to a farrowing pen, this means two five-pound feedings of 16 percent-protein ration per day. (Work up to the heavier allotment over a three-or four-day period, and cut the mother back to one five-pound feeding per day when you begin to wean her pigs.)
  2. SUFFICIENT WATER. Authorities say that in order to keep a sow’s milk flow high, it’s essential that a first-litter mother get between four and five gallons of fresh, clean water each day and that older sows receive five to six gallons per day. (In return, the ravenous young pigs will get six to eight pounds of milk daily.)
  3. CAREFUL TEMPERATURE CONTROL. Statistics indicate that an overheated sow is much more likely to injure her wobbly-legged offspring than one whose surroundings are kept between 70 and 75 degrees at all times.
  4. DAILY EXERCISE. Likewise, research has shown that when a sow is confined to a farrowing crate for the duration of her six-week lactation period she’s more likely to become constipated and nervous. Both of these stress conditions can — and should — be avoided by giving the cooped-up mother two 15-or 20-minute exercise periods per day. (If the weather doesn’t permit a romp in the hog lot, let the ole gal meander around the barn. She’ll benefit either way.)

There you have it: everything you need to know to make your spring farrowing operation the most successful ever!

Reader’s Questions

Is it necessary to cut the umbilical cord of a newborn pig?

No. The cord has a naturally weak spot and will come apart with a gentle tug. (As a disease-preventive measure, you might want to treat the infant’s navel with tamed iodine obtained from a farm supply dealer or veterinarian.)

Tell me, just how dangerous is a mother sow?

As long as you respect the mother’s instinct to protect her offspring and are careful never to give her cause to become concerned for the safety of the litter, you needn’t worry too much about the sow’s becoming violent. Remember, however, that there’s always a certain amount of risk involved in handling a hog’s newborn infants (due to the very strong and protective maternal instinct with which nature blessed the animal) and that an unwary 170-pound man (let alone a woman or child) is no match for an angered 200-pound sow.

I recently bought a new gilt to replace one of my older sows … however, I haven’t been able to get here to breed. What should I do?

Before you ship the stubborn female off to market, try getting her together with your boar during the night while the rest of the herd is asleep. It’s possible that the gilt’s telltale breeding odor is very faint and that — during the daytime — the boar can’t pick up the scent.

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