Plan Before Sow Farrowing Time to Prevent Pig Losses

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Keeping the mother sow healthy can help reduce baby pig mortality rate at farrowing time.

Baby pig mortality is a serious problem for the homestead hog raiser. Experts say that of all piglets born alive at farrowing, almost 25 percent, one in four, will die before they’re old enough to wean.

Why such a high death rate? A major university survey concludes that most infant pig deaths arise either from disease, or poor pre — and post — natal management. Fortunately for us, both of these ticklish areas can be carefully monitored on a small homestead, which means that you and I have an excellent chance of beating the 1in 4 infant mortality odds and keeping our hog raising operations solidly in the black.

A newborn piglet is indeed a fragile creature. He enters the world without a single disease-fighting antibody in his system. In fact, the 3 pound babe is — except for his intense will to survive — entirely defenseless against disease and mistreatment. And that makes it essential that we remove every possible threat to the young animal’s survival.

Importance of Swine Health

The logical place to start our pig loss prevention program, then, is with the mother sow (who is, in a very real sense, the piglet’s only life-support system).

Your first step — two weeks before farrowing — should be to worm the expectant sow with a medication obtained from either a vet or a feed dealer. Once a hog picks up roundworms, whipworms, or other internal parasites — and begins to excrete masses of eggs in the feces — a vicious cycle of reinfection tone that’s almost certain to afflict the mother’s litter is established. And with the young pigs already short on disease resistance, an infestation of worms is sure to complicate things in a hurry. The same goes for external parasites, such as lice. If we expect to extract the most from our pig investment dollars, we’ve got to start by pulling a few bucks into the worming and delousing of every expectant coca two weeks before the end of her 115-day gestation.  

Another equally important link in the chain of prenatal care is immunization of the mother against erysipelas (pronounced ear-uh-SIP-less). In its acute form, this ailment — probably THE most common of all swine diseases — causes a temperature of 107 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees above normal), painfully swollen joints, and light-red to dark-purplish discoloration of the skin around the snout, ears, and abdomen. It can also cause the sudden and unexpected death of two-to-four  week-old suckling pigs.

And that’s foolish because all you have to do to stave off erysipelas is vaccinate the mother sow at the same time that she’s wormed and deloused (two weeks before her “due date”, or 101 days after conception). This inexpensive procedure will protect the mother and (via the colostrum) her litter, until the offspring are old enough to be given their own erysipelas injections when they weigh 40 pounds.

As gestation goes into its final countdown, and farrowing is but a few days off, the second phase of our pig-saving program begins. Here, the key word is cleanliness.

Farrowing Pen Necessities

All the vets I’ve spoken with agree on one thing: A farrowing pen should:

  • Offer the farmer or homesteader easy access to the sow in case of delivery problems
  • Provide newborn piglets with plenty of warmth and safety, and
  • Be easily cleanable. It makes no difference whether you use a homemade pen or a steel crate. Just be sure the quarters are scrupulously clean.  

This means you’ll want to disinfect the entire farrowing facility — and everything that goes into it (including the sow) — immediately before you introduce the mother to her new home. Remember, especially, to wash the sow with a mild detergent and warm water and to remove any plugs of dirt she may have on the ends of her teats.

Authorities recommend that an expectant mother hog be given 3 to 5 days to adjust to her new surroundings before she farrows. The “break-in” period is necessary for two reasons:

  1. The sow needs time to become accustomed to the strange micro-organisms (or lack of same) in her new environment. (This is doubly important, since the animal’s resistance is already low due to the increasing demands of pregnancy and is going to slip even lower at delivery time.)
  2. The more time a nervous sow spends in her new pen, the more secure she’ll feel at farrowing time and the easier it’ll be to handle any crisis that may occur. (The last thing you want is an overexcited mother who bobs up and down like a cork in a hurricane after each piglet is born. We want to cut the mortality rate, not increase it!)

If you have a well-insulated, draft-free barn land you can maintain temperatures of 70 to 75 degrees in the sow’s pen and 90 to 95 degrees in the hover), it won’t matter so much what kind of bedding you use in the furrowing quarters. But if — like me — you can’t hold your barn at a steady temperature, you’ll want to follow the experts’ advice and put down a couple inches of wheat straw.

Why wheat straw?

  • It can withstand constant exposure to animal waste longer than any other straw or hay.
  • Its ready availability makes it one of the least expensive nesting materials you can buy.
  • It’s an outstanding retainer of heat. Researchers at a leading university compared wheat straw’s thermal properties to those of several other bedding materials, and found it to be an exceedingly effective insulator.

Two inches of wheat straw is usually plenty. More than that, and you’ll increase the danger of the mother lying on her pigs, while too little of the bedding can expose the babies to a cold floor and chill them, causing unneeded stress (and, possibly, death).

Once the prenatal program is complete and mama is installed in her farrowing pen, all that’s left is to make sure the ole gal has an adequate supply of clean, fresh water and that she gets her five pounds of 16 percent-protein ration daily. (Don’t forget, too, to let the sow out twice a day for 10 to 15 minutes of exercise. This will tend to reduce the chance that she’ll become constipated before she farrows.)

Last fall we lost several of our piglets to scour,. I’ve since heard that a few of the big pork factories are using something called probiotics to treat the condition.What are probiotics? And do they work?  

Probiotics are microbial cultures that are administered orally to newborn pigs in an attempt to “normalize” the balance of micro-organisms in the infants’ digestive tracts. Although the basic concept sounds terrific, a leading midwestern university found that — under field conditions similar to those of a homestead farrowing operation — piglets did not respond one way or another to probiotic cultures. So–for the time being, at least — there still is no sure-fire cure for scours in baby pigs.

All I can suggest is that if you experience the problem again this spring, you should take one of the afflicted animals to your vet. He or she will then be able — after identifying the responsible microorganisms — to recommend the appropriate medication.

We’re new to hog raising and would like to know when, exactly, a sow is ready to he bred.

Glad you asked! The normal heat cycle begins with the appearance of a pinkish color around the outer lips of the animal’s vulva. (Afterward, the vulva will redden and swell.) At the first sign of color change, introduce the boar into your herd and leave him there until a second complete heat cycle has passed (21 days). If the female shows no signs of entering another estrus at the end of three weeks, congratulations! Your sow’s going to have pigs!

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