Baby (Pigs), It’s Cold Outside

Winter Farrowing

It’s one of those incredibly inconvenient truths of a small, alternative hog operation; that pigs farrowed (born) in the winter are in greater demand than those farrowed in the spring, summer, and fall.

You see, farrowing in the summer is relatively easy and generally costs very little. Farrowing in the spring and fall are only occasionally more difficult, sometimes compounded by mud and rain, but still fairly easy going. And then you have farrowing in the winter, with it’s snow, cold, short days, and long nights. long nights made even longer when your alarm is going off every thirty minutes so you can check a sow or a newborn litter of pigs, I might add.

It may seem contrary at first, that winter-farrowed pigs would be in greater demand, but when you consider that winter farrowed pigs are those who are the right age and size to be sold for feeder and 4-H fair pigs first thing in the spring, roasted at the height of the summer bbq season, and processed for the freezer come late summer and early fall it all begins to make sense.

It’s for similar reasons that pigs farrowed in the spring are the second highest in demand, being ready for feeder pig sales in the summer (the second most popular season for backyard and hobbyist farmers to bring a couple home) and the freezer come fall (when many people are thinking about stocking up for winter.) But pigs farrowed in the summer and fall entirely miss the fair, bbq, and fall festival seasons, and they must be raised out over the winter if you want them to fill your freezer. And since just about no one who isn’t a full-time hog farmer wants to mess with feeding hogs in the winter, they’re not exactly a hot commodity.

In fact, we pretty much plan on every last one of our summer or fall farrowed pigs staying with us here on our farm. Whereas, a good portion of our winter and spring farrowed pigs are sold young and live to be raised elsewhere.

But why is winter farrowing hard?

  • Well, for starters, it’s cold. Baby pigs cannot effectively regulate their own body temperature, which means cold, can be fatal in very short order.
  • Farrowing in the winter requires more inputs. From electricity for heat, to extra bedding for keeping extra warm, to more feed for the sow because she’s both lactating and fighting the cold herself, winter farrowing requires more “stuff”.
  • It’s more labor intensive. Beginning as much as a week and a half before farrowing the amount of labor required to farrow in the winter really picks up and eats away at a farmer’s time. Because it’s cold we have to check the sow more often so we can make sure the pigs get dried off and moved to her teats quickly after their grand entrance into the world. After the birth we spend a lot of time observing and, within 8-12 hours, we spend time actively teaching the litter where they’re creep area is; which, in our setup, means finding that delicate balance between handling the pigs for their own good and not riling the sow up over our presence and the inevitable squeals that result from that handling.
  • It’s more expensive. All that stuff I mentioned above costs money and some of it specifically costs more money in the winter. Feed prices are, as a rule, always higher in the winter — and a lactating sow requires a lot of feed. Electricity and bedding can also be more expensive during the dark, cold months.

Fortunately, we humans are quite bright and we’ve found ways to cope.

So, how do you make winter farrowing easier?

  • We use creep areas. A small, protected, and (in the case of winter) heated area where only the pigs can go. It’s important that the sow not have access to the creep area, where she may hog (pun somewhat intended) the heat source, lay on the pigs and — as the pigs grow — get into their high-protein starter feed. Traditionally, these creep areas were as simple as a board installed several inches above the ground, around the outside of the sow’s hut, but we’ve found it better to remove the creep area from the sow’s hut altogether. Some of our sows can be rather mischievous and, at four-hundred pounds each, can make rather short work of anything within their reach. Instead, we’ve put tiny “pig doorways in to our farrowing huts that lead to a small creep area that is entirely outside the sow’s pen altogether. These creep areas are quite rudimentary, 55 gallon drums, cut in half lengthwise, outfitted with a heat lamp, and placed underneath a tarp-covered pallet a-frame for added insulation and weather proofing. All but free and rather effective.
  • We structure our farm and personal calendars to allow more free time in the winter for farrowing work. As much as possible, we clear the calendar around the days when we have sows due to farrow so that we can be un-rushed in attending births and caring for newborns.
  • We buy ahead as much as possible. At this time we’re not able to store feed in any significant bulk amounts, but we do buy our bedding in bulk during the height of the growing season to get the best possible price. Ideally, we’d also have on-farm storage for the year’s worth of feed (and the operating capital to procure the year’s worth at a time), but this building a farm from scratch stuff is hard and expensive so we’re not quite there yet.

Ideally, we’d also like to be doing this in a barn, rather than in huts. It would provide more protection from the elements for everyone — the sows, pigs, and us when we’re out there attending births at three in the morning, but for now this works.

Happy Hogging, everybody!

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{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Sean Zigmund February 17, 2014, 3:11 pm

    Nice article! We’re in our third year of owning pigs and second year of breeding / raising them in the Catskill region of New York – cold temps, lots of snow. This winter is our second winter wherein we’ve had sows that farrowed. Last winter we had our pot bellied pet pig farrow five little ones, but four of them died due to anemia, which was a hard, hard lesson. We realized with the 5th surviving piglet that they didn’t have access to soil, which is where pigs get the majority of iron-based nutrients, a requirement for blood cell production and “normal” blood efficacy. We lost our pot bellied and four of those piglets, but the 5th one survived with an iron shot and a good amount of molasses, spinach, and raw cow’s milk added to her diet! Last fall our boar broke in with ours sows so we knew there was a good chance of February farrowing. Sure enough, those few hours he was in with the ladies, he impregnated 3 out of 4! We were prepared for the first sow – had a nice small, double-insulated shelter (using pallets stuffed tight with insulative materials) ready for her, with a nice tight and cozy creep, two heat lamps (one in the creep, and one higher up that pointed towards the sow so the piglets would also have heat when suckling), and a heat mat under a piece of carpeting in their creep so they’d have heat from below as well! The second sow wasn’t showing any signs of farrowing, so we figured we’d wait two days until the weekend to finish up her shelter. That night, she popped! I found them at 7am when we were feeding – the other two sows who were still sharing the same shelter came out for feed, but momma sow didn’t and I just knew she was in labor or worse… Between the cold and the sows being all together, six of the seven piglets that were pushed out during the early morning hours died from the cold and most likely were crushed by the other sows. The seventh piglet was huddled next to momma, shivering, so I moved that piglet into the first shelter with the other momma sow and we quickly finished wintering the shelter and moving the other sows. Four more piglets later, she was done farrowing. The third pregnant sow farrowed two days later – 12 in all, but two stillborns. 27 piglets alive and well, and 11 total that perished (4 stillborns, 1 crushed, 6 found dead). Winter is definitely difficult, but I actually prefer it to farrowing any other time of year – as long as you’re ready for it!! Have soil ready to give to the piglets after day 2 – they literally eat the soil, and with that they get many nutritional benefits that the momma sow’s colostrum and milk don’t contain. Have a source for raw cow or goat’s milk so if there’s a problem with momma sow lactating, you can supplement milk for them. Have a solid creep area inside a very well insulated shelter (we build shelters out of two layers of pallets, which gives 8 inches of insulation space that can be packed with insulation – we actually save ALL throw-away plastic bags, old clothing, and use hay and straw as well). One standard 250W heat lamp will heat a 6′ by 5′ shelter to 90 degrees Fahrenheit! The “door” of the shelter is constructed of three layers of old carpeting, cut into 4 inch strips, staggered so that the sow can walk in and out without leaving the entry way open – the carpet strips fall back into place nicely and close up the entry nicely when momma goes in and out – BUT, don’t put all the carpet on until she’s “nesting” in the shelter (scratching at the floor, trying to bunch up hay to be comfortable) – this is a sure sign she’s going to farrow at any moment. Once she starts nesting, put up the carpet, otherwise she may decide it’s food or bedding and try to rip them down! Be sure to make the shelter big enough for your sow, her piglets (considering they will be in the shelter with momma sow for at least 6 weeks!), and some room for yourself so you can check on them, supplement milk if need be, and to just hang out in there and watch the little ones be cute, take pictures, etc… Breeding pigs is one of the greatest times on our farm, and after having sows farrow through winter successfully and pretty easily, we’ve found a sweeter spot for marketing our piglets, pigs, and pork, even though the costs are a bit higher (two heat lamps per sow, instead of one per sow in spring/summer/fall), and the lack of pasture… we have yet to see our organic feed cost go higher in winter, luckily! We use Vermont-based Green Mountain organic pig feed, hay, collect apples, leaves, and nuts in fall for the entire winter, and feed them kitchen scraps. New York City chefs have called our hogs “outstanding!”, so we’re happy with our progress as young farmers!

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