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!