Much has changed since we last checked in on our Farrow-to-Finish litter.
By the end of the first month those cute little pigs begin to look a bit more like hogs; widening, thickening, and developing an evil eye for anyone who enters their weaning shed uninvited. We still think they’re rather adorable, but the physical changes are undeniable.
Between day two and seven their vigorous toddling turns to strong and coordinated running and jumping. During the second week they begin to explore the farmyard just outside their mother’s domain, start expanding their pig-ese vocabulary, and spend much of their day flexing their muscles in wrestling matches with their littermates. By the first few days of their third week they’ve begun exploring with their mouthes, can often be found toting around sticks and pieces of straw, and have discovered the pleasure of stealing a few bites of mom’s feed for themselves. It’s also around this time that they begin to venture further from their sow during the day and will often intermingle with other litters of the same size and age to play games, learn about social structures and explore.
At some point between the second day and the end of the third week we castrate the male pigs. I’ve written before about why we castrate pigs and, more recently, about new technology that may allow us to do so in an entirely different way in the future. If you haven’t had a chance to read those, I’d highly recommend them. As I noted last time, the earlier you can castrate the better, but sometimes waiting a couple of weeks — as many as several — is both necessary and beneficial for various reasons as well.
Reasons a farmer may wait beyond the first few days of life to castrate include:
- Smaller pigs have smaller testicles. And smaller testicles are harder to find, sometimes making the procedure harder on both handler and pig.
- Castration is a stress to the pig’s immune system. If there are other factors that may also stress the pig’s immune system sometimes it’s best to time the castration so as not to cause too much stress all at once. Staggering big events in a young pig’s life can improve survival rates.
- Some pigs may be left intact for breeding purposes. Choosing a breeding quality animal at just a couple days old is impossible. If a farmer wishes to keep or sell a male animal for breeding purposes he or she will often keep a few of the best prospects intact for a few weeks until their conformation, growth rate, and temperament can be better assessed.
When we castrate we also give all piglets in the litter — both males and females — an injection to control internal parasites. Some types of parasites have been shown in pigs as young as just four days old and because internal parasites can cause a multitude of problems from interfering with respiration to reducing feed efficiency to causing internal blood loss it’s important that a farm’s parasite control program begins early.
It’s usually shortly after this time, at about four weeks of age, that we move the piglets to their own housing, separate of the sow. This process is called weaning, because it’s the process that weans the piglets off their mother’s milk. In the past we have experimented with various weaning ages and studied the scientific literature on weaning that is available for the swine industry. Some operations wean younger than four weeks, some older, but we’ve found this timing to be best for our pigs and situation.
When choosing a weaning date a farmer must balance a few considerations:
- The condition of the sow. Nursing a litter of pigs can take a toll on the body condition of even the best sows. Allowing them to nurse for too long can put the sow at a disadvantage, we like to pull our pigs before the sows get milked down.
- The readiness of the pigs. With the exception of very early weaning techniques that incorporate special feeding that replaces the sow’s milk in the diet, pigs who are weaned must be ready to eat solid feed before being removed from their sows. Since piglets naturally begin stealing feed from their mother between two and three weeks of age this is rarely an issue.
- Farm productivity. With extremely small profit margins it’s important that farmers aren’t feeding sows for weeks without production. This doesn’t mean that they’re pushed to reproduce without regard for their wellbeing, there’s a reason this bullet point comes below the other two, but production is a reasonable concern and though there are exceptions sows generally come into estrus only after a current litter has been weaned.
And that’s the first month! Do you have questions? Comments? Observations? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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In the swine industry the term “Farrow to Finish” is used to describe farms that raise pigs from birth to the point at which they’re ready to be processed into pork. (From “Farrow” to “Finish”.) Farrow to Finish here is a series of posts following one litter of pigs through that process. Each post is designed with the consumer in mind and offers information about how pigs become pork chops (and so many other pork products). Because we run an alternative hog operation we’ve made it a point to note the instances where differences might exist if these pigs were being brought up in a conventional operation. In most cases however, there are more similarities than differences. You can find more Farrow to Finish posts on the Pigs to Pork Page.