Small-scale pig keeping: the fundamentals of farrowing

Next in Dr Michaela Giles's series of small-scale insights: a simple and easy-to-follow account of farrowing from triggering labour, to normal farrowing patterns, to complete aftercare.

Aftercare

Once farrowing is complete, the sow will stand, urinate and lie down to suckle the piglets to provide the vital colostrum. The piglets should fall asleep at the teats while the sow grunts to them softly.

Sows may not be interested in their food after giving birth for a short while, but their appetite should return within 24 hours. Keep a close eye on the sow for the first few days, as if she continues to be off her food and lethargic, she could lose her milk supply (agalactia) due to mastitis or metritis. If this happens, call your vet and/or administer antibiotics immediately. If all is well your sow should be fed to maintain her body condition score (BCS) of 3 to 3.5.

One problem that you hopefully won’t come across on your first farrowing is when a completely novice sow seems calm and controlled throughout the birthing process until one of the piglets moves up to her head, and then she becomes frightened by the ‘strange creature’ she can now see. She may even try to bite or kill the piglets when she gets up and sees them all around her. If you can collect the piglets safely, without having to sedate the sow, eg they are near the rear door of the ark, scoop them up and put them together under a heat lamp until she calms down. It is rarely a permanent problem. If she doesn’t calm down, your vet can prescribe a sedative giving the piglets a chance to feed and get stronger.

During the birthing process and the following 24-48 hours is when the sow is most likely to squash her piglets. When the sow stands up, the piglets congregate around her legs and can easily get trapped when she lies down again. The less overweight the sow is, the quicker she can get up when they squeal from underneath her. Keeping sows at BCS 3 for the birth has saved many piglets from death.

The use of a farrowing rail or pen can help minimise squashed piglets, especially if you hang a heat lamp over the piglet area, as they are out of the sow’s reach. Successful outdoor farrowing in pig arks, without the use of heat lamps, can be achieved in temperate climates certainly with traditional breeds. The use of short chopped straw as bedding for the first week is preferable as the piglets cannot get caught up or hide in it. The sow will keep the piglets warm in the ark and even lie across the doorway to prevent drafts. When the sow leaves the ark, the piglets form a pile to keep warm which makes them obvious to see when she returns and less likely to be trodden upon. Longer straw can be used as bedding once the piglets are older.

Approximately two weeks prior to the actual date, the sows teats enlarge and there is an increase in prominent veins in the udder due to an augmented blood supply to the area
Approximately two weeks prior to the actual date, the sows teats enlarge and there is an increase in prominent veins in the udder due to an augmented blood supply to the area

© Tedfold Cottage Farm

Anterior presentation
Anterior presentation

The majority of piglets are born head first with the front legs folded back (anterior presentation). © Tedfold Cottage Farm

Newborn piglets are still attached to their umbilical cord
Newborn piglets are still attached to their umbilical cord

Newborn piglets are still attached to their umbilical cord and it breaks as they struggle and try to walk; if the sow does not object, you can spray the end of the cord with antiseptic or iodine, due to the length of the cord being a barrier to infection this is not necessary.

The expulsion of the afterbirth
The expulsion of the afterbirth

The placenta/afterbirth is typically expelled within four hours after the last piglet (range: minutes to 12 hours). If you are present, within safe reach and know your sow well, check that there isn’t another piglet caught up in the afterbirth as occasionally it will be passed during the farrowing process.

The signs and timeline of imminent farrowing
The signs and timeline of imminent farrowing

© The Commuter Pig Keeper

Dr Michaela Giles

Michaela has worked in the livestock health industry as a research scientist since 1985. She is a director of the British Pig Association and is an active member of the British government’s Pig Expert Group. Michaela is also the author of The Commuter Pig Keeper.

More in this series: Small-scale pig keeping

March 2020 - September 2019


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