by Brandon Bless
Piglets in March!?
Georgette and Freya, two of our three sows, had their piglets on March 26th!
(Gertie's isn't due until June 1st)
Did you know this is earlier than our pigs normally farrow?
We aim for our pigs to farrow in May. This gives them about 4 weeks in a nursery phase where piglets are cozy in their mama's den and nursing 12+ times a day! Mama can go out of the den to forage for short intervals as needed for some extra calories, nutrients, and plant medicines to keep herself healthy and sharing nutrient-dense milk with her babies. Meanwhile the piglets stay safe, warm, and hidden in their den.
At about 4-5 weeks of age we can then start fence training the piglets to venture out with mama into our woodlands and hedgerows where they find tasty snacks to supplement their main diet of mama's milk. At about 6 weeks piglets learn the boundaries of electric fence and now the grandma-centric pig herd starts moving throughout our woodlands and fields rotating through dense pasture swards, protein-rich dogwood and shrubs, and windfalls of apples and nuts all while sun-bathing, shade-napping, and wallowing throughout the summer and fall.
Our mama sows naturally wean their piglets at around 3 months of nursing. As the piglets increase their foraging and continue to grow we tune into individual characteristics of gilt (young female pigs who have yet to "farrow" or give birth) and boar piglets that help us identify the next generation of the pig herd as the new mamas and papas. From physiological and behavioral characteristics, the piglets show us who among them are some of the happiest, healthiest, friendliest, hardiest, and most hormonally balanced of the bunch. They show us who likes to root more or graze more; who is dominate and who is passive; who likes belly rubs and back scratches; who takes after their mama or papa; who might have more bacons or more lard or more shoulder meat. Essentially, we are looking for those piglets that are most evolved and adapted to their habitat including land, culture, community, and our farm economy.
Our new generation of gilts and boars stay together with their mama and grandma throughout the winter season in our woodchip bedded pack system. While they have access to sunshine, snow, rain, and fresh air, the pigs are sheltered from the wind by a 2-sided shed and are freshly bedded with carbonaceous woodchips and straw a couple times a week. The pigs love rooting and nesting in this system, and their action and manure help to make fungi-rich compost that later serves to enrich and deepen our soils. Throughout winter the pigs eat hay, wheat, oats, peas, corn, apples, vegetables, and are supplemented with minerals, kelp, and occasional dairy or other treats.
At about 7 months of age, gilts are fertile and begin fully developed estrus. Because our pigs live in family herds, their heat cycles of 21 days are synced together to within 1-3 days of each other. Pig gestation is so predictable at 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days, that we can work backwards from our target May farrowing date to determine which heat cycle the gilts and sows can be bred. This means that gilts will farrow at more or less exactly 1 year of age.
Let's see if we got all of that!
If our target farrowing date is the first week of May, and if pig gestation is 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days, can you figure out the best 21-day breeding window so that our pigs farrow the first week of May?