Posted by: A Part of the Solution | December 4, 2011

What I Know about Pig Farrowing

Let me hasten to say I wasn’t one of the principals down in the farrowing center on that fateful evening. I served as support. I ran to the house for more towels. I brought blankets and hot bowls of soup to those standing vigil. Bringing a cold beer when we thought it was all over but the uterine sweep. I made cookies in celebration.

But now I know we were celebrating too soon.

Fern had been heavily pregnant for at least three weeks. Every day, her teats got more distended. Every day, she appeared rounder and riper. Willow was also obviously gravid, but in a more restrained ‘we’re probably a cycle off’ kind of way. When Fern started farrowing on Friday–three days early, we all gave thanks for the hard work our farming staff put in, bringing every project in well ahead of our scheduled-to-give-birth-on-Monday trajectory.

While our staff spent the day constructing farrowing dens, Fern spent the day carrying one mouthful of straw after another to her chosen ‘nest-site’. Which she proceeded to occupy. Willow walked into the first of the farrowing dens, and lay down for a nap. I’d visited with the pregnant ladies, as we’d taken to calling them, when I headed out to walk the dog about 3:30 pm. At 5:10 pm, the WWOOFer came running into the kitchen shouting that Fern was giving birth that minute.

I called everyone to come to the barn instead of getting into the truck to pick-up the feed we needed for the morning. I got the soup cooking and went down to the barn to see what I could add to the process.

Willow was snoozing when I got there. Fern was pacing, and dragging birthing tissues around as she grunted disconsolately and restlessly got up and lay down time after time. The three healthiest piglets already born were wiggling in their straw nest. Two newer piglets were also weaker and colder than their siblings. These were tucked into the jackets of the attendees and chafed with towels to both dry and warm them. A sixth piglet dropped into existence. Fern was still unsettled, and in her pacing and lying down, she not infrequently stepped or rolled on one or more of her tiny offspring. The noise a newborn piglet makes when it’s being squashed is vivid and louder than one might expect.

I ran to the house to get some hot dinner together, and dropped a line on Facebook to let the Likers know Operation Buon Natali had gone active. Back in the barn, Fern had deposited another piglet. This one also needed extra post-natal management. Her restlessness unabated, I took a break from the squeaking of the little pigs to take our recalcitrant rooster from his first choice roosting location in the Big Coop and transfer him to the Mini Coop where he’s sorely needed to keep social anarchy from taking over.

Another update on the Facebook page. Back to the barn where Fern had added one more piggy to her litter. Someone passed me a chilly piglet and began rigging a heat lamp to help the newborns survive the cooling night. When the lamp was hung and running, I headed back to the house to fetch a couple of beers for our swine’s midwives. By the time I’d come back, Fern had produced yet another piglet. The total was at nine. Fern had been in farrow since about 4:00 pm. It was just before 8:00 pm. Our farm manager took off to get the feed waiting for him on the loading dock at the feed mill. I went up to the house to make a batch of Chocolate Chip Black Walnut Oatmeal Cookies. And our WWOOFer stayed in the barn cuddling the two least viable piggies.

Mere minutes later, she came running into the kitchen. “Willow Is GIVING BIRTH NOW!!!” she announced. I posted an update to Facebook and then I ran back down to the barn to see that Willow had indeed, quietly and without making a fuss or even getting up, produced a piglet. The piglet was lively. The piglet was dry and free of any umbilicus or amniotic sack. The piglet was nursing down the row of Willow’s teats like a pianist playing scales. We watched Willow. Nothing happened. We called the farm manager (on his way back from the feed store by then) to let him know what was transpiring in the farrowing center. Still only one piglet.

I left to get back to cookie making and baking when the farm manager pulled up the drive. I was just getting the first batch of cookies into the oven when our WWOOFer ran in to announce that Willow was up to six piglets. I baked off all the cookie dough. I posted the news on Facebook, to the mutual astonishment of the Likers who’d been following Fern’s farrowing. Back at the barn, Willow was at eight piglets and counting. She didn’t stop until she got to eleven piglets–one more than ten.

Each of Willow’s piglets stepped from the birth canal and squeezed between Willow’s hind leg and belly to reach the nearest teat, snapping the umbilical cord in the process. The piglets were simultaneously stripped of their birth sacks and chafed dry by the trip to their nursing site. It was a quick, simple and effective method. We didn’t use one towel on any of her eleven piglets.

In the course of the first twenty-four hours, two of Fern’s piglets died. One was stomped just a little too hard. The other we believe may not have been vigorous enough to keep him/herself warm through the night, even with siblings and being lightly buried in straw against her/his mother. We think Willow lost one of her litter literally. The tiny creature crawled off on an adventure away from the nest and heat lamps and didn’t make it back.

Now we’re at seventeen piglets. Willow is a calm, deliberate mother. She keeps her teats available to her brood most of the time. She moves carefully when she gets up and lies down. Fern is edgy and still restless. A farm friend, up to help with the new residents of the farrowing center, thought to give Fern a dose of Rescue Remedy. It worked straight away. We’ll be reapplying the happy dosage daily. Fern is much more relaxed and less prone to restlessness, or withholding access to her teats. She may fill her mothering potential yet. But I want the gilts we pull to build our herd up to come from Willow’s piglets.

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