Is Nature a trip or what? We were lucky with the first on-farm farrowing. There’s a thing I know now. Fern and Willow produced 20 live piglets in about six and a half hours, with seventeen piglets at weaning–and no losses then either. Those were fantastic numbers. And the actuality was pleasant too.
Now we’re on the other side of Ruby’s farrowing. She started labor on Sunday afternoon and I write this Wednesday morning. Ruby gave birth Monday in the pre-dawn hours. She produced 3 live piglets–all of them about two-thirds the size of most newborn pigs. At nine on Monday morning, she expelled two large stillborn piglets. With assistance from the farm staff, over a period of more than three hours, Ruby expelled a third stillborn piglet–this one larger still. She also produced a convincing volume of ‘gleanings’–ag-speak for swine afterbirth. Given the trauma of the last twenty hours and the likelihood of minor damage to her vaginal canal (remember, piglets are born with hooves and teeth alike), we gave Ruby a shot of penicillin.
Ruby was producing colostrum at this point. Colostrum is the vital fluid containing all the immune building anti-bodies which the sow passes to her piglets. However, her condition soon worsened. By evening, her breathing was heavy and rapid. She refused to eat, and her last meal had been Sunday evening. She was thirsty, so we brought her water to sip as she was too weak to get up. And she was still straining and contracting.
We dosed Ruby with penicillin. She comes from a herd with a strong strain of latent pneumonia. Her pasture-mate, Lil Bobby, had pneumonia twice while he was with us. The stress of the prolonged labor seemed to have created an opportunity for the bacteria to get to work in her lungs. Penicillin works well and quickly in pigs. We were hopeful as we headed off to bed.
Tuesday morning, Ruby was markedly worse. Her fever was up; her teats were dry; her vulva was swollen to the size of a softball; her breathing was still bad; the heaving and straining were constant; and she was still inappetent and still thirsty.
I called a neighboring farm to ask for the name and number of the vet they use as soon as I got back to the house. I didn’t hear back from our busy neighbor, but the farm staff and I put our heads together to come up with what we remembered the name of the veterinarian in question to be. The farm manager found a near-by vet with almost the name we’d pieced together. He called and left her a message. She called an hour later. I took the call. I described Ruby’s condition and progress.
The vet warned me Ruby was probably trying to pass a few more stillborn piglets. She asked us to quadruple the penicillin dosage and to administer an aspirin drench (crush and suspend the aspirin in water to give it orally) for both relief of pain and swelling. And she told us to start the piglets on milk replacement formula.
Even though Ruby was dry, the piglets kept working her frantically. And they were getting thinner, if anything. Piglets, like every creature, want their mother’s milk. They do not want a reconstituted, generalized substitute. But we had to get them to eat if they were going to live through the night. And we had to take them away from Ruby, who in her fever and pain kept rolling onto them without noticing. Both the farm manager and our WWOOFer found a piglet under her, blue and not breathing. Mouth-to-mouth works well on piglets. They perked up right away. But it took every kind of fuss to get them to take anything from the first bottles at six in the evening.
The staff fed them again before bringing them up to the house and the heating pad in the large kennel bedded with six inches of straw. I spent the night on the floor so as to be handy for their two AM and 6 AM feedings. I had the bright idea to add a few drops of lemon juice to their milk formula. Sow’s milk is more acidic than other farm animals’. The lemon juice seemed to help. The piglets took a little more of the formula at each feeding.
At dawn, after I’d walked the dog (and cats) and fed the chickens, I went to the barn to check on Ruby. In the night, she’d expelled three more stillborn piglets. The internal chemistry of a sow is such that stillborn piglets begin to soften if they’re not farrowed by a certain point. These came out in that condition. Ruby had ceased to strain and contract. She was able to roll upright, albeit still lying down, to drink water. Her fever had come down. Her vulva was down to the size of a baseball. We administered lots of water, more aspirin and penicillin and all the belly rubs she wanted.
Now Ruby still hasn’t eaten. And we don’t think she’ll be able to nurse her piglets. But they’ll certainly be able to sleep with her now that’s she cognizant again.
Bonus TMI about Swine Reproduction: At the cervix, the sow’s uterus splits into two, long, sock-like wombs! See for yourself.