Avoiding Farrowing Problems

Welcome to the Pig Pen! This week we are re-posting a blog I published several years ago for clients dealing with major farrowing issues. It is probably more relevant today than it was even a few years ago. Feel free to post comments or questions below if we can help with any problems you are having. Don't forget to subscribe to be eligible for our promotions and contests! 


Avoiding Farrowing Problems in Show Pig Gilts



Problems with piglets getting “stuck” during farrowing seem to be much more prevalent in show pig farrowing operations than in commercial sow farms. This can be a frustrating experience for the show pig breeder and can often result in the loss of very valuable piglets or a valuable sow. There are a number of factors that contribute to farrowing problems and a number of significant differences between commercial sow farms and show pig farrowing farms. I will try to outline the factors and offer some ideas to minimize farrowing problems in your show pig farm.


The factors that can influence the farrowing process can be broken down into three categories including genetics, nutrition and management.


One of the main problems with farrowing sows for show pigs is that the genetic lines being used to produce those superior-looking showpigs are often times not very maternal. In contrast, commercial operations use genetic lines comprised primarily of Yorkshire and Landrace breeding that have been selected for many generations based upon farrowing ease, litter-size and milking ability. Those sows typically lie down and have very large litters of healthy piglets with minimal assistance. It is quite rare in modern commercial sow farms to have serious farrowing problems. There are nutritional and management differences that also contribute to that, but we’ll cover those in a moment.


Show pig genetics typically are selected to fit the current trend with little regard to farrowing ease or other maternal traits. Hampshire, Pietrain and Duroc are all very common breeds used to create show pigs, none of which are very maternal in nature. They are often smaller in frame-size and mature size, tighter in their skeletal design and loaded with muscle. These traits are generally in conflict with farrowing ease. Yorkshires on the other hand are typically less prone to farrowing difficulty, although those used in show pig breeding do not really resemble those maternal lines used in commercial farms. Still, the Yorkshires used in show pigs still tend to maintain superior maternal ability and farrowing ease when compared to their show pig counterparts of other breeds and crosses. For that reason, it can be a good idea to build your show pig breeding herd around Yorkshire females. Not only will you have less farrowing difficulty, but you will typically have larger litters and more sale-quality piglets per sow per year.


If you utilize Yorkshires as your base, you can breed with any type of crossbred boar to create the style of show pig you desire. From that first generation, you can retain breeding gilts that are still 50% Yorkshire and would still be more maternal than those black exotic x black exotic females. Breeding those 50% Yorkshire females will give you a fair number of black piglets as well. If you work on maintaining a strong purebred sow base and a second-tier of half-Yorkshire crossbred females, you will be well-positioned to produce large numbers of competitive show pigs with minimal farrowing difficulty.


Another genetic consideration is to select those breeding females from within your program that have a little more frame than the average. Those slightly larger-framed females are less likely to have farrowing problems. You can always use a relatively small sire if you are concerned about the offspring having too much frame for the current trend.


There are significant differences in the nutrition provided to show pig females versus commercial breeding females. Often times the females selected for breeding in show pig operations have been raised from weaning until breeding age on specialty show pig diets that may or may not have included paylean and various other supplements commonly used for the show ring. True breeding females, by contrast, are raised from an early age on a special gilt-developer diet. So what is the difference? Show pig diets are nutritionally similar to grow/finish rations that address the nutritional needs of a market hog while providing extra protein sources other than just corn and soybean meal. They often times include a number of other specialty ingredients that are supposed to help with the pig’s appearance in the show ring as well.


Gilt-developer diets by contrast are designed to prepare the growing breeding female to enter the sow herd ready for a long, fertile, productive life with no regard to the animal’s appearance. A gilt-developer diet will have the appropriate levels of protein, energy and amino acids while having a much higher level of calcium, phosphorus and other trace minerals and vitamins compared to grow/finish or show pig diets. They typically will contain a higher level of fiber in the final stage of growth as well.


The difference in providing proper nutrition to a growing breeding female cannot be dismissed. Not only is the female who received higher calcium levels better prepared to nurse a litter and re-breed after weaning, she is also less likely to experience fatigue when pushing during the farrowing process. Not only are many show pig producers improperly feeding their growing breeding females, there are also several that are not providing a proper gestation feed once they are bred. That is a recipe for potential farrowing disaster.


Show pig producers must decide when analyzing a female: Is this gilt more valuable to me as a breeding animal or as a show animal? If the desire is to eventually make that young gilt into a sow, the wise choice would be not to feed her for show and not to take her off the farm. If it is deemed necessary to show AND breed the gilt, it would be wise to design a show pig feed for the gilts that resembles a gilt-developer diet, at least with regard to the mineral levels. When the gilt is done with her show career, it would be best to start her on a gestation feed and wait for a few months before breeding her. Then continue on with the gestation diet once she is bred.


From a management standpoint, one of the biggest problems I see when I visit show pig producers is over-feeding. I think that many show pig breeders just don’t have a concept of what a properly-conditioned sow looks like. If you were to review the sow condition charts that are available from the Pork Board or NSR, you could get a good idea of what your sow condition should be. You can find a condition chart here: http://egashops.directedje.com/PorkStoreState/product-details.asp?ID=415&CID=33&P=1

It can be difficult to compare the pictures of properly-conditioned commercial females to show pig females because of the differences in body type, however, if you follow the guidelines as to whether their backbones can be viewed or palpated easily you will be in the ballpark. Condition scores of 2-3 (on the old scale of 1-5) are best to avoid farrowing issues. I typically encounter sows that would score 7-10 on a scale of 1-5! There is no reason to get sows that fat. It is too costly and greatly reduces farrowing performance. Depending on your gestation diet, sows typically need only 4-5 pounds of feed per day to maintain proper condition. If they get a little thin before weaning, extra feed can be provided prior to breeding or after day 30 of gestation to bring them back to a proper condition score, but it should be reduced to 4-5 pounds daily once they reach proper condition.


There is often talk of reducing feed intake in the final days (or week) of gestation to reduce piglet size. I cannot recommend this strategy as it can negatively impact piglet viability. I do recommend however, that the sows farrow on an empty stomach, meaning reduced feed intake the day before and the day of farrowing. The advantages of this are reduced farrowing problems as well as the sow having a stronger appetite after farrowing is finished.  


Another management issue to address is to be sure breeding females are of proper age and size at the time of breeding. To minimize problems and maximize sow longevity and lifetime production, breeding females should be at least 8 months old, weighing around 300lbs. (without being over-conditioned), and should have cycled at least twice before breeding (breeding on the 2nd or 3rd cycle). Breeding females younger or smaller only increases the risk of having farrowing problems. If you have some smaller show pig females that are of proper breeding age and still haven’t reached 300lbs., you may want to reconsider whether they are truly worth breeding. They may simply be too small to make a good sow. If you have those that have struggled to properly cycle without intervention or do not cycle regularly, those are also indicators that you may want to reconsider whether or not breed that particular gilt.


A final management issue to address is simply to not let gilts go overdue. I generally recommend that gilts are induced to farrow by day 116 if they have not already farrowed. There is virtually no risk of increased low-viability pigs at day 116 and there simply is no benefit to allowing them to go longer. Each day that they go overdue only increases the possibility of having farrowing problems. By inducing them to farrow you can also increase the possibility of being present at the time of farrowing to assist as needed. For more information about inducing labor you can read my blog on the subject. I’ll repost this in the Pig Pen soon.


Even if you’ve selected good females and fed and managed them perfectly, problems can still arise. Be sure to have a good OB snare on-hand as well as some shoulder-length poly gloves and OB lubricant. It can also help to have a good relationship with a veterinarian who can pull pigs or perform a c-section if necessary for one of those really valuable gilts.


In summary, while it may be unrealistic to completely eliminate farrowing problems in show pig gilts, it is possible to minimize them with proper selection, nutrition and management.   


Today's Questions:

Andy from California,

How do you recommend using Matrix? I know there are recommended guidelines by the manufacturer, but I have also read about using it in different dosages and duration. Thanks!

Hi Andy,

Thank you for the question. We recommend following the manufacturer's dosage of 6.8ml per day. In reality, most people just feed 7ml and that's close enough. In terms of duration, the minimum is 14 days, and we recommend 16. With 16 days, we tend to get a tighter group (more females in estrus by day 5). If you need to feed it longer you can. It will just be more costly to do so. 

Beth from Ohio,

I really have problems pulling pigs. What do you use to get them out successfully? 

Hi Beth ,

Thank you for the question. Pulling pigs can be a challenge. To begin with, you need to be able to get your hand through the pelvic opening. Then you need to be able to get the pig's head AND your hand back through the pelvic opening. This is when it's very helpful if the pig is back-feet-first! If you practice with an obstetric snare, you can often times get pigs out even if you can only get your fingers through the opening. Get the top of the loop worked over the pig's head and behind the ears, then get the bottom of the loop below the bottom jaw. Keep your finger on the "knot" of the snare to keep it under the chin as you pull the snare handle with your other hand. This is important to avoid strangling the pig. You can also try obstetric forceps, although I have never been a big proponent of those. Many people tend to tear up the birth canal while trying to remove the piglets. One other tool that is not commonly used in the US but has some value with a little practice is an obstetric hook. This is just a stainless steel rod with a hook on the end. At the end of the hook is a little ball. You can guide the hook with your fingers and get the end of the hook (the little ball) into the pig's eye socket. Hold it in place with your fingers and guide the pig's head as you pull on the hook with the other hand. It sounds awful, I know, but it is very effective and does not damage the pig's eye. These were more popular in years past but are nearly unheard of now. We do have some of these in stock at our warehouse if you would like to give one a try.

Pulling pigs can be very frustrating and exhausting both physically and emotionally. Try to stay calm and keep working at it. If you are not having any success at all, call your vet and get some help. You'll get better with more practice. Best of luck. 

- Darin.

Have a Question for Darin? Submit it in the form below and you may be featured in the next post in Darin's Pig Pen! 

Name *