January brings with it not only a new year, but a new farrowing season for many who live in the world of showpigs. While farrowing sows and gilts is an everyday occurrence for my friends and associates in commercial pig production, it’s typically much more seasonal (and stressful) for those of us with investments in showpig females. While those commercial maternal sows will pop out a litter of 15 or more live-born pigs with ease and little assistance, the modern showpig female isn’t nearly as maternal or prolific. The internet is flooded with stories of problem gilts, long nights of pulling pigs, c-sections, and dead sows and piglets.
There are many contributing factors and much debate about some of the causes and cures. Inducing labor is a subject that always seems to stir a big debate. Feeding, genetics and management are all key factors. Many believe that the type of pig we are favoring in the show ring needs to change in order to correct the farrowing issues. Until that happens, it is important to address all the other factors that contribute to farrowing problems in order to minimize the issue in your farm. With that in mind, I thought now is a good time to revisit the farrowing basics.
Age is an important consideration when farrowing first-time gilts. While we traditionally expect gilts to farrow problem-free at 11-12 months of age in commercial production, this seems a little aggressive for many showpig females. While some breeds and body types may perform perfectly at this age, many females (including most crossbred lines) would benefit from farrowing the first time at 14-15 months of age, just allowing a couple more months of growth and development before trying to pass a litter through that pelvis.
Condition and feeding
It’s been proven time and again that over-conditioned females will have more farrowing issues. For most sows feeding 4-5lbs. per day through most of the gestation period will result in proper body condition and normal piglet size. Sows should have a body condition score of 3 at the time of farrowing. If sows are thin during gestation, the time to give extra feed is between day 40 and 110 of gestation, feeding extra just until they reach an appropriate body condition score then backing feed down to 4-5lbs. per day. Once they get to day 112, feeding strictly 4lbs. per day will help ensure they are not overfed leading into farrowing and will likely start on feed immediately after finishing farrowing.
Housing and Climate
Sows and gilts should be moved to the farrowing house about a week prior to their due date if possible. They should be given de-wormer at this time prior to farrowing. Whether farrowing in stalls or pens, bedded flooring or mesh flooring, the farrowing room needs to be clean, disinfected, warm and dry prior to loading with sows. Good hygiene at this stage is critical to farrowing and maintaining healthy piglets and minimizing scour issues. We strongly recommend the use of DRYGIENE™ after washing and disinfecting to ensure the farrowing room is dry and thus minimize bacteria load in the room. The farrowing room should be heated to at least 70 degrees with heat lamps or other heat sources to provide 95 degree zone heat for the baby piglets. Good ventilation and air-quality is also critical to maintaining healthy sows and piglets.
Inducing sows to farrow seems to stimulate much debate in the showpig community. Proper gestation length (at least 114 days) is necessary to ensure the survivability of the piglets. Inducing to farrow sooner comes with a higher risk of low viability piglets. However, allowing showpig gilts to go beyond day 116 can also have its share of problems. Often times females carrying smaller litters (and therefore larger piglets) are more likely to have extended gestation lengths, allowing those already large piglets to get even bigger. We typically advise inducing gilts to farrow by day 116 if they haven’t already farrowed on their own. While most sows can handle farrowing without induction, we also advise inducing sows to farrow at a time when someone can be there to attend the farrowing and keep every pig possible alive.
While sows can farrow unassisted and do just fine, we always advise attending farrowing whenever possible to minimize the number of stillbirths and to ensure every piglet gets immediate care at birth. Normal farrowing of sows and gilts can take 2-4 hours to complete with final expulsion of the placenta occurring up to 4 hours later. The beginning of farrowing is generally signaled by restless behavior, straining, tail twitching and fluid expulsion followed by the birth of the first piglet. Normal delivery can be head-first or feet-first, with piglets being born approximately every 15 minutes. Typically, sows will deliver a few piglets at normal intervals before appearing to stop for up to an hour, then farrowing resumes at normal intervals again. As piglets are born, they should have their mouths cleared of mucus keeping their umbilical cord attached until ensuring the pig is breathing and viable. Detach the umbilical cord by grabbing and gently pulling it from the sow. We don’t want the cord to break off close to the piglet as bleeding can occur. If the piglets are bleeding from the navel, they will need to be tied off with a string. If the piglet is not breathing, fluid can be drained by swinging the piglet by its back legs and tapping the sides, then apply some gentle pressure to the chest and utilize mouth-to-mouth assistance to get it breathing. Once the piglet is breathing normally he should be coated with DRYGIENE™ especially being sure to coat the umbilical cord. This will help keep the piglet warm and dry as well as speeding the drying of the umbilical cord and preventing strep infections. Keep DRYGIENE™ on the mats to keep them dry as well. Place the piglets on the mats under the heat lamps while they adjust and prepare to begin nursing. Ensure that each piglet gets an adequate opportunity to nurse within the first hour after birth, ensuring that each receives a sufficient amount of colostrum. Small or challenged pigs may need some extra help nursing. Milk the sow into a syringe if necessary and feed the piglets with the syringe until they develop the strength to nurse on their own. Remember the keys to success here are keeping them dry, warm, and well-fed.
If 20 minutes pass without a piglet being born, or if a piglet is stillborn, that signals the need for assistance. This could be due to inertia (failure of the uterus to contract) or obstruction (a piglet being stuck or two piglets trying to pass at the same time). Either way, a shoulder-length disposable glove and OB lube is essential, as well as obstetric snare or other pig-puller for those difficult situations where your hand and the piglet’s head will not fit through the pelvic opening at the same time. We recommend washing the vulva with soap and water, staying as clean as possible, and using plenty of OB lubricant on your gloved hand. Form your hand in the shape of a wedge and carefully insert in an upward position continuing to advance until a piglet is felt. The piglet’s rear legs can be grasped between the fingers or the piglet’s head can be grasped by reaching two fingers behind the ears while keeping the thumb under the jaw. Alternatively, a finger can be placed in the mouth with the thumb under the lower jaw. Gently pull until the piglet is removed. If no piglets are found, inertia is the likely culprit. In this case, the use of oxytocin may be warranted. Oxytocin can be injected in the crease of the vulva in very small doses (.25 - .5ml) at 20-minute intervals. Once oxytocin is administered however, you need to be diligent about assisting with birth, removing each piglet as soon as it is within reach. The overuse of oxytocin (too large dose, too many injections) can contribute significantly to an increase in stillborn piglets and can even rupture the uterus. It should be used only when farrowing seems to have “stalled” and no piglets are being presented at the pelvic opening at normal intervals.
What to do with “stuck” piglets? Obstetric snares and forceps are essential tools. Each can be difficult to manipulate and require some practice as well as patience. Fatigue in the hands and forearms also makes the job more difficult. Care needs to be taken when using these tools to avoid hurting the sow or the piglet. Another option which many are unfamiliar with is an obstetric hook. This is a simple stainless steel rod with a hook on the end and a small, smooth ball on the end of the hooked end. In the case where it isn’t possible to get the snare or forceps around the piglet’s head the obstetric hook can be inserted into the birth canal with the hook catching the piglet’s jaw inside the mouth. A finger needs to be placed below the jaw to keep the mouth somewhat closed while the piglet is being pulled with the hook. This may move the piglet far enough to grasp the head to remove the piglet completely. Alternatively the ball of the hook can be held in the piglet’s eye socket with a finger while pulling backward. It sounds odd, but it doesn’t hurt the piglet when used properly and can help remove piglets that are difficult to grasp by the head.
If you’ve tried pulling by hand, tried all the implements, and you still cannot remove the stuck piglet? It may be time to call the vet for a c-section. This is never an easy call to make, and many times it’s too late to save the piglets or the sow by the time the decision is made. Something to consider is paying attention to the size of the pelvic opening when you first reach in your sow. If you recognize immediately that your hand will not fit or that the piglet size is such that he will not pass the opening, it’s best to call the vet immediately. When called early, c-sections can be rather successful. If the sow has been in labor for hours however with no progress before the vet is called, those usually don’t turn out well.
Once farrowing is completed, all placenta is expelled and the sow has rested and nursed her litter she should be hungry. Some sows will go on feed quickly after farrowing while others may take some time. If she was not overfed prior to farrowing, she is much more likely to begin eating more quickly. There are many theories about working a lactating sow up to full feed, but the most common practice these days is to get her eating as much as she wants as quickly as possible. Feed should be given at least 3 times per day, 4 if possible, giving just enough at each meal so that she is willing to eat more at the next serving. If her feed from the prior feeding isn’t cleaned up, skip a feeding and resume if the feed is gone at the next feeding. Clean feeders each morning to be sure there is no stale feed and make sure there is always fresh clean water available. If using a nipple or cup waterer, be sure flow rates are at about ½ gallon per minute. Our farms use 4-5lb. scoops with feeding 4 times per day, one scoop per feeding if the prior feeding is all cleaned up. That allows the sow to get 16-20lbs. of a good lactation feed per day if she will consume that much. Maximum feed intake of a good lactation diet is crucial to maintaining the sow’s body condition during lactation and assuring she cycles and rebreeds post-weaning. Most sows will milk and feed their litter whether they are receiving adequate nutrition or not. It’s their body that suffers from poor feeding more than their litter.
If you have more than one litter born at the same time, cross-fostering can be a good idea to even out the number of piglets per sow. We advise loading gilts with the most piglets and older sows with the fewest. Forcing gilts to nurse a large litter will positively impact their ability to nurse large litters in future parities. If you have a history with your sows you’ll have a good idea if which ones are most capable of raising a large litter. Watch piglets carefully for early signs of starvation and provide a good pig milk replacer for any litters that appear to have a thin piglet. Begin to offer starter feed to the piglets at around 10 days of age. Creep feeding will help make a much easier transition from milk to solid feed at weaning time. You can successfully wean the litter without many issues for mother or babies any time from 17 days of age or later. Earlier weaning can be accomplished with the use of specialty diets and a good nursery environment, however while manageable for the piglets, this is detrimental to the subsequent reproductive performance of the sow. Our commercial farms are weaning from 17-23 days. Most of our showpig clients are weaning from 21-28 days.
Farrowing can be a stressful event for showpig producers, but with a review of the basics, some good management, hard work and a little bit of luck, the farrowing season can be a fun and exciting time as the next generation is born, giving you the opportunity to see all your hard work and planning come to fruition.
Seth from Ohio,
Hi Darin. I enjoy reading your blog and look forward to each new entry. When will you be posting again?
Thank you for reading! I’m sorry it’s been a while since my last entry. It’s been a super busy time with the holidays and the launch of our new Fertify™ product. The questions have been piling up in my inbox and I simply have not been able to post and respond to everyone. I’m getting caught up now and have a lot of topics to discuss here in the Pig Pen. Look for more entries coming soon. Thank you again for reading!
Brett from Wisconsin,
I had a pig born with a big patch of skin missing on its back. I’ve never seen anything like this before. What can I do for him and what causes this?
Epitheliogenesis imperfecta (imperfect skin) is just a development issue and it happens on occasion. We most often see this on the back or hip but can also be in the flanks or legs. There has been some thought that a viral infection such as circovirus or a relative can contribute to developmental issues such as this, but I have never seen that theory documented. Usually the affected area will scab over and heal, however this won’t make for an attractive showpig. Make sure the piglet can nurse and spray a little gentle disinfectant or wound spray on it to keep infection down.
Marty from Colorado,
I’ve seen you recommend vaccinating for ileitis. I’ve never done that before. Can you tell me about it?
Thank you for the question. Ileitis is a very common disease prevalent in most farms to some degree. It usually effects pigs in the feeder-pig stage, causing scouring and poor performance, in some cases dark, bloody scours that can lead to death. Until recently, antibiotics in the feed have been keeping this issue from even being noticed in many farms. Commercial farms would regularly use Tylan in the feed to control ileitis very effectively. However with the new rules regarding feed-grade antibiotic use, most floor-stock feeds no longer contain any antibiotics. This has led to an increase in ileitis outbreaks for many showpig producers. The good news is that there are effective vaccines. There is a water vaccine that has been available for several years that is very effective, however you’ll need a water medicator to administer it for your nursery pigs. A more recent vaccine is Porcilis, which is an injectable you can administer at weaning or in the nursery. This has been very effective in protecting against ileitis, however it has also been difficult to consistently purchase, often times being out-of-stock with suppliers. If you can’t get the pigs vaccinated, try to get a prescription from your vet for Tylan in your grower feed. Also keep a bottle of injectable Tylan handy to treat any pig that appears to show signs of ileitis. If treated promptly, they respond and improve very quickly. If not, they can die rather suddenly in a chronic outbreak. Try to get some vaccine if you can.
Ben from Indiana,
Hi Darin. Your salespeople have been calling me about a new product for sows and boars. Can you tell me how it works?
Thank you for the response. Yes, we are trying to get the word out about our new Fertify™ fertility-enhancing feed supplement. It’s designed to feed 1/4lb. per day either as a top-dress or to be added right to the main diet at the mill. It’s a really unique product. Yes, it is a little costly. We aren’t trying to gouge anyone though. The ingredients in Fertify™ are extremely expensive. It is very nutrient-dense with high-quality sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, natural anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, vitamin E, selenium, and two proprietary herbal supplements that are proven fertility-enhancers. We recommend feeding it to all sows and gilts, at a minimum from 3 weeks pre-breeding until after breeding and implantation (about day 30 of gestation) to improve conception rate and litter size. There are benefits to feeding it year-round, but this would be the minimum recommendation to see improved fertility. In boars, we recommend feeding it to all boars year-round. As spermatogenesis (sperm production) is a 6-8 week process, it will take that long feeding Fertify™ to see the full effect in boars. On average we expect an increase of 9 billion fertile cells per ejaculate. That’s 3 doses of semen. While we are dealing with biology here, we don’t expect every animal to respond the same. This product can help that gilt that doesn’t seem to cycle or have very good heat cycles to improve. It can help that gilt that doesn’t seem to stick actually conceive. It can help that sow which always seems to have a small litter produce and extra pig or two. It can help that boar that usually only makes a few doses produce a normal collection. However it isn’t going to repair animals that are just incapable of reproducing. We have several boar studs trying Fertify™ now with most using it only on their “problem boars” to begin with. We already have some success stories in the works, so stay tuned!
There is more information about Fertify™ on our website. Don’t hesitate to call us if you have more questions. Thank you again for your response. - Darin