It's all about timing. The male and female will mate until she decides it's over. About a week. Then you separate them and start counting: three months, three weeks, three days. She'll start preparing the nest and then have her little piglets almost to the day! And don't worry about making too much a fuss over it; mama knows just what to do once they're born. A few weeks later the piglets get weaned. Less than a week after that the sow goes back into heat and it all starts over again. Yep, it's in the timing. The circle starts all over again and you can plan your vacation around it.
This sweet gal was first called a gilt. After her first litter, she graduated to a sow. (A fabulous blog by the Jeffries Family Farm has a complete list of terms here.) She alone tells the boar whether it's time to mate and when it's over. She's tough enough to fight him off if he doesn't listen to her, so you might want to separate them to keep her safe while she's pregnant. Keep a close watch for her signals so you'll know just what to do.
A good way to tell when she's in heat is by paying attention to her behavior - she'll become agitated and show a desire to be with the boar. Her vulva will be slightly swollen, stiff and possibly leaking fluid. When you allow them to mate, she will plant her legs firmly to the ground to help the boar easily mount her. (She won't help him at all when not in heat.) Allow them to mate over the course of a few days to a week, where you've witnessed at least 3 matings yourself. Use your instincts to decide when she's just tired or she's had enough. Sometimes after separating them she'll seemingly go back into heat; it just means she wasn't done, only tired.
If you have more than one sow in heat at the same time and you're okay with having multiple litters, then by all means, put them in together with your boar. The boar can sometimes stress out one sow, but there's time to rest if he has two or more to choose from. And if he is the tired one, don't be surprised to find the gals sniffing, nudging and even "humping" each other! They are not confused, it's just what they do. You'll also find them sometimes fighting each other over the boar which is perfectly normal. It will sound rough and tough but it's all bark, no bite.
When it's over, she's as happy as anything and will go about being blissfully pregnant*, completely ignoring the boar's cry for attention. As stated above, she'll fight him off and even run when he comes sniffing around. She'll continue to grow and eat a lot more. In about 3 months her teats will look as if they'll burst and she'll start building a farrowing nest. Provide plenty fresh straw and a private space (under cover if possible). Watch her carefully if you wish to be there for farrowing. We have yet to catch it... it happens so fast! She won't need any help unless you're concerned about it taking too long. (Talk to a vet that specializes in farm animals.) If she's used to you scratching or petting her and seems to be okay with you being near, then an occasional stroke on the head or back might be comforting. Otherwise stay clear, you don't want to add to her stress.
Things will be a bit bloody afterwards but not too bad. Eventually (could be 2 or more days) she will come out to eat and bathe in the wallow which will help to clean her up. Hopefully, all piglets will survive but if not, remove any piglets that are stillborn. Hang a flytrap nearby because the smell will attract plenty. Don't worry about cleaning out the nest until the piggies are more mobile and can get out of the way. And remember, if one squeals, the sow might take it personal and get upset with you.
The piglets will immediately find their way to the teats to nurse and fight each other to do so. The only thing you might watch out for is whether mom is careful enough to keep baby piglets from being squished. It's sad but it can happen. Do a search online, there are a few good ideas about how to manage the problem. But for now you can simply sit back and enjoy the newest addition to your homestead.
Side note: If you have only one sow, your boar will get agitated from time to time while separated from her, so you might want to move him farther away so he can't smell her. This is where another mate would come in handy. Boars can service many sows (up to 20!) and may abruptly discharge on his own if there isn't another female to mate with. Frustrating to say the least. Look into building a little harem for the poor fellow if you can... 1 or 2 more sows perhaps? But continue taking care of him as normal and he'll do just fine.
The next part I suppose depends on you. When it comes time to wean the piglets, many people do it in just two weeks. (That could be for higher production farms?) I've even read as late as a seven or eight weeks. This helps the piglets get the most nutrition from mama before switching to solid food. But I went by our sow's timetable. At exactly three weeks and one day she was ready to get outta there! Nursing piglets takes a lot out of her and it was obvious. I opened the gate to the next paddock over and she immediately walked through and never looked back. She watches her piglets through the pallet fencing from time to time before she plops down into the wallow for a well deserved nap. Now that she's on her own it will be a short period before she is in heat again. Start watching her closely by day 3 or 4.
And there you have it, a full circle. Almost to the day. 🙂
Piglets And Older
Once weaned, the piglets will begin to cry like crazy for their mama. It may last 2-3 days (or longer) but once they get used to solid food and little bellies fill up for the first time, they relax and learn to live on their own. Shortly after, they forget all about mama and go into a rambunctious-mode that will have you laughing out loud! They play, dig, run, jump, fight, roll around and... hump! Like rabbits, they instantly know what those parts are for. They'll nudge each others' underside, sniff around and mount - boy or girl it doesn't matter. But don't worry, it doesn't mean anything right now because it'll be months before they reach sexual maturity.
As time goes by and month # 2 approaches, you'll notice an increase in appetite. Not only is grass-fed swine a much healthier way to raise them, it's also a great way to keep costs down up til harvest. If that isn't an option for you, sell the piglets and let someone else raise them. In fact, if your sow farrows large litters (at 2-3 times a year) then selling piglets could become a steady supplement to your income.
As you get close to month # 4 you might consider separating the males from the females. Depending on the breed, the females can be ready to mate as early as 5 months. And now with your males separated, it should be easier to make your next big decisions. (Early slaughter for meat, fatten up for bacon, keep or sell for breeding, etc.)
Many farmers experience their weaners starving after being weaned because they just don't want to eat solid food. But I also think it's a matter of trust. They trust their mama. They know you are not an enemy but it's still very hard to trust you. There is something called creep feeding that can possibly make things easier. It can help the piglets get used to more solid foods while still with the sow. Place a shallow tub of milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, soft fruit bits, etc., in an area the sow can't get to. They'll have learned to eat without fear and so now, when mama is gone, they at least know that food is for eating when searching for a teat that isn't there.
Our first breeding pair was raised on commercial feed. Because they are heritage breeds, I assumed getting them to feed on grass would be easy. Not so and not even close. If grass fed pork is important to you then know that feeding it to them from the start is the way to go. The sow (or other grass fed animals like goats or cows if you raise them all together) should be the one to show piglets how to eat it. Otherwise, it will be a long haul getting full grown swine to switch. Give them fresh fruit and vegetables, in addition to commercial feed. Add in nuts, old bread, hard boiled eggs (shell and all). Then introduce some barley fodder and finally, grass. If possible, grow clover, chard and other yummy treats along with the grass. Slowly reduce the amount of the commercial stuff and hope for the best.
If using a commercial feed a good rule of thumb is to feed 'em twice a day. For the young'uns, it's 1 pound/day at a month old, 2 pounds/day at two months, etc., topping out at 4 pounds/day until fattened for slaughter. Depending on the breed this can be increased to 6 pounds/day for a very large, full grown hog. If you're not sure about the amount to give, don't worry, it'll be obvious. Most breeds eat when full and then stop. Some hogs (like Jack!) eat out of boredom so leaving the commercial stuff laying around is not a good idea. A larger than normal belly and jowl is an indication to cut back.
When feeding fresh food like pumpkin and peaches, give them as much as you like and compost what isn't eaten. (If a lot of fresh food is leftover it could go bad and they may not want to finish it.) You can pretty much leave grass fed swine alone to graze all day, but since they are not ruminants (cows, sheep, deer, elk) make sure to add some kind of protein supplement (fodder, nuts, milk or whey, hard boiled eggs, etc) to their diet.
Everyone we talk to is worried about parasites. It just seems to be associated with pork. Too bad our country has had such experiences with big farms and their dirty practices, because it doesn't have to be that way. And using commercial dewormers (aka, chemicals) is a poor solution. There are so many natural dewormers your pigs will eat and actually enjoy.
For centuries, European farmers raised swine in pastures and followed the cue they picked up watching wild hogs in the woods - to provide charcoal for their animals. Trees occasionally catch fire and so charcoal (burnt wood) is all over the place, and pigs instinctively know to eat it for good health. In fact, it makes the top of our list as the best way to deworm your pigs.
And of course you guessed the next one, right? Pumpkin is a very close second. It immobilizes worms allowing animals to expel them with ease. We feed it to our chickens, seeds and all, as a dewormer and it works on pigs too. But I think as pigs grow larger (getting close to hog size) they'd have to eat lots of it to effectively fight off the little buggers. But it really is great to grow and have around.
Garlic, rosemary, lemon balm, black walnuts and more are used by many organic farmers around the country for deworming their animals. (See resources below.) We plan to try 'em all and I'll have more info right here soon.
Pigs can give each other influenza. And they can give humans flu-like symptoms too (and visa versa)! While it is rarely a serious threat, it's still a good idea to treat it. If your pigs have a runny nose and/or sneeze a lot, start watching for mood changes and poor eating habits. If you suspect the flu, wear a mask and gloves while tending to them. Clean the pen and rotate often. Always wash your hands after coming into contact with them. Feed them fresh veggies (especially squash and chard) to help your sweet darlings feel better and get well soon.
More information on swine flu:
Swine influenza (Wikipedia)
What People Who Raise Pigs Need To Know About Influenza (CDC)
Since we just talked about deworming, I have to mention rotational grazing. It will allow you to clean up and regrow, preventing stagnant spaces that parasites thrive in. Our four paddock system makes rotation very easy. I just open the small gate next to the house and the hogs walk right through without any extra convincing on my part. Makes it super duper easy peasy to dig out a flattened wallow too, without an anxious hog getting in the way. Farms with lots of acreage generally use hot wire fencing that can easily be moved around. Rotation also allows the earth time to repair itself... and now your homestead is a sustainable thing of beauty.
Well, that's all for the time being. As we get close to deciding what to do with our first litter I'll continue the discussion on it. From selling the livestock to harvesting, look for more information after the first of the year, 2016. I think anyone that has the land to spare should look into buying a boar and sow breeding pair. If any other animals gave such a return it would be worth the extra time to raise 'em. Our homestead feels so diverse and well-rounded now! 🙂
*Tip: If your sow isn't pregnant, then she will go back into heat in about 3 weeks.
**These are my favorite go-to sites for everything swine... loaded with information!