In prior farrowing times, we've allowed the ladies to do whatever comes most naturally to them. This usually meant a spectacular nest occupied by a fierce tank made of teeth and primordial noises. We bring her food and water to the selected home site, make straw available for nest-freshening, and erect lean-tos if inclement weather should bear down. I'm always impressed with the skills our ladies employ to keep their broods warm and safe in all kinds of weather and the tailored approach to the changing seasons. It has also been humbling and occasionally heartbreaking to see where their instincts and skills are unable to support the large families that domestication and careful breeding have brought them. Over a few years, this instinct-first approach has begun to feel less like a court-side view of nature at work and more like an unfair burden on our sows. We have ensured they bear much larger litters than their feral kin, and still expect their wild instincts to support the hoards. Last fall we decided it was time for a change, enter Farm Girl Farrowing 2.0 .
We have done our best to design a structure that respects our ladies instincts, but provides the extra support an extra large family might need. Some general observations informing the plan and how we incorporated them into our design:
- Sows choose private locations under cover of brush/low branches, often in deep shade, so our houses have a small door and very little natural light inside. The A-frame design also gives a feeling of a low ceiling and our houses are all sited so that only brush and woods are visible from the sow door, giving a feeling of privacy.
- Natural nests are roughly circular and 8 to 10 feet across on the outside, with a "bed area" of 4-6 feet in diameter in the center. Our houses are 8 feet square, with bumper rails allowing a 6 foot circular "bed area" in the center of the house. With deep straw bedding, the actual nest shape inside the house is virtually identical to nests built outside the house.
- Sows go crazy when you grab up their boy babies and perform minor surgery on them, also known as castration. In the unconfined conditions of a "natural" nest castration is a harrowing ordeal involving sneaking, kidnapping, and the aforementioned fierce tanks of teeth and primordial noises enhanced with murderous intentions. The new houses have a pig door on the front and a people door at the back, allowing us to feed mom outside the house, quietly sneak in the people door, then lock both doors from the inside creating a safe, contained environment to perform the procedure smoothly. This has already been a complete revelation for us with no trauma or upset for anyone involved. This alone makes the new houses a success in this farmer's humble opinion.
Almost all incidence of piglet loss occurs during birth or within 24 hours of farrowing. These are the most common problems leading to piglet loss on our farm and how our new houses (hopefully) compensate:
- Newborns hurry from the wet area where they are "deposited" to the sow's side for warmth during drying off. Sometimes in their disoriented, shivering newborn state, they are accidentally pushed out of the nest or crushed as they try to make their way past mom's enormous hind legs. To address this, a heat lamp area at the back of the house provides a warm, safe place within the nest where the piglet has a chance to gain its bearings and dry off before making its way over, under, or between the sow's massive hind legs for nursing. The sow's instinct guides her to face the door during delivery, placing her birthing end at the back of the house, almost directly under the heat lamp.
- Nervous, inexperienced mothers readjust their positions frequently during farrowing, sometimes pushing piglets out of the nest, leading to loss of piglets by exposure. With guard rails around the whole interior that allow bedding to extend all the way to the walls, piglets are never pushed "out of the nest" just to the side, preventing loss by exposure.
- In the "natural" nest, the only source of warmth is the mother, so when she stands up or begins to adjust her position, the heat-seeking newborns are drawn to the warm impression at the center of the nest- right where mom is about to lay again. Inexperienced sows don't always check before laying down, leading to crushing. The heat lamp area provides a warm area for piglets that have already nursed to congregate, protected from crushing by the rail.
The height of the A-frame, paired with removable panels at the very top, will allow blistering summer heat to accumulate away from the pigs and dissipate through cross ventilation. The height also allows us to work inside it with infinite more comfort and safety than any other arrangement we have tried or considered- bonus!
Now that we've had a chance to test our design with the first of our winter farrowing groups, I can say positively, we're never going back. Our piglet losses this time have been negligible and unrelated to the weather or housing conditions and working with the families and cantankerous matriarchs has been simple if not easy.