Sunday, April 22, 2012

Chilly Piglets

It seemed like Chilly the pig had been pregnant for basically a year.  She got big fast (as her mother tends to do), and then just kept getting larger and larger.  She is a very good-natured pig, gentle and not interested in fighting for top dog status, but during the last couple weeks of her pregnancy she would bark agitatedly at anyone who came near her.  Even then, it did not seem like an aggressive bark, but an attempt at commiseration.  I am so large, she would say, distressed.  I am so tired.  I can not get comfortable.  How should I lay?  Why do I want to pile up all my hay so high?
Very Pregnant Chilly
I was very glad that it was not hot outside.  I was feeling bad for her and took to feeding her apples through the gate once we moved her into a farrowing stall.

Finally, two weeks ago, she started giving milk.  That initiated the Farmer Birth Watch Sequence, with piglet checks approximately every four hours.  With the more experienced sows, we are a little more lax; they know what they are doing, and our involvement would likely just bother them.  Our checks with them are briefer and more infrequent.  With a new mom, though, we want to be a bit more present.

At 2:30, in the wee hours of last Monday morning, per the Check Schedule, I stumbled into the barn to find her with 8 squirming piglets, struggling a little to move the next along.  As soon as it was delivered, I discovered why -- a stillborn.  I'm not sure what a live piglet does that makes it easier to deliver, but whatever it is, it helps.  The ladies get stuck up on stillborns sometimes; this isn't bad for the sow, necessarily, but can block up the rest of the line and create complications.  I removed the stillborn and checked the eight; Chilly got up to rearrange herself and promptly stepped on a piglet, activating the loud angry squeal that signifies piglet distress.
Piglets in formation
This was a good thing for me to witness.  Sows will absolutely step on their young, especially first-time mothers and especially in the first few days when the piglets are the smallest and most vulnerable; the farmers' job is to make sure there is enough hay to cushion that blow and to ensure that there are some safe spaces for the piglets to get to so that such incidents are minimized.  The rest, however, is up to the sow, so it is a good thing to see how she handles it.

Missy, for example, doesn't really respond to piglet squeals; she just keeps bustling around being her usual confrontational, oafish self.  With her last litter, this resulted in some piglets with really nasty cuts that needed sewn up.  Little Red, besides being gentler and slower, is more responsive; one squeal and she is investigating.

As soon as the piglet squealed, Chilly freaked out.  She sidestepped quickly away from the piglets, stepping on another and initiating another squeal sequence.  She froze for a minute, barking and grunting at full blast, and looking like she was about to start dashing around the pen in terror. This was a distinct possibility. I think there must be some hormone shift after all the piglets are born that soothes the sow for several days (the blissed out calm they convey despite the antics of their needy, noisy, hungry brood is truly amazing), but while they are still in the midst of birthing they can get agitated, violent, and aggressive.  This is why some pig operations use a "farrowing crate" for the sows, so she can't freak out and stomp (or worse) her young. We, however, just have to trust the mother's instincts and attempt to breed for good mothering.
This is basically what piglets do if the sow gets up during the first couple days...stand up, mill around in agitation, try to get to the center of the hoard, eventually lay in a pile.
Therefore, I was holding my breath, crouched along the side of the pen, waiting to see what Chilly would do.  She just stood there, grunting a panic grunt.  The piglets were milling about in a confused pile.  I inched closer, which didn't bother Chilly, and after a minute I felt comfortable swooping in and sweeping her piglets together into the creep corner and out of her way; she did not like that I was touching them (neither did they), but she let me do it.  Once they were safely away from her, she rearranged some hay and laid down again.

When I went back down in about an hour, she had had two more piglets.  She hadn't moved a muscle.  In fact, she barely moved in the first twenty-four hours, so scared was she of prompting another squeal.  Most sows get up after they are done birthing to eat the afterbirth and drink some water, but Chilly stayed put through the night and most of the next day.
For scale.  Imagine having ten babies, each one the size of one of your fingers.  They also nurse very violently and have tiny, pointed teeth.  The horror.
I have been holding back on writing this post because I didn't want to jinx it, but now that the piglets are almost two weeks old I feel I can tempt fate a little.  Her litter is amazing.  She had ten live piglets born, which is an unusually large number for a first-time mom (and a new-mom farm record).  There was not a single runt or any "slow" piglets...usually there is a small one, and one that isn't clever in figuring out how to move or nurse or find warmth, and sometimes one is born that takes a few days to gain full use of its back legs. Chilly's were all healthy and strong (plus, they all match! pink on black times ten).

Likewise, she is an incredible mother.  I was nervous about her -- her mom, Spot, is not our best mother.  Spot is not very communicative to her piglets, which means they wander into corners more often to get chilled (in fact, Chilly was our very first chilled-to-near-death pig, revived in a pot of warm water in the kitchen sink last winter -- hence her name); Spot is also a little bumbling and her farrowing stall is always an absolute mess. Chilly has proved to be very communicative, gentle, and a good housekeeper --  wet things all in one corner, no big hills or valleys in the hay, no rooting through her nest and flipping up large chunks of hay.

This is Chilly as a piglet, post resuscitation.
In all, this was a very good showing for our first farrowing of her generation.  Three more new moms should be close on her heels (although we are getting nervous that one of them is sterile, and unsure about how far behind the other two are); here's to hoping that Chilly has the time to start a helpful mommy-blog that they can all read and critique over caffeine-free tea before their times come.


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