Pigs are relatively strong and mobile at birth. Their eyes are open and they can get around well enough to get themselves to the milk bar, if nothing else. Within 24 hours, they’re toddling wobbily around, and are capable of learning how to use a creep area, which is what we call an area the sow cannot access but the newborn pigs can. It may be heated, and it gives them a safe place to rest where they cannot be laid on or disturbed.
In recent years creep areas have become the occasional focus of marketing ploys, with certain farms making it a point to tout the fact that they do not provide creep areas to their piglets. While in some cases there is certainly no need for creep areas, providing one is not somehow detrimental to either the sow or pigs. We’ve found that even with sows who have a well-established track record of maternal excellence, the pigs simply appreciate an extra area of their own. This is especially so in the winter when the weather is cold. At least some of the pigs would likely survive without a safe, reliable, and consistent heated area — mostly by cuddling closely with their sow, since they are unable to efficiently regulate their own body temperature — but they would have a rockier start to life and be more vulnerable due to the stress of the cold on their immature systems.
Because the first 48 hours of their life is spent rapidly building both physical strength and their immune system — colostrum, an antibody rich “first milk” is almost exclusively produced by the sow for the first day or two after farrowing — the creep area is one way we can easily get them off to a good start.
The other is to provide supplemental iron, usually by injection. As the milk of livestock goes, sow milk is one of the single richest there is. It’s practically perfect in every way, if only it weren’t so devoid of iron. In the old days, before carefully formulated swine rations, even before domestication of swine themselves, pigs evolved to utilize the minerals in the soil. By a couple of days old piglets can be found gently rooting around in whatever bedding material is available to them. When soil is part of that matter the minerals found within it are often digested and provide adequate supplemental nutrition. When that soil is not available (because the pigs are inside, or as is sometimes our case the soil is frozen and buried under snow) or if it is lacking in iron itself however, there is a very real potential for anemia. We’re able to meet vitamin and mineral requirements in older pigs via their daily feed rations, but because newborn pigs consume their sow’s milk almost exclusively until their second week of life supplemental iron is sometimes required to keep them in good health.
With this particular litter — as you can see by the adorable, but dirt-covered snout pictured above — we have not had to provide iron injections. The ground is somewhat frozen here now, but not entirely and the top layer thaws daily in the mid-afternoon sun. For litters due later in the winter we will however, give that initial iron injection during their first forty-eight hours.
Other management tasks that may take place in the first forty-eight hours may include clipping of the needle or “wolf” teeth and docking of the tail. The needle teeth are a set of incredibly sharp teeth that every piglet is born with. Left intact these teeth can injure the sow’s teats and other piglets in the litter. Injuries in both the sow and other piglets can be prone to infection and injuries to the sow can occasionally make her reluctant to nurse. Having bottle fed a couple of piglets in my time I’m acutely aware of just how sharp these teeth are — we’ll just say very — and have watched our sows closely for any signs of injury or discomfort. Thus far we have not needed to clip needle teeth, have never had an injury due to the teeth, and our sows have always been happy to nurse even when I have observed superficial scratches on the teats. In the future, that may change, and I certainly don’t fault any producer who clips teeth as a preventative measure. Tail docking is, similarly, done as a preventative measure on many farms. Pigs in a group have been known to tug, bite, and suck on one another’s tails. Severe cases can result in wounds and tails being worn raw. In those cases infection is possible and can be fatal. As with needle teeth we have not yet found a need to dock tails in our operation so don’t do this. If either task ever became necessary we would complete them within the first hours of life.
Castration, likewise, can be accomplished during this time, and earlier is undeniably better as a general rule. For a couple of reasons we do not castrate until slightly older however. There are pros and cons to the timing either way and I’ll discuss those in the next installment.
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In the swine industry the term “Farrow to Finish” is used to describe farms that raise pigs from birth to the point at which they’re ready to be processed into pork. (From “Farrow” to “Finish”.) Farrow to Finish here is a series of posts following one litter of pigs through that process. Each post is designed with the consumer in mind and offers information about how pigs become pork chops (and so many other pork products). Because we run an alternative hog operation we’ve made it a point to note the instances where differences might exist if these pigs were being brought up in a conventional operation. In most cases however, there are more similarities than differences. You can find more Farrow to Finish posts on the Pigs to Pork Page.