On Sows, Bellybutton High

One nice thing about the summers we’ve been having lately, is that while wet, they are also cool. Temperatures in the seventies and eighties are the norm, and, aside from a day here and there, we’ve not really even had too much of that stifling Michigan humidity either. It’s a far cry from the ninety-plus degrees and ninety-plus percent humidity we had, for many years, been accustomed to. It’s also much easier on sows.

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For the most part, younger pigs don’t have too much trouble with the heat. Shade and cool water, maybe a nice breeze, and they’re set with whatever nature throws their way. They nap through the hottest parts of the day, reduce their feed intake a bit (digestion creates heat) and they’re happy. But once a sow surpasses about 350 pounds, keeping cool is no small task. And the bigger and older she gets, the harder it becomes.

The first bellybutton-high sow we ever had was Bridget, a curious Tamworth who cemented my love of penny-red pigs. Most sows never make it that far; something puts them on the freezer list before they grow much above mid-thigh. Sometimes it’s temperament, sometimes it’s a health problem, most often it’s that, as they get larger, they get more careless and less agile and end up being more dangerous to their piglets. It is, truly, a talented sow who can, at every bit of six or seven-hundred pounds, lie down in a sea of three-pound piglets without crushing one. It takes not only mental acuity–the patience and maternal instinct to move slowly–but the physical ability, which is understandably lost at a certain point in virtually every sow’s lifespan.

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Needless to say, we hold the sows who do reach bellybutton-high around here in very high regard. Right now the list is short and consists of a mother and two of her daughters–Amelia, Molly and Nora–all Gloucestershire Old Spots.

Yesterday it was about eighty-five degrees here and just slightly humid, and Molly–who as of Saturday night is caring for a litter of 13 pigs–was uncomfortable. She wasn’t in what would be considered a danger zone, but she was visibly warm and panting on-and-off despite being in the shade with cool water available. Pigs don’t sweat, so they need water to take advantage of evaporative cooling. What we’ve seen with the bigger sows like Molly, is that they have a hard time getting good coverage. Whether they’re rolling in a bit of mud to get wet, or just trying to lay against the cool ground to dissipate some heat, they seem to have a hard time getting cool in all the right places.

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In these cases I like to get them up and out of their pen (because their babies and their sleeping areas don’t need to be muddied up) and spray them down with the hose, paying special attention to underneath their neck, all of their belly, and up in their “arm pits” (the little crook between their front legs and their chest wall.) Molly seemed to appreciate the extra TLC yesterday afternoon and, once sprayed down, sauntered slowly back to her pen for dinner and to nurse her babies. I’m not looking forward to the end of Molly– or Nora or Amelia for that matter. I’ve got some of their daughters around here, but not enough, and none that remind me too much of them. I’ll be watching the babies they have on the ground now, and any they raise from here on out closely and keeping back their very best daughters.

All photos in this post were taken by my daughter. Not too shabby for her first assignment.

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