All stages of pig breeding in one weekend

The past weekend has been a major entry on my calendar for some time because a number of fairly big events were scheduled.

However looking back on it all now, I realise I hadn’t fully appreciated that nearly all stages of pig breeding were involved – artificial insemination on Sissy plus a new litter for Fifi and also 3 meat pigs heading off to the butchers.

Fifi farrows for the first time

Fifi had all week to settle down in the farrowing shed and was getting closer to farrowing so we started final preparations on Sunday morning. This just means gathering the various things we might need at short notice once it all starts. If there are problems then we don’t want to waste time hunting for something crucial that might save a life.

By lunchtime things were clearly moving fast and over the course of the next 2 hours she rapidly farrowed 9 piglets with remarkably little trouble given this was her first litter.

They’re now almost 2 days old and all are still doing well. Almost up to the psychological (and non-scientific) 3 day point when I can start to believe they’ll all survive.

The most important first hurdles have been passed though – getting milk from their mother, finding the heat lamp and getting plenty of sleep!

Sissy AI

After the rather worrying time during the last farrowing for Sissy we’ve decided to try getting her back in-pig as soon as possible.

Another AI for Sissy

Once separated from a litter at weaning, a sow will come into season again within a week.

As usual, this meant careful planning to make sure I could be around to do this, ideally at a weekend. Also it meant timing the order for supplies so they arrive at the right point – it only lasts for about 5 days

In the end it all seemed to go well with the 3 AI attempts spread out over Friday and Saturday. As often happens, at least one attempt was a bit of a disaster but the other 2 appeared to be fine.

We’ll know for certain in about 3 weeks if we don’t see Sissy coming back into season – another future entry in my calendar!

Meat pigs to the butchers

To round off the weekend, there was a trip to the abattoir on Monday to take the first 3 meat pigs. This is never a great day but we always keep things as calm as possible for the pigs.

Having been born and raised here on our smallholding, they travel less than 30 miles in the trailer which all helps.

Considering the nationwide problems with smaller abattoirs closing due to the costs of regulations these days, we’re quite lucky to have something within a decent distance.

Locked and loaded for the trip

The pork from this batch has already been sold out in advance via social to a combination of our loyal regular customers and a few new ones as well.

Once we get the meat back next weekend, we’ll know for certain whether there is any left available or, in the worst case, if we’ve over sold it ahead of time.

There will be another batch of 3 meat pigs heading off in about 6-8 weeks time so anyone who missed out this time won’t have long to wait. We’re also hoping to get a little more bacon from the next batch – we don’t often have bacon made because the pigs needs to be kept quite a bit longer but it’s nice to have it every once in a while.

As well as being some of the finest pork available (according to me at least!), the pork sales help cover the costs of keeping all the pigs on our holding so we’re always very grateful for that.

And off we go again

This weekend was weaning time for Sissy and her small litter of 2 piglets so the farrowing shed became the piglet shed just for one night. In the morning Sissy moved back to the woods for some peace and quiet while the piglets enjoyed a hearty breakfast without having to share it with mum

Tamworth piglets at 2 months old
Tamworth piglets at 2 months old

They’re off to their new home now (at Wilde Farm if you’re interested) and it’ll soon be time for us to see whether Sissy comes back into season as expected or not.

Although it can seem a little soon, the fact is that a sow will come into season around 5-7 days after her litter have been removed. It’s not an exact science so we’ll need to keep a close eye on her over the next week or so just to check

The current plan is to try the AI again with Sissy when she comes into season so that she has another litter during this year.

In the meantime, the shed has now returned to more normal use with Fifi moving in this evening in preparation for farrowing in about a weeks time.

Fifi enjoying her supper in the shed
Fifi enjoying her supper in the shed

Since the only Tamworth boar available as AI at the time was actually her father, this litter is an experiment with crossing 2 rare breeds – something we’ve not done before.

The AI used was from a Berkshire boar so I’m really curious to see what the piglets look like when they’re born.

I can still remember doing the AI with Fifi and, if I’m honest, it really didn’t go very well so I’m pleasantly surprised that she’s in-pig at all. That may mean a relatively small litter in the end but it’s impossible to tell at this stage.

Watch this space for further piglet developments in about 7-10 days!

A tough couple of weeks

Now that some time has passed since my initial worries for Sissy during the first week or two after farrowing, it seems a good time for me to summarise the events for future reference

Sissy farrowed in the early hours of a Monday but seemed to have a difficult and long-winded farrowing with only 2 live piglets in the end. A couple of days after that she still hadn’t got her old appetite or her personality back so on the Friday we called in the vet in to check her over.

Just not her usual self…

Although there was no specific problem diagnosed and her temperature was roughly normal, the decision was made to give her some medication as a precaution. These I believe were her first ever antibiotics as she’s never had anything before and she also had some hormones to help in case her body wasn’t adjusting properly after farrowing.

I was left with a follow-up injection of antibiotics to be given a couple of days later so that I could be sure she’d received the full course of treatment. We also made the decision to get in some fruit and veg for her in the hope that would stimulate her appetite over time.

Carrots (and apples) work wonders

By the middle of the second week she was clearly making good progress (as were the piglets) and she was often happy to take short trips outside with her tiny companions.

At times during this period I did wonder if she had just been trying it on because she was happy for an apple, carrot or tomato but would then ignore her normal pig feed. Suspicious behaviour but I gave her the benefit of the doubt…

Exploring the outside and clearing the unwanted moss

Last weekend was almost 2 weeks since farrowing and thankfully she is broadly back to normal now. She is a very attentive mother and always watches out for her litter but shows no aggression when we are around so that’s the perfect combination for a small scale pig keeper

You don’t always get what you want…

After an unplanned year off during 2019 for Sissy with litters, she finally delivered again in the early hours of Mon 13th Jan. As usual I can’t help wanting to be there when it all happens but that always means a lot of lost sleep.

This time she ended up with just 2 live piglets – a boy and a girl – which was a surprise given the size of her during the build up to farrowing. Perhaps she’ll need to trim down her weight a bit once she’s raised this litter.

My impression was that she had a tough time during the delivery and there was a third piglet which was born dead – always a shame but there’s nothing more you can do. The effort certainly seemed to take the energy out of her and initially she wasn’t eating or drinking afterwards.

First piglet out always gets the prime spot

She’s taken a day or two to get back to her old self but through this period she’s always been very attentive to her small litter and keen to make sure they are able to feed on demand.

Thankfully she’s eaten a little something herself now so she’s hopefully improving again but I confess that I was a little worried for a while.

Under the heat lamp for a snooze with full stomachs

I’m keeping a watchful eye on her both via our special “pig cam” and also by regular visits in person. I hope it’s nice for her to have occasional human company but I’m careful not to disrupt her time with the little ones.

Farrowing preparations for January 2020

This time around I’m a lot more confident that Sissy is actually in-pig and is due to farrow in a little under 2 weeks. I’m very aware that I’ve said something similar before but all the signs are there so far.

When I look back on blog updates from this time last year I’m can’t quite understand how I allowed myself to believe that she was heading towards farrowing. I suspect it was probably because I had noted everything carefully on the calendar and once I saw it there I didn’t question it again. Lesson learned for that time!

This year will be the first litter for Sissy since she won all the rosettes at the Northumberland Show last May. It was quite a day out for all of us and she did so well to win Traditional Breed Champion Female so I felt she deserved a little break.

Sissy (left) and Fifi enjoying their breakfast

Sissy and Fifi have spent the last few months in some woods (an old stone quarry I’m told) in the front fields. However that can get very wet in the worst weather so they’re both looking forward to a change of scene later this week.

Fifi will move to a new pen in the woods at the back where she will be joined by a couple of the younger meat pigs so she has some company. I’m fairly confident that she is also in-pig but I think I’ll do one more check in a couple of weeks time before I can be completely sure.

Sissy will get the luxury of the farrowing shed closer to the house so she can relax and prepare herself. It may not come with spa facilities or a hot tub but it will make a nice change from the muddy woods for her (and for us!)

Sissy looking forward to getting into the farrowing shed

Happy birthday to Esther and Sissy

Today was a special day which normally gets overlooked in the mad rush before Christmas so this year I’m quietly pleased with myself for marking the special event with a blog post

It’s hard for me to believe in a way but our 2 main Tamworth breeding sows – Sissy and Esther – are 5 years old today and they were only 8 weeks old when we first collected them.

From such a subdued beginning as part of our 3rd batch of 4 weaners, they’ve managed to make themselves an integral part of our life here. I can hardly imagine life without them now.

Back in 2015, after gaining some experience with 3 previous sets of meat pigs, we bought another 4 pedigree Tamworth weaners. The idea was that 2 of them would be for meat (the “eaters”) and 2 would be kept for breeding (the “keepers”).

When we collected them from the breeder they were marked to indicate the two most promising to keep and as it turned out over time that was how they developed.

First off the trailer in 2015, the keepers!

It’s quite a contrast to look back at the early photos now particularly as Esther currently has her latest litter for company. I’m sure she appreciates the social aspect but they’re just over 3 months old and probably are a little annoying at times – especially meal times!

Esther – all grown up with little ‘uns of her own

By contrast, Sissy just has Fifi for company at the moment but will farrow in about 3 weeks so she’s quite a size! I expect that if she does know what’s coming then she’s appreciating the relative peace and quiet for now.

Sissy – hopefully with little ‘uns coming soon

Over the years I have learned to treat both sows with a certain amount of respect and caution but not because they are in any way aggressive. If I had to guess, a full grown Tamworth sow must weigh at least 250-300kg so it’s a good idea not to let them stand on your foot or even worse knock you over in the mud!

We will continue to give all our breeding sows the best life possible which will include their retirement years when that time comes. They have been a part of our lives for almost 5 years so they are considered part of the family now

Another smooth pig move

I’m trying not to take it for granted because each time we have to move pigs around and it goes really well then I could easily become over-confident. It’s probably wise to keep reminding myself that it can easily and quickly go wrong at times.

This past weekend was weaning time for Esther’s latest litter now that they’ve reached 8 weeks old. In the past we have weaned a week or so earlier but about 7-8 weeks of age usually works out the best I’ve found

Having already prepared a new pen for Esther it was just a case of encouraging her away from the piglets at evening feeding time whilst simultaneously keeping the little ones occupied with their food.

Much nicer when mum isn’t there to steal your food

Within 5 minutes we had them successfully separated and Esther was happily eating her supper in the new pen. The piglets barely seemed to notice but with 6 of them it’s still a battle for each to get their share of the food. They also got a fresh top-up of straw as well because we’re due some very cold nights this week and they’ll possibly miss the body heat that Esther would have provided

At the other end of the woods, Esther is far enough away to get some peace and quiet and although she had a brief wander today into a neighbouring enclosure, she’s enjoying a completely new pen and especially the very tasty grass .

Esther enjoying the fabulous views and dry weather

One handy tip that I learned the hard way when preparing this new pen for Esther, always make sure you move any large items of machinery out of the new pen BEFORE you finish off the electric fencing wires.

It’s just a knackered quad but I’m not letting Esther have a go

Moving day for the latest litter

While we’ve never really had a problem when moving pigs around our holding, with a 300kg sow there is always the possibility that she will choose to go in a different direction. Once she makes that sort of decision, there’s not a lot the hapless pig keeper can do about it other than to try bribing her with food which is not always successful.

When you also have to factor in 6 feisty piglets who are barely 2 weeks old, there is a serious potential for unpredictability which I could do without. The only way that I’ve found to tackle this is through careful preparation.

Last weekend it was time to move Esther and her latest litter from the farrowing shed out to their new pen in the woods. Before opening up the shed, the route was carefully planned with any other doors/gates firmly closed and barricades in place to prevent any potential deviations.

Their time in the shed went very well and, as expected, by 2 weeks old the piglets were starting to explore the whole shed as well as the outside space whenever the door was left open.

A recent collection of spare apples was a particular highlight for them before they left the shed but it’s fair to say they are only curious about them at this stage. Only the smallest of the fruit would be big enough for their little mouths and they’re not quite old enough to properly start with hard feed.

Spare apples gratefully received…

Within a week though, they should be showing an interest in some special pig feed (as well as the apples) but they’ll still be on mothers milk as well for another 5 weeks or so.

In the end the move all went off without incident so I like to think that my prior planning made all the difference. On the other hand, I got the impression that (despite the wet weather) Esther was very happy to be headed back outdoors again and she probably remembers this route fairly well by now.

The happy family are now settled in a new pen which was reseeded over the summer so they have some lovely fresh grass growth. It didn’t take long before the piglets started to get their noses dirty in the mud and run around chasing each other.

Is there a better way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon than watching that sort of goings on?

A weekend of big events

Now that the weekend is over I can reflect with some satisfaction on the wide range of events that took place in a relatively short space of time. Each in their own way could have had a different, more troubling, outcome but in the end all have been completed fairly successfully

Esther Farrowing

One event that had been in the calendar for some time was the date for Esther to farrow her next litter. She caught us out earlier this year when the previous litter arrived a couple of days ahead of schedule and we had not yet moved her into the farrowing shed

I used to maintain that a benefit of using AI for our Tamworth pigs is that I can more accurately predict the farrowing date, within a day either way usually. However it appears that Esther is intent on teaching me that complacency can be a big mistake for smallholders.

We were fully prepared for the scheduled farrowing day (Tuesday) with the various accessories and implements on hand. Esther had other ideas though and popped them out in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Esther trying to catch up on her sleep

She produced a healthy looking litter of 6 in the end – 4 girls and 2 boys – and, after a tiring farrowing day, Esther now seems to be coping really well. Equally important is that the piglets have found both the heat lamp and the milk bar so all is well for now.

Sissy AI

It was also time for another attempt at AI with Sissy which I approached a little nervously given the resounding failure in the recent past. It has proved to be more difficult to identify when Sissy is in season than with Esther.

Recent regular checks on her – pigs are in season about every 3 weeks – have shown that Sissy favours a slightly longer gap than that. Just a day or so here or there but enough that if I’m not paying attention would mean that the AI attempts could be out by 2 days and therefore they won’t work.

Croxteth Golden Ranger has worked well for us before

Now that I’ve identified this about her, I’m hoping that the latest attempt proves to be more successful but I’ll have to wait three weeks to see whether she comes back on heat or not.

If this doesn’t take then the plan is to locate a suitable pedigree Tamworth boar somewhere fairly near. I’m sure that nature can handle this much more efficiently than I have managed in the past.

Frank departs

It was also the time of the year when we send off the latest Dexter steer for beef. This is always an event fraught with concern for his welfare (and ours) during the loading and transport.

Over time we’ve slowly found better ways of doing this with different arrangements of cattle hurdles and have now almost got it down to a fine art. But not quite perfect as it turned out..

After sneaking through a small gap in our preparations, Frank decided to take 3 laps of honour round the garden first before calmly making his was back into the pen and leisurely strolling into the trailer.

I had feared a repeat of his escapades with jumping walls but luckily he decided that he’d rather stamp pot holes all over my lawn instead.

Cattle departures and arrivals

Last weekend was yet another first for us – the departure of 3 animals from our relatively small Dexter herd. We’ve never sold live cattle before so loading them into a trailer and watching as they’re driven away was quite an odd experience.

We’ve done this so often when selling pigs as weaners so perhaps we take that side more for granted but as this involved cattle the event somehow gained a greater significance for me.

Primrose, a first time mum, and her calf Petal who was born in June plus Quinn a one year old steer. All 3 were red and coincidentally all descending from Nellie – one of 2 original Dexters.

3 red Dexters, penned and waiting for collection

By the following morning it was as if they’d never been here. The remaining herd of 6 were happily strolling around our front field. The only visible sign that anything had changed was the fact that our herd is now predominantly black again.

Just 6 Dexters left now and only one is red !

Now we were all set for the arrival of this year’s hired bull – Rory – who is fairly young and dun coloured. He looks to be a fine fellow but perhaps slightly smaller in stature than expected. We’re wondering if he’ll need a stool to stand on.

Rory has arrived!

We’ve never had any dun Dexters here before and I assume it’s not a particularly dominant gene within the breed since there don’t seem to be many around.

Maybe we will get a dun calf born around mid-June next year but I guess that might be quite a long shot