It has been 6 weeks since my last post, about, among other things, Chilly Bear the Sow having a litter of piglets. I thought it would be a good time to follow up with her, since she is (always) an interesting case.

Chicken Tractors in morning light

Chilly gave birth to twelve piglets. Most sows go into an almost trance-like state when they are actually in labor, which allows me to go into the stall, check on piglets as they are born, help any slower piglets latch onto a teat, and generally be an extra (or technically I guess, the only) set of hands. This is not usually necessary, but research supports the idea that farmer presence during birth saves on average one piglet per litter. My anecdotal experience confirms this; there is usually one piglet that needs a helping hand, and 10 minutes of farmer time can make the difference between that piglet figuring out how to nurse and wandering confused into a cold corner of the stall*.

Chilly, however, has no trance-like labor. She is hyper-aware of intrusion throughout the process; hyper-violent might be an even better description. No matter what her status -- piglet fresh on the ground, four hour-old, half-blind piglets trying to nurse -- if she senses a human, she will bound up to bark angrily in said human's face. This is obviously very dangerous for the piglets, so with her I tend to stay as far away from the birth as possible. It's better to give her space and let the piglets fend for themselves than to spark an outcry from Chilly that can end in piglet trampling, stress, and death.


Sunrise over pigs


Even when she is not being bothered by meddling farmers, Chilly has a more active labor than our other sows. The majority of sows lay down and do not move until they pass the placenta(s), sometimes longer, which gives the piglets a few hours to get used to moving about and sensing their surroundings. It also gives the sow herself time to regain an awareness of her surroundings, so that by the time she gets up to rearrange herself she has the presence of mind to move slowly and smell out piglet locations before she lies down again. Most sows do one or two rearranges in the first twenty-four hours; this is ideal for the fragile first day of piglets' lives.

Chilly, however, is all over the place. Even when she isn't being bothered, she shifts around during labor four or five times. She moves a lot during the first twenty-four hours. After that she settles down somewhat (enough, for example, to let us dump some feed in her stall without her panicking), but often the damage is done. Of the twelve that were born to this last litter, one was lost during her labor (we ruled it a "probable crushing" instead of a stillborn because there was no sac around it, and its position was in the middle of her nest and not either end), one was lost during the first night (definite crushing), and a "super runt" which was half the size of the rest disappeared in the first week. She brought nine very healthy piglets to weaning, which is a respectable number given her age and breed.

We weaned her piglets on Saturday, November 10th. It is absurdly easy to get the sows to leave their piglets at six weeks. We simply opened the stall door and Chilly marched out -- thank god! some time to myself!! she probably thought -- whereas her piglets retreated to the corner of the stall  -- omigod! the wall moved!?!?! they likely exclaimed.  Usually we continue to lead the newly free sow out of the barn and into the breeder pasture, close up that gate, and that's the end of it. For the first night the weaned moms usually bellow for their piglets at the gate, but very quickly they are more concerned about foraging the best roots, reestablishing their standing in the herd and, after 4-7 days, the attentions of the boar, to make a big stink of their separation.

The adorable sources of consternation

Again, Chilly is the difficult exception to the rule. She moved out easily enough, but when we went down to do evening chores four hours later, I entered the barn to find that a distraught Chilly Bear had broken out of the pasture, tipped over several cans of sawdust and wood scraps in the barn, and was standing in front of her old stall, barking furiously at her poor piglets inside. Beulah, our milk-cow-in-training whom I was walking down at the time, was less than pleased to find such a creature standing near her hay bale, and she almost dragged me across the road trying to get away from it.

This, by the way, earns Chilly a 100% break-out rating. Every *single* time we've moved her to or from an area, she has found a way to squeak out and go back to where she was.

The last time we weaned her, she spent the first five days breaking out of the breeding pasture and running amok (a woman came to our front door after it was dark to let us know there was a pig in the road. "A" --widened eyes-- "very large pig"). After we got her to stay put, she spent a full two weeks lying in a dry wallow, depressed as all get out. She was not interested in the boar. She was not interested in food. I would routinely walk over and needle her with my toe, only to get a defeated sounding "muufff." She just wanted to lie in her dust and be left alone.

Depressed Chilly after being weaned from her first litter, Spring 2012


Eventually, of course, she came around and again became an enthusiastic participant in the breeding herd. She battled Stripe for command of the younger sows, and won. She enjoyed the attentions of the boar. She happily flooded the wallows and hunted the best roots and was excited to find the patches of oats and peas that I planted in their pasture.

This time, knowing her history, after she broke out the first time we isolated her in a hard pen in the upper barn. It's far enough away from her piglets so she can't hear them scuffling with each other over their feed and panic, and it's got a side fenced floor to four feet with hog paneling, so she can see and talk to the breeding herd across the barnyard (but can't escape!). It will give her some time to adjust without also needing to be concerned with her standing in the herd.

Chilly in her deluxe housing for helicpoter moms.

Hopefully, once her milk dries up, she will settle in and readjust to being piglet-less. A lot of these personality traits are not ideal for breeding, but she is so very sweet when she doesn't have piglets (when she gets out we literally just have to tap her lightly on the rump and she'll mosey back to where she came from), and she has good litter numbers, so she gets to stick around. Now that we know her unpredictability is actually quite predictable, we'll just handle her a little differently and things should sail as smoothly along as they ever do, which is to say, in bumps and starts.

*This, by the way, is exactly what happened to Chilly as a piglet (hence her name). She was in Spot's first litter, which happened to occur at approximately 2:00 AM in 3 degree fahrenheit February 2011. She was found alone in a frigid corner at the 3:00 AM check, and almost given up for dead (her texture was that of a partially-thawed pork chop) before we brought her inside and put her in a pot of warm water in the sink. I try not to get all armchair psychologist on her, but it is very tempting to assume that her insane over-protection of her kiddos is a reaction to her own mother being, as we in the professional armchair psychologist business would say, "not very present."