Hogging the Spotlight

“Pig” of the Litter

If you’ve been following the #GAPFarmLife blog series, you would have learned that for a turkey farmer, ‘litter’ means ‘bedding’. But for a pig farmer, the term ‘litter’ has a whole different meaning! When a momma pig (or “sow”) gives birth to a group of baby pigs (or “piglets”), this group is called a “litter”.

This week, we’re going to get you up to speed on some pig farming lingo and give you a peak at what piglet management looks like. (And that means management according to our GAP farm animal welfare standards, of course!) To help us explain this process, we followed a sow and her litter over the course of seven weeks on one of our GAP partner farms that is part of the North Carolina Natural Hog Growers Association.

The Piglets are Coming

To start, sows are pregnant for 114 days – but an easy way to remember that is: 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days! These “gestating sows” are given special care to make sure they are fit and healthy when the piglets arrive.

There are many different ways to house and manage sows and their piglets. Sows have a natural instinct to build a nest and give birth (or “farrow”) away from other animals. So, in the days before a sow’s expected farrowing, our partners at NC Hogs move their sows to individual outdoor huts, which are bedded with straw, allowing her to perform these natural behaviors.

From Birth to Weaning

On March 12, 2019, sow #111 gave birth to 14 piglets. Litter sizes can range from 8-20+, though the average is closer to 10-12 piglets per litter, so caring for them is a full-time job!

Week 1: A sow builds a nest out of straw for her and her piglets.
Week 1: A sow builds a nest out of straw for her and her piglets.

After birth, piglets learn how to access their mother’s milk very quickly. It doesn’t take long for the piglet to learn when their mom is ready to let down her milk. She starts by making slow, rhythmic grunts, and as her grunts speed up, the piglets know a meal is on its way! With the sow laying on her side, piglets form two layers in order for each piglet to get their own teat – and they will come back to the same teat every time.

Week 1: Piglets getting a meal at the milk bar!
Week 1: Piglets getting a meal at the milk bar!

A fully-grown sow can reach weights of 500+ lbs, but an average piglet only weighs between 4-5 lbs at birth! Farrowing pens are designed with protected areas to give the piglets space to get away from their mother if she lies down too quickly. These protected areas are often heated to keep the newborn piglets warm.

Week 2: Farrowing pens create heated gateway areas for piglets

Once the piglets get to a certain age at this NC Hogs farm (for this litter, it was on day 16), they and the sow are moved to a group housing area with other sow-piglet groups. This type of group management gives the sow more space to move around and express natural behaviors, like maternal care and social interactions with other sows. It also allows the piglets to meet, greet and play with piglets from other litters.  

Week 4: Piglets and their sow in a group housing environment
Week 4: Piglets and their sow in a group housing environment

Though the piglets can mingle with other litters in group housing, they will often continue to rest and interact with their own litter mates.

Week 5: Piglets stick with their litter mates in group housing.
Week 5: Piglets stick with their litter mates in group housing.

Being acquainted with the other piglets in a group housing system prepares them for the next step – weaning. This is when all of the piglets are moved to a new area together away from the sows. After weaning, we then refer to them as “weaners” or “nursery pigs” and they will stay in these groups until they are ready to leave the farm. The litter from sow #111 was weaned at 47 days of age and have now started the next stage of their growing lives.

Week 7: Pigs a few days after weaning
Week 7: Pigs a few days after weaning

Like this post? Want to keep learning about our GAP farm animal welfare standards in practice? Let us know! To keep up-to-date with more posts like this, follow #GAPFarmLife on social media (including Instagram and Facebook)! If you’re a pig farmer, let us know about your piglet and sow management successes.

Krysta Morrissey

Author Krysta Morrissey

SENIOR FARM ANIMAL WELFARE SPECIALIST, GLOBAL ANIMAL PARTNERSHIP. Krysta's childhood dreams of becoming a large animal vet influenced her decision to study animal biology at the University of Guelph in Canada. While there, she found her love for farm animal welfare science and shifted gears to continue her education in poultry, mainly chicken, behavior and welfare. Her Master’s and PhD degrees focused on hunger mechanisms of broiler breeders and hens, and how those can be influenced in order to reduce feather pecking and cannibalism behaviors.

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