What to expect when your sow is expecting

Welcoming a litter of tiny piglets into the world is one of the great joys of raising pigs, yet it can be somewhat intimidating for new animal owners. Rest assured, nature and the sow will do most of the work. But knowing what to expect and being prepared for common problems will increase your chances for healthy, productive piglets.

Your sow's pregnancy

The gestation period for pigs averages about 115 days, although larger litter sizes usually correspond to shorter gestation periods. The average litter size is about 10 piglets, and newborn piglets weigh less than 3lb each at birth.

Preparing for a smooth delivery

Because the sows rarely give birth on their exact due date, being ready 2-3 weeks ahead of time will help avoid the stress of last-minute scrambling for supplies. Prepare a farrowing stall with plenty of clean, dry straw bedding to provide a more sanitary birthing location. Find a good veterinarian or experienced pig owner who can help with any complications that you don’t feel prepared to handle alone, and put their phone number in your mobile phone.

Also of critical importance is preparing the birthing kit. A well-stocked kit should include the following items:

  • Flashlight: To better see all angles of your laboring sow and newborn piglets.
  • Several clean, old towels: To cover the bedding during birth, dry off the new piglets and clean up birthing fluids.
  • 7% Iodine Tincture and an Empty Prescription Bottle: For dipping the piglets’ umbilical cords. A pill bottle is a good size & shape for holding the iodine during dipping.
  • Betadine Surgical Scrub: To sanitize supplies and your hands.
  • Sterile Lubrication: In case your veterinarian advises you to assist with the birth.
  • Garbage Bags: For collecting afterbirth and soiled towels.
  • Heat Lamp: To keep newborn piglets warm after birth
  • Bottles and Nipples: In case the piglets are not able to nurse immediately after birth.
  • Colostrum Replacer or Supplement: For the first, most critical feedings for piglets who are unable to nurse immediately.
  • Milk Replacer: For continued nutrition for piglets who are not able to nurse effectively.
  • Electrolytes: To help reverse the effects of loss of body fluids due to diarrhea in newborn piglets and help rehydrate the sow after laboring.

About a week before your sow’s due date, move her into the farrowing stall so that she can get used to her new surroundings, and monitor her frequently for signs that labor is approaching. A video baby monitor can help provide ongoing monitoring. Signs of approaching farrowing vary depending on the sow, but some common things to look for are:

  • Vulva Swelling: About 4 days before farrowing, the sow’s vulva will swell and become more reddish in color
  • Swelling Mammary Glands: The mammary glands will begin filling with milk and showing watery secretions in preparation for farrowing in the next couple of days. When the secretions turn milkier, the first piglet is likely to arrive within 12-24 hours.
  • Restlessness or Pawing at the Ground: When labor is approaching, it can be hard for the sow to get comfortable. She will likely get restless about 12-24 hours from farrowing.
  • Laying Down: When your sow calms down and lies down after the restless period, get ready – your piglets are likely on their way!

Your role in the birthing process

Most sows will not need any assistance with delivery. Once you see the sow lying on her side and straining or shivering, she is in labor. The first piglet will likely be born within the hour. Closer to the first birth, you may see some blood-tinged fluid and piglet fecal matter pass from the vulva. This indicates that the first piglet should be born within the next 15-20 minutes. The first piglet takes the most work for the sow; after that, her contractions will weaken until the next piglet is making its way down the birth canal. The rapid twitching of your sow’s tail is the best indicator that another piglet is about to be born. You can expect one piglet every 15-20 minutes, and a total farrowing time of 2-3 hours. After the last piglet is born, the sow will pass the placenta or afterbirth within 4 hours.

The two normal birth positions for a piglet are nose-first with front legs folded back (anterior presentation) or back legs first (posterior presentation). If two piglets present at once, or a piglet is presenting breech (rump first) and the sow does not seem to be making progress, it’s a good time to call the veterinarian for some expert advice; the sow may need some outside help.

Feeding in the first hours and days

The first eighteen hours of nutrition is critical for the long-term health of your new piglets. After birth, piglets will make their way to their feet within a couple of minutes and try suckling in about 15 minutes. The first piglets in the litter tend to have the highest survival rates, in part because of their greater access to colostrum, the very first milk provided by the sow. But later-born and smaller piglets may struggle to access enough colostrum, so after the largest piglets have had a chance to suckle, move them to a clean, warm location to give the littlest piglets a chance to nurse.

Colostrum jump starts the immune system by providing important antibodies that the sow was unable to pass to her piglets during pregnancy. The body of a newborn piglet is uniquely suited to absorb these antibodies into the bloodstream via the intestines, but only in the first 12-18 hours of life. Absorption of these critical antibodies helps set the stage for a long, healthy life.

The mother’s natural colostrum provides the best nutritional start for her newborn piglets, because it contains antibodies that are specific to her herd and environment. But if the newborn piglets do not nurse within about 2 hours or you are worried that they are not nursing often enough or receiving adequate colostrum from the doe, a colostrum replacer or supplement should be given to the piglets to provide this critical immune support. Even if a sow is able to nurse her litter effectively, small or weak piglets may not receive enough colostrum, so a colostrum supplement can be critical to provide additional nutrition and immune support. Continue to feed colostrum for the first 24-48 hours, according to package directions, for any piglets who are not nursing effectively.

Milk Replacer: After the first two days, if one or more piglets are still not nursing adequately, milk replacer will help provide the balanced nutrition he needs to grow and develop. Always choose a milk replacer that is specifically formulated for the nutritional needs of swine, and follow the packaging mixing and feeding instructions carefully to provide proper nutrition.

Electrolytes: The birth experience exposes newborn piglets to a number of microorganisms that can cause digestive distress and cause diarrhea. Because diarrhea can easily lead to dehydration, it is important to supplement the mother’s milk or milk replacer with electrolytes to reverse the effects of body fluids. Be sure to feed electrolytes separately from milk replacer products, and always follow package directions for best results.

With proper preparation and newborn nutrition, you will give your newborn piglets the best chance of a long, healthy life. Which should make them, well, happy as pigs in mud!