Caring for piglets takes a higher degree of care and knowledge than caring for other baby animals, at least in my experience. Chicks, baby goats, calves and others seem to be far more resilient when separated from their mothers. Personally, I believe this is due to the fact that piglets are born in large litters and rely on one another for warmth and friendship—the term “pig pile” exists for a reason! Not only that, but the availability of information online and in books is limited and mostly geared toward the commercial hog producer, not the homesteader or small-scale farmer. From one pig farmer to another, I hope this article will provide some additional insight into the roles and responsibilities of those raising piglets.
1. Provide Warmth
When piglets are born, they need a warm, dry place to live—I can’t emphasize the warm aspect enough! Newborn piglets need temperatures of about 90 to 95 degrees F for the first few days and sustained warm temperatures for at least a few weeks. Each week after birth, the ambient temperature can be decreased by 3 degrees, according to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
We put a heat lamp 1 to 2 feet away from the pigs’ pen, making sure the pen is isolated from flammable objects. Eliminating drafts in the pen and keeping the piglets away from cold locations, such as a tile floor or outdoors on a cool night, is critical to their survival. The piglets we’ve lost have largely been due to chills. After a week or two, you’ll notice that the piglets are much stronger.
2. Pile Up Bedding
For bedding, straw or hay works well, with wood chips underneath for absorption. Piglets enjoy chewing and rooting through the hay and burrowing down in the nests they create. Deep bedding will also help maintain warmth.
3. Feed Properly
It’s best if piglets can get at least some colostrum from the sow. Colostrum helps protect against disease susceptibility and improve growth rates. While we’ve successfully raised piglets that didn’t receive colostrum, it does play a major role in the lifetime health of a pig. It’s possible to milk the sow to obtain colostrum: Simply use your fingertips to squirt into a small dish. It’s a tedious process, but well worth it for your piglets’ health.
If you cannot access sow’s milk, you may be able to contact a local goat dairy for goat colostrum. Goat’s milk is known by farmers to be a good milk replacer. We’ve used it in the past with our pigs, and it has worked well. Sow or calf milk replacer can work, but they are less effective than raw goat’s milk. Make sure milk is warmed up to slightly above human body temperature. You can gradually work the piglet onto cold milk, but it’s important to start out warm to mimic the mother’s milk and so the piglets don’t get too cold.
The first few attempts at bottle-feeding might require you to force the piglet’s mouth open. Piglets will squeal, but once you get them to latch, they learn quickly. You may need to wrap the piglet in a towel—we call it making a “piglet burrito,” and it’s a huge help in controlling the little pig. Piglets have very sharp teeth from day one, so watch out!
If you don’t have a bottle, it is possible to teach piglets to eat out of a dish, but be warned that pigs love to root, and they will root up the dish and spill milk everywhere at least a few times. It will take a handful of attempts for them to learn how to drink instead of sucking a teat, which is the natural response for hungry piglets.
Feed frequently when very young and spread out the feedings after a week or two. We’ve found that feeding often during the day will limit the number of times you need to wake at night. At a young age, we generally only wake up every 4 to 6 hours to feed piglets, whereas during the day we may feed every 30 minutes to an hour.
As piglets grow older, they will be more interested in solid food. Generally, after a month or two, they’re ready for weaning if you choose. Piglets will nurse until the sow doesn’t let them anymore, so if you are pursuing a more natural approach, you could also choose to continue feeding milk until the piglet stops drinking it.
If you notice a piglet has diarrhea, it can be a sign of dehydration or bad stomach bacteria and could require attention from a vet and potentially the use of antibiotics. Piglet stool should be yellow, orange or clear for the first few days, after the initial black stool is passed upon birth. Check the piglet’s anus on a regular basis to make sure it isn’t constipated.
4. Address Rooting Behavior
We tend to raise animals according to their natural behaviors, so we let piglets root. This is their way of exploring their environment and searching for food. However, some farmers use nose rings after 1 month of age to dissuade rooting. Young pigs get temporary rings and older pigs have permanent ones. Your ring provider should have exact details on administration and various sizes for different ages. Keep in mind, if you are attempting to achieve Animal Welfare Approved certification, nose rings are prohibited, with exceptions for breeding sows if its proven that rooting could damage soil structure, pollute the environment or harm piglet health.
5. Control Parasites
Our pigs live outdoors and are moved to new land on a regular basis, so parasites aren’t typically a problem for us. However, if your pig will be in one spot for long periods of time, you should consider administering a dewormer. Consult a vet for advice.
6. Prevent Anemia
Some vets recommend iron shots to prevent anemia in piglets, but these can result in diarrhea and other side effects. Some farmers choose to forgo the shot, instead putting some dirt in the piglets pen to allow them to root around and obtain iron from the dirt. Goat’s milk has the most highly available iron uptake of animal milks; however, it’s still not adequate, so we use the dirt method on our farm.
Other practices common in large-scale pig operations include docking tails, clipping needle teeth and castrating boars. These are areas you might want to research further to see if they make sense for your farm. Two resources I find extremely helpful are Raising the Homestead Hog (Rodale Press, 1977), by Jerome D. Belanger, and Small-Scale Pig Raising (Storey Publishing, 1978), by Dirk Van Loon.
Find more pig-care advice in these articles:
- 5 Ways to Cool Off Pigs This Summer
- Ask Martok: Pseudorabies and Swine Brucellosis
- What Is PED and How Can I Keep My Hogs Healthy?