We’ve all seen it on Instagram. A 500-lbs. sow rests comfortably, nursing a fresh batch of baby pigs, an ominous red glow cast upon the whole scene.
Admittedly, it seems like a good idea, with the best of intentions behind it.
Newborn pigs are vulnerable and susceptible to temperature fluctuations, and as farmers we want to make sure they are comfortable with supplemental heat in cooler temperatures. So we grab some bailing twine and hang up a fixture to keep our piglets warm.
But an exposed heat source dangling above dry tinder is not the ideal way to start that baby pig’s life. Neither is a rural structure fire.
Why Shift Away?
There are a few practical reasons to shift away from using heat lamps to keep piglets warm.
The most obvious? Heating lamps are the leading cause of barn fires in the winter months according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Most firefighters will tell you that the same critters the heat lamps were designed to protect had a hand, or hoof or tooth, in bringing it down.
Lamps introduced as a temporary solution or an afterthought in inclement weather often leave someone running an extension cord over places they shouldn’t. Pigs are smart, strong and curious, amplifying risk around combustibles.
In addition to the risk of loss of life and property, good heat lamps and bulbs are expensive, and they require added costs of electricity and often upgrades to circuit breakers.
Cost is an expected trade-off for animal comfort, but as livestock breeders, we should consider selecting for animals with genetics that do not require heavy intervention to thrive.
Propane-fueled swine barns with heat lamps and heat mats are a relatively new phenomenon in the long history of the domestic pig. Even as livestock production moved indoors, hogs have managed to survive so well outside barns that their offspring have become invasive in many parts of the country. Maybe it’s time to give them a little more credit.
Obviously the best way to avoid the need for supplement is to farrow in warmer months. But for those who must farrow year-round, there are safer, less costly ways to generate BTUs for your fresh batch of bacon seeds. First of all, you’ve got to start with the right pigs.
Not All Pigs
Conventional wisdom and a casual Google search suggest that piglets need at least 90 degrees to survive.
This may be true for some modern hog genetics, as animals have been selected for climate control. But heritage breeds have yet to be “improved” in such a way.
Heritage breeds also maintain copious amounts of backfat to pad their resume for cold temperature hardiness. This trait has been bred out of conventional body types.
There are few studies that outline optimal temperatures for a hardy variety of piglets. Here in Ohio, as long as conditions are dry and draft-free, our heritage breed sows have farrowed successfully without supplemental heat even as temperatures fall below zero.
Hire Some Mesophiles
We combat cold naturally from the ground up with deeply bedded pens.
We start building the pack several months before farrowing with a foot or three of wood chips from local tree-trimming companies. Immediately, millions of microbes get to work full time, for free, breaking down organic material, mineralizing nutrients and releasing heat that warms pigs from below. As the sows gestate they add manure and urine to jumpstart the heat cycle.
Closer to farrowing we make sure the sow has access to dry material to chew and properly build her nest. (Don’t try to build her nest for her—mama knows best.)
Below the surface, as temperatures down in the bedding pack top 106 degrees, heat-loving thermophilic microbes take over, dining on pathogens that can be dangerous to your herd.
And after farrowing, you’re left with an excellent growing material for other enterprises on the farm.
Fight From Above
If you have ever been in a greenhouse in the winter, the concept is similar for farrowing structures for pigs. Letting sunlight inside a hoop structure or greenhouse with reinforced plywood pony walls creates a microclimate that naturally keeps piglets warm and cozy.
Draft and dampness are of far greater concern than the number of degrees, so provide plenty of circulation high above the pigs to avoid condensation inside the hut, which can gather and drip down on your piglets. Down at the surface level, take extra care to prevent drafts that allow air to seep body heat from baby piglets.
Simple A-frame huts placed inside of a hoop structure provide the best farrowing environment on our farm.
Mama Knows Best
The best source of BTUs comes from the sow herself. Our sows increase air temperatures around their bellies by as much as 40 degrees, keeping their piglets warm and toasty.
Piglets raised without heat lamps will sleep next to mama, and therefore require attentive sows that avoid crushing piglets in close winter quarters. When starting or expanding your breeding herd, invest in genetics with proven mothering skills. It will pay off in the long run.
As long as your piglets are dry, are not piling more than three high and are not shivering, your natural heat implements are working.
Isn’t it time to give mother nature a try?