Pigs are like humans in many ways. Their eyes, for instance, are structured in a similar manner, a fact that surprises a lot of first-time farmers: Locking stares with a swine can feel eerily familiar. A pig also has the same digestive system as you and me, with identical thoracic and abdominal organs receiving, processing and vacating ingested food.
Pigs differ from humans—and most other animals, in fact—in that their mothers’ milk alone isn’t enough to sustain newborn offspring. Sure, piglets rush to the teats after birth to derive sustenance from sow’s milk, without which they would surely die. But sow’s milk lacks sufficient iron that, if not delivered in one manner or another, will cause nursing piglets to die. When a piglet is born, it has limited amounts of the mineral in its body and, unable to receive an adequate amount from mother’s milk to sustain its rapid growth rate, needs it from another source.
Weird, right? Is this an oversight of mother nature or a mutation from years of cross-breeding?
Well, neither. The low iron in a sow’s milk is no deficiency—it’s exactly the right amount needed by a pig born in the wild. A piglet’s rooting instinct awakens very early, causing the little oinkers to root the soil with their infant noses. And, wouldn’t you know it, the amount of iron they get out of the soil when they break it up with their snouts is exactly what they need to survive and thrive.
The amount of iron available in sow’s milk might not be deficient, but neither is it enough for piglets raised on a non-soil floor, such as concrete. Because many farmers, small- and large-scale, opt for this setup, the piglets they raise don’t have access to much-needed iron until they start to creep feed at more than a month old. Of course, then it’s too late, as anemia—decreased hemoglobin in the blood—becomes a problem long before a piglet tries out food.
Farmers of yesteryear figured this out and remedied the problem by delivering iron to newborn pigs.
Supplemental iron is available from farm supply stores in either oral or injectable form. Injections are far and away the most popular delivery method, with farmers commonly delivering 150 to 200mg of iron dextran in either a 1 or 2ml dose three to five days after birth (it’s not advisable to do this at birth). Use a 1/2-inch 20- or 21-gauge needle to deliver the injection in the neck muscle behind the ear or into the muscle of the hind leg. It’s sometimes necessary to repeat once after weening—watch for signs of anemia, such as slowed growth, pale coloring around the nose and mouth, and, in extreme cases, rapid breathing or scouring (diarrhea).
If you’re pasturing pigs, however, you can skip all that (unless the ground is frozen, but ideally you won’t have baby piglets in sub-freezing temperatures), as piglets will get the right amount of iron from rooting around in clean, fresh soil. But, as many farmers prefer to provide an indoor environment for farrowing, this ideal scenario isn’t always plausible.
On our farm, sows farrow in a dirt-floor barn, which provides piglets access to soil right at birth. But the barn-floor soil, shaded as it is from the sun, doesn’t grow grass and plants that break down into a nutrient- and mineral-dense dirt. So, out of an abundance of carefulness and a commitment to giving our piglets the best start, I grab a shovel and a feed bucket, and head out to a fresh, green piece of pasture. I break the grass and pile mounds of lush topsoil into the bucket, which I carry back to the barn and dump unceremoniously onto the ground.
Piglets take to the dirt immediately, smearing their faces with the iron-rich soil. I’ve since read that this dirt-delivery technique was commonplace for farmers of yore, which made me feel pretty good. In most cases, doing something that’s already been done is doing something right.