We Overfed Our Sow—And It Led To Problems

After two failed litters, we look at how (and how much) we feed our mama pig.

by Rodney Wilson
PHOTO: Rachael Brugger

When I was young, I went through a cavalcade of career aspirations, including such lofty goals as artist, stand-up comedian and professional wrestler. Eventually, when adolescent pragmatism weeded out some of the more far-flung ambitions (I was no artist!), I told people I’d be a writer and, failing to convince myself otherwise, ended up going that route.

But I never thought I’d be a pig farmer. Unlike a lot of livestock farmers (though, of course, not all), I wasn’t raised chasing escaped sows through cornfields or wrestling feisty barrows. I didn’t get the training so many fresh-faced agrarians have under their belts when embarking on a farming venture of their own. And although I don’t think growing up on a farm necessarily makes great farmers, there are days when I wish for a more intuitive understanding of this farming thing we’re up to. Learning on the job can be great, but there’s some information I wish I had without running to Google. Some days I wish I just knew what I need to know.

The other day was one of those days. When our sow got stuck in labor after just one piglet and the vet gave her a few days to live, I wish I knew more. But then we did what we do: We Googled. My wife performed an action the vet didn’t offer, and the sow and surviving piglet are doing fine now. But I’ll tell you that story at a later date. Right now, I’m seeking answers to questions I am not sure how to ask.

Pig Nutrition & Its Effect On Birth

Which brings me to sow nutrition, a topic I don’t think I have adequate information about, though I do know it’s important. When the sow finally stopped laboring, we realized she’d only carried four piglets total, two of which were oversized to the point of resembling 3-week-olds. While there are other possible explanations—an infection or other gestational interference—the logical place to start is with the feed.

I should state up front that we mix our own feed, grower and finisher rations with a slightly different nutritional load. We didn’t choose to do this because it’s cheaper than feed-store bags—it’s not—but because non-medicated pig feed is difficult to find and often priced beyond our means. Our recipe came from a friend who worked with her extension agent to develop a solid ration, and it’s grown us healthy pigs since we started using it.

But sows are different than feeder pigs, aren’t they? There are numerous studies filled with scientifically dense phrases claiming that nutritional differences in sows’ feed during gestation has quantifiable effects on piglet health at weaning. But, conversely, most studies agree that ration rates probably don’t affect litter size, though there is some evidence that severely restricted nutritional provisions before breeding can limit embryo survival. However, even if our recipe is slightly off, our sow has never been severely limited on feed a day in her life. She gets cranky when hungry.

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We Were Feeding Too Much

And that’s where my search for a problem started to change course. According to pig experts, gestating sows need the same protein levels as grower pigs (15 to 16 percent), though they certainly can use extra calcium. The big difference, though, isn’t the type of feed, but feeding frequency. As I scoured information looking for what my sow didn’t get enough of, I ran across advice against overfeeding gestating sows. Rather than increasing nutritional availability, it’s advisable to actually limit feed during the first two-thirds of gestation, as obesity can result in smaller litter sizes (check) and farrowing problems (check). But underfed sows are more prone to shoulder sores and another set of reproductive problems, so finding the perfect feed regime is key. And it’s different for every sow.

A pig farmer can determine an individual sow’s needs by body condition scoring, backfat and estimated weight determination, or other factors. I ran across graphs and equations for determining sow rations, all aimed at helping large-scale pork producers maximize profits. That’s not me, but I do want a healthy sow, so in the end, I decided to follow instructions to feed gestating sows 3 to 6 pounds per day or 1 to 1.5 percent of their body weight. That’s a lot less than she currently gets, so if she grows too skinny, I’ll increase daily rations by 1 to 2 pounds in the last few weeks before farrowing to get her ready for lactation.

Sow-Specific Vitamins & Minerals

And while I’m scaling back her feed, I’m also going to make sure the feed she gets is exactly what she needs. If I fed her bagged feed, I’d switch to a sow mix at this point. But because we prepare our own corn and soybean feed, I have another option available; we currently add an all-natural VTM (vitamins and trace minerals) mix from Fertrell into our feed to keep our litters healthy without unnecessary medication. The company also has a sow mix with extra calcium and other nutrients, and I’ll buy some of that before we breed her again.

Taking A Breeding Break

Also, I think she needs a break. Sows can go infertile without frequent breeding, but a few months of walking the pasture without a belly full of piglets is overdue.

As a new pig farmer attempting to homestead on information geared to large-scale producers, I know there will be plenty more problems and lots of Googling ahead. And that’s OK. As numerous friends and advisors have told me since beginning this country life, “If farming was easy, everybody’d do it.”

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