Hopes and aspirations
By Trent Loos
The past week at our house has been a much anticipated time for all of us. Our farrowing house is full. In fact, we had one more sow bred than we had crates but more on that later. Approximately 114 to 120 days ago, the plan was put in place for what should happen. It actually began the month before as we talked to other breeders and scoured boar stud catalogs to find the perfect mates to each of the females we were going to breed.
Those not in the livestock industry really have no grasp of what goes into this selection and mating project. For those in the cattle industry, it is much the same during the artificial insemination period because you can choose sires specifically for each female. However, since only about 8 percent of all beef cows are bred this way, the majority get placed with a bull that "matches" the needs of the females as a group.
The swine industry has gone mostly to AI for many reasons including efficiency and management as well as genetic selection. While we don't use AI exclusively, most of the boars we have are collected and used to breed artificially if they are the best match for the sow and to test the genetic traits of our sires.
Before the breeding process starts, a breeder already has in mind what he hopes to produce when the litter arrives. Of course everyone dreams of that $100,000 boar but most people just want to make sound, productive animals born into large, healthy litters. Many things are taken into consideration when choosing a sire including both the strengths and weakness of the female. Once the mating is done, the anticipation begins.
While 114, give or take a few, days really isn't that long, it can seem like an eternity when you are waiting to see how good your mating decisions were. Around 105 days, we start loading sows into the farrowing house, based on who was bred first. We all "predict" which one we think is going to farrow first based on their nesting behavior, what their udder looks like or perhaps even their past history. If a sow carried her pigs beyond 114 days in her last gestation, she probably will again. We check repeatedly day and night, carrying that syringe of oxytocin with us from the refrigerator just in case.
Finally, it happens. Of course it was the little gilt that nobody picked that happened to farrow first with a nice litter of 11. For my wife, farrowing is the highlight of our pig operation. If she never had to load another market hog, she would be in hog heaven but she loves farrowing sows. She sits quietly behind each sow, catching each squirming little piglet as it pops out. She rubs them dry and puts them under the heat lamp until it is time to try to get them all nursing. Nursing can sometimes be a challenge, especially with first-timers that don't understand that you have to lay down during the process and stay laying for more than thirty seconds once a mess of little feet start crawling all over you.
Once they finally started farrowing, it was like a memo went out and they all followed suit. Sunday morning before church we farrowed three and by the time we got home and did noon chores, three more were farrowing. It was actually nice to have them going in groups like that but it was quite hectic running from crate to crate and trying to keep up with all of them.
After several months of waiting, the results were finally in. Which sows bred well and had nice big litters. Which sows essentially wasted four months of feed and didn't produce enough pigs to warrant keeping them around for another breeding cycle. As I mentioned earlier, we did have one too many sows for the number of crates we had but as predicted we did end up with one sow that only had two pigs. Her two pigs now have a new mother as they were transferred to another sow that had six and she will make her way into a breakfast sausage coming soon to a store near you.
Now the real question: Were the matings successful? Did we choose the right boar for each sow? Of course, we won't know the final answer until show season rolls around next summer or perhaps some of these gilts go into production later next year, but by early estimates it looks like we made some good choices. Time will tell but the anticipation about our breeding decisions is behind and now our management skills will be judged on how we take them from the farrowing crate to their future destiny. If the Facebook response to a posted photo is any indication of their popularity, these piglets will be a hit!
Livestock producers don't just have one test now and then. Their skills and decisions are continually challenged and tested and the outcome is severe--either you make it or you don't. You put your skills to work every day and it's those hopes and aspirations for success that keep you forging ahead.
Editor's note: Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.FacesOfAg.com, or email Trent at firstname.lastname@example.org.