Yesterday was one of the most amazing days ever…we weren’t expecting piglets till mid April, but evidently we were misinformed and SURPRISE, they arrived and we were completely unprepared. They aren’t early, none of them appear premature, it turns out that the original owner didn’t fill us in that the boar had “gotten out” in early November and evidently he was very busy during that time. The original owner (remember we are just fostering the sows) also had a ‘surprise’ litter delivered the other day and didn’t think to tell us until we called him to share the news (how helpful), a heads-up would have been nice. We had also been questioning signs of her leading up to farrowing (pig birthing) over the past couple of weeks. However, being first timers, we were actually convinced that she wasn’t even pregnant because about to weeks ago her ‘female parts’ were red and swollen and we thought she was in heat, evidently looking back this was the 10 day warning. We have also been checking for milk which is supposed to be the 12-24 hour sign, but had no such luck.
The tip-off came in the morning during our usual routine when we went to feed the pigs. Normally, both pigs run to their bowls and compete over their food. Yesterday was different, Lucy ate as usual, but Ethel who is always super excited about her food wanted nothing to do with it. Something was up, we investigated further and found her female parts to be very wet (we think she was in early labor) and we noticed she had built up a huge nest in the woods that wasn’t there before. Luckily, we picked up on the signs and realized what was happening, but at the same time we were like ‘crap!’ we are so not ready for this!
Our plan had been to move them closer to the house in plenty of time, prior to delivery. The advantage of having them close (I can see them from the bedroom window) allows us to closely monitor them and make sure they always have adequate food, water, and shelter during this delicate time. But of course this was not the case. The nest she had made was in the woods, on a cold windy hill, towards the back of the property, not helpful to say the least. Shaun was hoping we might still have time to move her if she hadn’t delivered yet, so he moved Lucy to a separate paddock to keep her out of the way and began setting up the paddock close to the house, while I jumped in the truck and zoomed down the feed store to buy straw for bedding, luckily it’s only down the street. We new the bed she had made would be wet and cold because it has been doing nothing but rain for a week straight.
As a side note we just purchased this truck only 2 days before, we have been needing a farm truck for a while and it seems we bought it just in time…1985 Dodge Ram with only 129,000 miles, so far runs great!
I returned with the straw as fast as I could and carried a bale to where Shaun was setting up the new paddock by the house, he said he hadn’t checked her since I left so I went straight to the nest to see if there was any progress. I don’t think I had been gone more than 15-20 minutes to get straw. We have received many warnings to ‘leave the sow alone’ during delivery and that she can turn on you in an effort to protect the babies, but honestly when I was walking over I completely forgot all of this and just jumped right in. I have never seen an animal born, not even puppies, but I had been reading about it and knew the basics, since I am a NICU nurse after all.
Arriving on seen, all I could hear was squealing (an unfamiliar sound until I realized what it was) at least 3 piglets were already born and more on the way out. It was overwhelming, they were scattered everywhere, running out of the nest and I was so concerned about them being cold! Some were already dry, so they must have been out for a bit, I scooped them up and huddled them together next to the mother and encouraged them to suckle. I could tell the mother was uncomfortable and rightfully so, those babies are big! She was shaky and restless, she mostly laid on her left side, but then shortly after my arrival she sat up to change position and when she does this she steps on the ones already born! I was mortified, screaming to Shaun while trying to grab the babies and get them out of the way, the squeals were heart-wrenching! He insists I yelled, “she’s eating them,” but I tell him I was yelling “she’s stomping on them!” Either way, eating or stomping, he came to save the day and moved the ones I couldn’t get to as she delivered several more piglets.
Once things settled a bit and I got the routine down of how to save the the babies from being squashed each time she moved, I went to get towels and Shaun spread fresh straw around everyone, making a much better nest that was dry and warm, for mama and babies. Time was flying by and I really have no idea what the time frame was, but by this time we were up to 8 or 9 piglets and I was thinking she was about done. The internet tells me they typically deliver about 15 minutes apart, but hers were much faster, sometimes one right after the other. So far all of the piglets seemed to being doing well, they perked right up after I dried them off and immediately crawled around searching for milk which they instinctively knew where to find. Things seemed to going well and I started to wonder if it was over and this was all of them. I read that the placenta can deliver 2-4 hours after the piglets.
I guess I was extremely lucky that she was ok with us being there to assist. She seemed so weak and exhausted that she hardly cared and almost seemed thankful that we were there to help, so we stayed and stroked her throughout the labor and continued to try to save the babies from being squashed by her giant hooves. Like I mentioned before, this is not thought to be typical behavior and we read that even pigs who were considered pets have been known to turn on their caretakers during this time. I got up to walk around the nest a bit and stretch my legs, while Shaun was still in the nest with the babies. Keep in mind that it is still early morning and very chilly, I had warm gloves on that were now wet and gross and my toes were frozen in my boots. As I walked to the other side of the nest, all the sudden I heard horrible squealing that was coming from the nest, but not were the piglets were, it was on the other side. I couldn’t find where it was coming from and I called to Shaun for his help as I’m digging in the nest trying to locate the squealing! With his help we located the buried piglet!
The buried piglet was cold and crying, I have no idea how long he had been there. I quickly put him skin to skin under my shirt, against my chest in an attempt to warm him up, this helped to simmer his squeals and Shaun and I took turns warming him, but knew that he was probably to far gone. His squeal was different from the others, it just ‘didn’t sound right, ‘ it’s hard to explain and when we put him back to the nest he wasn’t active like the others and continued to have his weird cry. Looking back, we think this might have been the first piglet born, prior to my arrival on scene and the mother may have sensed that something was wrong with him and buried him. We knew that his chances were slim, but kept him with the others in an effort to give him a chance.
Shaun left me to continue my mid-wife position while he situated food and water for the mother right next to the nest. She seemed very weak and even when the food was right next to her she didn’t get up to eat or drink. Our new plan was to try to keep everyone here for the time being, until we were sure the birth was over and she was strong enough to get up, then we would attempt to move everyone to a better location.
Some time passed, Ethel still seemed distressed, the piglets were beginning to nurse better…then came another round. I was only half expecting it because I thought it might already be over, but before I knew it another slew of piglets were popping out. Now I was more practiced, clearing the airway, drying them off and quickly adding them to the nest to provide warmth from the mother and other babies. I didn’t pay much attention to their umbilical cords because they seemed to kinda do their own thing and fall off, later I read you should make sure they stop bleeding and tie them off as necessary, otherwise the piglet could die from anemia. So I’ll be more prepared for round 2, but I don’t think anyone needed the attention because there was no obvious bleeding that I observed. So far all of the piglets were born alive and doing well, other than the one I had previously described was doing about the same, I still didn’t have high hopes for that one. In this second round of deliveries, I can’t remember if it was the last one or not, but it was close to the end. There was one born ‘in the sac’. On one of the TV shows I watch, titled “Call the Midwife” they call this the ‘mermaid’s purse.’ It sticks in my mind because one time I cared for a very sick baby that was born this way, I think it was a precipitous home birth and the sac was full of meconium. This remains to be one of the sickest babies I have ever cared for in my career. He ended up with horrible meconium aspiration and multiple chest tubes (so many that I ran out of suction connections and had to start y-ing them together), we performed many procedures that night and I pushed many meds, he ended up getting transported out for ECMO and did live, but I think had some neurologic deficits after the traumatic start he experienced. Anyways, not to sound more depressing, but the piglet born in the sac was stillborn. It was obvious he had been dead for a little while and was not as developed as the others. This was sad, but it does happen. With the last piglet, the placenta was also delivered so I had a feeling that meant things were done. Counting the stillborn and the one that had been buried we had a total of 14 piglets born, Shaun informed me this was likely the most they can have so we maxed out.
About 30 minutes after the placenta delivered, mama seemed to be feeling better. She finally was able to get up and feed herself and was frequently changing positions to help the piglets nurse. I was relieved, knowing that I could get a break and warm-up, finally feeling comfortable enough to leave her alone for a bit and let her bond with the babies.
Shaun and I barely ate or drank anything all day we were so busy and distracted with everything going on, I stayed inside long enough to make coffee that I brought outside with me and sneak a piece of cinnamon swirl bread we had bought form a local bakery (We love Martha’s Marvelous Munchies). I switched into warm socks and UGGS vs. my rain boots because my feet were completely frozen.
Our gears switched to setting up 2 new paddocks close to the house. The only helpful part was that Ethel was so distracted with the babies she didn’t care that we took the fence down and moved it, she stayed right where she needed to be and the piglets tend to stay right with mama. Moving the poly-net electric fence takes some time, but it’s actually pretty easy, the hard part is clearing a path through the trees and cleaning up all the little twigs and branches that get in the way. At least it is winter and there are no leaves on the trees, this makes it slightly easier. We didn’t bother with the charger because it is unlikely they will try to break out. During the new paddock setup I periodically checked the nest to make sure everyone was doing ok, each time I was counting the piglets. One of the times I went over I only counted twelve, I counted 3 times and asked Shaun to count too. The one that had been having trouble was missing, I think he finally died or the mom got rid of him and buried him again because we couldn’t find it. So 12 was now the magic number.
Once the fence was up, improved housing was our next priority. The shelter we had previously used for the pigs (although they never use it) would serve as one shelter and we retrofitted it with 3 sides of wind block instead of 2, as well as lots of straw and food and water right outside the door. This would be for Lucy, don’t want to take anymore chances.
Ethel’s shelter was made from pallets and another cattle panel that we used to create a sturdy arch in the center. 3 sides of the structure was then covered with plastic…we had taken down the greenhouse after the snowstorm pretty much killed it and had the plastic leftover, still in good enough condition to use for this purpose. We added 2 bales of straw for nesting material. We call this one the “Taj Mahal” because it is very cozy. The paddocks and shelters are setup next to each other but still separate from one another.
Ok, now the hard part…how are we going to move these babies? I found no recommendations listed online about how to go about doing this, so we kinda winged it and hoped for the best. Once everything was ready, we went and took about half the babies and moved them to the new location which was maybe 300 or so feet away (I’m heavily guesstimating). Our wonderful neighbor “Uncle Bruce” came to assist and sat with the babies in the new shelter while we tried to coax mama out. Our hope was that mama would follow when she saw us carrying the rest in that direction, of course this did not go as planned. Despite Shaun attempting to alert her to the kidnapping, she seemed to be in a daze until it was too late and she realized they were gone and they were all in the new location. Of course she freaked out, started running in the opposite direction, got Lucy all worked up and basically set off the “Amber Alert.” Lucy broke right through her fence and joined in the search! I felt so bad for doing this, but I’m not really sure what else we could have done. So I went and grabbed one of the babies, to try and get her to see it and then lead her to the nest, but she was to distraught. Next I rubbed the piglet to make him squeal and that did that job! Her ears perked right up when she heard that and she started charging! I absolutely do not recommend this but I ran with the piglet and gently tossed him in with the others while I quickly got out of the way and mama and babies were reunited without anymore drama! Phew!
Since being reunited in their new home mama and all 12 piglets have been doing well. Last night was below freezing and everyone survived, we are still worried about suffocation losses as we have read this happens frequently when the mother accidentally lays on the babies. Many sources recommend using a creep, which is a warm area away from the mother that offers a safe refuge for the piglets. However, we have heard mixed success stories, so we are trying without this intervention. So far the mama tends to make a nest for the babies to sleep that is slightly away from where she sleeps and then they come over to nurse as needed. She has been more careful when she stands up compared to yesterday and she gently re-enters the nest after she leaves for a snack, paying attention to where she lays down. Frequently, the piglets also like to sleep up by her head vs. on the side of her where it is more likely for them to be squished. So hopefully they will figure it out. They are so funny to watch, climbing all over the mama …sometimes they climb up the back of her and slide down her belly to ‘sneak attack’ the other piglets and knock them out of the way so they can get first dibs to nurse, it is very cute.
As I write this I have been patiently waiting on our back deck watching Lucy all day, waiting for her to go into labor. Of course this time because I’m prepared I’ll have to wait patiently. She was very restless this morning and this afternoon she has been quiet, she is producing milk, so hopefully today or tomorrow. I will just have to wait and see.