Ear Piercing Squeals

It occurs to me that Mother Nature has selected for the loudest, most piercing squeal possible, in piglets.  Those with the loudest voice got the most results.

All Momma Sow's piglets lined up to nurse

Mellow, easy-going guys fell by the wayside (or in real world pig terms “got squished or eaten”). If you didn’t speak up for yourself… you might pay a pretty deadly price (literally, of course)!

Those who squealed the loudest and the quickest, got a response, whether it be a 300 lb mom trying to sit on you, or if you got separated from the “herd” and needed finding…because alone, you were food for the predators!


We invite our visitors (or maybe twist their arm to come see our newest babies!), but anyway… take them out to the farrowing pen. Take them to see all the little ones racing around, burrowing into the hay piles, and trying to chew on each other ears or tails to see if they give milk, or crawling on top of other sleeping piglets to join in a group nap-time! At least until mom gives out the special grunt that says, “come and get it, kiddos… lunch is ready!”

Until that happens the piglets enjoy exploring their world. Job, our farm intern, scoops up two little guys and hands one-off to visitors so they can feel how soft the skin is, and generally, just get a chance to cuddle one of the babies. Who ever gets to actually touch a piglet!

Only, once the piglet realizes it is off alone, all by itself, with unknown creatures stealing it away from  his siblings… he lets out an ear-piercing squeal, and doesn’t stop. If you didn’t know better you would think he was being tortured instead of cuddled! And let me tell you, it’s a non-stop squeal that just gets more tortured sounding each moment it continues.

It’s all the same… you can turn it off… at least, on YouTube!!!

Mom perks up immediately to see just what is going on.  Job is standing in the pen, still holding the other piglet (who hasn’t yet figured out he’s all by himself & thus has NOT started squealing… but will shortly, I assure you).

OH NO, Momma begins her investigation and notices that Job is holding one of her babies.  She makes her way up behind him, and very carefully (I tell you, she IS a good mom, but a GREAT family farm pig) puts her mouth around his calf and gently mouths his leg.


Now this is impressive… because my husband freaks out.  In his teenage years, he was responsible for 400 pigs and learned to jump a 5 ft high fence, from a standing start, in a micro second. His experience was that a momma pig would take a hunk out of you without ANY warning… if they were even a bit concerned about a piglet.

A warning nip was just not in their repertoire! But a trip to the hospital would be in your immediate future, if you ever lost sight of where and what that mom was doing. Our pigs are bred for a better temperament, but it’s always better to take NO chances.

Job reached back quietly and put pressure on the mom’s shoulder, pushing her away, as he put the piglet back on the ground, all the while talking quietly to her.

Our visitor quickly handed the noisy baby back to Job who got him back to mom, as well. Job continued to keep pressure on the mom, and then began to scratch her.

What an intuitive touch… she responded to his returning her babies and then the treat of a good scratch.  Rather than lose his cool, he worked with the mom and reassured her. Elements of an excellent farmer… one who tunes into the needs of the livestock he is tending.


Going out on the farm, to milk!

I have to say that one of the greatest pleasures on our farm is being able to offer hands-on learning experiences at various levels.  Whether it be kids coming out and seeing a momma hen, roaming freely, gather her chicks around her and teach them to scratch, or young adults who want to learn how to milk a cow, make butter, or experience what it is like to care for animals on a day in,day out basis, it each has its own value.

In our lives today, we really live very disconnected from real things. We watch life. We watch movies, reality TV, play video games, interact on-line. We are, for the most part, passive participates in life watching other’s live a fantasy.

We don’t get too hot, too dirty, too tired, too anything.  We are always somehow “connected” (or is that “wired”) into the world and yet, not.

We bike, hike, sail, swim, skate, ski, play baseball, tennis,etc., but it’s usually very recreational and for our own pleasure. Somehow in doing something that is actually productive, there is another quality that comes into play. A sense of connectedness with the world that reaches into the soul. How can you explain color to the blind man?

Ever just stopped to listen… to see… to feel…? We’re always so busy on the way to something that we never stop and actually experience life.  Take that moment out to “just be”. To stop being in control of everything around us.


One of the things I enjoyed about milking was the forced quiet time.  I could check out of the rest of the world… and just spend the moment with Bessie as she chews her hay, the milk machine clicks away, and the sounds of the barnyard drift into the milking stall. Bessie’s warmth and smell comfort me in a way I can not really express.

Probably because our culture has lost the words that express those experiences…. sadly.

Quiet time in the day, to milk Bessie

This little piggy….

Whoops: Change of Plans

We were headed out the door to head to town when our intern alerted us.

He walked by the pregnant gilt’s farrowing area… and saw three baby piglets!

Newborn piglets, dozing in the sunshine

One was still wet and working on figuring out which way was up. He was that new.

I grabbed a towel, my cell phone (to call and delay a meeting), and checked to make sure I was wearing something that could get grubby… very grubby. No telling what I would need to do… stand by and just watch a normal labor process, dash in to grab a piglet who was in trouble, or even help deliver babies if the gilt’s labor stalled out.

I say “he was that new” just because I don’t want to check the sex and upset the newborn, and trigger ANY squealing. Turning a newborn upside down and poking around, for some reason seems to initiate an ear-piercing squeal that WILL not stop until he is put back on the ground.  Our new momma has VERY strong instincts and will immediately jump up to defend her newborn.


Pigs are very interesting creatures as they deliver their young in a totally different way.  Cows, horses, cats, dogs, etc. all deliver and to some extent help their young… usually by licking them to stimulate, to clean off, and to help dry them. But piglets do it all on their own!

Mom lays down on her side and labors.  She gets up occasionally and may go check on the babies delivered (just sniffs them) but then she goes back and lays down.

The critical part is that if there is a newborn where she lays down, he must have an escape route! 300lb momma laying down on a 3 lb newborn can have some very distressing results.

Jim designed and built (with intern assistance!) angled areas in the corners of the farrowing stall.  Enough for a person to stand behind & in.  The angle area cross pieces are NOT all the way down to the floor.

Job, making sure the newborn piglets are safe!

If the momma sow lies down next to the angled area (which of course she does), there is a space that allows the piglet to move away from mom, and she is blocked from that; the piglet can shift into the protected angle.  We have flakes of straw in those areas so the piglets can burrow in and get warm.

Momma pig lays down and breaths/ pants with her labor and then will give a push. Out flies a piglet still encased in its amniotic sac & still attached with the umbilical cord.  As the baby “hits” the ground the sac is pulled away from its snout.  Sometimes the cord “snaps” (i.e. breaks at the delivery & sometimes not).

At first the newborn is totally still. My heart always stops until I see a little wiggle or flip of an ear. I have to consciously “STOP” myself from helping out!

Finally, real movement. The newborn is “shaking off” the shocking introduction to the world! As he begins to move around, the sac encasing him, breaks away.  As he wiggles around, and then finally finds his feet (usually less than 3-4 minutes), he is pulling on the umbilical cord and it  breaks away so that he is free to move away from mom.

On average piglets delivery every 20-30 minutes. We’ve even had them deliver an hour apart.    Our new sow proceeded to deliver piglets at the rate of one every 10 minutes! That includes taking a break occasionally, getting up, nosing around to sniff & nuzzle her newborns.  After a brief check, she goes back to lay down…  carefully, so that any piglets in the way can move, and if they are trapped under her, squeal. A good mom whe will immediately jump up to prevent any squishing of newborns!

Cautious, is the name of the game!

Job, our intern, had never dealt much with livestock (thus part of the reason he is at OUR farm).  Jim had gone over a few techniques to use when working with the laboring mom, and he went right to work.  If mom gets a little bit shook or worried, she can be calmed by rubbing her belly.  Initially he stayed in the protected angled area, where he was in place to rescue a piglet if he needed to. He was just a hands-breath away, and had a clear view of what was happening.

It’s an unknown situation with a first time mom. Some sows can become confused, very aggressive and protective.  We had a sow who started to attack her first baby (it was her first litter) because it was squealing.  She hadn’t quite made the connection that it was her baby squealing but thought the baby was “attacking” her newborn.  We quickly had to scoop that newborn out of momma’s reach & calm her down by rubbing her belly.

As this was a new sow, and this was her first litter… we had no idea how she would act.  I must say, we were really impressed. She will be a keeper. First off, she had 12 healthy piglets (no runts & no super big piglets)… all pretty much 3-4 lbs each.  She was mellow during her labor and very careful of her newborns, even in the middle of labor.

Some TLC for the babies…Nursing

The first group of piglets are now quite hungry and search for a teat to nurse on. Momma sow has a minimum of 14 teats, seven on each side, but getting on for the first nursing can be a challenge. Job works out a method.

Piglets first nursing

When all 12 try to nurse and get to the upper seven teats, nobody gets to eat! Oh, I’m sure eventually they would but to short cut the drama, and make sure each piglet has gotten a good first nursing of the colostrum, we  assist. Remember?  that first milk which has lots of goodies in it for the baby – immunities passed from mom to babe. If a newborn does not get a good nursing within hours of birth, he will tend to be sickly or just not grow well.

So Job divides the group up into two parts, each made up of 6 piglets.  He corrals up one group away from mom, and then makes sure each piglet finds and attached to a teat.  Over a few hours he has made sure all the babies have had several good nursings. What an outstanding start!  And whenever mom would get a little anxious, he would just rub her belly and she would flop back, and snooze.  When Job brought her sweet cob, grain, and curdled jersey milk (her favorite), in a low bucket, she didn’t even bother to get up. Just picked her head up, pushed on the buckets edge until it tilted toward her, and munched away happily on her treat.

In the past, when we’ve had a sows labor stall out, we’ve put piglets to the teats to nurse, to stimulate more contractions. The nursing process releases hormones that trigger the let-down of  milk, and uterine contractions.  I think it’s Nature’s way of making sure the labor process is completed and the placental tissue is passed.


Enough for now; we’ll leave the babes & mom alone and “pray” they get through the night OK.  I always worry about the little ones getting squished but this mom is very careful. She moves slowly, watches, and nuzzles the straw before she lays down.  If she hears someone start squalling she will immediately jump up, and then carefully try again.

Mom and babies sleep separate! All the babies bundle together, overlapping each other, usually burrowing into the straw… and keep each other warm.  When mom carefully lays down, she will then call to her babies and they all come running, to nurse. But when done, the babies gather together and sleep in their little angled protected area, or huddled together under a flake of straw.

Reducing Losses

If you don’t have a “good mom” you could have a 25-100% loss of piglets! That’s why in the swine industry, in their confinement system, the moms are put in farrowing crates, that barely allow her any movement.

We have lost several piglets in the past, with different sows, because the moms were not careful enough during and immediately after labor. We switched breeding lines to see if we could improve our delivery numbers and survival rates.  In the past we would have 8 piglets, with 6 surviving delivery. Generally never lost a piglet after the first day.

Selecting for Survival

But our approach is different from the industrial model. Instead of using every sow, even if she is not a good mother, we selectively choose who will breed. That way our stock will get better… need less intervention, be healthier, and more productive. Strikes me that the industry method is decreasing the quality of the breeding livestock, over time.

We aim toward a sustainable model, where livestock don’t actually need humans to survive!

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