Farmhand's Journal : Making a pig of himself
Although everyone is anxiously awaiting the summer heat, in some areas of the farm the "heat" is hopefully over. When breeding animals, a female going into "heat" is a sign that she is able to be bred, and that she has not yet been bred.
Most Island farms are beginning to welcome newborn lambs and goat kids, while at the same time are going through the motions needed to breed their pigs. A pig's normal gestation period (from conception to delivery) is three months, three weeks, and three days. Though with any mammal this varies slightly, pigs generally remain on time.
Pig breeding this year for us has been a bit of a trip. We decided to try a boar (a male pig) that we had never used before. Along came Smokey the Glouchestershire Old Spot. Smokey is some pig. His short snout is dominated by his big floppy ears and his pink skin is contrasted by a handful of large black spots. He and our pig, Miss Piggy, look like two peas in a pod - two 600-pound pink peas in a large hay-filled pod. Miss Piggy shares the same attributes as Smokey except for one drastic difference: her long legs. These long legs made it difficult for Smokey, who as hard as he tried, just couldn't do his job. A relationship just wasn't in the cards for these two.
A farmer normally has a lot more to do than stand around all day and night and see if pigs have bred. Of course there is the occasional passby when you notice something going on and stand to watch for a second and say "huh," to yourself - because there isn't much else to say - and then continue on your way. But there is only one way to know for sure if the female has been bred. You must wait the 21 days to see if she comes into heat again. Your other option is to draw some blood and have it tested by your veterinarian or by a lab, but I haven't come across too many 500-pound pigs willing to stand there contently while you stab them with a syringe and draw blood. So I guess the choice is up to the farmer.
We wait the 21 days and no one gets bashed or bruised. Only having a breeding window every 21 days makes heat cycle more and more important to catch as the months roll by. Once a sow comes into heat, she will only remain in heat between 24 and 72 hours. This is why many farmers will bring a boar onto their farm or bring their sow over to a boar for a few months at a time. No human can detect a female pig's heat like a boar. He has one job and one job only, and he knows it.
By the end of February, we were convinced that Miss Piggy still had not been bred. It was time to call in the understudy. Luckily Jellybean was more than willing to accept the challenge. We anxiously awaited the bittersweet arrival of Miss Piggy's heat proving she had not been bred.
Once the heat started we knew we had a small window of opportunity. Although the pig is normally in heat for a few days, the first 24 hours are usually the most crucial. This time is referred to as a "standing heat," the heat phase when she will stand and allow the male to mount. The rest of the time is mostly her avoiding his every attempt at physical contact.
Into the trailer Miss Piggy went and she left for weekend getaway with Jellybean at the Thompson Farm in Tisbury. We waited our 21 days again and as it could be assumed, no other heat phase for Miss Piggy. We could begin the three-month, three-week, and three-day wait for our piglets to arrive, which will be in early June.
Julie Olson is livestock manager and farm/education liason at The FARM Institute.