Rural veterinary practice
Overlaying of piglets
Delivery of a goat
Foot and Mouth Disease
Bovine Virus Diarrhoea
Herd health management
8. Overlaying of piglets (mixed farm)
The weight of mature sows is not to be underestimated: they can weigh two hundred kilograms or more. Sows need room to lie down. If a piglet is too near, it is at risk of being crushed: it can be overlain.
Piglets that are overlain by the sow are a serious loss-maker in the pig breeding industry. Which is why a sow pen is used in the barn where the delivery is to take place. It is a construction of steel pipes that is positioned in the centre of the farrowing barn. Once the due date is near, the sow is placed in the construction. It prevents the sow from suddenly lying down on its side and spreading out. Piglets can easily slip away under the bottom pipe. This gives them a way out should the mother show signs of wanting to lie down; and they hurry back as soon as the sow is positioned on her side and the teats with their nutritious milk become available to them.
A litter of new-born piglets usually consists of ten to eighteen animals. Once born, they seek a warm spot to lie down. To fulfil this need, the farmer hangs a heat lamp in the corner of the barn. This is at a moderate distance from the sow, where they are safe should the sow decide to go down. From there, they run to the sow to drink from the teats that provide the most milk. These are usually up front. The piglets that drink from the back teats generally remain smaller. But if they get to the sow before she has properly descended, then there is the risk of the piglets becoming overlain.
Nowadays, pig breeding farms keep an average of a few hundred sows. And so the farmer is not present every time piglets are born. If he were to be, then he would scarcely ever sleep in his own bed. But in the seventies and eighties, the number of breeding pigs on mixed farms was still small and the farmer kept watch each time a sow had its young. This in case of complications. If, for example, the number three piglet in a total of fifteen lies crosswise in the birth canal and obstructs the passage, then the birth process will stagnate. And if that situation is not corrected, then the result will be thirteen dead piglets and a seriously ill sow. It is therefore essential to timely show the obstructionist the right way; tomorrow will be too late. Moreover, new-born piglets are not that fast, so they are at the greatest risk of being overlain. And because of the continuous contractions, it is not uncommon for the sow to stand up and then lie down again until the last piglet has been born. So the new-borns are not safe in the immediate vicinity of the mother. Which is why the watchful farmer removes each piglet immediately after its birth and places it under the heat lamp. But the working day of a farmer is long. The cows are milked early every morning, and in the evening, after dinner, a second time. Calves are often born during the night and they too need a watchful eye. So farmers have many interrupted nights. Therefore, a farmer has no trouble sleeping; wherever he can lie down, he can sleep.
On Rien’s mixed farm, day to day activities take place without incident and in due course. The family has two lovely, almost adult daughters. With their looks and temperament, they will not stay and make their living on the farm. And there is no son to take over the farm. For that reason, Rien feels no incentive to go with the times, to expand his farm and specialise in a particular animal. Here, things more or less remain the same as always. The number of cows is not enough to make a living. Which is why he also keeps sows for breeding and fattens the piglets that are born. Chickens roam freely everywhere on the property. They too help to keep a lid on the costs of living. Well, they have no reason to complain. And they do not feel the pressure of considerable loans from any bank. Whatever comes will come….
‘keeping watch’ as the piglets are born
Today is the due date of one of the sows. She was moved yesterday and placed in the sow pen. Because the animal is about to pig, the farmer’s wife has the conjugal bed to herself tonight: Rien is to keep watch over the sow tonight. The birth of a considerable number of piglets easily takes a number of hours. And so his wife goes to sleep without reason for concern. Upon awakening, however, the sun is shining and she is still alone in the bed. There is commotion in the barn: the cows are mooing and there is also turmoil in the pig barn as well. Darned, it is already half past eight! She hastily puts on her clothes and rushes downstairs. The udders of the cows are taut and their milk is streaming down. When she opens the door to the barn with the porkers, she is met by a deafening racket: the pigs want to eat. Finally, she finds her husband in the farrowing barn: sound asleep, he is lying between the sow and the heat lamp. A dozen piglets are visible in the light of the lamp and they are stumbling along around his head. “Hey, Rien! Darned! Wake up! There’s milking and feeding to be done. It is almost nine o’clock!”
Sleepily, he sits up, looks around for his clogs and dusts off his overalls. He rubs his eyes and yawns. Now he remembers: he is in the barn because the sow was about to pig. But then he sees the stern look on his wife’s face as she looks past him at the straw behind. He turns around and goes pale: two piglets lay dead on the spot where he was just lying. They were overlain last night by himself when he turned over in his sleep.
© Leo Rogier Verberne