Sunday, February 15, 2015

When Mama-Sow Refuses Her Piglets...

Pinky Pie was due to farrow on the 7th. Her due date came and went. On the evening of the 9th, she finally began to show signs of early labor: nesting, contractions, loss of appetite, swollen pink vulva, and a little milk could be expressed from her teats. We were ready and excited that it was finally happening. Mike checked in on her at bedtime and decided it would be a few hours yet. He set his alarm for two hours and we tried to get a little sleep.


At midnight, he woke me with the news that Pinky was deep in labor. I dressed quickly and walked out to the piggery just in time to see one piglet already born and the second on the way. Mike was in the pen to assist with making sure the sacs broke away from the newborn's nose and to give mama a few comforting scratches now and then. This very minimal assistance is our usual mode of attending birth.

Suddenly something snapped in Pinky's brain. One piglet made a little squeal when Mike wiped its snout. Pinky jumped up and turned on him, driving him to the edge of the pen. Then she turned on her babies and attacked them with bites and stomps. It was horrifying.

The rest of the farrowing - from just after midnight until 4:30am - she was very restless, anxious, and aggressive toward her piglets. As each one was born, we'd hoped that her mothering instincts would kick in and she'd start taking care of her little ones. But instead, she'd turn to attack each one, biting and stomping and driving it away. Mike had to go into the pen with a shield of sorts (a piece of plywood) to retrieve each piglet and bring it to safety, away from mama.

 
There were ten piglets in all. They were safe for the time being, in a makeshift "nursery" pen. Pinky still would not accept them at all. Interestingly, she kept burrowing her head into the bedding of her pen. We'd noticed in the past that our pigs do this when they are not feeling well - the IMOs in there help them get better. Obviously, Pinky was in some distress.

But our main concern right now was that those piglets needed the colostrum (the "first milk" that isn't really milk but is full of antibodies) from mama-sow in order to survive, and there was a time limit to get it to them... somehow. But how? While allowing Pinky an hour to sleep and rest - maybe she would feel better with a little recuperation time? - we frantically looked online for information about this problem that we had never experienced with any of our previous sows and were totally unprepared for.

Later, after dawn, we started making phone calls: to the Agriculture Extension agent we often work with... to a pig farmer friend with more experience... and to the State Department of Agriculture veterinarian. While they each sympathized with our plight, it was the latter, Dr Kim Kozuma, who gave us the information that finally worked.

Things we tried:
Letting mama-sow rest an hour without her piglets "bothering" her;
Four bottles of good beer, mixed with some feed, in hopes of mellowing her mood and to help stimulate milk production (since she wasn't letting the piglets do this by suckling);
Soothing belly rubs (with a 4-foot stick - no way were we going into that pen again until she settled down!);
Moved her to a different pen, so she wouldn't feel like the piglets were "invading her territory"...

Nothing was working, and the piglets were not jostling each other with as much enthusiasm as before. They were dozing more and more. We were running out of time. At this point, we felt at risk of losing the entire litter.



Desperate enough to try anything, we took Dr Kim's suggestion and built a sort of "nursing crate" to restrain and restrict the sow's movements. We coaxed her into the chute (you cannot make a 500-pound sow do anything - you have to convince her she wants to do it) with coconut pieces and eggs, two of her favorite treats. Once she was in, we slid boards behind her so she couldn't back out of the space. She didn't like it one bit - this is a pig who has never been confined - and it took her a while to settle down. She did have access to water the whole time she was in there.

About an hour later, she finally lay down - more boards were placed to keep her from rising again - but she was on her belly. It took another hour to coax her over to her side. At that point, finally finally, her babies could safely nurse, five at a time since there wasn't enough room for her to turn far enough to expose all the nipples.



Pinky growled at first, but seemed to settle down fairly quickly. Maybe that beer had finally kicked in. Even better, the hormone oxytocin is released with nursing. That's the one associated with tender mothering feelings (also with strong uterine contractions; another placenta was released during this nursing session). Dr Kim had suggested that once the oxytocin flooded her system, Pinky might turn into a good mother after all, since that has been one of the main traits we'd been breeding towards. And she was right! Once these little piglets got their fill, we marked the tops of their heads and placed them back in the nursery pen.



Pigs don't nurse on demand like many mammals. They can only let down their milk once every hour , and then only for about a minute. All the suckling that happens before and after helps stimulate milk production, but the babies aren't getting more than a few drops until the milk lets down. A trained ear will hear the difference in the sow's grunts and you can see the piglets stop jostling each other and concentrate on sucking hard while the milk is flowing. Then, just like that, it's all over until the next session an hour later.

So, an hour later, the other five piglets got their turn at the life-sustaining colostrum. After that, we brought all the babies over. Pinky was allowing them to climb all over her head and face which is important for bonding. We carefully removed the restraining boards... then one side of the confinement pen, so that mama could once again move freely.

Happy pig family at last, and a chicken visitor come to pay her respects!

At 3:00pm we finally got a chance to breathe our sighs of relief and exhaustion, still mixed with some apprehension as to whether or not this was all going to work out. At least we knew we had tried every single thing possible. (There are some veterinarian drugs that might have helped. We tried to get some, but they were not available on the island at the time.)

I am so relieved to report that this story has a happy ending. For quite a while there, we weren't sure if it would. After such a harrowing start, Miss Pinky Pie has become a careful and attentive mama-sow. She has not lost a single piglet yet - so far, all ten are still alive. Of course, they are the cutest things ever!

6 comments:

volcano gail said...

That was intense and utterly fascinating.

Dana Melina Keawe said...

Congratulations Mike and Liz! Good to hear it all worked out and Pinky and her babies are doing well. ;-)

Unknown said...

Great read. Well done on the solution with a happy ending.

Sonia said...

Wow, Liz...that had to be quite intense...glad all ended well, even if exhausting!

EllenFarmer said...

What can I say? You two must have had a great education to use research and experimentation and courage so expertly! Not to mention teamwork! I am thoroughly impressed and so happy things worked out! XXOO

Liz said...

Thanks to all for the encouraging comments!
Ellen, you were instrumental in our background education, and we both thank you for allowing and encouraging us to think outside the box! <3