Our desire to keep our own sow for breeding piglets stemmed from our frustration trying to get quality piglets in the spring. Spring is the ideal time to get piglets for most, so they sell out quick and our expectations are admittedly high. Keeping a sow of our own would allow us to have control over the breed mix and experiment with crosses, save the hectic spring scramble, and save on the cost of buying piglets. Maybe, we could even make a little money on the side selling extra piglets!
When we first started scouring Craiglist for a gilt or sow, I admittedly at the time didn't know a thing about what to look for. I had no pig mentor, and the internet leaves a lot to be desired in terms of information (which has made me realize I need to blog more about my pig experiences to help others out there, but that's a different story). So I figured I would just kind of trust common sense and go with it. I knew to check that she moved soundly, had nice feet squarely under her body, and that her vulva didn't appear scarred or damaged.
When we went to look at Big Marie, I was flabbergasted and literally taken aback by her size. I didn't necessarily think she was overweight, because she is quite literally huge in stature. The people said that she was a year old and had never been bred, but had been in with a boar so she could potentially be pregnant.
There was nothing that screamed "don't get her" to us, so we loaded her up on the trailer and brought her home hoping that we may have some piglets on the way if she was already pregnant. It turned out that she wasn't, and now here we are five months later gearing up to artificially inseminate her. As it turns out, not only is she in fact overweight (and not just big) but she is also considered "old" to be getting bred for the first time. Without even having attempted AI yet, which I know will be a whole new experience, I have already had a crash course in pig breeding and learned some valuable lessons.
As hard as it is to picture life around here without her, if I could do it all over again, I would not have brought home Big Marie that day. Sometimes when you have the "learn on the fly" mentality, you end up getting burned and make some pretty big mistakes. But, hindsight is 20/20, and the homesteading journey is all about challenges, learning from your mistakes, and overcoming them. Now that she's here, we are going to try to work through the two main problems best we can: her weight and age, and hopefully, she can be bred successfully.
Before getting Big Marie, I knew that a gilt had to be at least 300 pounds and cycled a few times before being bred for the first time. I did not know until recently however, how critical of a factor age is, and that ideally, a year old is the maximum age for being bred for the first time. Seems young, am I right? Big Marie, is now 18 months old, so thats 6 months past the ideal maximum age! Basically, having gone through many heat cycles with never being bred, she is at risk for developing (or already developed) follicular cysts. This leads to infertility, aka the inability to be bred. We obviously can't "work through this problem" unless we somehow come up with a way to turn back time. So, the only thing we can do to address this is to try and get her bred immediately before she gets any older!
Because I have no control over her age, the main issue that we have to address first and foremost is her weight. It's so easy for a pig to get overweight, and unfortunately we didn't know exactly what we were looking at when we got her as she came to use overweight! Fat sows/gilts have difficulty getting bred, and are at an extremely high risk for difficulties farrowing including stillbirths and breached babies. In an ideal world, I would put her on a strict diet to cut her weight down before breeding her. We are however, up against the age issue and time is not a luxury that we have.
The only option we really have at this point is to put her on a crash diet (which I started weeks ago) to get her to start cutting weight fast. I have cut her daily food intake in half, and she is now getting only 3 pounds 14% protein feed a day with zero scraps. I can cut the protein down to 12%, which I will once we go through the feed that I already purchased for her. According to the people at Shipley Swine Genetics (the AI company i'll be using), she can continue to lose weight throughout her pregnancy and be at a healthy weight by the time it comes to farrow. Rather than increasing the feed throughout her pregnancy cycle to keep up with her bodies and her piglets demands, she will essentially be using her bodies existing reserves instead.
This whole experience has certainly been a crash course in breeding pigs...and I haven't even inseminated her yet! She will be cycling again the second week in October which is when we plan to attempt AI for the first time. Rest assured, I will be documenting that process in detail on here so everyone can follow along.
At this point, we are doing everything we can to get her weight under control, and obviously, we have no control over her age. The best we can do at this point is do our part, inseminate her properly, and hope for the best! I have learned a lot of valuable lessons from this experience, and my hope is that it isn't too little too late. I'm crossing everything I have that she can in fact get pregnant, and that she has an easy farrowing come spring. Who wouldn't want to see a bunch of little Big Maries barreling around the farm?!
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