We arrived down at the barn early the morning after Olivia delivered (and rejected) her 11 piglets. Overnight, one of them had wandered into the safety pen but didn’t get out of the way fast enough and was squashed. The others, though, were under the heat lamp. Olivia was completely uninterested in lying down and letting anyone have a drink. By this time, the colostrum clock was ticking – if newborns don’t get that first milk produced by the sow, they miss out on all sorts of antibodies that help keep them healthy until their own immune systems have time to kick into gear.
Milking a fidgety sow is no picnic. As ME stoked, massaged, and cajoled the sow, I did my best to milk a bit from each teat into a small container. Each time I had accumulated about 3ml, I’d draw it up in a syringe, catch a piglet, and convince the screaming, snapping, squirming little creature that I wasn’t trying to kill it. Usually when a few drops touched the piglet’s tongue it would realize what was going on and have a total attitude change. Of course, the attitude change was short-lived because 3ml doesn’t last a hungry piglet long at all.
After I’d hand fed a couple of piglets (starting with the smallest, weaker ones and working my way up to the hefty brutes), I would join in the massaging, cajoling, cooing, and pleading to try to get Olivia to lie down and do the job of feeding the babies herself. Though she was quite happy to talk to us (and be massaged), every time a piglet came close (either wandered in to the safety pen or was placed there when she happened to lie down for a moment) she would charge, pounce, and toss. Piglet screams are heart-breaking to hear.
I milked a bit more, hand fed another two or three and tried to figure out what the next plan might be. It’s not uncommon to use a sedative like Stresnil to stop sows from savaging their piglets. This, though, would have required a trip to the vet as I didn’t have any on hand, so I turned to my phone and consulted google. Of the many suggestions offered (some useful, some downright rude), one comment made some sense.”Give her a pint of stout.” This was from an old pig farmer who had probably helped more sows farrow than I will ever have the chance to do. A quick search online and it seemed that giving her a bit of beer might actually help stimulate milk production and that the amount that would be transferred to the piglets would not be harmful.
At this point, I was looking at losing a whole litter of piglets if I didn’t take drastic action, so I hiked up the hill and grabbed some Corona. I mixed two bottles with Olivia’s breakfast chow (which she slurped down quite happily) and waited and watched. While we waited for the beer to have some effect, I milked some more and continued to feed the remaining piglets a few droplets of the precious colostrum. After a bit, Olivia sighed and settled into her hay nest. We massaged and she exposed her teats. I brought her a piglet and she leaped to her feet, spun around, and threw it aside. We waited 15 minutes and tried again. Same result. I gave her another beer and more kibble and we repeated this whole routine, cringing at the squeals of hungry piglets being soundly rejected by their mother. At this point I was thinking maybe I had completely miscalculated. Perhaps this was going to be a sow who would become violent after drinking. Maybe Olivia was going to be the exception to the happy sow rule.
Olivia is a large pig, outweighing me by several times over. I eyed her, looked at her hungry piglets, and cracked open another Corona. She happily guzzled it down along with a bit more feed, we waited 15 minutes and repeated the massage routine. Now onto us, Olivia braced herself against the safety pen wall, determined to stay on her feet no matter what. In what was likely the only mildly humourous moment during this entire ordeal, after four beers, a lot of breakfast, and two humans massaging her tummy, she could not resist and sort of eased herself down the wall, rolled on her side, and sighed.
Tentatively, I brought her a piglet. It latched on and started to suckle. Olivia shifted a bit to get more comfortable. Before she changed her mind, I grabbed another piglet, and then another. We now had three nursing and she was finally starting to behave like a proper mother. I added more piglets until, hallelujah, they were all nursing, and making that very particular happy piglet snurgle snuffle noise that is oh so much better than than the screaming in terror squeals we had been hearing up until this point.
Now 48 hours after farrowing, we have 8 survivors – one more was squashed on the second overnight and a third was smaller and weaker and couldn’t compete with the other, hefty siblings. I suspect it might have survived if Olivia had been more cooperative early on. Unless something strange happens (I shouldn’t tempt fate by even speculating what might go wrong at this point), the rest of the little porkers should do just fine.
After all this trauma, I was left wondering what purpose this aggressive/rejecting behaviour could possibly serve in the wild? Had these piglets been born out in the bush somewhere, none would have survived. Does anyone have any idea why this happens? Olivia is now behaving like the perfect mother – nursing regularly, being very careful when she lies down to give them a chance to get out of the way, watchful when humans are around (though, not being overly aggressive at all with us, which is a good thing). I can understand her temporarily losing her mind during the birthing process (been there, done that), but this extended period of wanting nothing to do with the piglets is really strange. Several people have suggested that perhaps this is why the Large Black Hogs are an endangered hog breed, but it turns out this can happen with other breeds as well. Can anyone out there shed some light on this peculiar problem? (And, for background, this is Olivia’s second litter.)