The winter months are a true test of a farmers skill and work capacity. The winter brings frozen waterers’, hard starting trucks and tractors and breakdowns. Everything runs easy in warm weather and it seems like it takes twice as long to accomplish anything in winter! Even the hogs behave differently, and in ways we would never expect them to. Some of the hogs prefer the range huts completely protected from driving wind, snow or rain. Others gather up grasses and straw and build nests to sleep in or simply “pile up” under a cedar tree or right out in the open pasture. They survive this by relying on each others body heat and a very thick covering of fat over their backs and vital organs what we know as “fat back”.
Due to the thick layer of fat, you will always find a hog belly down in straw or grass. The past couple of months I’ve even found them laying belly down in their nest with a 2″ layer of unmelted snow on their backs! As a result of the high quality of insulation their fat gives them, during the winter months the hogs “lay on” more fat than the other seasons. Starting in the fall months, you will begin to notice a thicker layer of fat when butchering due to the fallen nuts, rich grass and brisk nights. Confinement Animal Farming Operations (CAFO) have a “nice” uniform layer of fat during all seasons because these types of hogs are never exposed to the seasonal elements that nature intended. They are in a man made building, on concrete or wooden slats in a temperature controlled environment.
In the winter months we tend to wean young piglets from the sow later in order to ease their transition off of sow milk and onto strictly feed. We don’t use a creep feed since most come from “various sources of milk production”. During the time the piglets are suckling and weeks before they are weaned they eat feed right next to the sow; this is a high protein feed necessary for piglet growth and to maintain sow weight. When the piglets are weaned at eight weeks they are ready to eat and grow on feed only. In the winter, to lessen any shock from weaning, we prolong the weaning until ten weeks. Its a little harder on the sow but they are better equipped to recover. A good sow gives her all to her piglets and is sometimes “skin and bones” at weaning. We give them a month to recover before they are bred again. In confinement raising, a piglet is weaned in 2 weeks and put on creep feed. Creep feed is a milk supplement feed that helps the premature weaned piglet rapidly gain weight and assist in sow production.
Putting out hay bales on Circle B Ranch During the weaning period, the winter months are especially hard on the runts and weaklings. A sharp eye has to be kept on them because during this extreme cold since once they are weaned they rely on the rest of the piglet herd to keep warm. Some farmers especially CAFOs merely cull the runts since feeding or doctoring them is not in their cost calculation. In general, in the winter, all of the hogs and pigs struggle a bit and require more feed and shelter. As a result we provide round bales and straw where needed for warmth and shelter and additional feed for more body heat. Waterers have to be kept open to provide hydration and avoid hypothermia.
Pork production also takes a hit since the hogs metabolism is so high they utilize their feed to keep warm instead of laying on/gaining lean mass. During this time feed cost goes up and meat production down. Are you beginning to see why pasture raising may be the best for the hogs health and well being is concerned? The quality of pork is beyond excellent but to achieve this level of excellence takes love, time, skill, dedication and patience.
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