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Swine production can be logically separated into a number of phases, beginning with the sow being bred. Historically, this has been done by placing a number of sows in a pen with one or more boars; or more recently by artificial insemination in larger operations. In confinement buildings boars are often rotated between sow pens to make sure that all sows are bred while they are in heat.
Sows in enclosed shelters come into estrous three to five days after their pigs are weaned. The estrous period, or standing heat, is the period when the sow can be bred. Estrous only lasts a short time, so it is critical that the sow is bred at this time. During estrous, the sow shows outward signs of being willing to accept the boar, such as standing still when the producer applies downward pressure on her back or holding her ears erect. If the sow is not bred during this period, she normally returns to estrous about 21 days later. These two periods are known as first heat breeding and second heat breeding. Most modern operations have sows bred only on first heat. Sows that fail to breed during this estrous are often sent to market and replaced in the sow herd by gilts that are removed from the grower-finisher group of pigs.
After breeding the sow gestates her litter for 113 to 116 days before the pigs are born or farrowed. A good way to remember gestation length for swine is that it is approximately three months, three weeks and three days.
Just before giving birth, called farrowing, sows are usually moved into a farrowing room. Sows typically farrow from eight to sixteen piglets per litter. Most confinement operations place the sow in a temperature-controlled environment and usually in a farrowing pen or crate which restricts her movement to protect her baby pigs. The baby pigs spend most of their time in a creep area on one or both sides of the crate where they have ready access to their mother, but are protected from crushing when she lies down. Some operations use larger pens and provide deep straw bedding on solid floors. While this is a more natural process for the sow, it involves more labor and often results in higher crushing losses.
An average sow will raise five to eight litters of pigs in her lifetime. Sows may be culled and sent to market because of age, health problems, failure to conceive, or if they are able to raise only a low number of pigs per litter.
Pigs are born with eight needle-sharp teeth and curly tails. The tips of the teeth are clipped at birth to prevent injury to the sow's udder and other piglets. The tail is shortened to prevent tail biting. Piglets weigh about two to three pounds at birth and are weaned from the sow at anywhere from five days to four weeks, with most operations weaning pigs at two to three weeks.
After weaning, pigs are normally placed in a nursery where they are kept in a temperature-controlled environment, usually on slotted flooring. The floors in a nursery are usually constructed from plastic or plastic covered steel instead of concrete to provide additional comfort for the small pigs. Pigs are normally given around three square feet of space each and provided with ready access to water and feed. Nursery pens are sometimes elevated to minimize the possibility of cold floor drafts chilling the young pigs. Immediately after weaning, the temperature in the nursery may be as high as 85 degrees, and then dropped gradually to about 70 degrees as the pigs grow. Pigs are normally removed from the nursery at about six to ten weeks of age and placed in a grower-finisher building. Nursery rooms are almost always heated with furnaces and ventilated with mechanical fans, controlled by a thermostat, in order to keep the pigs warm and dry throughout the year.
This phase is where pigs are fed as much as they wish to eat until they reach market weight of 230 to 275 pounds and provided around eight square feet of space per pig. Marketing normally occurs at five to six months of age, depending on genetics and any disease problems encountered. Some gilts are returned from the grower-finisher phase to the sow herd for breeding purposes, to replace older sows that are culled.
Animals in a grower-finisher operation are larger and produce a great deal of body heat. Ventilation to keep the animals cool is usually more of a concern than providing heat in winter. Animals at this age grow best at around 60-70 degrees. In winter they are protected from winter winds in a moderately well-insulated building. Enough ventilation must be provided to remove moisture and to provide fresh air for the animals. In summer large sidewall vents or curtains are opened and large ventilation fans are operated to keep the animals comfortable. This is referred to, respectively, as naturally ventilated (air change due to the wind) or mechanically ventilated where air is drawn into the buildings through vents due to a negative pressure created with wall fans that exhaust inside air.
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