Pigs feeding behavior is:
- Opportunist: will eat almost anything
The food pigs eat:
Is varied and high in fiber
Grass , Roots, tubers, Invertebrates, Nuts, Berries
Frogs , Snakes, Turtles, Young birds, Eggs, Small rodents
Takes a long time to find and consume
Contains considerable amounts of high fiber food
Pigs forage to find food
Foraging done at ground level:
Will forage for several hours a day
The type of food they eat is seasonal and varies in location
Spring / Summer: forage in open grassland / marshland
Autumn: forage in woodland: nuts, berries
Pigs enjoy seeking out and eating a wide variety of food especially food high in fiber. Pig raising systems that feed a mix of pre-mix powder and bulky fresh feed best meet a pigs natural feed needs. Good pig raising systems add variety through varying the fresh greens used in the feed and through feeding the fresh greens both as part of a fresh / dry mix and separately on their own.
A sow has a gestation period: 115 days.1-2 days before giving birth sow separates from group. She will:
- Search for suitable site to make maternal nest
- Build nest
- Dig a hollow in the earth
- Line nest with grass, leaves, twigs
- Add larger branches to nest for side and overhead cover
Key learning:Sows have a hard wired natural drive to build a nest before giving birth. Good pig raising systems will provide a sow nesting materials prior to her giving birth to piglets that allow her to build a nest. It will give the sow the freedom to move around without restraint to carry out this vital nest building activity.
The main characteristics of farrowing in wild pigs:
- Litter size is usually 6, can occasionally be as high as 10
- Piglets born at approximately 15 minute intervals
- Largest first, smallest last
- Sow spends most of time lying on her side
- Does not lick her young to remove embryonic sheath
- Does not try to help the young piglet to stand up
Small litter sizes are the norm. The current high litter sizes of 13+ piglets per sow are un-naturally high. A sow left to her own devices with minimum interference by man and use of drugs is capable of successfully farrowing.
Piglet and maternal behavior
Young pigs are very active. They can:
- Can stand within a few minutes of birth
- They sample sows 14 teats
- Choose one of them
- Will drink from this one for the rest of the nursing period
- Largest pigs attach themselves to more productive, anterior teats
- Pattern of suckling every hour or so and sleep
- Spends more time lying on side and is relatively inactive during the first few days
- Grunts softly to encourage piglets to suckle
- After a few days the piglets initiate most of the suckling. They approach the sow, squeal, and massage udder
- Piglets keep warm by huddling together close to the mothers udders for first few days
Piglets are active and able to suckle very quickly. Good pig raising systems will allow mother and offspring to relate naturally to each other.
Sow and piglet suckling behavior:
- Before standing and lying down the sow and piglets co-ordinate their behavior to avoid crushing
- Ritual of sow rooting through the nest to disturb the piglets and nudge out of the way
- Preparing to suckle the piglets group on one side of sow, sow lays her hindquarters on the other side of group
- If piglet laid upon, it will squeal loudly and the sow will instantly adjust her position
- The main danger period for crushing is within the first 3 days of birth
A sow is careful when lying down to avoid crushing her piglets. Good pig raising systems will ensure the sow has sufficient space to move and lie down without inadvertently crushing her piglets.
After farrowing there is a gradual movement away from the nest site.
- 1-2 days after farrowing the sow will leave nest for short periods
- A couple of days later she will encourage the piglets to follow her
- They remain very close
- After 1 week the piglets become more independent.
- During this period the sow can become very protective and attack intruders
- Sow and litter will finally leave the nest between 7-14 days and return to family group
Sows take great care to raise their young piglets in a safe protective environment where the piglets can gradually build up their strength. She is naturally highly protective of them. Good pig raising systems ensure sows can farrow and raise their piglets initially in 'safe' pens and that a good relationship between sow and keeper have been established so that the sow is not alarmed by keeper presence in the vicinity of piglets.
- Piglets start sampling solid foods after 3 weeks
- After a few weeks sows and their litters regroup and tend offspring together
- Social interaction between litters of pigs
- Within groups of sows, nursing behavior by sows tends to be synchronised (piglets suckle at the same time)
- Piglets gradually weaned between 13-17 weeks
- They remain in family group until following year when sow is due to farrow again
- She will chase away her offspring
- Daughters may return to family group once they begin reforming
A sow will naturally want to rejoin the family group with her litter within 1-2 weeks of giving birth. Good pig raising systems will have open family group pens that allow this natural behavior.
Piglets start sampling solid food early and naturally through investigating their environemnt and the food the sow eats. It's a gradual process. Good pig raising systems encourage this process rather than suddenly taking the piglets from the sow (and her milk) and feeding them only solids from that stage on.
Weaning naturally starts at 3 weeks although the process is gradual and can take as long as 13-17 weeks for piglet to be fully weaned. Good pig raising systems will not overly shorten the natural weaning process timescale.
That concludes our very brief look at some of the key natural behavior features of pigs. By designing both our pig operation and environment around these natural pig needs, natural pig farming aims to accommodate these behaviors in the belief that it contributed to the pigs sense of well-being and welfare. We believe that in doing so we give our pigs a life worth living whilst at the same time enabling us to raise low cost, high welfare pork. See natural pig farming in practice to learn more on how we incorporate pig friendly features to our pig raising system. But don't forget to look at the two remaining pages on background to natural pig farming first.
Feeding in practice
Natural pig farming feeds wet + dry mix or feeds dry mix but with fresh greens fed separately. Main feed times are morning and late afternoon / early evening. In-between fresh feed in the form of grass, leaves, vegetables are occasionally fed. Whilst the main meals are always fed from the trough fresh feed and pig feed pellets are often scattered on the pen floor bedding. This allows for
- feeding to take place over a wider area limiting potential aggression
- fosters your pigs natural foraging behavior
- helps to keep the pigs meaningfully and happily occupied over a longer period of time than if just served in a trough. This is especially true when scattering pig feed pellets on the flooring. Once the majority have been found and eaten there is always others still to be sniffed out.
Our standard feed mix in one that is made up of dry elements and wet elements. The dry elements consist mainly of agri-business by product powders whilst the wet elements consists of fresh greens that go through a short pickling process. Making up our own pig feed significantly saves lots money v buying in pre-made pig feed and allows us to add much needed fiber and bulk to the feed. (Photograph on left shows banana tree trunks being cut up)
The dry element:
- rice husk powder
- yellow soya bean
- sweet corn
- chicken powder
- red soil
This is mixed with the wet element:
Your eyes don’t deceive you. Yes, we add in red soil – this keeps the pigs digestive tracts healthy, and provides natural iron, vitamin D and trace elements necessary for a pig’s health. It’s also very low cost. In addition we also throw red soil into the pig sty every now and again for the pigs to eat. They love it.
- pickled banana tree trunks / wild Chinese water lettuce, water lilies etc.
Pigs also enjoy charcoal, ash form wood fires and salt – all which provide minerals and trace elements the pigs clearly want judging from the enthusiasm they eat these substances.
The wet fresh mix is cut up into small chunks / lengths 3 days before mixing: It is put into containers in compressed layers. Each layer has salt and sugar added. This is pickled to produce a kind of silage, which we mix in with the dry mix.
Adding water to feed
Pig operators tend to have differing opinions of whether adding water to pig feed when feeding is necessary or desirable. Many factory farms will simply feed dry feed dry with no added moisture, whilst others have automated liquid feed systems that mix fluid and dry mix to a pre programmed consistency (usually 3 parts water to 1 part dry feed). Whilst both methods are fine, on balance we err on the side that feeding feed with the addition of water is preferable for the following reasons:
- Getting sufficient water is very important to a pig’s health and growth and so consumption of fluid should be encouraged. Between one-half to two-thirds of a pigs body weight is water.
- Feed with low moisture is an abnormality in the real world. Virtually everything we eat contains between 60-80% moisture and we still drink liquids separately in addition. However, dry pig feed only contains only 15% moisture. Not surprisingly this makes it extremely difficult to eat, as anyone who has eaten a dry cracker or cereal without milk will appreciate. It is noticeable that if water is not added to feed the pigs will leave the trough at intervals during feed time to drink water before returning to continue eating. That seems pretty tangible evidence that feed without added water is dryer than a pig would preferably want.
- Feed with added water facilitates successful weaning of piglets from the mother sow. Dry feed creates a big hurdle for piglets who from birth are given a natural liquid diet by the mother sow that is highly palatable, highly nutritious and highly digestible, and then abruptly separated from the mother and given liquid-free dry feed. Not only are they going from one extreme to another, not only is the dry feed taste and texture is so different, but the feed is so dry it is hard to swallow. Inevitably this leads to an adjustment period where fed intake is less than optimum and that there is a slight stalling of growth rates until the piglets have adapted to the new feed.
- Pigs will eat higher quantities of feed with water thereby reaching slaughter weight sooner than dry feed only systems.
- Subjectively, it seems to me that pigs seem to eat the feed mixed with water more enthusiastically.
The system of adding water we use is quite simple but effective. Dry feed is dispensed into the trough and then water is added from a watering can. We often add more water once the initial water has been absorbed so that there is no dry powder observable.