The most difficult part of farrow-to-finish is the farrow, which is when the pigs are born. For the first 3-5 days a piglet is very vulnerable to dying from crushing, cold, infection and predators. A dead piglet is a big financial loss for a farmer so most "modern" farms take the risk out by using indoor farrowing crates. These crates are designed so sows can only stand up and lie down and therefore are less likely to step or roll on the newborn piglets. Although these crates are successful at preventing piglet death they have animal welfare drawbacks.
Here on Stryker Farm we do not use farrowing crates, rather we let sows give birth outside or in bedded shelters. At first, we struggled with keeping piglets alive and lost nearly 50% of litters. This was not only discouraging but our profitability went down the drain. Over time we learned how to better manage the sows and by following the guidelines below we've been able to lower our piglet mortality rate to around 15%.
The first lesson we learned was to use a good sow. A good sow must be calm and careful when lying down. She must have instincts to make a comfortable nest for herself and her piglets. She must be protective of her litter but not mean. She needs to have ample nipples and produce a good amount of milk. She needs to be healthy and have desirable genetics to pass on to her offspring.
We also learned to adapt to current weather conditions. During the warm months, April-September, we allow the pigs to farrow outdoors. Generally this just means we put a bale of straw under a tree and let her do her thing. Sometimes we will set up a metal port-a-hut with bedding to provide even more protection from the elements. When the weather is extremely hot, over 90 deg F, we make mud puddles near the sow's nest so she can occasionally get muddy and cool off .
We also realized that privacy is important. Sows like to farrow in a secluded, private place where other pigs won't bother them or their piglets. When we put port-a-huts or straw bedding out in the woods we space them far apart so that every sow has her own space and there are no territorial disputes.
So there you have it, a brief introduction to pasture-farrowing. It might seem like a lot of work but we wouldn't have it any other way!