Natural Housing for Backyard Pigs

We have been keeping pigs for almost 9 years now and our accommodation for pigs, in a tropical backyard setting, have changed over the years. Here’s how things developed, plus an outlook for the future.

The Tethered Pig
As often practised by people in our village with very limited space and resources, we kept pigs on a leash and tied them to a tree during the daytime and then tied them under the house at night. If we had 2 pigs we had to keep them a distance from each other. Otherwise their leash would get tangled up and they may get hurt. Our first fatteners and a gilt were tethered pigs. When our gilt was about to farrow, we built a little pen for her. The pigs were fed in modified large plastic containers.

In the video below, the gilt Miss Piggy is tethered next to the goat house under a tree.

The video below shows a conventional concrete pigpen commonly found in our village. A boar and 5 sows are kept in individual pens.

The Penned Pig
We started with a small pen, about 8 square meters. It was made of strong bamboo and had nipa palm fronds for roofing. The flooring was just soil with some sawdust and rice hull mixed in. We raised our first boar, kept two gilts, had a sow farrow in this pen. We also kept 1-2 fatteners at a time in this pen.

In the video below, Bootleg, who had just undergone hernia repair surgery, plays ball in a pen made of bamboo and wood.

In the video below, sow Number 3 farrowed for the first time, to 4 piglets in this bamboo pen. The piglets are 2 weeks old in this video. We installed a creep rail with warming lamp which the piglets never used! In the latter part of the video, Number 3 is shown eating from the wooden trough. After many months of use, water leaks out of the trough and floods that area.

Later, we built two more pens of about the same size, so that we could rotate the pigs and allow the empty pens to fallow and get cleaned up. The two new pens were made of coconut and some scrap lumber, bamboo, nipa and tarpaulin roofing. The pigs were fed in large plastic container or modified rubber tires. Later, we decided to build troughs out of mahogany planks. The troughs can be filled with food and water from outside the pens. The pigs couldn’t turn over the troughs so the food and water didn’t get spilled. This made feeding much easier. We tried installing pig drinkers but as the pigs got bigger they destroyed those things.

In the video below, five new piglets enjoy the soil and grass in a large pen made of coconut lumber, some bamboo and scrap pieces of wood. In less than a week, all that grass is gone.

In the video below, 3-day old piglets play fight in the same pen shown above. The piglets were born in this pen.

Over 2 years, we used these pens. We kept a boar, 3 sows, a few fatteners in these pens. We had 4 farrows in these pens. Over the years, these pens required a lot of maintenance and emergency repairs. The wood rotted and pigs escaped several times. Ducks went into the pens and got eaten by pigs. The roof rotted and leaked when it rained and flooded the pens with mud. The pigs loved the mud but when there was too much mud, there was no dry place for them to sleep in. We desperately needed better pens.

In the video below, 2 young boars are fed on a tire cut in half. When it rained and the pen became very muddy, it became impossible to keep feeding the pigs this way. We got stuck in the mud!

The Better Penned Pig
At the moment, our pigs are in their new accommodation built 14 months ago. The designs of the pens were inspired by the following technical illustrations. These illustrations are from Swine Plans published by the University of Tennessee, Institute of Agriculture. We modified the designs to suit our location, climate and needs.

The pens have half meter walls made of concrete and over that are fences made of strong mahogany wood planks. The fences have gaps for good ventilation and sun exposure. The fencing for the boar pen is higher (about 4 feet high) than those for the sows (about 3 feet high) because the boar is much bigger and can jump out of the pen. These pens are a spacious 22-25 square meters. The farrowing pen has a creep rail and an escape hatch. The escape hatch allows the piglets to go out into the garden. The farrowing pen has LED lighting and an extra socket for a heat lamp for piglets born in the cool season.

All the pens have concrete troughs built along the side wall of the pen. The troughs can be filled with food and water from outside the pens.

In the video below, sow Auntie Brownie is with her piglets in the maternity pen. The trough and creep rail is visible, as well as the escape hatch behind the creep rail.

Two of the pens are right next to each other with a gate in between. The boar stays in one pen and the sow is placed in the other. This boar-sow contact allows the sow to go in heat and makes it easier for us to detect when the sow is in heat. If it is time to mate the pigs, we just open the gate in the middle (see video below).

The roofs of these pens are made of galvanised iron sheets, built at a height of 9-12 feet for ventilation and sun. Unfortunately, the roofing material are thin and may need to be replaced in a couple of years. The gates of the pens are made of galvanised iron pipes which we painted over. The floors of the pens are soil mixed with saw dust and many other natural materials such as dry banana leaves and coconut leaves. We have also sprayed the floor of the pens with lactic acid bacteria solution (LABS) and added some IMO (indigenous microorganisms).

Improvements
We need to keep the sow more comfortable in the farrowing pen during the hot summer months. We plan to put an electric fan in the farrowing pen and direct it towards the creep rail. We hope this would encourage the sow to farrow next to the creep rail which will protect the piglets better from crushing.

We need to fence an area of the garden around the farrowing pen so that when the piglets are out in the garden, they will not wander away outside of the property where they could be in danger (particularly by dogs). The fenced area needs to be large enough for the piglets to run around in and should at the same time keep the piglets away from sections of the garden where we don’t want them to go. The fences should be short (2 feet or less), strong but not imposing and should be made of material where vine plants can grow over. At the same time, the fences should not get in the way when we rotate sows from one pen to another.

Coconuts and mahogany pods fall on the roof of the pens and if this persist, the roofs will be destroyed. We plan to cut these trees. This will allow the fruit trees, native trees and shrubs already growing in the area to flourish and provide shade and forage for the animals.

We would also like edible fruiting vines to grow up the pigpens and over the roof. This will provide shade and food for humans and animals. We are working to have more vegetation grow around the pigpens.

We will also have to continue using IMOs and LABS in our pigpens. We think that these, plus sufficient ventilation and sunlight, destroy pathogens in the pens. When we fallow a pen, that’s also when we harvest good organic compost which enrich the gardens where soil is very poorly and rocky.

Basic Principle of Natural Environment for Housing Pigs

Below is a good video that explains the design principle of housing for Natural Farmed pigs. We did not implement this design completely in our pigpens but we do our best to keep the principle of re-creating something as close as possible to a natural forest environment, the natural home for the domestic pigs’ ancestor, the wild boar.

Here is another interesting video (below, in 3 parts) that explains the importance of environment, welfare and public health in pig farming. Several examples of sustainable and profitable systems shown may be useful for those seeking better ways of raising pigs.

Stocking Densities for Pigs

There are several recommendations based on welfare regulations on stocking densities for pigs. Most of the figures are based on accommodation in temperate or non-tropical settings. We believe that because of high temperatures and humidity in the tropics, the minimum space required for pigs should be larger than those recommended in the link below.

Refer to The Garth Pig Stockmanship Standards on Stocking Densities.

We will post updates once we have implemented the improvements planned for next year. If you have any questions about our pig accommodations, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and we’ll do our best to reply.

Sow and Piglets in an Alternative Farrowing System

This documentation is intended to study the behaviour of a sow (Auntie Brownie) and her piglets in a pen of size 240 square feet (22 square meters or 26 square yards). Auntie Brownie is 2 years and 6 months old and this is her second parity. The first parity was in June 18, 2017 and the second was in December 19, 2017.

Typical sow nesting behaviour (above). Dry banana leaves are the preferred nesting material in the tropics.

Auntie Brownie began expressing the need for nesting materials by pawing the ground (soil and wood chips). We gave her the dry banana leaves earlier collected for the purpose. She picked them up, placed them in a corner of the pen and shredded them. Nesting behaviour may take place between 6-12 hours prior to farrowing, other pigs may take as long as 2 days. Auntie Brownie took only about 5 hours. Then lay down and started the farrowing process.

In this video (above), the first two piglets born are vigorous and struggle to detach themselves from the umbilical cord and reach their mother’s teats. It takes a while for the piglets to attach to a teat, maybe between 5-15 minutes. Auntie Brownie lay down on the nest she built in a way that allows access to her teats.

 

In this video (above), eight piglets are born and Auntie Brownie is up moving the nesting materials around. This appears to be the mother’s way of “training” her piglets of her presence. In succeeding videos, Auntie Brownie commences nursing by moving nesting material about, signaling to the piglets her intention to lie down so that the piglets are aware of this and may avoid being crushed. Good sow instincts are supposedly indicated by nesting behaviour, pawing and moving the nesting materials about.

 

Here  (above) are the eight piglets born within 2 hours (two more piglets were born at a later time we were unable to observe). Auntie Brownie is aware of a good lying position that allows access to all her teats. The piglets take their time to establish teat order.

 

Here (above) are all ten piglets at 16 hours of age. Teat order is established amongst seven of the piglets while three piglets are still unable to attach to their corresponding teats and therefore engage more in fighting. These are smaller piglets in the litter. Larger more dominant piglets often don’t engage in fighting during nursing. One large piglet on the right has mild milk scour. We notice this in a few piglets in previous litters during the first few days.

 

The piglets (above) call for milk and Auntie Brownie, obliges. The piglets are 7 days old in this video and have already been trained by the mother not to go near her side as she prepares to lie down. The safest place would be at her head or a good distance away.

Auntie Brownie tries to lie down carefully but she still lands heavily on her side (she was much more careful when the piglets were still unable to coordinate their movements with her). Notice one piglet on the left seem to have difficulty interpreting its mother’s call, it would’ve been crushed if it was closer to Auntie Brownie’s side. We usually call piglets like these “the wind-up toy” because they go oinking about before finding the mother’s teats. They usually grow up fine, catching up on the others. Some fail to thrive and die or are unable to move quickly and get accidentally crushed by the mother.  Some piglets want more milk and one goes to the mother’s head to complain. Auntie Brownie decides they have had enough and she lies on her teats, pushing everyone off without hurting them. If a piglet gets trapped and it manages to squeal, Auntie Brownie will adjust her position. If a piglet is unable to squeal, then fatalities occur. If we see what has happened we can help and try to coax the mother to get up and move so the piglet can run away. Sometimes there is fighting during feeding and the piglets bite their mother’s teats with their sharp needle teeth.

Luckily, Auntie Brownie is a very patient sow: she growls when she is hurt and she will move to push off the piglets so she can adjust her position. This allows better teat access and fighting stops. After feeding, the piglets go out for a stroll in the garden, to poo and pee, and to play. This is when the mother can rest and relax. We made a piglet escape hatch on one side of the pen.

The following day, the second to the smallest piglet died, apparently of crushing in the night.

 

(Above) Auntie Brownie lies down a distance away from her 10-day old piglets. She calls the piglets and when they arrive, she adjusts her position to accommodate them. This is a much safer way of nursing piglets with less risk of crushing. The piglets sleep a distance away from the sow, in this case, the piglets have learned to sleep in the creep space provided. The creep space is attractive to the piglets not so much because of the lamp but because of the piglet escape hatch — the piglets are always excited to go out of the pen and into the garden for adventure. The “heating lamp” we are using produces bright light which distracts piglets. We will have to replace this with infrared heat lamps next time, although heating is really only needed when it rains during the cold season (December-March).

 

(Above) Auntie Brownie lies down and 10-day old piglets converge around her, waiting for the signal as to which side she will be lying on so they can coordinate their movement. Larger and more daring piglets now tend to access the teats before the mother could lie down, ignoring the mother’s attempt to get them to converge at her head by moving nesting material about. At this point, the role of nesting material in the nursing pattern is less important.

 

Auntie Brownie’s piglets, now 2 weeks old, playing (above). Pigs get excited whenever big rain comes. Notice the little piglet on the left – he’s a little bit slow and gets overwhelmed by the others quite easily, but is managing OK – he is the runt in the litter. Everyday, the piglets are allowed out to play in the garden but not today because of bad weather. They miss their garden adventure but are happy enough playing indoors instead!

 

Piglets here (above) are 18 days old. Auntie Brownie lies down very carefully. As mentioned earlier, piglets are now more daring and access the teats even when the mother has not yet laid down. The runt on the right side is unresponsive to the mother’s position or grunting calls. This is when crushing occurs. Since Day 1, the runt has had some troubles establishing good feeding regime with the mother and litter mates, although teat order has been established. The runt also seemed to have problems digesting its food, its belly was contracting rapidly and even if it had teat access it abruptly stops feeding and walks away slowly.

The runt died the same day this video was taken.*

 

(Above) Lying down and nursing behaviour well established, but sometimes Auntie Brownie changes her mind! 🙂 She has started to teach her piglets to sample solid food. The largest piglet began sampling mother’s food by age 5 days. Piglets here are 19 days old.

We hope this documentation is useful for those considering alternative gestating/farrowing systems. This system does not address group housing because we are only micro-scale.

* The piglet mentioned above died within an hour after drinking water with a small amount of molasses. Up to two-thirds of the sugar content in cane molasses is sucrose (glucose and fructose) and more in beet molasses. Sucrose is toxic to young pigs under 7 days of age. Since our piglet is 18 days old we considered it safe. However, this piglet may have health problems from the beginning as observed from its developmental condition since birth.

The problem with sucrose toxicity arises when there is low activity of intestinal sucrase in the intestine of young piglets. With fructose, the problem is that young piglets cannot effectively process (phosphorylate) fructose in either intestinal cells or liver. It is possible that the little runt has not developed properly in time to process molasses. So it is advised not to give molasses to young or compromised pigs.

A Better Pig Accommodation

Two months ago, I finally got one of the pigpens rebuilt. It is Sow Number 3’s pen. I wanted better accommodation for her when she farrows around the last week of August. The old pigpen has a leaky nipa roof and the fences and door serve as aperitif for Number 3. Several times Number 3 escaped from her old pen and terrorized the village. 😉

The old pigpen with the new pigpen being built around it.

I came up with the design of the new pigpen based on observations and interactions with Number 3, studying pigpen housing standards and designs on the Internet and discussing the design plans with Trevor and the carpenters Kelly and Jessie.

The real test of the new design will be when Number 3 farrows. We will put the metal barrier and light for the piglet creep space into the pen soon. The pigpen has a total area of about 25 square meters, a comfortable space for one pig. My ideal is a large pasturing area, but we don’t have that much space. This is the best we can do!

The new pigpen allows more air and sunshine with a higher roof. It is certainly more durable than the old pen which was built using bamboo and wood. Such a pen is fine if we were keeping a pig for fattening, but a sow is a strong and powerful animal weighing up to 150 kilograms.

There will be two more large pens to be re-designed and built (for Sow Auntie Brownie and Pinky Boar) and two smaller pens for fattening a pig or two. The old pens are still usable but they are falling part and require much maintenance. I am hoping construction will be push through in September. The new farrowing unit will include an escape hatch for piglets (so they can enjoy the garden while they are up to 3 weeks old and give their mother a chance to relax).

Later, Trevor and I will look into developing the gardens (and possibly a pond or rain garden) around the pigpens so the area will be cooler, more productive and provide forage for the pigs.

Our foreman Kelly and the finished pigpen!
Lots of space for Number 3!
The feeding trough can be filled up from the outside of the pen.