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News from the Farm: More Fun with Shipping Containers

Dear local food eaters,

The past week has been a productive and busy one here on the farm. In typical farm fashion, babies have been arriving on the coldest nights.

We have three new lambs, and plenty more on the way.

This was the closest I could get to this sheep (below) standing guard over her young one with interesting gray coloring.

They are all still on pasture, but have hay and sheltered areas with bedding.

It is a great environment, but the challenge for us is that it leaves them a bit wild and hard to get close to!

There are also a bunch of sows (mom pigs) who are fast approaching their due dates. We don't actually know their due dates, so we monitor how "ready" they look by outward signs such as swollen teats and next making.

In the past, we have tried many systems and setups for farrowing pigs. Some worked better than others, but all had room for improvement. We laugh at and identify with that Katt Williams bit where he jokes, "keep tryin' sh#@, keep tryin' sh*& - Don't work. Keep tryin' sh@#, keep tryin' sh%^, - Don't work. Switch it up! Keep tryin' sh#$, Keep tryin' sh*&..." Eventually, through trial and error, education, and ingenuity, we come upon solutions that fit our budget, land, animals, and needs on the farm. A good example of this is using old shipping containers for various purposes. Here is a post I wrote last year about turning shipping containers into brooders for our chicks, which is by far the best setup we've ever used. They are fairly inexpensive and solid metal, which makes them able to be welded to and adapted for a variety of purposes. Brooks is using one as his tool shed at the moment also.

The latest shipping container purpose is as a farrowing (pig birthing) shelter. Brooks had this in mind last year when we put fencing in, and fenced an area directly adjoining one of these containers. Last week, he and the interns cut holes, measured and built insulated boxes to serve as birthing stalls.

While conventional confinement is not the way to go for us, there are things to be learned from controlling their environment to some extent. We've tried letting pigs do their own thing outside, and sometimes it works beautifully. Sometimes it doesn't. It depends on the sow's mothering instincts, the weather, and other factors outside of our immediate control. We've tried conventional hog pens, and we've tried all sorts of pasture pens and variations on this.

Providing shelter and bedding is a must. Separating weaned and older piglets is also essential, or they come over and steal all of the new mom's milk.

One of the biggest challenges with farrowing is preventing crushing of piglets. Sometimes it's not an issue at all, and sometimes a mom is so huge and not in control of her body or not responsive to the piglets that she accidentally steps on or lays on them. Weighing between 300 and 600+ pounds and giving birth to 3 pound or less piglets is quite a size difference.

In the below photo, you can see the metal bars; these are to allow the piglets a space to the side of mom to escape to. This is a traditional and conventional measure, that is extremely useful. We've also insulated the boxes and added heat lamps, which effectively provides a warm space for the baby away from mom. This allows them to warm up and grow quickly, without relying on mom's body heat alone, which helps to lessen accidental crushing. The piglets learn so quickly to go to the light for heat and sleep, and come out and go to mom for nursing.

Four of these box pens fit along the length of the shipping container. These are more spacious than conventional farrowing setups and with outdoor access, but provide heat and protection to the piglets.

This is what it looks like from the outside.

As it turned out, the progress on this building was right on time, as a sow starting having her piglets in the field just minutes after the first pen was finished. She had three outside, which they managed to move, along with her, into the newly finished indoor pen. She had three more inside, and all are doing well.

On Sunday in the snow and ice, we went out to check on them together. The mom was ready to go outside and take a walk in the snow, and I stood guard at the door while the kids admired the piglets. You can see them in the bottom corner, under the red light.

Of course this is brand new, so we don't know for sure if this is the final iteration of pig farrowing, but it is definitely the latest and greatest farrowing setup, especially in winter, at North Mountain Pastures.

As the other pens were completed, we lured expecting sows in with grain. This was not the easiest task, as they are not used to going in such a small door. We hope they will get used to it and realize heat and dry ground are where it's at for birthing. Once they have their babies, they will be motivated to return to them, and we are hoping that in the summer these doors can be left open much of the time.

Stay warm and well everyone!

As always, thank you for supporting local food!

~Brooks and Anna

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