Helping a Pig Give Birth

A few days ago our piglets arrived! Iris ended up needing some aid during a hard, long labor. Here’s her birth story, and the story of how I became a midwife by helping a pig give birth.

Iris the Pig

Iris came to our farm a little over a year ago. Our friend, Andy, at the time was reducing his passel of pigs. He had plans to butcher all the extras, but there was one young gilt in particular that his fiance wanted him to spare. She was friendly with long white eyelashes and had been given the name Iris.

So Andy brought Iris here, thus sparing her life and providing us with a pig all in one go. Andy also agreed to bring us a boar for breeding. In exchange for Iris and the stud service, he would take a few of the piglets as payment. Almost like a barter in a fairy tale. “I’ll do this for you, but in exchange you must give me your first born child!”

Iris when she first arrived.

Breeding a Pig

We had hoped to Artificially Inseminate, but unfortunately Iris wasn’t very obvious about her heat cycles. Pigs have an average of a 21 day heat cycle, but it can vary. Iris was also a gilt, meaning a female pig who has never been bred. First timers aren’t very obvious about when they are in heat.

We kept a close watch on her to look for signs. Things like going off feed, swelling around her vulva, being extra affectionate, etc. After several months of not being able to detect anything, we decided to bring in the boar.

He stayed for a little over a month. He was young and short, so I don’t think he was able to get the job done the first time. Thankfully, plenty of whey leftover from cheesemaking and a robust diet had him gain height and weight while he was here. By her second heat cycle he was able to get the job done.

Watching for Signs of Labor

The old saying with pigs goes that they are pregnant for three months, three weeks, and three days. Turns out for gilts, it is more typical to go a week longer than that, much like human pregnancies.

I noticed when she was bred, then counted ahead on the calendar and marked her expected due date.

It came and went with not much change. She looked big and her teats were starting to fill up a little.

Another good friend of mine, Kaylee, has raised many a pig. I asked her what to watch for. What would give me a clue that it would be soon?

She told me to keep an eye on her nesting behavior, look for her vulva changing shape, and that when we were a day or two a way, I would be able to squeeze colostrum from her teats.

It was Monday or Tuesday when these things started to happen. She seemed much busier rearranging her shed than usual. When I went to feed her supper, I squeezed a teat and a little milk came out. Excellent. Piglets soon!

You can check out my facebook page for videos of Iris leading up to her delivery.

Piglets Arrive

Wednesday morning I headed out with my milk bucket in tow to do morning chores. The pig shed is close to the house so it is the first stop on my morning chore route.

Immediately I saw a little red wiggling thing against the big white and black mass that is Iris. As I got closer I saw two piglets nursing voraciously.

piglets nursing rough and tumble farmhouse

I was thrilled, but also a little worried. They looked completely dry and very spry. Meaning they had been born a while ago and Iris was still clearly in heavy labor.

I ditched the milk bucket and sat in the shelter with her and watched for a while. Ten minutes later she had strained through several contractions and there were no more piglets coming out.

Thank God for modern technology. I ran to the house, grabbed my cell phone, and called up Kaylee.

Helping a Pig Give Birth

Kaylee counseled me that so long as the umbilical cords of the two piglets were still wet, we were okay. I checked, they definitely were.

However, after waiting several more minutes it was clear that Iris had something wrong. Once piglets are born they tend to come out fairly quickly. It was clear that I was soon going to be helping a pig give birth.

Gathering Supplies

I made another trip to the house and returned with a bucket of warm water, an armful of towels, a spray bottle of iodine, one of those little ball sucker outer things you use for a child’s snot, and a bottle of lubricant. I was going in.

Sleeves rolled up, arm washed as clean as possible, then generously lubricated, I reached into the pig. I only had to reach in to my wrist when I could feel the piglet that was stuck. Its head was massive and there was absolutely no room to maneuver around it. Plus everything in there is slippery as can be.

It took about ten minutes of trying before I was finally able to pull the pig free. The piglet came with its tongue lolling out and swollen, eyes closed. It did move a little though! I set to work rubbing it vigorously. I swung it a bit to try and loosen any mucus from its mouth and throat. It was slow going, but the piglet finally started to get more lively. She would take a good hour before her tongue reduced in size and she was able to nurse effectively, but she did pull through.

piglets rough and tumble farmhouse

Iris Wears Out

I had hoped after getting the stuck piglet out that Iris would deliver the others with out issue. After a half hour, no more piglets had come and Iris had been having steady contractions. Now I have not only Kaylee on the phone but her husband, Ben, too. “Reach back on in there,” he said simply.

Wash the arm, add more lubricant, and in we go again.

I pulled out another piglet, this time it was much easier. “Hook them around the jaw,” Kaylee kept saying. I had no idea what the hell she was talking about for a while, until one pig was in the right position that I could get my fingers, sort of in a peace sign, under each jaw bone. It was one place you could actually get a small amount of grip, and made it much easier to pull them out.

After I pulled out that second pig, it became clear that Iris was no longer pushing during her contractions. I reached in again, and pulled out a piglet that looked dead but had a very faint heartbeat. I did my best to revive the little gal but it was no good.

At this point, with her no longer pushing and otherwise healthy looking piglets coming out dead, I simply had to get out the rest of the piglets asap.

Two more came out alive, one more came out stillborn. Total she had eight piglets with six surviving. Two girls and four boys.

sleeping piglet rough and tumble farmhouse
A very tired piglet after a day of playing in the mud.

Taking Care of Mama Pig

Whenever helping a pig give birth, it is standard to give them a round of antibiotics to stave off any infection.

“Keep an eye out for any white discharge,” Ben told me. “That’s a sign of infection.”

Within a few hours of delivery there was some white discharge coming from Iris that got worse quickly.

I used a pig weight formula to determine her size, then dosed her every day for four days with penicillin. 1 1/2 inch needle, 1 ML of Pencillin per hundred weight.

She didn’t have much of an appetite at first, but after a day or two of antibiotics she suddenly had a voracious appetite. She was up to eat and drink, and even came out to lay in the mud for a while.

We had some nasty hot days following the birth of the piglets. I went out each day with a bucket of water and an old rag, and gave Iris a good wipe down to help cool her. When she wasn’t wanting to eat those first few days I brought her apples from the neighbor’s tree, frozen bananas, and corn soaked in water with molasses and yogurt. That seemed to help get her appetite back.

iris the pig rough and tumble farmhouse

Reflections on Birth

Iris is doing well and so are her piglets. Everyone is healthy, eating, and as of a day or two ago, coming out to explore the world and play in the mud.

As I thought about Iris’ delivery, I realized I have seen a lot of different births. I’ve been present for the birth of lambs, goats, cows, pigs, and of course my own baby. Helping a pig give birth was the first time I have had to assist.

sleeping piglets

It’s amazing how, for the most part, birth happens on its own. The babies come when the time is right, and the mothers have the incredible strength to bring them into the world, then care for them immediately.

Birth is a miracle, every single time.

When I worked as a shepherd for a lambing season, I got into the habit of singing a song to all the new babies. I’ve sung it to every baby animal whose birth I have been there for, and I even sang it to my own daughter the night she was born.

It might seem silly, but I think it is beautiful, and it’s from the movie “Babe”. Especially perfect for these new piglets.

If I had words, to make a day for you.

I’d sing you a morning, golden and true.

I would make this day, last for all time.

And fill the night, deep in moonshine.

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