How to Raise Hogs to be Happy and Naturally Healthy
Adapting Hog Farming Equipment and Systems to Meet Pigs’ Behavioral Needs
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Do you want to know how to raise hogs that are happy and naturally healthy? Do you need to do this in limited space? It can be done if we are aware of their behavioral and physical needs.
Pigs are naturally active and curious animals who enjoy exploring their environment. They also have certain comfort behaviors that they perform to maintain good health. Hogs ranging freely can usually satisfy these needs, especially if they are heritage breeds in an environment to which they are adapted.
The selection focus of modern breeds has been toward faster growth, larger litters, as farmers raise hogs in controlled conditions. In consequence, survival traits have diminished. However, when returned to a natural environment, even large white hogs expressed their natural inclination to build nests for farrowing. In confinement, pigs often lack the opportunity to satisfy their behavioral needs and inquisitive minds. This can lead to boredom, frustration, and damaging habits. We can help pigs to meet their own needs and feel comfortable in their environment by supplying the following essentials.
7 Steps to Raise Hogs in a Happy, Healthy Environment
1. Suitable Nutrition
Pigs are omnivores, needing to consume ten essential amino acids. They would naturally acquire 10% of their diet from animal sources, such as worms, insects, and small vertebrates, with the rest coming from a rich variety of plant sources, including nuts, acorns, grain, grasses, roots, berries, shoots, herbs, and bark. For such flexible feeding, pigs have developed the desire to explore, dig and forage. As production demands have increased, sows have become more reliant on high-energy sources to meet their biological needs for growth and lactation. Consequently, they have also evolved great appetites. We can buy specially-balanced feeds to provide all their nutritional needs. However, these formula mixes are rapidly consumed, and the pig’s urge to forage is left unsatisfied. Non-lactating breeding females are most severely affected when their ration is restricted to prevent obesity. Higher-fiber diets and more foraging opportunities can satisfy hunger and behavioral needs.
Clean water is highly important for hog health to avoid constipation. Pigs enjoy playing in water and use it to keep cool, so it quickly becomes dirty. It will need changing a couple of times a day.
2. Foraging Opportunities
For an omnivore to get a well-balanced diet in the wild, they need to stay sharp so that they can learn how to find and acquire the best nutrition. Pigs have smart minds that they challenge by foraging, digging, and exploring. The snout is highly sensitive and enjoys rooting in soft material, such as dirt. When given the choice, pigs preferred peat and mixed rooting materials to straw or silage alone. Without new and interesting items or areas to explore, pigs become bored and develop repetitive behaviors that are often harmful, such as ear-chewing and tail-biting. In barren pens, pigs become less able to recover from stressful events, such as weaning, handling, and transportation.
Pigs thrive best at pasture but, if open range is not available, we can avoid behavior problems by providing enrichment. Suitable toys are ones that pigs can chew, manipulate with their snouts and mouths, or safely destroy. For example, balls, dog toys, fresh straw, fibrous vegetables, and planks of wood are much appreciated. However, they need to be replaced frequently, as the novelty wears off. When kept in spacious pens with plenty of bedding and toys, piglets play more often and develop better coping mechanisms and stress resilience.
3. Appropriate Companionship
Pigs are selective about the company they keep, and piglets and sows need familiar companions around them. In the wild, boars and feral pigs live in groups of female relatives and their young. Males disperse and live alone or in bachelor groups when sexually mature. They aggressively dislike newcomers. On the farm, we should aim to keep pigs in familiar groups and avoid introductions as much as possible except for mating purposes.
Within a familiar group, a hierarchy is established to avoid fighting. However, it is not as stable as in some species and conflict will be frequent. Aggression mainly occurs around feed or when new members are introduced to a group. Low-ranking animals may be put off coming for feed if they are frequently bullied. The problem is that such animals may not gain all the nutrition they need. In addition, pigs are inclined to perform actions communally, so that excluded animals will feel frustrated. The solution is to provide plenty of space around the feed area, escape routes for animals to flee aggression, and partitions for vulnerable animals to hide behind while feeding.
Up to the age of three weeks old, piglets are happy to socialize with other litters. Those that have this opportunity are more tolerant of unfamiliar pigs at a later age. Otherwise, mixing pigs older than this is a recipe for fighting. The natural weaning age for piglets is four months. Piglets separated from their dam earlier suffer stress. They may get diarrhea, stop gaining weight, and resort to belly-nosing their companions. Piglets develop better coping mechanisms and social skills when raised on a dam who is free to move at will, and having areas to explore, fresh bedding, and opportunities to mix with other litters.
4. Shelter and Mud-Bath
Pigs need shelter to escape the elements, particularly heat and sunshine. As they do not sweat, hogs overheat easily, and are prone to sunburn. They need to take steps to cool down at temperatures over 74°F (23°C). This means shade, a cool surface to lie on, and a mud or water bath. If pigs are too hot, they space themselves out, lying on their sides. Mud not only cools the skin, but provides a protective layer against the sun.
5. Dunging Area
Naturally very clean animals, pigs will use a designated spot to dung and urinate if given the opportunity. Even by five days old, piglets meet this need outside the nest. If their space includes subdivided areas, adults use the cooler section for this purpose.
6. Nest-Building Opportunities
Two to three days before farrowing, a sow will leave the herd to seek out a nest site. She finds a warm, sheltered spot near water and digs a shallow bowl. Then she collects bedding material and arranges it in a nest. If it is cold, she will build a thick nest of branches lined with grasses and ferns. In warmer climes, she prepares a lighter bed.
Free-range and penned sows will form a similar nest if provided with appropriate material, such as straw. If she can find nothing suitable, she will continue to attempt nest-building even as she starts to give birth, becoming stressed and unsettled. She will remain around the nest for a couple of days, frequently suckling her young, until she leads them back to the herd. Domestic sows benefit from a private stall or arc with nesting material from a couple of days before farrowing until a week after.
7. Adequate Space
When housed in a pen, pigs need space to distance themselves from each other and their dung. Even sows need to escape the attention of their piglets at times. Ideally, the pen should be divided into distinct areas to provide for different activities:
- a soft, dry, clean area for resting where occupants will not be disturbed;
- a spacious feeding area with escape routes;
- a cool dunging area;
- and a rooting zone/playground.
Aim for an interesting environment with a choice of activities to keep your hogs happy and comfortable.
- Spinka, M., Behaviour of Pigs, in Jensen, P. (ed.), 2017. The Ethology of Domestic Animals: An Introductory Text. CABI.
- Ocepek, M., Newberry, R.C., Andersen, I.L., 2020. Which types of rooting material give weaner pigs most pleasure? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 105070.
- Lead photo by Daniel Kirsch on pixabay.com.
To learn more about the welfare of pigs and other domestic animals, I thoroughly recommend this free online MOOC from the University of Edinburgh: Animal Behaviour and Welfare.
Originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal.