Harvest is just around the corner. If ever there was a time when the homestead needs a pig, it is right now! Just look at the garden. You’ve got zucchini the size of blimps every time you turn around, overripe tomatoes, cucumbers grown fat and bitter, and all those cobs and shucks from the sweet corn.
Canning and freezing leave you with buckets full of peels, seeds, pods, rinds and cores. And all that is next to nothing compared with what the fall will bring, when you empty the garden and strip the fruit trees in preparation for winter.
Finding a pig at the right time can be tricky. It’s a good idea to get the word out early if you are going to want a fall feeder pig. You’re looking for a pig between 35 and 60 pounds, usually, recently weaned and trained to solid foods. And you want to find a reliable source, because at this stage, just after being weaned off his mother’s milk, he can be extremely susceptible to germs.
Shipping fever is the pig keeper’s term for the fever, cough and runny nose that not infrequently occur when a young pig changes living quarters. It could have many causes.
Too often animals are moved with little thought for their comfort, when just a little care could make a big difference. If piglets are being moved in the back of a pickup, a truck cap or bed cover can keep the little ones out of the wind. Even on a warm day, the back of a pickup can be a cold place to ride!
If no cover is available, try putting the piglets in a pet crate. Strap a tarp over it, leaving room for some air to get in (of course). We’ve seen pigs moved successfully in a plastic IBC or “tote” as well. Even a heavy-duty appliance box can keep a piglet contained and out of drafts for a short journey.
Some simple attention to comfort during transport can go a long way to protecting a pig against shipping fever.
After the move, make sure little pigs have a comfortable bed of hay or straw in their living quarters to prevent shipping fever illness. If they come from a farm where slatted floors are the norm, they may never have encountered grass bedding. They’ll probably eat some of it, so make sure there is plenty!
Use clean, mold-free hay or straw, especially in these first days. Pigs can have allergic reactions just like humans, and you’re trying to give them the fewest health challenges possible.
Pig pens should be open to fresh air, but not drafty. Solid walls toward the prevailing breezes—in the U.S. this usually means to the west and north—give the animal a place to get out of the wind. At least part of the pen should have a roof for shade, protection from rain and a dry spot for a comfortable bed.
Clean water, of course, is a must. And then there is the matter of food! Obviously weanlings will no longer have the perfect nourishment of their mother’s milk, and it’s up to us to make sure that what they do get is nutritious and easy to digest.
If you are switching your new pigs from a solid food diet high in commercial grains to one consisting largely of your own farm-raised calories, you want to start out gradually. A 50-pound sack of proprietary pellets or crumbles will last a long time when mixed with kitchen scraps and garden surpluses. It also lets the little guy adjust his gut over time.
But what if, when you’ve taken all the precautions, the pig still turns up with symptoms of shipping fever?
Well, first of all, consider that the cost of a visit from the local vet will probably be as much as or more than the cost of the piglet. That’s without counting the price of any procedures or meds.
It isn’t always the best choice to bring in the professionals. Don’t think we’re heartless. We are very careful of our animals’ health. But for a homestead or farm to be viable, it has to keep expenses proportionate.
If you call the vet out for every health problem, you’re likely to be raising some expensive animals. And you’ve no guarantee that the visit will save pig in any case!
The best remedy for a sick animal is considerate, appropriate nursing. And the first order of business is to make sure the pig pen is dry and draft-free.
The piglet should be able to lie down in a shady spot with plenty of bedding so he can regulate his temperature. If he has roommates, separate the sick pig from his companions. This obviously decreases the likelihood of passing on an infection. But also, sick animals, like sick people, need peace and rest in order to heal.
If baby is still willing to eat, make sure you offer food of the best quality. Table food scraps are pre-cooked and easy to digest. If you keep a dairy animal—whether cow, goat or sheep—surplus milk or dairy products make the very best hog food.
High in proteins, fats and sugars, raw milk is a complete food rich in probiotics.
Colostrum, the first milk made after a mammal gives birth, is especially nutritious. And since many people don’t care to use if for drinking or cooking, you’re likely to have some extra. We freeze colostrum in gallon jugs for starting bucket calves. It’s also nice to have some available as a tonic for just such situations as pigs with shipping fever.
It is a wonderful food. We’ve seen animals dosed with colostrum pulled back from death’s door.
How to Feed
Make feedings small and frequent. Offering more food than the pig will eat quickly means excess food will grow stale or sour, and breed flies. Liquid foods like milk, whey, colostrum and broth provide hydration as well as nutrition.
Offering several times during the day can encourage the animal to eat more than they would of free-choice feed.
If the piggy’s condition is severe, you may find him panting for breath rather than eating. In this case, offer small amounts of fluids every hour or two. In our experience, even a piglet with pneumonia can be aroused by the sound of milk being poured into its trough.
Quickly lapping a few ounces of milk before he has to stop to catch his breath can often keep him hydrated and nourished long enough for his immune system to kick in and deal with the infection.
And that’s the good news! Pigs have a great power of self-healing. If we give them the conditions they need, they can pull through just about anything.
Comfortable quarters, peace and quiet, and simple, nutritious food are the best medicines we know for a pig suffering from shipping fever.