It’s a concept that doesn’t seem to sit quite right with a four legged farm animal but pigs do build nests to give birth in and new born piglets instinctively know that their nest is the safest place to be.
Nests can be elaborate structures of grasses, twigs, and branches, plastic hosing or any objects found in the paddock, or it can be a simple hollow in the ground or a manmade hutch filled with grass or straw. It doesn’t matter to the piglet. The piglet is born with an incredible instinct to return to its nest just as its mother is naturally driven to build that nest in the hours before farrowing commences.
The sow will demonstrate some kind of nesting behaviour in the hours before she is due to give birth. This is often in the late afternoon or evening and you may see her become very active and carrying mouthfuls of grass or hay to her chosen farrowing site or the hutch provided for her. Nesting is not always this evident and may simply be a rearrangement of straw in the farrowing hutch or snouting out a hollow in the dirt. This is an important indicator of where the sow is planning to give birth and if it is not in a safe location or one that you have chosen for her, now is the time to relocate her or confine her to an appropriate area. Don’t wait until after the piglets have been born and established in their nest because moving them and the sow at this point will be quite difficult and could result in piglets being lost or the sow returning to the nest without all of her offspring.
It is important too that the sow is given the opportunity to build her own nest and is not forced to give birth in a huge mound of hay you have provided for her. Too much bedding can be dangerous and apart from having the potential to generate too much heat, the piglets can bury themselves too deeply in it and are then at risk of being laid on by the sow. Let the sow do her thing and adjust her own comfort level to her needs and not those that you feel she would like best.
The nesting instinct is very strong in the pig and even sows that are confined to farrowing crates on concrete surfaces still attempt to snout the floor and move any material (such as spilt feed) around in their endeavour to fulfil this very basic need.
If the piglet is born in a nest and that is where he will stay in the first few days of life and always return to in the following weeks no matter how far the litter of piglets may wander. This is an important natural instinct that ensures their survival and protection in the wild. On a free range farm it is an instinct that we can rely on and one that also needs to be considered when it comes time to wean the pigs.
In the wild a piglet knows to wait in the nest for its mother’s return or uses it as a homing beacon once it is a little older to guide it home after exploring its environment or playing with litter mates and other piglets. The piglets will travel long distances during their daily activities but are rarely ever lost. The nest always calls them home until they are weaned. This is very handy knowledge to have when piglets escape from the farrowing paddocks or mix and mingle with the piglets in the next as they inevitably do.
Problems arise when it is time to wean the piglets and separate them from their mothers. If you remove the piglets from the paddock that the nest is in, they will endeavour to make their way back and unless fencing is very secure and piglet proof, they will. Even if the hutch or nest has been removed and the sow has moved on, if the piglet manages to make its escape you will find it sleeping were that hutch used to be. The piglet is driven to return to the nest, not to find its mother.
Unfortunately the piglet would rather stay in the nest site than at its new home where all the food and water is and its health and condition will decline rapidly if not secured in the new paddock. If the sow is still residing in the nest paddock, the piglet will continue to suckle and prevent her from returning to heat and being re-mated.