The gestation period for Kunekunes is 116 days, 2 days longer than most other pig breeds.
The first indication that a sow is ‘in pig’ is failing to come back in season after being mated. Sows will cycle every 18-21 days, but as the signs that a sow in season shows can vary considerably, it can often be hard to determine if a sow has come back into season again after a successful mating.
During the last 4 weeks of pregnancy there is usually a noticeable change in the udder and the vulva. The size of the abdomen can be deceiving, though, as some Kunekunes have a distended abdomen whether or not they are pregnant. With some sows it is easy to tell earlier in the pregnancy that they are obviously in pig by the change in shape of the abdomen to a more pear shaped appearance.
The most reliable way to tell how far off they are is by feeling the amount of udder development. As pregnancy advances there is more udder tissue developing, with the teats becoming more prominent. Usually there is watery milk present in the nipples in the last 24 hours before farrowing. The size and consistency of the vulva can also be used as an indication of how far away farrowing is likely to be. The vulva enlarges in size and width, then becomes quite swollen in the last few days before farrowing.
Also in the last few days before farrowing the sow will ‘drop’ – the shape of the abdomen changes and the abdomen hangs much lower. This is due to ligaments stretching in preparation for farrowing.
When a sow starts into the first stage of farrowing she may become distracted and be getting up and down a lot. She may also lose interest in food, although I have a few sows that will get up to eat during farrowing when it is feeding time, and then carry on farrowing afterwards.
Some sows will carry out nesting behaviour, gathering up all sorts of vegetation and debris to make a pile to put her back against for farrowing. The ideal bedding to supply is hay or straw, or fleece wool (wool has an advantage in Winter as it helps to keep the piglets warm and it doesn’t rot easily if it gets wet or muddy). The sow will often push or rake material together as part of the first stage of labour. If a sow decides to farrow outside and has started making a nest, it is very hard to get her to shift inside a shed. Rather than upset her, it is often best to let her farrow outside and then shift her 24 hours later.
Once the uterus starts to contract it starts putting pressure on the cervix to dilate. How long this takes depends on how old the sow is, how many litters she has had before, and what her inherited traits are. Some sows will be in labour for several hours before the first sign of a piglet, other older sows may only be in active labour for 10 minutes before piglets start ‘firing out’.
During labour the first material passed is often some mucus, some blood spots and some piglet faecal material, then the piglet will appear in the amniotic sac. Once into the birth canal the piglet is usually expelled with a few strong strainings. The umbilical cord will usually break naturally but sometimes it is helpful to break it off short. Occasionally the umbilical cord will break off close to the navel of the piglet, which means the blood supply can’t close down and the piglet may lose too much blood to survive. If a cord continues to bleed, clamp it between your fingers for a minute to assist the blood vessels to seal off.
The time between delivery of piglets can vary considerably, and depends on the age of the sow and the size of the piglets. Usually there is a piglet every 10-15 minutes while the first horn of the uterus empties, then a gap of about half an hour or more, then piglets from the second horn of the uterus are delivered.
Piglets are often born back feet first (breech) – this is normal and doesn’t pose a risk of obstruction. Kunekunes rarely have problems giving birth, but problems do sometimes happen - straining for 30 minutes with nothing passed is a sign of dystocia (a piglet stuck). If this happens, do an internal examination with a washed lubricated hand, or ring the Vet.
Oxytocin is a drug that can be used to stimulate the uterus to contract, but it should not be given without first checking there is no piglet stuck in the birth canal. Although routinely used in commercial pigs it is almost never needed in Kunekunes to assist with farrowing.
Usually once all the piglets are born there is normally a group of afterbirths (placentas) passed, which is usually used as a sign that farrowing has finished. The sow may eat these, so leave them present for 24 hours. If there are still there after 24 hours, remove them and bury them to discourage flies.
Once a piglet is born it relies on the mother grunting for orientation to find the udder. Sows that don’t ‘talk’ much during farrowing will sometimes end up with piglets going everywhere, so that they may end up lost and hypothermic and die. Staying with a sow while she is farrowing is a good idea so long as she doesn’t get upset by too much happening around her. Using a towel to dry each piglet and clear the mouth as it is born can help to reduce the chances of hypothermia on a cold night. Most sows won’t mind too much if you need to pick up piglets to steer them in the right direction if they can’t find a teat to latch onto. When piglets are first born they are quite uncoordinated and can wobble around all over the place. Once they have been born for about 30 minutes they gradually get more coordinated and can find a teat themselves. Staying with the sow and assisting the piglets getting onto the teats can sometimes assist the survival rate of the piglets. If a piglet is born not breathing but its heart still going, clear any mucus from its mouth and nose and artificially respirate it (hold the mouth closed and blow into the piglets nostrils). In some instances this can save a piglet that would otherwise die. If a piglet is not breathing and there is no heart beat, there is no point in trying to revive it.
Piglets must have colostrum within the first 4 hours of birth, and preferably within the first hour. If a sow is having a difficult time farrowing i.e. is up and down a lot and there is a risk of her standing on the piglets, take the first piglets away and keep them warm and wait until she has finished farrowing before putting them back with her.
If you find piglets that are very weak and cold after farrowing, take them away to warm them up, and then re-introduce them back to the mother once they are lively. Once a piglet has been squashed, though, it will rarely survive for long.