Heidi M Sands offers advice on choosing a gilt for breeding.

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It’s generally recognised that getting the female element of any livestock breeding enterprise correct is half the battle to a good outcome. This is even more important with pigs as the breeding female is expected to produce and rear whole litters of piglets at a time. 

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The piglets are of course the end product of several months of waiting, anticipation and the outcome of your considered breeding programme. Good strong healthy youngsters are what’s wanted and in order to achieve that it pays to have the best mother for them that you can.

Good sows begin as good gilts; a gilt is a maiden pig, one that has yet to have its first litter, and getting a good gilt is all important to your breeding programme.

A good gilt should be the very best example of the breed or type of pig that you are keeping or breeding, that you can afford. It pays to be familiar with your preferred breed; know the relevant breed standard and any bloodlines that you are particularly keen on.

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Certain bloodlines may be rare, carry faults or undesirable traits so if at all possible evaluate pigs from any bloodline you are considering to see what you might be getting. Genetics tend to be passed on, although of course there’s no absolute guarantee, it pays however to choose a gilt that possesses a good conformation.

Make sure that your gilt has a good jaw; she needs to be able to eat her ration in order to provide good nutrition for herself and her offspring. Ensure too that she has good legs; she needs to be able to carry her own weight as well as that of her growing litter.

When considering your gilt take a look at her mother and any adult sisters if possible, especially any that have been bred from. Take a look at the udders; ensure they are well attached and not suffering from mastitis. This should give some indication as to how your gilt may fare in that respect with her own future litters.

Ensure your gilt has a good udderline of her own too. She should have evenly spaced teats that should be of equal size and preferably start well forward, just behind her elbow. Good udderlines are usually passed on to subsequent offspring, this is important to the future of your potential herd, without this and the ability to feed her young a gilt, or sow is not viable.

Whilst on the subject of the dam of your proposed gilt, make sure you check her temperament and mothering ability. Your gilt needs both characteristics; a gilt that is likely to savage her piglets or that doesn’t have the ability to mother them is going to cost you in time and ultimately money. A gilt that is difficult to manage, control or move may be all the worse when she has her first litter with her and may not only be a danger to her piglets, she may also be difficult for you to deal with.

Don’t be tempted to buy a gilt that is the runt of a litter, no matter how cheap or cute she may be, it’ll be a bad decision in the long run. A runt may be stunted, small or undersized. She will be unlikely to be able to carry a litter or nourish them sufficiently and when it comes to farrowing she may have problems giving birth.

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Age should also be considered when buying a gilt or indeed when evaluating any gilts you may have bred yourself. Gilts that are weaners and have just been weaned from their mother, can have a preliminary evaluation.

This should involve taking a good look at their udderline, legs and jaw just as you would with an older gilt. However such young pigs cannot be relied upon to grow and turn out exactly as you’d hope for. If you are considering young gilts then subsequent evaluations should be carried out as the gilt grows. By the time your gilt is around nine months old she’ll be ready to breed from. Her final evaluation should take place then and any gilt that doesn’t make the grade should be reared instead for meat rather than used for breeding.

If you are breeding for meat production rather than the show ring, it may seem unimportant to consider things such as mis-markings, however over time plans can change so if at all possible choose a gilt with correct confirmation and markings. This gives you the option to sell your pigs for meat or potential breeding stock if need be.

Any gilt that you are considering using for breeding should be correctly registered, check that her paperwork is in order whether you are purchasing her or keeping her from a litter you have bred yourself. She should also be earmarked and if you are at all unsure about your own capabilities in this area consult an experienced pig-keeper to guide you.

Although breed societies cannot be expected to guarantee the quality of gilts advertised for sale on their sales lists, these lists might be a good place to start when looking for a suitable pig. Other good places to look are summer shows. This is where breeders take their very best stock in the hope of taking top prizes. They will be happy to let you look at their pigs and to chat with you about gilts they may have for sale, they may even have adverts on information boards attached to pen fronts for you to peruse.

Shows are also a good place to see several pigs bred by the same person, thus giving you an idea of the type of pigs they breed. Some breeders may even take their stock to a show with the purpose of offering them for sale after the show, so it pays to ask if you really like the look of a gilt that you’ve seen in the showring. However be prepared to pay good money for such a pig.

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This article was first published in Smallholder magazine. For your copy subscribe here or ask your local newsagent.