Newborn piglets may be able to snuggle up to a warm pillow that smells like mom, helping them avoid being accidentally crushed.

Iowa State University researchers have developed a simulated sow udder that piglets can lay next to for the first couple days of their lives, keeping them out of danger.

“Each year an estimated 5 percent of piglets die when sows in farrowing crates accidently lay on them,” says Don Lay, Iowa State animal scientist. “That’s a loss of almost half a billion dollars to U.S. pork producers. Other researchers believe that figure is much higher.”

“We’ve tried using the warmth of heat lamps to lure newborn piglets away from sows when they’re not nursing,” explains Lay. “The heat lamps work, but not for the first 48 hours. Then, the piglet’s senses of smell and touch are highly involved, and it wants to be as close to the sow’s udder as possible. Unfortunately, that puts the piglet in danger of being crushed.”

By transferring the sow’s smell to a similar texture, the simulated udder is an inexpensive and effective way for the piglets to get away from the sow for the first 48 hours, he notes.

Using 15 sows, Lay monitored how newborn piglets behaved for 72 hours after birth. Six of the litters had a simulated udder, while the other nine had only heat lamps.

“The simulated udder worked well,” says Lay. They found a piglet near the simulated udder almost 90 percent of the time, while piglets migrated to the heat lamps only 72 percent of the time.

The concept is promising, but Lay admits it needs refining. “There’s not much room to spare in a farrowing crate, so it would be nice to have something that’s flatter and farther away from the sow.”