What Do Pigs Do on a Farm?

What do pigs do on a farm?

What an excellent question.  Truly.  What’s the point of keeping a pig?  I mean, the meat is good…well, great.  But does that justify keeping pigs?  Is it fair to the animal to expect it to eat and get fat and contribute nothing…serve no positive purpose?  What do they DO?

I don’t think I could look an animal in the eye if all it did for me was get fat so I can eat it.  I, personally, don’t find life fulfilling without having a purpose.  Animals need purpose too.  Our chickens sanitize, debug and eat weeds.  They give us eggs to pay the rent.  Bees have a similar arrangement.  Goats clear the brush, give us milk and keep us entertained.  What is a pig’s purpose?  They don’t lay eggs and you don’t milk sows.  How can pigs pay the rent?

1.  They eat.
Pigs eat things we don’t.  Things we won’t.  They are omnivores.  You’ll see them eating clover.  You might catch them eating a snake or a mole.  They love when we throw them broken eggs.  They clean up whatever is out there.  Plus they get extra or soured milk, garden waste, non-pork kitchen scraps and convert it all to bacon.  Mmmmm…bacon.  Got unwanted blackberries growing out there?  Let the pigs eat them.  Yes.  Eat them.  No roundup required.  No mowing.  Just electric fence and bacon.

2.  They poop.
Ah, manure.  My old friend.  We need more manure.  Just think of what happens on a stretch of pasture across 11 days.  The goats eat the weeds and brush and drop a LOT of manure.  The goats also leave a pile of unwanted hay behind..loaded with manure.  Then the chickens come through and scratch at the hay pile, pick through the manure and eat all the bugs, often leaving bits of corn and feed behind…and very rich manure.  Then the pigs come through.  By this time, the tall, thorny things are out of the way, the bugs are gone and it’s time for the pigs to get down to business.  They nibble at the leftover hay, they nest into the hay, stirring the pile for later composting on site.  They eat any feed the chickens lost or forgot.  They dig up rhizomes, root for worms, loosen the soil and break up the sod and add in their own manure.

3.  They root.
We don’t ring our pigs because we want to leverage their rooting behavior.  Go ahead.  Tear it up.  Rooting is like plowing the soil.  They dig, scratch and generally make a mess of things.

All that sod action, combined with the manure they are putting down, makes a great seed bed but is quite harmful to annual grass species.  That’s fine with me as I’m working to increase my stand of native perennial grasses.  I’m working to establish better forages in my pastures so the pigs and I make a great partnership.  I need more orchard grass and less infected fescue.  The pigs lead the way and I follow up with a broadcast seed mixture.  I throw a mix of vernal alfalfa, timothy, perennial rye and orchardgrass along with a deer plot mix containing triticale, oats, winter peas, clover, chickory, turnip, and (of all things) daikon radish!  It was weird for me to look at deer food plot mixes since I never fill my deer tags but Steve suggested it.  Sure enough, looks like a lot of good things for my soil/ecology in there.  Beyond cows, goats, chickens and pigs, that plant variety will boost the rabbit population, feeding the coyotes, hawks and owls.  All of those animals, including the deer, add manure to my farm.  If I can get them to spend more time on my farm (weird to say that about coyotes), they will translocate nutrients from neighboring land onto my own.  All I have to do is let the pigs dig and toss out a little seed.

4.  They drink.
We use a simple poor-boy solution with a nipple to water the hogs.  Lots of people ask me what a “nipple waterer” is and how it works.  I’ll let the pigs show you.

There is always a wallow under the drinker.  It takes almost no time at all for the pigs to saturate the soil near the drinker and put their noses to work digging out a bathtub.  They need it.  It’s no big deal for me to fill the holes back up with wood chips, sawdust and compost.  I can fix the trip hazard and the pasture is better off for the disturbance.

5. They sleep.
They don’t sleep so hard that I can sneak up to get a picture of it but they sleep.  A lot.  I mean a lot lot.  They spend about 20 minutes eating at the trough each day, they spend about 20 minutes drinking at the watering nipple each day.  They root around for more food for about another hour or two.  That leaves a good 21 hours to sleep and sleep they do.

So, what do pigs DO on a farm?  They efficiently convert a wide array of resources into a more bio-available state.  Used judiciously, pig snouts, hooves and manure can be used to enhance the land, rather than degrade it.  Once the pig has served out its purpose, playing and rooting in your pasture, it’s time to go to market.  We butcher our own here at home but also sell whole and half hogs to customers through the local butcher.  Beyond fixing nutrients and making them available and helping remodel and renovate your pasture, the pig then adds to your family financially if not nutritionally.  With all this in mind I can’t imagine a farm working without a pig.  In fact, I would recommend a pig to city people.  Just get a pot belly pig and tell your neighbors it’s a weird breed of dog.  Then serve it for Christmas dinner.

I don’t have a formula for pasture movement, you have to use your eye.  Soil conditions vary season to season and week to week.  You just have to pay attention to the forage available and the condition of the pasture to know when to move.  The eye of the master fattens the stock.  An experienced master has a better eye.  Get yourself a couple of pigs and start training your eye.  You can quickly create a moonscape in your pasture and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.  Most of the time, though, a little disturbance goes a long way.

Beware of poisonous plants in your pastures.  I’m not going to burden you with an extensive list but be aware that seedling cockleburs will kill your pigs.  Cockleburs are just coming on right now so we’re on the lookout.

Feeding the Pigs

I was asked recently how I feed the pigs…or what I feed the pigs in since round pig feeders are not exactly cheap.  It isn’t a question I had given much thought to as we just solved the problem and moved on.  Our primary motivation is keeping the soil healthy.  After that we work to keep the animals healthy.  Within those constraints we work to find the best combination of durable, local, inexpensive/free and suitable.

If you give your pigs free access to eat throughout the day they will, unsurprisingly, gain weight faster and put on more fat.  If you feed them twice per day they tend to be leaner.  Many, if not most, farmers provide enough feed to last several days and go do other things.  We keep our pigs near our chickens and feed them when we open and close the hen house each day.  We give them roughly 3% of their bodyweight each day of the Fertrell grower ration as well as a little garden waste, some apple drops, acorns or whatever else is handy.  Really, we want them all to be satisfied and have a little feed left in the trough for a snack later.  This would be unrealistic if we were raising more than a few pigs as 4,000 pounds of pork need to eat 120 pounds of feed each day and I doubt my dainty wife is going to lug feed out to the pasture in that volume.

I took some slab oak lumber from my sawmill to the tablesaw and built a durable feed trough.  It works well for 8 small pigs or 4 larger pigs but, again, forces us to put eyes on our pigs twice daily.

We water them with a nipple on a garden hose.  It’s not exactly ideal having  three lengths of garden hose stretched across the pasture but it certainly has a light footprint and is easy to install.  It was also fairly cheap.  There is some concern about the pigs having access to cool water so, on hot days, we disconnect the hose and spray the hogs or their wallow to cool off the water again.  Honestly, I haven’t noticed that the pigs care.

The nipple is on a 3/4″ galvanized pipe.  Actually, it’s 2 pipes and2 elbows.  I use hose clamps to keep the pipe on an old, broken t-post with an elbow pointing over the perimeter fence.  The hose clamps allow us to raise the nipple as the pigs grow.  It’s pretty easy to move when we move the pigs.

Check your hog water several times daily in case the nipple clogs, the hose gets pinched, someone disconnects the water, etc.

Also, be sure to move the hose before you take the mower out to clip the thistle.  I really thought it was 10 feet over!  What a day Saturday was.

Home Again Home Again Jiggity Jig

We brought home our new pigs on the 5th.  They immediately escaped.  Yeah.

We use Premier One Pig QuikFence for our pigs but I have never owned 18 pound pigs before.  These little guys just squirt right through the fence.  No big deal though, they ran back into the fenced area and we grabbed a spare length of PermaNet.  That has them contained.  They now have a firm grasp on the concept that white wires are their boundary, though, like velociraptors, they will test the boundary from time to time.

These little guys are complete.  The whole hog is there.  Well, the boars I bought are now barrows but otherwise from head to tail the whole pig is there.  It’s the tail that is most unusual.  We have always gotten our pigs from a confinement floor.  In confinement the pigs can choose to play with the metal bars holding them in, the drinker nipples, the feeder or that other pig over there.  They dock pig tails to keep them from being bitten off, leading to infection.  Check the video to see the pigs wag their tails.

Also, we don’t ring our pigs.  I want them to dig.  They do make holes to wallow in, I just fill those with wood chips, manure, compost…anything handy.

The pigs bat clean-up behind the other animals and do a good job finding kernels of corn that the chickens missed.  They also dig up the multi-flora roses that the goats gobbled up.  Finally, I sometimes use the pigs to just plow up the pasture, one section at a time, allowing me to renovate that area.

They are still pretty shy.  They haven’t figured out that we bring them food every day.  It won’t be long and they’ll be under foot.  While pigs are cute, hogs are a dangerous nuisance but boy, do they taste good.  Enjoy your pigs while they are little.

What Pigeonhole do you fit in?

Is your farm organic?  Is your farm free-range?  Are you just conventional farmers?

We hear these questions frequently from prospective customers.  Let me answer the question.  No.

I don’t look down on my friends who produce organic products.  I also don’t look down my nose at my conventional farming neighbors, though I do hope they don’t go broke.  I really try not to look down at anyone.  I just do my very best to bring a quality product to market that will enhance the health of my land and the local ecosystem and nourish your family.

Our animals are healthy, happy and normal.  Our pigs and chickens are allowed to be omnivores and given regular doses of fresh grass and forbs.  They are expected to contribute positively to our pasture management to earn their keep.  We don’t have chickens for the sake of having chickens, they are a tool that we use carefully.  Similarly, our goats and cows are expected to be herbivores.  They have to eat a wide variety of plants.  Each of our herbivores perform a different function, either mowing and crushing or trimming.  Both add manure.  The milk we receive is a wonderful but secondary goal.  The primary goal is enhanced microbial activity in our soil leading to increase fertility, dense swards, healthy trees and non-eroding waterways.  Again, we accomplish this by keeping the right animals in the right places for just the right amounts of time and allowing them the opportunity to fully express their unique talents.

So, what do you call that?  How about orchestrated, choreographed, local, respectful, ethical agriculture?

How do you, the customer, verify that we actually do what we say we do?  You come see for yourself.

There is no man behind the curtain.  There is no curtain.

We don’t desire third-party verification at this time mainly because we want relationships with our customers.  We want customers who will come and see how things work here, customers who will ask questions and make suggestions and challenge us to continue improving.  We want customers who will partner with us.

What about GMO-free or organic grains?

We’re just not there yet.  I have been in contact with a vendor who can provide me a complete non-GMO feed solution for my stock.  He’s in Ohio.  At this point, we think it’s better for us to buy corn straight from the field that may be GMO and certainly is not organic but is grown within 100 yards away from our house than to buy grain from hundreds of miles away and uses unknown quantities of petroleum to get here.  We buy local.  I am working to influence the local farmers I buy from to take the next step in environmental and ecological stewardship.  They aren’t there yet.  But, together we’ll get there.

I’m buying local, working with what is available here, now.  I’m doing the very best I can to bring a locally produced, quality product to market that was not only humanely raised but humanely processed.  Not only humanely processed but locally processed.  I don’t ship my birds 200 miles for processing just to bring them back again.  We do the work here.  We use local sawdust, local straw, buy local corn, and buy locally produced animals whenever possible.  Sure, there are things I buy that are not local but I try to buy them from local vendors.  For example, I buy coco coir from a vendor close to where I work, though it probably comes from Sri Lanka.

I’m working to be as local as I can.  I’m also working to make it better.

To be honest we aren’t where we want to be on many of these issues.  Please partner with us, join us on our farm, encourage us to continue working and participate in the local economy.

What about antibiotics?

When a cow or horse gets sick we’ll take steps to heal it using whatever technology is appropriate.  We don’t use subtheraputic levels of antibiotics or medicated feed to help the chickens survive until slaughter date.  Our management style makes that unnecessary and we feel that is an inappropriate use of medication.  Though we have never used antibiotics on our animals, even our willingness to use an antibiotic to heal a sick animal would prevent us from achieving organic certification.  I want to care for my stock.  I’m willing to use whatever means are appropriate.  While I’m unwilling to allow my animals to suffer to strive for an ideal, I take precautions to maximize our animal’s immune system function by providing a varied diet, allowing the animals to select the most palatable and nourishing food and providing minerals free-choice.  We minimize their need for immune response with multi-species grazing and long periods of pasture rest and recovery.

Again the best thing you, the consumer, can do is to come see what’s going on here.  I hesitate to quote Regan but I’m asking you to trust, but verify your farmer.

Market Day or The Great Pig Rodeo

So there I was.  Backed up to the chute at the locker.  There was a gap between the chute and the trailer but not so much that I was worried.  Then Eyeliner broke through.  He didn’t walk down the hallway, he made a break for it.  7 adults with a rope and a few muttered curses corralled, chased and herded the pig.  Nobody lost their temper but nobody was amused.

…20 minutes later we unloaded Blue.  More carefully this time.

Ah, the joys of keeping a 300 pound intelligent animal that doesn’t have a handle.

It didn’t start this way.  It started pretty well in fact.  I made a long, thin corral of pig quick fence leading from their pasture to the trailer.

You can see in the second picture I have narrowed the corral so the pigs can’t wander away to explore.  Any exploring they do will be around the trailer.  We put a straw bale at the rear of the trailer so the pigs could step up easier and put a little food inside to coax them in.  It didn’t take long and Eyeliner’s curiosity got the best of him.  Once Eyeliner was in, Blue decided breakfast sounded pretty good but he wasn’t willing to put his back legs in the trailer.  I jumped the gun, grabbed him by the back legs and tried to wheelbarrow him in.  Well…it was a good plan.

Eyeliner stayed put.  In fact, I closed Eyeliner in the front half of the trailer.  Blue wasn’t having any more.  Ultimately, we used sorting boards and pizza to get him back to the trailer.  Then I just picked him up and helped him in.  Lifting 220 pounds of weight is well within my range.  Lifting 220 pounds of wriggling mass when there is nothing to hang on to is something else.

I love keeping pigs.  I just like having them around.  I like the noises they make.  I like the disturbance they bring to the pasture.  I like that they are always so happy to see me…I mean, I bring them food and scratch their ears for 5 months.  They think I’m the greatest person in the world.  I make them lie down in green pastures, they tear it up and I give them another green pasture.  Don’t worry, the clods will be rolled flat with cow hooves, the grass will grow back stronger than ever before and the thorny trees will die.  Die!  DIE!!!!!  Sorry…

Anyway, are you with me here?  I like these animals.  Today could have gone much worse but it could have gone better.  Again, nobody lost their temper, no animals were abused and the bacon will be great but I know I can make this better for my pigs.  To this point, our pig operation has been an experiment.  I have been reluctant to make any investments in permanent handling equipment.  I even house the pigs under pallets and tarp for crying out loud.  I think it is time to reopen our copy of Humane Livestock Handling and get cracking on a real loading chute.  As convenient as the pig quick fence is, a real loading chute would be better for all parties involved.

Joel Salatin says his animals have a “wonderful life and one bad day.”  I want to cut that down to a few bad seconds.  My loading and unloading has to get better.

One more thing, this is Blue.

When we first got Blue he had a rupture (hernia) in his penis.  It was swollen, had three distinct bulges, was dragging the ground and had a red, raw, bloody patch where it hit the ground.  This weakness would have killed him in confinement.  We gave him no antibiotics and no medications.  We did rub a Neosporin-like salve on the wound the first day but beyond that he has been on his own.  We were afraid we would have to butcher him at about 60 pounds but he came out of it.  It was just a matter of changing his conditions, his feed and his feeding schedule.

Good old Blue.

It has been 2 hours.  I already miss the pigs.  I need to make a phone call to make arrangements for the next group.

What do pigs do?

Well, pigs eat.  Pigs manure.  Pigs sleep a lot.  Pigs drink and wallow.  The best thing pigs do is dig.

This is a post about digging.  Pigs dig for fun and to find food.  This week we put them in the pasture near the iron pile where they discovered a small pile of odd parts that had been buried in the pasture over time.  These are probably things my grandpa dropped out there 20 or more years ago.

Here’s a view of the whole pasture they left.  They did more digging further away, less closer and almost none up close.

Looking the other direction I have drawn some lines.  The further line is where the fence was.  The near line is where they stopped digging.  Why did they stop digging?

They did not dig where they manured because pigs are clean animals.  They manured near the fence and did not dig in their manure.  There is almost no manure anywhere else in the pasture.  Just there by the fence.

The pasture will recover quickly where the manure is.  The pasture will recover slowly where they dug but, in the long term, the massive disturbance will allow opportunity for plant succession that would not have happened otherwise.  There is a seed bank in the soil that will now have a chance to come to life.  There will be grass.  There will be weeds.  It will be great.

When keeping pigs on pasture it is important to leave them enough room to play, to dig, and to take care of business.  If you place too many pigs in too small of a space or leave them in one place for too long, the whole area will be defoliated.  We try to manage things so when the pigs run out of fresh grass to eat they are moved to a new location.  By that measure the pasture has a reasonable chance to recover quickly.

Good luck with your own experiments with pigs, grass and portable fence.  Things may work out differently for you.

One Day of Pigs on Pasture

Yesterday this was carpeted in grass and splattered here and there with cow manure.  Today it’s another story.

The pictures don’t show it but it’s surprising how much grass the pigs eat when they first move.

They dug out a little nesting site and moved most of the straw to the side.  I added more straw.  Even if they don’t want it the pasture will benefit from it.

Here’s the pasture they came from.  They were here for three days.  It’s a wreck.  Looks like a war zone.  Don’t they do a good job?

Like CrossFit, this is all about intensity and rest.  I may do a little raking and shoveling out there since it’s my yard but in a very short time the grass will come back thicker and healthier than ever before.  Here’s the pig pasture as of March 3rd.  It sat empty and bare all winter as the pigs were slaughtered in December and by December the hogs were creating some massive soil disturbance.  Obviously nothing would grow in the winter but things were in place for spring.

Here it is two weeks later.

It changed from barren to lush in short order.  Yes, there were things I could have done to cover the ground.  Maybe I should have put some straw out there.  But I didn’t.  I didn’t spread any seed.  I didn’t go over it with a harrow.  It just is what it is.  Recovery is rapid.  Nature hates a vacuum.  Things grow.  My only role is to coordinate the rest and disturbance cycles.  This area needs more rest.   Pigs aren’t allowed to return to the same square foot for at least a year.  But what a time they have while they are there!

Bringing Home the Bacon

I can’t imagine how we lived before pigs.  My sister, living in town, joked that she thinks she can get away with owning a pot-bellied pig.  I think it’s an excellent idea.  They root, they eat, they manure and they don’t ask much of their keeper.  They do ask for proper management; keep them safe, well-fed, move them away from their manure regularly and treat them well.  Let the pig do what pigs are built to do.

I have yet to see any living thing that will cause soil disturbance like a grown pig.  They will dig up moles, rhizomes, worms, grubs and who knows what else.  They dig just for the pleasure of digging.  That digging, left unchecked, can create an area that looks like the surface of the moon.  However, judicious use of pig noses can renovate pastures and make a positive ecological change to the landscape.

Everything we waste can be pre-composted through our pigs.  Garden wastes can go to pigs, feed spoiled in the chick brooder, cow manure, mice from our traps…they will eat it all.  In the winter that pre-composted material goes right to the compost pile where it helps maintain a high temperature for our thermophilic composting process.  Whatever we miss is churned with the soil and bedding into the garden.

Our most recent batch are ruptures from a production floor.   Just a quick note, a “rupture” is a pig with a hernia.  Often the hernia is expressed in the belly of a female or the scrotum of a male.  In both men and in hogs, the tendency toward a hernia is genetic.  It is generally believed there isn’t a way to manage the hernia short of surgery.  I don’t in any way wish to demean the farmers I bought the pigs from.  They are close friends who run a highly-efficient formula of inputs and outputs on a schedule.  Not all animals qualify for their program.  I picked up those that were genetically disqualified.

These pigs arrived in mid-December.  Please notice the three ruptured males.  Also notice they are packed in tightly together though they have room to run.  This shot was taken within 15 minutes of the first time their feet ever hit dirt.  Chew on that for a moment.  40-60# hogs that have never touched dirt and have never been more than a few inches apart.  Finally, there are two runts in there.  They never did grow for us but tasted great.

In the back is a ruptured female with a massive belly rupture.  We call her Thing1.  Here’s a better (but not great) shot of her:

Here’s another picture of the blue pig above.  I want you to be sure I’m showing you the same batch of pigs across this post.

Click on the image to see his large rupture.  I wish I had a better shot but I don’t. The rupture is within his …male anatomy.  It bulged in three distinct lobes and a portion was raw from where it rubbed the ground.  We thought we were going to have to put him down right away.  Here is the same pig at the end of February.

Where did it go?  In fact, where did any of the ruptures go?

These pigs were scheduled to be executed because of their ruptures.  They would not have survived on the floor in their condition.  I brought them home, switched them to Fertrell feed (high in pro-biotics) fed them twice daily plus a few scraps and gave them room to run in the sunshine and fresh air.  Their gut emptied between feedings.  They burned energy running, rooting, fighting and playing.  No antibiotics, medications or belt straps involved.  Just a change in management.

This winter we just parked them on the new garden and hauled manure away daily, using them to till the soil and work in organic material.  In the spring, summer, and fall we move 3-4 pigs to a fresh 25×25 area every third or fourth day using pig quick fence from Premiere 1 Supplies.  The fencing hugs the contours well, is visible to the livestock and everybody has a healthy respect for it.

Keeping a hog around the farm or house is a great way to boost fertility, create disturbance, pre-compost wastes and feed the family but proper management is the key to health.

One final note, if you smell the pigs you need to add carbon.  Pigs don’t smell, bad managers do.