We have some old friends. Close friends. Dear friends. Mentors even. Friends we homeschool with. Friends we play cards with. Friends we laugh with. Friends who took time to show us how to butcher a hog. You with me here? Friends who care about their livestock. Who want their animals to be raised under the best of conditions, under the best of care, in the best of health. They approach it with a different paradigm.
They just built a new building to finish 2,500 hogs. At once. Each hog will eat around 700 pounds of feed. The feed is mostly corn. Corn weighs 56 pounds per bushel. Soybeans and oats weigh 60 pounds per bushel. You get an average of 50 bushes of beans per acre where I live, 100 bushels of corn, 100 bushels of oats. I mix 2 parts corn, 1 part beans (roasted) and 1 part oats along with minerals in my hog feed. So it takes approximately one acre of corn, one acre of beans and half an acre of oats to raise 16 pigs.
Did anybody follow that?
To raise 2,500 hogs (the amount in that one building for 4-5 months) requires the production from approximately 400 acres of land. But that one batch of hogs won’t make enough manure to totally replace the fertilizer bill for that same 400 acres if you apply 3,000 gallons of liquid manure per acre, let alone fuel for the tractors, combines and trucks involved. The trade-off is you can keep raising pigs comfortably year round. (Comfortable for farmer and for pig too…being out of the cold.)
Without going into the intricacies of finance and large-scale construction I’ll just say that’s fine for commodity growers. We have found a niche by raising pigs outdoors on a seasonal basis and retailing them directly. I’m not interested in passing judgement or saying one is better than another but I am happy to say there is a market for pigs raised on pasture. Please understand this makes me the odd duck. As usual, I’m the weird guy in the room. Also, my friends make a living raising hogs and I…well…don’t. Maybe I could though.
If you ask our friends about animal health and happiness they will tell you emphatically that their pigs are as happy and healthy as a pig can be. They rely on veterinary services to keep their animals healthy including weekly video conferences with the vet contracted by the vertically integrated growers. They rightly point to the range of climate control options available to reinforce their point about animal welfare. Their pigs don’t shiver. Their pigs stay shaded, misted and reasonably cool on hot days.
Ask me about animal health and happiness and I will tell you emphatically that our pigs are as happy and healthy as a pig can be. Our pigs get no shots, they have their noses in the mud but they do pant when it’s hot and they do bury themselves in straw when it’s cold.
Ask either of us if we are stewarding the environment and both will say yes.
Our core asset is not our hog management facility. It is not our pig happiness index. It is not our eco-score. Our core asset is our flexibility. Ask our friends what else they could raise in their hog buildings. Ask me what else I could do with that pasture. Ask me how much debt I have on my pasture compared to the debt they have on their building. Then again, ask them about the labor efficiency they gain by using a building. Ask them about the performance gain by keeping the animals dry and warm all winter. Ask them what they make a living doing.
We are very different in how we raise our hogs. I specifically don’t want to say we are better. I recognize I am the odd duck in the neighborhood. I also don’t want to imply that I am in competition with them. I’m not. I satisfy a small niche in our community. They help satisfy commodity demand across several states. Totally different world. Sometimes a man just wants a pound of bacon. But sometimes you want pork that carries other flavors; pork that tastes like acorns, walnuts, mushrooms, alfalfa, hickory nuts, and fresh air. I can’t provide that for the larger market. I can only provide it for your house and mine. Different focus.
We do it differently. That’s why our pork sells so well. Am I going to take over the world? Nope. Do I want to? Nope. I want to deliver a product to your table that is unmatched in flavor and texture. I feel that I succeed in that goal. Do I want laws to make hog confinement illegal? Nope. Customers will make or break those guys just as customers will make or break me. I’ll keep my head down doing my best…same thing they are doing. I do think there is room for us to come together. There is opportunity for both of us to change. Maybe something like this:
Is this the future of hog production? Instead of millions of gallons of liquid manure, we could have tons and tons of finished compost. Instead of single-purpose hog finishing buildings we could have multi-purpose hoop houses. I could raise chickens, rabbits, pigs, and zucchini in the same space. Add heat and I could raise orchids…with compost the pigs made. Pigs can dig, flop, roll and rest in warm bedding. They can find interesting things to eat and (probably) receive all the inoculation their immune systems need right from the bedding.
It’s an exciting time to be a farmer. There are exciting problems to solve and a whole internet full of people sharing their solutions from around the world. Do we need 2,500 head confinement operations? Right now, customers say so. Do we need 10 head pasture operations? Customers say so. Should we fiddle with what works? Curious farmers say so. Here’s to innovation. Let me know what works on your farm.