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:
…or maybe something like this which is quite similar to Mike Butcher’s place up North.
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.
Nice work! thanks for writing this.
Very interesting. while you and i agree not to declare war on confinement farms.I’m not sure they or the government won’t try to destroy us first. As in Michigan where it is now Illegal to raise hogs with dark colored hair,straight tails or long noses.(see bakersgreenacres.com ) In most of the United States it is illegal to sell raw milk. In Illinois raw milk can only be sold at the farm where it is produced. therefore limiting our market. In recent history, large farm raised spinach and melons have killed or sickened many more people but they have no such restrictions. Most small farmers cannot sell eggs at farmers markets because of market rules.
I worked on confinement farms for 16 years, I saw every day, the only thing that matters was push for quantity not quality. Not that those farmers are bad people, in their world its simply the lowest cost producer is the one that survives. they farm the way government / corporate universities and colleges teach them.
small farmers usually sell a better quality and healthier product because its the same food their families eat. And their reputation is on the line. Confinement dairymen are told not to use their own milk or let their employes. Eggs may soon have to be pasturized in the shell before being sold,impossible for the small farmer. The national food modernization act passed last year is just another way for Corporations/Government to control our food.
Politicians work for the lobbying corporate system.
Know your farmer, know your food
VOTE With Your DOLLARS
And that last sentence is it. Confinement operations survive because there is a market for their product. You are right, they have enough of a lobbying presence that they can make my business difficult or even impossible but we do have another vote beyond just our dollars. We can vote with our feet. My ancestors did just that. I suspect yours did too.
Did you know that nearly 20 years ago I worked on a hog farm owned by the Illinois Secretary of Agriculture? That was a very efficient operation. I believe it went broke.
The Illinois milk thing is an inconvenience but not a huge deal. I have seen any number of solutions from groups of buyers taking turns driving hours to the farm to a bulk tank with a jar next to it for money. We have some friends in Florida where it is only legal to sell raw milk as pet food. That’s a convenient little escape clause but it is also an escape clause for the farmer potentially giving him/her an excuse to produce something less than Grade A milk. He has legal sanction from the state. Instead, it would be better if the state would just allow the legal sale and protect the consumer but either way, it’s up to the consumer to go see the dairy.
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