I’m up against the idea that pasturing animals is always better. Always.
Better for what? Better for who? Under what conditions?
This may seem like a strange point for me to argue but I don’t think it is necessarily so. Let me skip to the end and say that at under certain conditions it may make sense to preserve your pasture and increase animal health and comfort by sheltering the animals.
There. I said it.
What problem are we trying to solve?
I have been struggling with this question quite a bit recently, and mentioned it in a recent post. What problem I am really trying to solve by putting pigs on pasture. Am I solving a pig health issue? An ecological issue? A monetary issue? A pride issue? The answer to all may be “Yes” but let’s introduce the fourth dimension: Time. How long do you leave pigs on one specific pasture? Does a heavy rainfall change our management plan? Does incorrect timing hurt animal health, the ecology, our pocketbook or our pride? Yes.
Am I really concerned about animal health? Or am I primarily concerned about what people will think of me if I deviate from the pasture model for a few days? Do you think customers want to mess with explanations?
Q: Are your animals pastured?
A: Well, it depends…(and they roll their eyes and walk away.)
This is a little like the “Organic” question.
Q: Are you organic?
A: No. But…
They are finished with the conversation. The prospective customer has bought into the illusion that “Organic” is a meaningful term when in truth it is a government-owned monster with no teeth. Not only that but organic standards vary as you cross borders. What does it mean?
I could tell my customers, “Yes, my pigs are on pasture 24/7. No matter what. Why, just last week we had 20 inches of rain in 24 hours and 50 piglets were drowned when they washed down the creek. Further, the muddy wallow created by the herd washed out decades of topsoil but, by golly, we have pastured pigs.”
And it’s not just about pigs. There are times when the pasture is better served if the cows are in the barn and the chickens are in the greenhouse on deep bedding.
But not everyone agrees. And that’s OK. We don’t have to agree all the time. Right? Variety is the spice of life. Celebrate diversity and all that.
But it’s not cool to say that “All pigs are better off on pasture” without any qualifications. And because I’m so heavily immersed in P. G. Woodhouse at present I am inclined to say, “I rather believe my pigs are dashed happy on the stone floor.”
So let’s start at the beginning.
Q: What problem are we trying to solve?
A: We need to increase the farm’s fertility and water holding capacity.
Q: So what do pigs have to do with this?
A: Oh shoot! Pigs are the mechanism, not the problem.
The problem has nothing to do with pigs at all. I’m trying to solve a fertility issue. Pigs are a tasty solution provider. But if we’re going to use pigs to help increase fertility we had dashed well make certain their needs are met. They need to be warm, comfortable, well-fed and active. And I guess if I’m providing fresh bedding of sufficient depth it doesn’t matter if there is concrete under the pigs or not. The problem is fertility. The solution is husbandry…on or off pasture.
And I’m not alone in such thoughts. But maybe that’s why Salatin calls himself “Farmer” instead of a “Permaculturist”. Wanna see what he uses for winter housing for his pigs? It’s concrete. He puts concrete sidewalks in hoop structures so the pigs can’t “make huge craters that go all the way down to China“.The best picture I can find of it is on another blog.
I don’t…can’t…won’t do everything following Mr. Salatin’s example but a big part of why any of us do anything we do is because we read a book or two of his. He is HUGELY influential to the current generation of alt. farmers. His video, Pigs ‘n Glens, shows, appropriately, pigs in glens. But it also shows pigs in hoop houses. He gives an example of an effort to get pigs off of pasture, being late, and having to wait out a heavy snow storm before bringing the pigs in. So for a short time his pigs were on pasture in the snow but that’s not the design.
Where are his pigs in the winter? On pasture? Nope. And why? I asked a friend of mine who met Mr. Salatin some years ago.
Pigs on dirt, might work in some places, and people only get to the first part of Salatin’s talk, hear the word pasture and that’s it. Never mind there are photos of their hogs in barns or hoop houses during the winter. I think I have a Smithsonian from 2000 and in it there’s a photo of Joel in a barn with lots of big hogs on deep bedding. He values his pastures too much, and I’ve seen his pig glens up on the mountain, they are very small and only visited once a year. No one wants to listen to that, it’s too extensive to only use that land once.
Well, things change. We learn. We adapt. Apparently he now visits pastures more than once but let’s let him tell us all about it. He leaves 50 pigs in on a half acre for “about 5-10 days” (at 1:30), returning 3 times/year (things change). That’s very different than a recent Acres USA article suggesting that you can just leave pigs in place for two months. Salatin specifically says “landscape massage” (5:00) when discussing managing the disturbance. Managed disturbance.
What does “managed disturbance” mean? Salatin says you don’t want too little disturbance. You don’t want too much disturbance. You want just enough. Just enough to encourage grass growth, not so much that you encourage weed growth (see the 3 minute mark).
So how do you do that? Well, it depends. But where I live I have to keep the pigs moving from pasture to pasture before they turn it into soup. If it is raining, they have to move more quickly…or not be there at all.
And that’s where I’m content to leave it. Where are my pigs? It depends. It depends on seasons. It depends on rainfall. It depends on heat. It depends how big the pigs are. It depends on what I need pigs to do. But I have no problem housing my pigs on fresh pasture, cattle bedding or asking them to work over the concrete slab. Wherever they are, it’s up to me to make sure their needs are met and meeting their needs every day is what is best for the pigs. I use pigs to help solve my fertility problem but that creates new problems for me to solve. Husbandry problems. Chasing dollars around a muddy pasture won’t save the world. Proper land and animal husbandry will.