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.

Strolling through the pasture: May 2012 Edition

All the grazing books emphasize the need to walk your pastures regularly.  See what’s going on out there, take notes and really pay attention.  Today I noticed something I hadn’t seen before.  Pigs are hard on clover.  Let me show you.

We had pigs on this spot in March.  The grass is recovering well and has been grazed once but the clover is almost non-existent.  A good mix of grasses and weeds but no clover.  I’m not too surprised as it had little clover to begin with but there is none now.  None.

Continue with me to the cemetery gate.  Here the grass is mowed regularly and the clover grows thick.

Now, look to the South with me.  The pigs were on this slope starting in July of last year and worked their way around the hill over time.  One section at a time the hillside became a wasteland as the pigs worked their way through.  The grasses more than recovered from the disturbance, and did so quickly.

But while the grasses benefited from the disturbance, the clover is absent.

If I look around a little bit I can see new clover establishing itself out of the soil bank but not much in the way of old growth.

Now, wait a minute.” you say, “Mr. Head Farm Steward, didn’t you just have goats and chickens here?  Aren’t your cousin’s cows still roaming and grazing in the pasture?  Maybe they are eating the clover faster than it can grow.”  Well, I don’t think that’s the case.  Here’s where the goats and chickens just left.  Sure enough, not a clover leaf to be found.

But, if we look back at pasture that has had at least a week to recover we can see strong clover growth.  In fact, on the left in this picture you can see a line in the grass where the clover ends.  I believe that’s where the pig quick fence stood last summer.

So it appears my grass is strengthened by the presence of pigs but I sacrifice my clover stand.  Ah, tradeoffs.  Why can’t it be more simple?

-Walk your pastures regularly
-Take notes
-Take pictures
-Reflect on changes you observe.
-Evaluate these changes to determine if it is really a problem and, if so, if your management has caused it.

It is possible that I just need to move the hogs more frequently to help retain some portion of the clover.  I’ll keep fiddling with it.

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.

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.