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.