Raising Pigs: Why We Use Pastures And Pens

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Recently pastured meats have become quite popular. It’s not just pork either, “grass-fed” which is a different but similar label for beef and lamb products, as well as pastured and even “vegetarian” versions of poultry have been hitting shelves in increasing numbers. Due to the rising popularity of these products and an increasing awareness of pasture-based farming systems one of the questions we often field is why we don’t leave our pigs on pasture full time. The answer is a combination of factors, some unique to our farm and others universal to the art of raising swine. The truth is we used to leave them on pasture full time during the summer, but as time went on we learned a lot about pigs and pig farming and have made adjustments with that knowledge. One of the things we’ve learned is that sometimes what feels good to us is not necessarily the most responsible choice to make for the stock or our land, and that’s pretty much the overarching theme to everything we do here, including the pasture and pen management. Here are some specific hows and whys:

Why We Don’t Use Pastures Full Time

Pigs are woefully inept digesters of forage. Cows, sheep, goats, even llamas and alpacas are masters at turning grasses and legumes into agricultural products — namely meat, milk, and fiber — pigs on the other hand, are not so much. Though fiber digestion does happen to some extent in the intestines of pigs it is limited in comparison to their ruminant counterparts and this is especially so for younger swine, precisely those of the ages and in the stages that are generally grown out for pork. It’s only in the older ages, particularly among gestating sows, that forages and fiber have been shown to be of significant nutritional value, and even then its most useful indication is in keeping the ladies regular leading up to and directly following farrowing. The digestive tracts of younger pigs, on the other hand, are designed to run best on feedstuffs much higher in protein and fat, the kinds of things we can best provide in their feed bunks by hand.

Pigs are masters at ground destruction. They don’t mean it; it’s not malicious. In some cases they’re simply interested in finding out what’s below the surface, their rooting just happens to make a mess in the process. In others it’s hardly their fault that soft ground turns to mush beneath the concentrated pressure of their pointy hooves and muscular bodies. Whatever the reason however, pigs can turn a pasture or paddock to a rutted, muddy, and/or barren wasteland faster than any other class of livestock. It’s almost a superpower. And since land is an expensive and precious commodity we try to use it wisely.

Just because they can doesn’t mean they want to (or should.) We may be biased, but we think pigs are pretty incredible creatures. They’re rugged and adaptable, able to do all kinds of things we might not initially think possible. Among those things is the ability for a large number of them to survive on pasture throughout the cycle of their lives; from birth to reproduction to death. And with minimal human interference, to boot. Feral pigs are not a multi-billion dollar per year invasive species problem because hogs are tender and fragile creatures, after all. That said, also because we think they’re pretty incredible, we’ve spent a fair amount of time with them and have experimented with providing them various creature comforts. What we’ve noted is that just because they can do something doesn’t mean they want to. Quite to the contrary we’ve seen them show a decided preference for the “finer” things in life; man-made shelter, comfortable bedding materials, hand-delivered feed. And have also observed and noted a significant difference between surviving and thriving. On their own, they survive. With our help, they thrive. And that’s a pretty important distinction to make.

How We Do Use Pastures Part Time

Just because it’s not of significant nutritional value, doesn’t mean it’s not of any value. Over the years, as we’ve learned that the pasture isn’t necessarily of as much value to our pigs nutritionally as we may have originally liked we’ve also learned how it is of value. And that value is what we like to call the two Es: entertainment and exercise. We’ve found that by managing how much time the pigs spend on grass and wooded paddocks we can protect the ground from destruction while simultaneously providing the pigs with everything they need to thrive — better shelter, closer management, safer accommodations for baby pigs, more individualized diet and health care — and we think that’s a pretty awesome balance between what feels good to us and what is best and most responsible for our land and livestock. So when our sows aren’t farrowing or caring for a young litter of pigs we rotate them in and out of pasture paddocks, paying attention to their natural cycles (they prefer to nap midday, are naturally more active early morning and evening most of the year) and the condition of the ground. And when they’re not out for their two E’s we keep them in pens that are large enough to move around, interact with each other, and satisfy all of their needs. (One of the reasons we undertook that renovation in the spring.) We provide straw for them to root through and use as bedding, the pens are dirt floored so they can also dig in the dirt, and while I won’t say it’s perfect (nothing ever is, especially on a farm) it’s a pretty good sweet spot that we’re very pleased with. And the swine don’t seem to mind it either.

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