Farming Magazine - October, 2010

COLUMNS

Small Livestock: Putting Pigs to Work

Reclaiming pasture the old-fashioned way
By Diane Wells

Pigs aren’t just pork, they can also aid in pasture improvement. The pig snout is a strong, flexible sensory tool designed to search and dig for food. Our ancestors managed pigs in such a way so as to benefit from this rooting behavior. And, there were perks. As pigs worked the land, they fertilized it. They also gained weight, which meant bacon and ham for the table. No bones about it, this is the old-school way of creating or improving pastures, and it’s making a comeback, as the new school realizes the old school may have had the right idea.

Oh to graze on Sugar Mountain.
Photo courtesy of Walter Jeffries.

I have a few acres of old pasture in the process of succeeding to forest, and I have a half-acre of wet pasture that has turned, over time, into a carpet of brown bulrush. It’s time I interfere and start managing these areas. So I’ve been thinking about pigs and how I can take advantage of their natural tendencies, while simultaneously putting food on my family’s table. In my wanderings and search for advice on this topic, I’ve discovered Walter Jeffries and his family, who own and manage Sugar Mountain Farm in West Topsham, Vt. Jeffries is a gem in the farming community, largely because he shares what he learns via his blog, http://SugarMtnFarm.com/blog. What is a blog? Short for Web log, a blog is essentially an online journal, a source for commentary or information on a given subject. Ideally, the owner regularly updates the blog, and readers can post questions and comments. Jeffries demonstrates the value of such modern communications to farming, but more on that in a minute.

As always, it’s important to maintain a balance on your farm, and the number of pigs per acre and the amount of time they spend on that acre are principal considerations. I’ve read of a farm that used upwards of 100 pigs per acre when the goal was to plow it under. If the thought of managing 100 pigs overwhelms you, you could do what is referred to as folding: concentrate a small herd on a small plot of land with temporary electric fencing, and move that fencing to an adjacent plot of equal size when the first is sufficiently worked over. In his blog, Jeffries describes his system, which uses the equivalent of roughly 40 finisher pigs, largely Yorkshires, per acre. For those of us who gasp at the thought of 40 pigs, 10 pigs per .25 acre or five pigs per 1/8 acre works just as well. Jeffries writes, “If you had 1 acre of pasture, you could subdivide that into four sections and rotate 10 pigs through the sections at the rate of about one section a week. You might get away with 20 pigs. The key is rotating them out of a section as soon as it is used up.”

Rotating is a critical piece of the puzzle. What you don’t want to do is let a herd of pigs overwork a section of pasture. Soil compaction and possibly erosion will occur. Neither the herd nor land will benefit. Jeffries rotates his herds after 10 days, or whenever they’ve consumed all available food, and lets each acre rest for 30 days before reintroducing them.

It is important to stress these numbers are not set in stone. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to number of pigs per acre when land reclamation is the objective. The size of the herd and amount of time the herd works on a given plot depends on a number of variables, including how many pigs you’re willing to manage, how much you’re supplementing their feed, how old the pigs are, and soil and pasture characteristics. An acre’s carrying capacity will vary from farm to farm, but here are a few things to consider.

The more feed you lug to them, the less pigs are inclined to work. If you want to feed your herd corn, grain, bread or any other carbohydrate-rich fuel, Jeffries recommends doing so in the late afternoon, so as not to stifle daytime rooting behavior. (For those particularly stubborn or grandiose stumps, old-timers often baited pigs by digging a few holes around the base of the stump and tossing in some corn.) Pig age can influence the numbers, because as Jeffries wrote during our e-mail correspondence, “There’s a huge difference between how many piglets can run on an acre and how many 800-pound mature breeding hogs.” Soil characteristics and plant diversity and density can considerably slow or speed up the rate at which a herd of pigs will plow a patch of land.

What this all boils down to is this: farmers who employ pigs in such a manner must be vigilant. Jeffries put it quite succinctly when he wrote, “On different land, with different forage, with different climate, with different size pigs, in different seasons, everything is different. It is important people don’t take numbers as absolutes, such as pigs per acre. Rather, they need to watch how the plants are doing, how the animals are doing, and then adjust rotating faster or slower, supplementing, etc. A keen eye is key.”

I encourage you to visit Jeffries’ blog and read more about their pigs and fencing design. While you’re there, you can also learn about his farm’s “Big Project:” the construction of a small-scale, on-farm, USDA and state-inspected slaughterhouse and butcher shop. Although initially quoted a price tag of over a $1 million, Jeffries and his family believe they’ll complete the project for less than $150,000. Funding sources include small loans from local individuals and small businesses, timber sales, pork sales and CSA pre-buys that currently feature free meat processing as a way to encourage locals to invest in their farm.

Hats off to the Jeffries family for their sustainable farming methods, animal husbandry techniques and sharing what they learn so that others may benefit. Based on the number of visitors to the blog, many are benefiting: as I write, the tally is 2,075,293 visits to the Web site since December 2005. Now that’s goin’ whole hog.

The author is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.