Raising pigs on pasture has again become a commonplace practice on small farms. Pasturing pigs, however, remains challenging. Pasture management must address the natural behaviors of the animals: trampling, rooting and wallowing. Small farmers are successfully pasturing pigs by designing sustainable farming systems that are tailored to their particular needs. Those who have successfully pastured pigs are adamant that with proper management techniques, pastured pig production enhances the pigs' quality of life, the farm's environmental impact and their customers' enjoyment of high-quality, healthy pork.
According to a newly released study from North Carolina State University's Center for Environmental Farming Systems, pigs were historically raised outdoors, and farmers focused on finding forages to meet the animals' nutritional needs. The study, "Conservation Practices in Outdoor Hog Production Systems," (www.cefs.ncsu.edu/publications/conservation_practices_2012.pdf) focuses on the environmental impact of pasturing pigs and on minimizing negative outcomes.
Key findings include the need to remove excess nutrients from the soil; maintain appropriate stocking density with consideration of the forage type; integrate hogs into the crop rotation system on the farm; and potentially incorporate temporary structures into the system for use when weather or pasture conditions warrant.
At Wrong Direction Farm, the smaller winter paddocks, which are more intensely used and have a higher concentration of manure, are planted in corn or squash.
Photo courtesy of Wrong Direction Farm.
Pastured pigs primer
At Wrong Direction Farm in Canajoharie, N.Y., David and Rachel Perozzi and family have found that moving pigs regularly and providing just the right amount of room are crucial components of successful grazing.
"The interval for moving pigs is variable, based on several factors," David Perozzi said. "In rainy weather, the pigs tear up the ground quickly. In dry weather, the pigs don't root much. We found that if the pigs have lots of room, they tend to really beat up on some sections and ignore others. Smaller paddocks and shorter visits are best."
The paddocks at Wrong Direction Farm are about 10,000 square feet each and host 30 pigs in mixed groups from weaners to breeders, Perozzi said. The farm raises 30 to 40 market pigs each season and has three breeding sows and one boar. The pig pastures make use of land that is otherwise unsuitable for farming and require little initial investment.
"We started out with a steep, overgrown piece of land with no fences, no barns and no equipment. Our first investment was an electric fence," noted Perozzi. "After a little experience with an electric fence, pigs generally avoid it."
At Twin Brook Farms in Tyler Hill, Pa., pigs wallow in the swampy area of a woodland pasture.
Photo courtesy of Twin Brook Farms and Livestock.
At Twin Brook Farms and Livestock in Tyler Hill, Pa., 40 market hogs are finished each year, and 120 feeder pigs are sold annually for others to raise. They have 10 sows, which farrow twice per year. The pigs are given access to large areas - about 60 acres year-round - but moved into a 2-acre permanent paddock complete with a brook for wallowing during wet or dry periods, or if they are rooting too much and the pasture needs a break. The land is mostly steep and not suitable for crops, with wetlands and woodlands interspersed with small, narrow valleys. Pasturing livestock was a natural fit for the land.
Pasture management protocols
Perozzi has found that the density of the pigs on pasture isn't the main concern; it's the time spent on each piece of ground. When his pigs are in a wooded area foraging for acorns and hickory nuts, he pays attention to ensure he moves them before they do damage. "We want the pigs to forage, but we don't want them to kill saplings," he explained. He does use the pigs to brush hog overgrown fields and help get them back into production.
"We've been amazed at the change resulting from a rotation of pigs through the fields. We've moved the pigs through a patch of ground dominated by poison parsnip and goldenrod, but a few months later it was deep green mixed grass and clover. The added fertility from the pig manure remarkably changes the productivity of our pastures," Perozzi said. "As the pigs go through an area, we like to broadcast-seed it with clover, mangels, rape or turnips, depending on the season. This provides good grazing later in the year for a second rotation, either by the cattle or the pigs."
Perozzi does not spread the manure under normal circumstances. The smaller winter paddocks, which are more intensely used and have a higher concentration of manure, are planted in corn or squash.
"We've found that heavy feeding crops like corn and squash do well on an area that had pigs on it. These areas have become very productive gardens," Perozzi noted.
"Pigs will damage fields or pastures. Fortunately for us, we've never experienced either claim," said Randy Kuhn, who runs a diverse farming operation with his wife, Tina. They breed and raise market hogs at The Kuhn Family Farm in Columbia Cross Roads, Pa. "The key is [providing] enough room to roam and graze," along with ample forage and water, he said.
The pastures at The Kuhn Family Farm are seeded with a mix of cool and warm-season grasses and multiple legumes, providing consistent growth throughout the grazing season. The pigs are rotated through 1-acre paddocks. Four acres will support a group of 12 market pigs for five months, from weaning until they reach market weight, Kuhn said. A sprinkler system keeps pigs cool when it is really hot and dry, so they can continue to wallow, which protects them from heat and sunburn.
"Pigs rooting is another natural characteristic of the breed. That action actually makes the pastures healthier for following seasons. They eat any grubs that might otherwise damage the roots of the pasture forages. They root up any and all rocks and push them either into piles or toward the perimeter fences like a little wall," Kuhn explained.
He renovates his pig pastures each season by interseeding or frost seeding each March, and is happy to let the pigs fertilize and improve the pastures while he simply seeds. "We knew going into the venture of pastured pigs that pasture renovation was going to be an annual event, so why not let them do most of the work for our future piglets?" said Kuhn.
Food and shelter
At Wrong Direction Farm, Perozzi's pigs are fed whey year-round as a supplement to their grazing. The whey comes from nearby cheddar cheese plants. In winter, when green pastures are not available, the pigs are fed hay.
"We have found that pigs can get all of their nutrition from whey and pasture from about April or May through November. During the colder months, when pastures are dormant and the pigs are eating hay, we've seen that mature pigs do well on this diet, but younger pigs require more grain supplementation," Perozzi noted.
"Larger pigs can handle the cold very well, so they are provided with minimal shelter," Perozzi said. Younger pigs are provided either portable hoop houses or a timber-framed dugout in the hillside, both of which allow the pigs to burrow into deep bedding and seek refuge from the wind.
"From mid-December through March, we bring most of the pigs up closer to the road and bring the pastures to the pig. We stock up on hay bales and provide the pigs with several round bales each week. They eat some of it and use it for bedding," Perozzi said.
The pigs at The Kuhn Family Farm are fed any needed supplemental grain, which is "selected, planted, carefully grown, harvested, dried, stored and bagged for us by a single farmer," Kuhn said, allowing them to know "what they eat, exactly where it came from, and how it was processed. We are moving toward an almost completely grass-fed pig through careful selection and breeding of our crossbred pigs."
When pasture forage is not available, Kuhn provides the pigs with an 800-pound bale of alfalfa and mixed grass hay every two weeks. The older pigs have year-round indoor and outdoor free access 24 hours a day, and often choose to root in the snow, even in the coldest weather. The smaller pigs are given access to shelters Kuhn fabricated from pallets and steel roofing.
A sow with piglets in the birthing suite at The Kuhn Family Farm. The suite has a piglet warming box with heat lamps and access only large enough for the piglets.
Photo courtesy of The Kuhn Family Farm.
Perozzi's sows farrow in the pasture. In warmer weather, the sows often build their own nests in brush, and the piglets fare well as long as they are dry and warm, he said. He does provide portable farrowing structures, which he moves into the appropriate pastures with four-wheelers, but they are oftentimes ignored. The sows farrow twice per year.
Wrong Direction Farm, in Canajoharie, N.Y., raises 30 to 40 market pigs each season and has three breeding sows and one boar.
Photo courtesy of Wrong Direction Farm.
At The Kuhn Family Farm, farrowing occurs indoors, in a "birthing suite." The animals are moved to the suite several weeks prior to the delivery date to allow time for adjustment to the new environment. The suite has a piglet warming box, with heat lamps and access only large enough for the piglets. There is a steel pipe running around the perimeter of the birthing suite, 1 foot away from the wall and 1 foot above the ground, to prevent the piglets from being squashed by the mother as she lies down. The pipe gives the piglets an escape route.
The Kuhns' sows are bred twice per year, with ample time between litters for a full recovery and regaining of the weight lost during nursing, Kuhn said. "We allow the mothers at least six weeks from the time they stop nursing the piglets until they are rebred."
Many pastured pig operations focus on heritage breeds. These animals were traditionally foragers, not bred for confined industrial feeding operations. Many farmers feel these pigs are not only more adaptable to foraging, but also provide meat that tastes better than commercially raised pork due to breed characteristics and to being pasture-raised.
"I chose different heritage breeds because I wanted pigs that would do well on pasture," said Cassie Roneker of Twin Brook Farms. She has pastured commercial pork breeds and a variety of heritage breeds. "I truly feel that any pig will do well on pasture if you give them access to it, regardless of the breed," she said.
Kuhn said, "The Duroc and Tamworth crossbreeds we currently have on the farm are best suited for pasture. The Tamworth breed is almost completely sustainable on an all-grass diet." The Duroc's meat is very lean, with less marbling and less cooking loss than commercial pork breeds.
At Wrong Direction Farm, the Red Wattle boar and crossbred Berkshire sows will soon be joined by Gloucester Old Spots. Both Red Wattle and the Old Spots are considered critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
At The Kuhn Family Farm, animals are moved to the birthing suite several weeks prior to the delivery date so they have time to adjust to the new environment.
Photo courtesy of The Kuhn Family Farm.
"We have been selecting breeders based on temperament, ability to thrive on whey and pasture, and mothering ability," Perozzi said.
All of the farms sell their meat directly to consumers. At Perozzi's farm, the pigs are sold live and butchered by a farm-kill butcher as a service to the customer. He also uses a USDA-certified slaughter facility and processor for sales to local health food stores. USDA slaughter access and processing is limited in his area, so it is not feasible for him to offer retail sales of meat cuts at this time.
USDA slaughter and processing access is also a concern for Roneker.
"There are too few USDA slaughter facilities in the area, and travel costs are unsustainable and would significantly raise the price of meat," Roneker explained. "If a slaughter facility were closer, we would likely consider transitioning to cuts. We direct-market over 90 percent of our livestock directly off-farm.
"We have avoided transitioning to retail cuts of meat for a few reasons. We would need to build, maintain and staff an on-farm store ... or we would need to enter the farmers' market venue, which we are reluctant to do since it would take away from much needed on-farm time," she added.
At The Kuhn Family Farm, the meat is slaughtered and processed at a USDA-certified facility, and retail cuts, including smoked meat, are sold at the on-farm store. They also sell whole or half hogs. The on-farm store is open year-round.
"We raise pigs on pasture because it makes so much more sense on many levels," Perozzi stated.
These farmers have found that pasturing pigs is a viable means of producing pork and meeting a consumer demand for humanely raised meats. It is also a sustainable, environmentally friendly, economical and humane method of producing high-quality meat naturally. Growth hormones and routine antibiotics are not a part of these pasturing operations.
"We don't use hormones or steroids ever," Roneker said. Antibiotics are only used on sick animals when needed."
"None of our pigs are ever given antibiotics unless absolutely necessary for the animal's survival. If they are administered antibiotics, they are not processed and sold to our customers," Kuhn said. "The importance of pasturing not just our pigs, but any animal, is because it's natural for the animals and better for the environment."
The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.