How and Why you Should Raise Pigs in a Small-Scale Rotational Pasture System
When we laid out our design for Out of Ashes, we planned for pigs. They are wonderful animals for so many reasons but have gotten a bad wrap because of poor management practices.
We think of pigs as dirty, when in fact they are quite clean. They nearly always manure in the same area, outside their shelter and away from their food and water. True, they love to wallow in the summer because they get hot and don't sweat to stay cool, but if they have enough space, they will wallow in nice, clean mud, not their manure.
We think of pigs as smelly. They are no more smelly than people are, but if you feed them garbage, they will smell like garbage, just like we would.
We think of pigs as mean, when they can be gentle, friendly and playful. Pigs are generally mean because of poor socialization. Depending on whose list you are looking at, pigs are either the 4th or the 2nd smartest animal on the planet, below chimps but right next to dolphins. Leaving a very smart animal alone, never spending time with them or giving them anything interesting to do would make you bored and cranky too.
So as with so many things, pigs aren't the problem, we are.
Allison and I spent a good deal of time researching and gathering info in order to raise pigs for pork in the best way possible. I specify that the system described below is for pigs raised as feeders. We are breeding our hogs as well, but we manage our breeders differently than our feeders.
While there are a lot of good ideas out there, we found a dearth of specific information for the system we are trying to do: rotational pastured pigs on about an acre and a half of land. So, this post is specifically for those trying to do what we are and hopefully others that have been down this road will chime in and add to the conversation.
High-Frequency Rotational Grazing
We are working with recently logged land that we are converting to a silvo-pasture and food forest system. The install of that system is almost complete. We are intending the pigs to help us make the land healthier by rooting the soil and grazing the grasses, scrub brush, weeds, etc to facilitate a succession of natural pasture grasses. Pigs not only graze but root, tilling the soil, fertilizing it and generally preparing it for quality grasses and trees to fill in naturally. However, pigs can also completely decimate a piece of land if they are left on it for too long, even for 1 day too long. That's one reason movement is so important. They need to be moved frequently enough that natural grasses and trees fill in rather than weeds and scrub, which will take over if land has been overgrazed or under-grazed. Like Goldilocks, we're trying to find the number of animals/frequency of movement that are just right.
What is called rotational grazing is really just one concept within a larger land management framework called "Holistic Management." Moving animals through pasture this way is nothing new, but it's uncommon for them to be moved as frequently or grazed as efficiently as they really should be. Many rotational systems also make the mistake of using the same areas in the same way year after year. Holistic management seeks to remedy these problems by designing pasture use around climate, season, forage quality, quantity, etc. It is looking to manage a complex and every changing environmental reality.
Managing this way on a small scale has become easier with the ubiquity of low-cost electric fencing. Many animals, pigs included, do very well on electric fencing. Pigs being so intelligent, they learn quickly to avoid it. So now, it's very possible to do fast rotational grazing/rooting more cheaply than ever before.
High-Frequency Rotational Grazing is also much more desirable for a number of reasons:
- Having them on pasture that is "large enough" to finish them does not mean they will use it efficiently. Pigs, or cows, or any other animal on pasture will focus on particular areas of a pasture. This is often the edges, or the area nearest their shelter, or the new growth, etc. Shrinking the size of the paddock increases the efficiency.
- Taking them off of land frequently reduces medical issues like parasites. A piece of land has to be left fallow for 28 days for the parasite cycle to be broken. Moving them helps reduce the spread of disease and parasites. The longer the land has time to rest, the better. Ideally, the forage will be knee high by the time the animals come back to it. That means different periods of rest for different times in the season.
- Rotation spreads the manure around more evenly, and reduces or eliminates the smell often associated with confinement pigs or pigs on non-rotational pasture systems.
- You can generally increase your stocking rate over what would be advisable in a static system, thus increasing profit-per-acre.
The Set Up
We have chosen to use Premier One hog netting with one of their solar energizers. After reading from others about this I was originally concerned that they would root onto the fence and ground it out, but the fence can actually be raised on the bottom and it begins six inches off the ground. We haven't had any issues with grounding out in the two years we've been doing this. They learn within about two hours not to go near the fence.
(Piglets not trained to electric fence can at times run straight through it. Pigs are the most likely animal to push forward instead of jumping back when shocked. Read this hilarious story about bolting pigs. This issue can be resolved by training them to the fence for a bit on the inside of a solid perimeter of some sort. I also think this is less likely if you put the pigs together in their mobile shelter area instead of setting them on the ground near the fence.)
There are definitely more inexpensive ways to set up electric fencing. Ideally we would establish semi-permanent paddocks using 2 strand high tinsel wire with fiberglass posts (3 strand for a multi-species system with sheep or cattle). We plan to do that eventually when the system is more permanent. We did it this way for the versatility. We are using four 100 foot spans of fencing, two at a time (only one in this pic) to move 10 pigs. The fence takes about 10 min to set up and they move quite easily. I am now on version 3 or 4 of our mobile hog shelter, and this one is the winner. We use 55 gallon barrels with nipple waters and float valves for water. I can move the shelter myself in 5 minutes.
We use 55 gallon barrels with nipple waterers and float valves for water. During summer extra water is provided if needed to make wallows.
It's really hard to find good information on stocking rates for rotational systems. I've either found overly academic papers that don't translate well and/or info for much larger scale productions than what we're doing here.
So, what we've done as a starting point, is to scale down Joel Salatin's stocking rates for his rotational pig set up.
Joel raises 50 pigs per 5 acres, using half acre paddocks, thus 10 rotations. He has a brilliant system that is fairly automatic, minus the labor involved in moving the feeder and waterer at rotation (an issue I've eliminated in our system by integrating the waterer and shelter). Instead of doing his rotations on a time schedule, he rotates based on the amount of grain consumed.
The theory here, and it makes sense in a grain fed free choice system, is that a small pig consumes less grain, but also takes a longer time to clear a piece of land. Therefore, the amount of time in a paddock would be different for a small or large pig. And, while raising pigs on pasture reduces the grain use (for Joel it's by 30%) you have no way of knowing when a pig has eaten enough grain. So it makes the most sense to continue to feed a grower pig free-choice and allow them to supplement from the pasture and whatever else you feed them.
(It should be said that Joel's set-up is on leased land and he's not there all the time. Therefore it wouldn't make sense to feed a standard ration (1lb of grain/day for each month of life topping out at 6lbs), or a mix of food types, which would reduce the amount of feed being consumed, but it would also require paying much closer attention to the amount of time your pigs are in an area and generally sourcing food from a variety of places. Really, ideally, we wouldn't be feeding any commercial grain to our pigs. That's the holy grail for us. Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farms has shown clearly how this can be done and we plan to get there within 5 years. But for now, this is the best approach we have.)
Joel has figured out that about 2 tons of feed per 50 pigs translates to the appropriate amount of time on pasture. There are a lot of factors that could change this equation, which is one of the reasons stocking information is tough to get and translate. The quality of your pasture will effect the speed with which your pigs clear it, as well as the amount of grain they eat. You don't want the ground to get more than 20% bare before moving the pigs.
But for those just starting out, I believe this is still a good baseline for a system and one should make adjustments along the way.
Time for a story problem: If Joel's system is using 2 tons (4,000 pounds) of feed for 50 pigs then how much feed per pig per square feet is he feeding? Answer:
4,000 pounds over 50 pigs = 80 pounds per pig on a half acre (21,780 sqft)
Thats .004 (rounded) pounds per sq. ft. per pig.
So, if my math is right, the equation goes as follows:
(# of Pigs) x (.004) x (sq. ft.) = Amount of grain fed per rotation.
In our case, we are using two 100 foot spans of hog netting for our enclosures, thus 2,500 sq feet (varies depending on the shape of the enclosure).
(10 pigs) x (.004) x (2,500) = 100 pounds of grain per rotation
Our approach then, is to put about 100 pounds of grain in a feeder designed for this sort of thing (i.e. one we've built, or a hog feeder from the farm store) and then simply move the pigs once the grain is gone.
*If anybody out there sees a problem with the math, please let us know!
As far as the number of pigs per acre goes, our plan is to simply make sure we have enough space to keep our pigs off a piece of land for a minimum (longer is definitely better) of 30 days, or until the grass is roughly knee high (the grass will regrow faster as the pasture improves). More pigs means faster rotation, thus less rest time. This is a process of continual observation and adjustment.
We love the community of creative, thoughtful, entrepreneurial sorts that has grown up around these alternative forms of farming. We invite your thoughtful engagement with what we're doing here.
*This post is continually updated as our system matures.