Pigs in the Pasture


Guest post by Michael Lang

Saturday, November 16, 2013

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Crops in the field at Let it Grow Farm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the early days of our plans to start our own farm, my wife and I knew that pastured pigs was one of the enterprises we wanted to be a part of our farm and homestead.  This was a priority of ours for reasons related to our palettes as well as our consciences.  We love pork, especially pasture-raised pork.  The flavor and tenderness of the meat and fat from pastured pigs is such higher quality than that from confinement-raised pigs that it ought to be a different food entirely.  Beyond the eating quality, we have strong feelings about animal welfare and environmental stewardship.  We had read about and seen in person the less than ideal environmental outcomes of confinement production of pigs, and it only made sense to us that animals should not be raised in a building off the ground and completely disconnected from their natural environment and prevented from engaging in some of their most innate behaviors.  We have attended many workshops and consulted with several other pastured pork producers over the past several years in preparation for one day raising our own pigs, but out of all of them, today’s presentation provided the most comprehensive, balanced, and thoughtful consideration of outdoor production systems.

The Alternative Pork Production workshop was lead by Niki Whitley of NC A&T.  Ms. Whitley began by shifting my paradigm a bit with regard to outdoor versus confinement production of pigs.  Pigs were first moved inside in the 1970s for many of the same reasons we argue for pastured productions today.  Pigs make a mess.  They poop, they pee, and they do a whole lot of each.  Put a bunch of them on a small piece of land and you have less than ideal circumstances for the health of that land.  Phosphorus and potassium are abundant in manure, and once they are at high levels in the soil, it is very difficult to get them back down to reasonable levels.  Beyond environmental concerns, outdoor production poses animal welfare risks as well.  Outside is a dangerous place for pigs.  There are parasites, predators, fences to break out of…all of which are greater risks outdoors than indoors.  Also, some sows can have what are euphemistically called “poor maternal traits.”  One of those traits is that she may have an unfortunate tendency to crush her piglets when she lies down.  This trait can be better controlled for by using farrowing crates, which are often used in indoor production systems but have their own drawbacks with regard to animal welfare.  This all serves to illustrate that the debate between raising pigs on the ground versus in confinement systems is not as simple as a good vs. bad dichotomy.  There are good arguments to be made for each production approach and there are good, responsible ways to implement each production system.  It is also possible for animal welfare and environmental abuses to occur within each system.  Regardless of the production system, good husbandry and stewardship practices are required to make the system work for the pigs, the environment, and us.

All of that being said, outdoor production systems implemented with integrity provide an attractive enterprise for a small farm or homestead.  As I’ve mentioned, pork from pastured pigs is clearly superior in flavor, but it also is superior nutritionally.  Pigs can be used with small diversified farming systems to help “hog down” and till up crop fields at the end of their productive season.  Outdoor production also allows the pig to fully express it’s “pigness”, a term coined by Joel Salatin to describe the natural behaviors of pigs such as rooting and wallowing.  Perhaps one of the more central purposes for production of pigs on a small farm is the certainty of knowing the conditions in which they are raised, what they are fed, and how they are treated.  There seem to be far too many variables to that are unknowable or out of our control with pigs raised in confinement and processed through the large corporate supply chain, along with sufficient reason to be distrustful of the integrity of the corporations responsible for that supply chain.

Ms. Whitley shared with the group an overview of strategies to support the good husbandry and stewardship required for successful and sustainable production of pigs outdoors.  The two big ideas that were a part of all of the recommended practices were rotating pasture and stocking rate.  Several approaches to pasture rotation were discussed, including a “spoke and wheel”-type system with a central shelter area and radial sections of pasture and a “strip grazing”-type setup where all the infrastructure is moved to a new section of pasture periodically.  Ms. Whitley shared recommendations for stocking rates that were based on empirical data and focused on maintaining 70% ground cover, a standard set by the NRCS to reduce erosion and soil degradation.  Besides benefiting the soil health, lower stocking rates were correlated with animal welfare benefits including reduced parasite load and faster growth.  Practices for renovating pasture and managing nutrients were also shared.

This workshop served as a very informative and balanced overview of the risks, rewards, and responsibilities involved in raising pigs on pasture and emphasized the importance of good management practices for the benefit of all individuals and systems involved.

Michael Lang and his wife, Caroline, own Let It Grow Farm in Johnston County, NC.  They raise vegetables using organic methods across all four seasons and have a pasture-raised flock of laying hens with plans to add more livestock in the future.   Let It Grow Farm can be found online at http://letitgrowfarm.squarespace.com and can be contacted at letitgrowfarm@gmail.com

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