|These five pigs are being raised on pasture by MOFGA’s farmers-in-residence, Clayton Carter and Kendra Michaud. They turned under a lush stand of rye and hairy vetch in one week, then were moved to a spot where oats, peas and forage brassicas had been seeded several days earlier. The pigs pushed the seed into the ground and covered it somewhat. They were then moved from that plot, and later back onto it to feed and cultivate. English photo.|
The Basics of Raising Pigs
by Diane Schivera
Pigs can be valuable additions to diversified farms, by providing meat and helping clear land. Louis Bromfield wrote in his book From My Experience (1955), “To be financially successful at raising hogs primarily required the ability to think like a hog.” This article covers the basics of keeping pigs and helps farmers begin to “think like a hog.”
Pigs have an average productive life of eight to nine years. Their gestation period is 114 days; they reach puberty at five to eight months; they’re in heat for one to three days every 16 to 24 days.
Pigs are monogastric – that is, unlike ruminants, they have only one stomach. Their digestive system is so much like ours that they are the best research animal for human digestion studies.
A pig’s normal body temperature is 101.6 to 103.6 degrees F. The animal’s dental formula is 3143 (three incisors, one canine, four premolars, three molars). They get their top and bottom final, third molar at 20 months of age.
A sow is a breedable female; a gilt is a young female. A boar is a breedable male; a barrow, a castrated young male; and a stag is an old castrated male. Piglets and shoats are young pigs. Weaners are pigs that were recently weaned (taken) from their sow. Feeders are pigs at any stage from weaning to slaughter.
Pig breeds are grouped into lard types and bacon and meat types. Lard types have compact bodies, large hams, and a heavier fat layer than bacon and meat types; and they’re more docile. They include Poland Chinas, Cheshires, Essex and Mulefoots.
Bacon and meat types have longer bodies and legs, a trimmer profile, more energy and less external fat. They include Landrace, Yorkshire and Tamworth breeds.
Dual-purpose pigs include Berkshires, Hampshires, Large Black (which are especially docile because of their large, flopped ears, which prevent them from seeing much) and Saddlebacks.
The market sees demands for each breed, and many hog growers cross breeds for hybrid vigor. More information about breeds and producers is available from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (www.albc-usa.org).
Housing is as variable as are pig producers and can be as inexpensive as an A-frame made from scrap lumber – as long as you remember that 200-pound animals will be rubbing against it. Commercially made “porta huts” are also available. Larger producers who grow feeder pigs all year use hoophouse structures with lots of deep bedding, such as straw or poor hay.
If pigs have outside pasture, they need enough room in their housing to lie down without being on top of each other. If they live in the structure, they need much more room and deep bedding for their natural rooting behavior; otherwise they will chew on each other. These intelligent creatures must be housed in a way that satisfies their curious nature.
Pigs also need a place to wallow in warm weather, since they perspire only on the bottom of their feet. If you don’t create a reasonable place for them to get wet, they will make their own – probably not where you would like it.
As guidelines, piglets to weaners should each have a total of 16 square feet in the house and paddock; weaners to finished, 40 square feet; and farrowing sows, 40 square feet.
For sows with litters, paddocks should hold 10 sows per acre. Without litters, paddocks can hold 15 sows per acre.
Pigs do not like their homes to be “piggy.” Given the chance, they will establish an excrement area away from their food area and sleeping quarters. If they are in a confined area, muck it out daily. Otherwise the animals will be under a lot of stress.
Quiet, purposeful, humane handling is important for livestock. Pigs suffer from Porcine Stress Syndrome (PSS) when stressed too much, especially close to slaughter; PSS results in pale, soft, exudative (PSE) pork. Finding a good butcher before dropping off your pigs is important.
Pigs are easily trained to an electric fence. With newly purchased piglets, run the electric fence inside a solid fence at first. Pigs rarely try to get through places if they can’t see the other side. (This is helpful when they get loose. Hold a solid piece of plywood in front of the pig; it will move backward or to either side. Put something over the pig’s head, and it will move backward.)
Piglets to feeders require two electric fence wires, one about nose height and one shoulder height. Adults can usually be contained with one wire. If you are going to rotate them through pasture, move them frequently in the beginning to get them accustomed to the idea; otherwise they will fear the place where the fence was and won’t go through that spot.
To load pigs into a truck for slaughter, place the truck in the pig’s pasture for a couple of days beforehand and feed them in the truck. They’ll hop in for feed.
Feed and Pasture
Pigs can be fed grain, but options for supplementing or substituting different sources of nutrition are limited only by the grower’s resourcefulness. Dairy products, for example, are great for supplementing pasture, and cheese makers often need to get rid of whey. Likewise, farmers often have leftover vegetables.
Pigs can clear land as they feed. Put them in a wooded lot, and they will eat the underbrush first and then girdle the trees.
You can also grow crops for hogging down: Grow corn or other grains or beans and let the pigs harvest them themselves.
The amount of feed will depend on the desired production level and the age of the pigs. Older pigs will scavenge better. Kingbird Farm in New York feeds 3.5 pounds of grain for each pound of live weight gain. This adds up to 10 pounds per day for the first 90 days, then 5 pounds per day until slaughter.
A pig’s ability to utilize pasture is related to its age and digestive capacity. Young pigs with higher requirements and a smaller capacity need more concentrated feeds. A full-grown sow that has completed farrowing and suckling its young will have a much lower requirement. Feeder pigs can be raised on just pasture and a good protein supplement milk, for example, although they take about seven or eight months (rather that six months with grain supplementation) to get a finished market weight of 225 pounds. Quality pasture (intensively rotated and with lots of legumes) can reduce grain consumption by up to 60 percent.
Pigs need time to get used to a forage diet, since the variety of bacteria that digests forages must multiply in their gut. Piglets farrowed on pasture will adapt more quickly than animals purchased from a confinement operation. The latter often have different genetics and didn’t have pasture in their diet from birth.
A reasonable goal is 1.5 animal equivalents (1,000 lbs. = 1 animal equivalent, or unit) per acre to allow for some resting of fields. Using intensive rotational management is ideal. Animals are in a paddock for as long as you want them to graze or dig the ground, and then the paddock rests while the pasture grows for about a month, with the time depending on the season and rainfall.
Pigs quickly judge pasture quality. They happily root up poor pasture or wet ground and gladly eat roots if nothing else is available or when roots are easily accessible, so pigs on poor forages or soft ground will have to be moved very quickly, or the ground will be tilled.
Pigs are very useful in multi-species grazing systems. They will consume plant growth around other animals’ manure and will break up or consume the manure. This will almost eliminate the possibility of the other species getting parasites when they return to those pastures.
Pigs eat about 0.8 pounds of hay per day per 100 pounds of body weight during the winter.
Here are some suggestions for maximizing pigs’ feed conversion efficiency (FCE), from Fiona Chambers, a Wessex Saddleback pig farmer friend, from Fernleigh Farms in Australia (www.fernleighfarms.com):
1. Make sure each class of pig gets a ration that meets its protein requirements. To simplify our feeding regime, I mix three classes of feed:
• Weaner – from about one to eight weeks after birth. Also sows with litters from birth until mating.
• Grower – from weeks nine to 16
• Finisher – from week 17 until slaughter at week 20 to 24; and for all other breeding animals
(A fourth class of feed for breeding animals could also be mixed)
2. Don’t feed too much fiber. Unlike a ruminant with four stomachs, pigs cannot digest fiber very well. Some fiber is necessary to aid passage through the digestive tract, but it provides very little food value. If you feed too much fiber – particularly to young animals that have a limit to how much they can eat – the animal can end up stunted because it has not been able to eat sufficient quality feed to meet its basic growth requirements. Grind or roll grain as close as possible to when it is fed to ensure that the grain does not lose much nutritional value through oxidation. This also makes the grain easier for the young animal to digest, so you’re not feeding the local birds as whole grain passes undigested through the pig. I also prefer to feed young animals barley rather than oats or wheat, since it is less fibrous; and I never feed wheat as I also keep horses, and wheat can kill horses if they eat it whole.
3. Provide suitable shelter and housing so that pigs can be warm on cold days or cool on hot days.
4. Provide sufficient feeders so that every animal can access feed without being bullied away. Changing the group size can also help to reduce bullying, but I find it easier to provide more feeders than to fence more areas.
5. Have food constantly available (ad liberatum) for weaners and growers in the first 16 weeks of life (and for sows from farrowing until joining).
6. Restrict feed and reduce the protein level after 16 weeks of life so that animals don’t run to fat.
7. Allow young, rapidly growing pigs access to the most nutritious pastures you have. Pigs cannot use rank grasses with lots of lignin. Pigs cannot digest the thick dry stalks of rank grass, and if they do eat these, their intake of quality feed required for growth will be limited.
Supply plenty of fresh water at all times. Water is necessary for proper digestion, and pigs eating dry feed rations particularly require plenty of water. A 12- to 30-pound pig should have 1 quart per day; a 100- to 240-pound pig, 6 quarts; a lactating sow, 10 quarts.
One key to growing pigs profitably is growing weaners as fast as possible. An animal’s FCE changes throughout its life, and weaners have the greatest capacity to turn food into meat. So, if animals don’t grow quickly in the first eight weeks of life, expensive feed is not being put to best use. Weaner feed or creep feed, which is fed to baby pigs when they are still on their mother, is the most expensive feed because of its high level of protein. Restricting weaner feed or lowering its protein is a false economy; this class of pig must get the best feed to make best use of its natural FCE. Otherwise, you tend to spend the next months trying to play catch up, and the pigs never quite meet their potential. Also remember that even though weaner feed is expensive, pigs don’t eat much at this age.
A. Sundrum and coworkers from the University of Kassel, Germany (J. of Animal Science, May 2000, at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=10834572&dopt=Abstract), showed that animals supplemented with synthetic amino acids tended to grow faster and have a higher muscle to fat ratio and a reduced intramuscular fat content than animals fed a ration without supplemented synthetic amino acids. As intramuscular fat is associated with quality meat, I believe that meat from pigs tastes better when the animals are raised without using synthetic amino acids.
Minerals and salt must be available to all pigs unless they are fed a commercial pig ration. Even then, keep kelp, at least, in a mineral feeder.
If you are going to make your pork into a smoked product, note that soft fat liquefies at room temperature, so lots of fat will be lost in processing and storage. A diet heavy in corn and soy or low in saturated fat will increase soft fat. One way to reduce soft fat is to feed more barley as the grain, and peas with other seeds, such as flax or sunflower, for protein. This is especially important during the last few weeks before slaughter. The less pasture the animals are eating, the more carefully their diet must be balanced.
Many diseases can affect swine, but as with raising all organic livestock, prevention is key. Sound management practices copy the natural environment and provide fresh air, sunshine, freedom to express natural behavior, shelter as needed, healthy feed, PASTURE, variety in the diet, clean water, sanitation and manure management. The major concern for most small-scale hog growers is intestinal parasites, which can be managed with pasture rotation. Never put piglets on ground that infected animals have been on within the past year. If you do need to worm pigs, a good helping of fresh garlic and wormwood powder will do a lot. Provide 1 Tbsp. of each per 25 pounds of animal, in with the feed. Collect a fecal sample from new animals after treating them and from any animals that look unthrifty. Treat and test on the new or full moon, when parasites seem to be more active. Isolate and worm new animals, and keep them in a trailer or in a sacrifice area (an area where other pigs won’t be feeding) for three days.
Piglets need to root in dirt or sod early in life, or they’ll need iron shots. If you clip their needle teeth or castrate them, do it before they are a week old (day one or two is best) to greatly reduce the stress to you, the piglets and the sow.
Piglets benefit greatly from probiotics, and keeping sows of different ages together increases the sows’ immunity, which will be passed to the piglets in the colostrum. The fact sheet, “Raising Organic Livestock in Maine: MOFGA Accepted Health Practices, Products and Ingredients,” is available from MOFGA with more treatment specifics at www.mofga.org/Publications/FactSheets.
Belanger, Jerome D., Raising the Homestead Hog, Rodale, 1977
Glos, Karma, “Organic Pork Production,” 2004, Kingbird Farm Web site, www.kingbirdfarm.com
Morrison, Frank B., Feeds and Feeding, The Morrison Publishing Co., 1949
The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA; www.attra.ncat.org) fact sheets: “Considerations in Organic Hog Production,” “Pork: Marketing Alternatives,” “Hooped Shelters for Hogs” and more.
Pastured Pigs listserve on Yahoo: [email protected]
The Stockman Grass Farmer Pastured Pigs Digest, 1-800-748-9808
Sugar Mountain Farm blog, https://sugarmtnfarm.com/blog/
Sustainable Agriculture Network SARE bulletin, “Profitable Pork, Strategies for Hog Producers,” www.sare.org/bulletin/hogs
About the author: Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. You can contact her at 568-4142 or [email protected].