How does it feel to be outsmarted by an animal? Really, we think we are so smart (at least I do) but it’s always humbling to have an animal outsmart you or see right through your apparently transparent façade. This is how life with pigs can be.
My first hands on experience was accumulated while I was at Polyface, where I had the special opportunity to take charge of the pastured pig operation on the farm and orchestrate the moving, feeding, and overall monitoring of the several hundred pigs that were under my care.
It was awesome.
Pigs quickly became my favorite animal on the farm. Why? They are smart. It takes brains and steadfast management to care for them correctly in the format of pastured pork (how it was played out at Polyface, anyway). I also knew that my parent’s property, where I was planning on returning and starting up a family farm, is a savanna terrain that consists of a variety of oaks — an acorn smorgasbord during certain seasons of the year.
My mind’s eye could see pigs running here and there eating to their hearts content and building some of the tastiest meat I could ever have the luxury of eating. I also knew that pigs would be a good middle ground animal that could bring a delightful variety of product I could offer my consumers, and wouldn’t carry the higher startup costs that cows would (considering the price of animals as well as infrastructure).
Also bacon. Never forget bacon.
So, pigs became my favorite, and I decided to get going with pigs once I finished at Polyface, learned what Joel Salatin and co. had to offer, and headed home. I have since returned to Northern California, started up the farm, and have a healthy assortment of animals under my management. I want to focus on the pigs for now though, because I have had people ask me what lessons I have learned going into working with pigs and what my procedure was for getting my pig operation up and running.
It is also important to note that I have planned from the beginning to start small, verify my market, my margins, and then grow accordingly. My first year would consist of small animal numbers and then I would ramp up once I was established.
So here’s my line of thought on it all. If this is helpful to you, awesome. If it’s not, then thanks for reading anyway. First, I will say again what I have said before: do what works best for you in your environment. I would tell anyone to listen to advice and learn what they can, but ultimately what worked for Joel and me back east doesn’t always work for me in California. And what works for me won’t work the same for my buddy in Indiana. Or my farmer friend in Tennessee.
You get the point.
For my situation, I knew that I only had X amount of startup capital and that would dictate somewhat the amount of animals that I could purchase and the infrastructure that would go along with it. You know where you stand in that regards, and if you don’t, than sit down and figure it out before you buy a single animal. I also knew that I have plenty of land to work with (well over a hundred immediately accessible acres) and I would be able to rotate animals without crowding each other during my first year.
I needed to find a good source for pigs, and that’s not always as easy done as it is said. I wanted to run one larger group all together, but knew that I wanted to keep my first group to roughly 15 pigs (average group size I was used to working with being between 30-50). To ensure a cohesive unit and prevent fighting, I wanted to get all the pigs at once and, if possible, from the same source.
I found a fine farrower (say that five times fast….no, really, try), talked with him a couple times, and then went and checked out his operation. This is an important step that I would recommend to everyone. Visit the farm your pigs are coming from. Check it out. Ask questions. Find out what they have been eating, have they had any shots (if that matters to you), what sort of dispositions do the mothers and fathers have, how have they been managed, is it a good clean looking organization or is it just chaos that will lead to a crazy group of pigs that you then have to deal with. All of these little things played into my buying decisions.
After I got my little piggy’s home, I let them settle down for a couple days and acclimate in a hog-wire pen, and then I introduced electric netting to their world.
I put much thought into the format of electric containment I would employ with the pigs. At Polyface, I was working almost exclusively with 12.5-gauge electric wire that we would run in permanent paddocks. I knew that I planned on getting to that form of fencing eventually, but for the size group that I was starting with I wanted to try using the Premiere Electric poultry netting (I became very familiar with this stuff at Polyface).
The netting can sometimes be difficult to keep a nice good spark running through (especially in the hot summers of California with very dry dirt) so I helped offset this with a more powerful charger. I bought several lengths of the 164-ft electric poultry netting, and started the little pigs in two connected nets at a time, moving them once or twice a week. As the pigs grew, I moved up to three connected nets at a time.
Something to think about is how much time you want to spend with your pigs. It is important to keep them respectful of you (after all, these are animals that get to be several hundred pounds of muscle and they could injure you without even meaning to in some cases) but it is very beneficial to have the pigs familiar with you. I like to train my pigs to come to the sound of my voice, which makes moving them much easier; if they should ever get out (it’s probably going to happen sooner or later no matter how hard you work to prevent it) they can come to my call.
Also, checking on them every day makes sure that I’m able to monitor them for any lice/unwanted pests. I am able to act at the first sign of problems and catch things before they become big issues.
Find good feed. I started my first group of pigs off with a lower quality of Organic feed, but it wasn’t making the cut and the pigs didn’t like to eat it all. After a bit, I decided to go with a different provider and I have been very happy with the results. This is another reason to be checking on your pigs and monitoring them. Watch what they eat, what they don’t, and how they physically respond to the feed that they are provided.
And have fun. Pigs are amazing animals that, when properly managed, can go a long way in helping to grow soils and benefit the land. I have seen my pigs help to aerate my soil (that’s a good part clay and rock), as well as improve water retention — and I’m early on in the use of pigs on the land I use. I can’t wait to see what happens long term. With more water retention, captured carbon matter, and strategic disturbance, will I see a greater soil fertility that’s followed by greater plant diversification? Will this create an upwards cycle that’s improving this piece of land, which will than support a greater number of animals who will then be used in the same methods of further improvement?
I don’t know. But that’s the plan, and I’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, go make friends with a pig (the animal variety).
Interested in seeing more of what Tim Rohrer does? Follow along through the lens of his camera on Instagram, username FullBarnFarms, or on Facebook at Full Barn Farms. And read all of Tim's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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