The maxim “pigs cannot eat grass” has never been adequately explained to my pigs. Maybe they are rebels — black and red porcine pirates chowing down the ocean of green grass that they swim through. Maybe they live to confound agricultural experts. Maybe they delight in doing what is expected to be impossible. Or perhaps they are just carefree opportunists, filling their bellies from a great diversity of feedstuffs which nature (through the guiding efforts of their farmer) provides.
Of the many strategies we have employed over the last five years, my old standby has been grazing permanent pasture. Whether you choose to reduce your grain ration or not, this will be the foundation of your pasture-based pig operation: Taking care of your permanent pasture by way of rotational grazing.
Like many topics, pasture management is as simple or as intricate as we make it. Books have been written on this topic and we will not pursue it to the smallest fractal of knowledge here. In the broadest of brush strokes, we may start by saying animal impact on your pasture can be positive (soil- and grass-building) or negative (soil- and grass-harming).
Beyond that statement, though, we find a rather fluid world of timing. Creating positive animal impact on a pasture system is sort of like baking cookies: Take them out too quick and you don’t get what you were imagining. Leave them in too long and you’ve made a mess that will take some time to clean up.
Encouraging grass production through animal impact is much the same.
Our basic unit of pork production is 12 pig groups. These groups are pastured in paddocks that are 50 meters by 30 meters. These are generally rectangular with step-in fence posts every 10 steps (roughly 10 meters).
We place three open-ended pig hutches in the paddock with the pigs. These structures have a curving metal roof, 4-by-4 wooden runners, and no floor. These hutches serve as rain and sun shelters and are moved every day within the paddock. This is done to ensure we do not over impact the grass under them and under impact the grass in other places — we simply line them up side by side and pull them forward 6 feet by hand each evening.
The same care is taken of where we feed the pigs. Yes, pigs will eat copious amounts of grass, but unless you have excellent genetics, you will still need to supplement with something. That something can be apples, pears, food scraps, pumpkins, turnip greens, broccoli or cabbage stems, old tomatoes, watermelons, waste dairy and eggs, etc.
We still keep several barrels of grain on hand for when Mother Nature throws us a curve ball or for when time is just running short.
Wherever you feed you homestead pigs will need to change, as the pigs will grub the grass down pretty hard where you feed them. The one object that does not move until the paddock is rotated is the waterer.
In order to minimize impact here, we put the water source in a corner (so they have a hard time pushing it around without touching the fence) and place it on top of an old sheet of plywood. Without the plywood, they will splash water out just for fun and then stamp a mud hole, which will grow less nutritious weeds next year.
It takes between 3 and 5 days for a group of 12 pigs to impact the 1,500 square meters in a positive way.
If you succeed in managing your pigs in this way for perhaps 5 months after weaning, you may notice strange things happening on your farm the next year: The grass might be twice as thick. You might notice more wildlife utilizing this richer environment. Perhaps you will feel quite clever, knowing that you have sequestered enough carbon to make a small difference in the world.
But this much I will promise you — when you sit down to breakfast and find a sizzling plate of bacon in front of you, there will be a sense of satisfaction there that is hard to find at the store.John Arbuckle aims to change the trajectory of modern pig farming by demonstrating that a thinly wooded pasture, when managed well, can sequester tons of carbon, support lots of family farmers, create the most nutritionally dense pork and nurture an army of coyotes, owls, frogs, worms, bobcats and happy children. Find him at Roamsticks and Singing Prairie Farm, and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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