Here's a tricky riddle someone asked me the other day..."How do you keep the pigs from wrecking your pasture in really wet weather?”
Turns out you can successfully graze pigs on pasture, even when it won't stop raining! Here's what we did at Singing Prairie Farm during the last 11 day stretch with nary a sunbeam in sight.
1. Pay attention to your microclimates. There will be some places on your farm that are more resilient in wet weather than others. The longer you observe your land, the more you will notice the subtleties and nuances of each different corner and location. It's almost like each spot has its own personality. With this in mind, when the real rain set in, we moved our breeding herd (the highest impact group) to an east facing hillside that had not been grazed in 12 months. The slope helps by not allowing water to pool. If you have water pooling somewhere, that place will be very, very sensitive, so long as it is flooded. If the animals tramp around the puddles with their sharp hooves it will no doubt disturb and compact the soil so that it will be unlikely that good perennial grass will grow there next year.
Much like the guys I went to high school with, you might also describe pigs as having a "path of least resistance" mindset. This means they may drink from standing water in puddles rather than the good, clean water of their waterers. This could be a potential vector for disease and parasitism if left for long enough.
Other than the gentle slope, the other factor that helped us out a lot was the fact that the paddock hadn't been grazed for 12 months. All that grass on the surface eventually got laid down flat and acted like a small layer of armor between the sky and the earth. And as we all know, keeping soil covered and protected is one of the hallmarks of increasing those magical and omnipresent micro-organisms that make the whole world keep spinning...
Location can be described as the "broad brush strokes" of management. It's the big picture or Macro element which empowers your smaller, finer brush strokes to yield good fruit in time.
After location comes:
Duration: How long will the animals stay within a given paddock. We try to not leave our animals on longer than 10 days at the very most.
Stocking Rate: How many animals do you have in a paddock? Many beef grazers measure in estimated pounds per acre. I measure mostly by animal per square foot. Our paddocks generally allow about 1,350 square feet per animal. As a point of reference, CAFO's use 10.8 square feet per finishing animal.
Use of nose rings: We ring every weaned pig on the farm with a humane certified nose ring. Much like an electric fence, the nose ring provides a short term negative experience if the animal tries to venture where you don't want it to go. We want our pigs to graze, and not till, the pasture. We manage our pasture to keep grass in its vegetative stage. That is, about 4 to 8 inches in length after grazing. The longer you leave the grass, the quicker it will rebound.
Some farmers seem to be able to get by without nose rings. I don't know how. Every time I try to go without, I end up with a temporarily ruined pasture that looks like it's going to require the Army Corp of Engineers to get grass to grow there again. It is my experience that to be a carbon sequestering pig farmer, I need to ring noses. Heck, I would ring my own nose if I thought it would help sequester carbon!
And lastly, the rotation of feeders and shelters within the paddock. I have found this last detail to be invaluable to the restorative effects of pigs on pasture if the weather is wet or dry. Rotating the feeders and hutches is particularly important during wet weather so the impact is spread evenly throughout the paddock. Without this added labor you end up with mud wallows in the hutches where you don't want them and ruined ground leading up to the door where they walk to the feeders or hutches. For example, in the last 11 days of rain I have moved the feeders and the hutches 22 times. This is not as hard as it sounds. My feeders are Pepsi Cola barrels, sawed in half length wise. I keep these feeders in a long line spaced out about 20 feet apart. Each time I chore the pigs, I nudge the feeders about 5 feet forward with my boots. You can do this with a bucket in each hand fairly easily. The hutches are 8 feet by 6 feet metal sheds built out of what looks like grain bin material. I move these to a patch of fresh grass each chore time when its wet. Every 36 hours when its dry. Our waterers are the least mobile element in our design. They stay in the same place for the entire time that the paddock is being utilized. For that reason, we armor the ground around the drinker with a half sheet of plywood or a few metal barrel lids. Nothing is too fine for pigs you know!
If this seems like a lot of work, don't worry. This little bit of work creates systematic improvement of your farms ability to produce even more grass next year. It will pay dividends in the long run. As early as 4-5 months later you'll have noticeably more grass as a result of your efforts and attention to detail. And what more your pastures will keep getting lusher and greener. You will be sequestering tons of carbon in every acre in the form of organic matter. And as the years tick by, the more you pay attention to those details, the more resilient and self sufficient your farm will become!
John & Holly Arbuckle
Co-Founders, Roam Sticks, LLC
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