Outdoor pigs present few problems

ROSEMARY, Alta. – After a year of raising pigs on pasture, Greg and Bonnie Spragg would never switch to a confinement system.

They learned about free range pigs at an Alberta Agriculture seminar. Then they bought 85 weaners for their small farm near Brooks and turned them out to pasture last May.

“We didn’t realize how easy it would be to take them outside,” said Bonnie.

Most were white Landrace-York cross pigs from confinement systems. They started on an alfalfa diet in an open barn and once they adjusted to a forage ration, they were released on a 10 acre pasture with shelters, self feeders and electric fences.

“They were a little overwhelmed because it was warmer in the sun. I had to teach them how to drink out of a pig waterer,” Greg said.

Within two days the hogs formed mud holes for rolling and learned to seek shade when the sun started to burn their white skins.

Pigs don’t bloat like cattle, so they can manage a diet of straight alfalfa.

The pigs cleaned up quack grass and kochia weed as well as tame alfalfa pasture. They rooted up the field so well that when a new forage is planted this spring, the seedbed is already well worked and manured.

That first batch lived outdoors until this January where they burrowed into straw bedding on the coldest days.

The Spraggs artificially bred 24 gilts of which 22 became pregnant, averaging eight piglets per litter.

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These litters were born indoors in March and April in individual stalls where the new mothers look after their piglets on a bed of straw. Each stall has a heat lamp and mini shelter for the piglets. The weanlings will likely go outdoors by mid-May for the first fresh flush of grass.

The pigs do not require much labour and Bonnie can manage while Greg is at work.

“It’s an hour a day and then I go to my town job,” said Greg.

They do not medicate the animals or dock tails. Illness is treated but they found the challenge is catching the sick pig to administer care. Handling pigs on pasture takes some knowledge. A producer needs to know how to move pigs and load them.

“If you don’t have experience, you are asking for trouble. You need to know pig behaviour and watch your animals,” said Greg, who worked in a confinement barn for three years. They did not have coyotes last year but are considering adding a llama to the pasture to guard the pigs this year.

Information comes mostly from internet chat rooms where they learn more from others who raise pigs outdoors. Most of their contacts are with American producers, since few Canadians are raising pigs outdoors on a large scale.

Selling the pork has been easy. The Spraggs can ship to traditional packers or privately to customers interested in free range pork.

“If we could supply 20 pigs a week now, we could sell them,” Bonnie said.

One butcher buys hogs from them and sells from his shop. They market the rest on their own.

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“We’re eliminating the middleman. The consumers are getting the pork at the same price as the butcher shops are selling it,” said Bonnie.

As small producers, the Spraggs feel they can fill niche markets. Large hog farms are not interested in separating 20 pigs a week for a small town butcher or specialty sales to individuals. Producers like the Spraggs are willing to sell small amounts. If market prices drop, they can hold animals back or delay breeding programs.

After one year they are evaluating their plans.

First, they plan a spring and fall farrowing to meet market requests. They want to try rotational grazing to extend their pastures.

They were told 20 weanlings per acre of pasture is sufficient but since their land is irrigated, they estimate more pigs could go out in a rotational grazing system.

They feel 100 sows are manageable. That number could provide enough income for Greg to give up his job in Brooks.

The Spraggs think their herd will be at capacity within three years. They are selecting gilts for mothering ability and hope to have a closed herd within that time by raising their own replacements.

“They should get better and better in terms of withstanding the conditions and farrowing in box stalls,” said Bonnie.

They are not yet ready to start farrowing outside.

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“The plan is to eventually put them out in the pasture and let them go. But we have to find those with mothering ability,” Greg said.