Pasture pigs bring home the bacon

Ross Duffield was raised on a Pennsylvania dairy farm and is now raising rare cross-breed pigs at the Rodale Institute.  |  Rodale Institute photo

GUELPH, Ont. — Ross Duffield’s farm-raised pragmatism led him to adopt confinement housing strategies in pastured-pig production systems at the Rodale Institute.

Four years ago, Duffield was hired as farm manager at the Pennsylvania research farm. Two years ago, he led work to complete a 96-by-40-foot, fabric-covered housing facility surrounded by eight acres of pasture.

It has an overhead feeding system, central alleyway for people and loading, piped water, concrete floors and sidewalls, a sloped bedding area, a manure area along the sidewalls and access for a skid loader for manure removal.

“It takes three to five hours to clean the barn out and you only have to do it twice a year,” Duffield said.

Pigs are not confined in the building other than for short periods during farrowing. They have outdoor access year round.

“I had the pigs grazing up to about four weeks ago,” Duffield said, speaking at the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario workshop here Jan. 27.

The building cost about $200,000 and is being used for a farrow-to-finishing operation with five active sows, Duffield said. Sales are direct to premium markets, such as high-end restaurants.

“Over a 20-year period, you could pay that off with 100 pigs a year, at a hanging weight price of $4 a pound.”

That works out to an annual profit of $10,000 a year and sales also pay for labour. As a finishing operation, Duffield feels as many as 200 hogs could be accommodated within the eight acres.

With a larger housing unit and additional acres, production could be increased.

The pigs remain outside most of the time. The building, which features guillotine gates along both sides, allows the animals to be directed to six different paddocks.

Training to electric fencing is necessary and begins at a young age.

With their sows in tow, piglets are allowed into an area where a single strain of electrified fencing, three inches from the ground, is backed up with a woven-wire perimeter.

When shocked, the natural instinct for pigs is to jump forward, Duffield said.

Since they’re blocked by the perimeter fence, they tend to get shocked again. It’s a lesson that remains with them for the rest of their days.

“Once the pigs are trained, they will follow the lanes to the pastures.”

Pigs, like people, are monogastric.

“It’s difficult to raise pigs on pasture when they’re young but later on they become surprisingly adept at harvesting it,” Duffield said.

Feed efficiency improves when an animal reaches about three and a half months of age when their cecum, an extension of their digestive system, has matured. Duffield has found pigs will turn down the grain-based ration that’s supplied in favour of pasture, depending on its quality.

Sows are farrowed twice a year with the timing scheduled to take advantage of the pastures. Piglets are weaned at five to eight weeks, depending on how long their sows will put up with them. Eye teeth are not clipped. Hogs are finished at about seven months of age.

“Keeping the piglets with their mothers is where they pick up their traits. If you have a mother that’s good on pasture (its) piglets tend to be good on pasture as well.”

There is a mix of permanent and temporary pasture types at Rodale. The typical stocking rate is one pound of animal per sq. foot of pasture per day. The pigs are moved often, typically every five to seven days.

“Pigs will destroy your land if you let them and they can do it very quickly,” Duffield cautioned.

Pasture types change by season.

Duffield suggested winter triticale, wheat, rye or barley in the fall, perhaps mixed with Austrian winter peas, for early spring pasture.

In late spring and early summer, field peas, oats and spring barley or triticale are recommended.

Late summer forages include pearl millet, cow peas, grazing corn and alfalfa. Duffield noted that while weeds are undesirable, they’re also food for pigs.

For fall and winter forage, Duffield recommended radish, beets, turnips, oats and wheat. He’s found a mix of brassicas and small grains also works well. For perennial pasture, he suggested alfalfa, ladino and red clovers with a forage brassica, such as canola, kale or collards. Trefoil, grasses and chicory are also possibilities.

Pigs feed on perennial pasture directly and pasture mixes are also baled and wrapped for winter feed.

The pigs also get treats, such as unmarketable pumpkins and other waste vegetables from the farm.

Heritage breeds not suited to confinement systems can be a good fit for pasture-based systems.

Duffield said there are two main types: grazers and rooters.

Rodale is home to a variety of breeds. He plans to bring in a Tamworth boar to produce hogs with less fat. While purebred lines are important to maintaining the heritage breeds, hybrid vigour supports productivity.

Duffield’s management philosophy boils down to providing animals with clean water, good ventilation, adequate space, dry bedding and access to pasture and bare earth. Wallowing is allowed at the farm, within limits.

“In the four years I’ve been at the institute, we’ve only had the vet out twice.”

Along with providing the basics, it’s important to understand your animals, Duffield said. Pigs are intelligent creatures that will recognize when a patient handler is trying to help them.

Although certified organic, producers are required to use all available medications as necessary in the event that an animal falls ill.

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