We haven’t had much time to blog this winter, but we are excited and getting ready for a good year! With our second year on new ground ahead, more veggies, more pigs, and a new CSA, a lot has happened in the past year. If you haven’t started following us on Instagram yet, ( @grocefamilyfarm ) then you’ve probably missed out on a lot of it. After having finished out 19 pigs, and with our plans to double that this year, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about what our hog operation looks like throughout the year:
First, in the spring we acquire our feeder pigs. This is basically just a pig born and weaned on someone else’s farm. We get them from a few different sources who raise the kind of heritage, pasture loving genetics that we look for. The breeds we’ve brought onto our farm so far are: Berkshire, Large Black, Duroc, Gloucester Old Spot, Tamworth Berkshire cross, Duroc Berkshire cross, and Duroc Old Spot cross. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages, both in terms of how they interact with our farm and growing practices, and how their pork turns out. And to add complexity to it all and there is plenty of genetic variation within a sibling group of pigs, to say nothing of unrelated pigs of the same breed. Suffice it to say, we are keeping our eye out for pig breeders who we want to work with in the future, and which genetics we will want to incorporate when we do end up breeding our own hogs one day.
Once on our farm, we typically put them in our piglet shed. This is where we can quarantine them, keep a good eye on them, keep them out of any inclement weather while they are still small, and most importantly, train them how to respect electric fence. Once they get a good idea that this one tiny strand of white wire is a painful and severely frustrating thing to encounter, they respect it, and avoid it for life (hopefully). While there is some pain (I know, as I’ve accidentally touched it many times!) it is more startling than painful, and because the charger produces a high voltage but an extremely low amperage, the feeling goes away quickly.
The benefit of this type of fencing, however, outweighs the costs by far. It allows us to be more flexible with where and when we move animals (for the benefit of livestock and ecosystem management), with more success, and at a fraction of the expense of permanent fencing. Pigs, and other livestock living in confinement encounter way more disease and parasite pressures, almost requiring hard concrete floors, the regular use of antibiotics and chemical dewormers and other medications. They have zero access to a varied natural diet of pasture and tree crop forages, they get less sun, less exercise, and just have a less joyful life. They are basically unable to express many of their natural traits and behaviors. Because of this electric fencing, our pigs are able to keep moving from one appropriate pasture/forested area to another every few days. We take animal handling really seriously. What this means practically is that we organize our schedules and infrastructure so that the place where the animals want to be happens to be the same place that we want them to go. Patience and planning go a long way toward stress free moves, loading, and handling.
If they did not move, they would eventually turn their pasture into a barren feed lot. This frequent moving of livestock across the landscape with the aid of electric fencing is a process that best mimics the movement of wild animals across broader swaths of land (something that has been happening very productively on land for a long time, and that is present in every healthy terrestrial ecosystem). The animals eating, stomping, manuring, and peeing on the land, and then leaving it to rest for a period of time is the best way to get our farms to emulate natural prairie, forest and savannah ecosystems. And it is the best way to build soil, sequester carbon, and promote ecological diversity on a broad swath of damaged, desertifying, ecologically barren farm land.
Once trained to the fence we get them onto the pasture and start moving them around. Pigs are mono-gastric omnivores, not poly-gastric herbivores like cows. So they can’t convert grass to meat with the effectiveness of other farm animals. But they can utilize it some, as well as other things in the field: grubs, worms, roots, shoots, mice, vegetable garden waste, nuts, fruit, and just about anything else you can imagine would be in a pasture or forest. We do provide them a non-GMO grain ration. But when selecting pigs, our biggest requirement is that it be a breed that likes to forage, root and graze.
Once they get close to 250 lbs (after about seven months on our farm), we start feeding them in our livestock trailer, and then shut the door behind them one day; one bad day after a good life in a beautiful place.
If you have any questions about our animals, their life, or anything else, just let us know. We are in between periods of time where we have a full slate of pork products available, but we should have a full pork store up and ready to go by mid May.