Generally speaking, most farming today is based on systems of monoculture—that is to say, the farmer focuses on one thing and grows a lot, whether it’s meat chickens or broccoli, dairy cows or apples. Subsidies are set up to support large-scale operations that focus on just one thing at a time. But monoculture farming is, by very definition, unnatural (nature is the ultimate polyculture), and it could be argued that these unnatural methods have fed the epidemic disconnection from food that leaves us unfazed by cage-raised hens and fields of corn that stretch for miles.
But that’s why we hobby farm, right? We’re not beholden to systems that reward overpacked cattle yards or maximized crop yields—we like growing our own food, and we like farming whatever we want. So, maybe without even meaning to, small farms are often the antithesis of large-scale monoculture farms, in that they often deliberately include a wide variety of animals and plants.
This is certainly the way things have gone on our farm, which we populated with gardens, chickens, pigs and cows within our first few months on site. But while scrolling through Instagram recently, I saw a photo that left me wondering whether we’d missed an opportunity with our chicken yards, cattle fields and pig pastures. The poster had a sheep in the pig yard which is, like, next-level polyculture to me, considering that I farm according to the old Offspring lyric: “You gotta keep ‘em separated.”
And it got me wondering. As we consider bringing some goats onto our farm in the near future, what’s the rule for running pigs with other animals?
Pigs With Chickens
Let’s start with the obvious—if you free-range chickens, they’ll get in with your pigs because they go wherever they want. And it’s a good thing. When a pig roots the soil, it uses its snout as a dish, shoving it into the ground then flipping it over, soil side up. This allows them to access delicious roots, bugs and other subterranean goodies.
Chickens love bugs even more than pigs do, and they’re way better at getting to them. When a pig flips a piece of dirt, chickens are all over it, breaking apart clods, pulling out bugs and spreading the soil around. They also go through feces when pigs drop them, too, thinning it out for quicker decomposition and exposing potential parasites to sunlight.
The downside, though, is that a hungry pig will, on occasion, make a meal out of a yard bird. I’ve seen it happen once, which puts pigs way behind all our predators, but it’s worth noting that it can happen.
Pigs With Sheep & Goats
There are plenty of farmer stories about sheep, goats, pigs and even horses living together as one big, happy family. And it’s true that, on a large piece of land, you probably don’t have to worry about pigs being aggressive to the point of endangering other large livestock (baby animals are another thing, though, so don’t allow births around pigs). But it’s not a good idea to house everything together in pens, just based on the fact that pigs will destroy all the forage in a confined space, leaving your other animals hungry.
Feedings present a challenge, too—each animal has distinct dietary requirements, and one species getting into another’s feed can deprive the animal of necessary nutrients and overexpose it to elements that can cause problems. So if you co-pasture, create individual feeding stations and observe individual feeding times—on-demand feeders don’t work.
Finally, because these animals can carry a lot of common parasites, co-pastured animals need to be on a strict parasite program so that an infection in one species doesn’t spread to all animals sharing the space.
Pigs With Cows
A lot of the previous section applies to cows, but some farmers have found that cattle present a specific benefit to a porcine population—their manure.
Some farmers are in the practice of feeding their pigs cow manure, inspiring a study that found no significant effects, good or bad, save the production of a leaner carcass. Based on the teachings of Joel Salatin, it has become common to have pigs clean out cattle barns after moving cows to pasture.
I don’t plan to put my pigs on a cattle manure diet, but I am interested in the implications the practice presents for the whole co-pasturing thing. While you’d need to be especially careful of pigs’ tendency to destroy pastures, wreck soil structure and starve your cows, the idea that pigs can benefit from cow waste is, at the very least, intriguing.
My Plans Are …
In the end, I don’t see myself intentionally mixing species—raising livestock presents enough challenges, and I suspect I don’t have the time or energy to co-pasture the right way. But for a farmer who already pastures animals separately and is looking for a new challenge, well, there are plenty of people out there who run everything together, so it might be worth trying.