Pigs are known for being low-maintenance livestock. While it’s true that a herd of pigs doesn’t require the same protection and watchful eye that it takes to keep predators away from, say, a flock of chickens, hogs do rely on their farmer-keepers for a somewhat specialized skill set.
Take feeding, for example: Getting food into your hogs’ bellies can be a challenge, even with the animals’ piggish appetites. On my farm, our family did everything wrong at least once, yet we learned during the process to make feeding our hogs easier. Here are a few tips we learned the hard way.
Pigs love to graze on fresh grass; that’s pastured pork, strictly speaking. But pigs will also eat dried grass, or hay, when the weather turns cold and grass goes dormant. While hay does contain fewer calories than hog feed, it makes an excellent supplement, and the meat from hay-fed pigs tastes better and contains higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids.
If you’re inclined to feed hay to your herd, incorporate it at the feeder-pig stage; your animals will probably hesitate to try it, so encourage consumption by tossing some corn or feed in or pouring molasses on top. Leafy hay also contains more protein than lower-quality varieties, so choose bales with legumes mixed in to boost growth rates.
2. Dump the Feeder
Feeder systems conveniently offer farmers the option to fill and forget, as pigs can feed on demand with minimal refills. Unfortunately, bugs, rodents and rainwater often sneak in, spoiling rations and requiring laborious and expensive dumping.
While I’m all for time-saving tips, in this case I recommend a little extra chore time to minimize waste and keep your pigs healthy. Establish feeding times—either twice a day, or at breakfast, lunch and dinner—and simply pour the feed out in a line on a dry piece of earth.
On our farm, we feed twice daily, weighing enough feed for each pig to have a total of 6 to 7 pounds per day. In the past, we tried various commercial and homemade feeders, and we saw every one of them wrecked and dragged around the pasture by playful pigs. After we tried ground feeding, we never went back. We spend important time with our pigs every day, our growth rates are spot on and we waste a lot less feed.
3. Plan Your Land
If you exert the effort to pasture pigs, it makes sense to ensure your animals get as much from your land as it can provide. While weeds and grass add some variety and calories, intentionally planted forage can elevate pigs’ weight and mood.
Plant fruit trees such as apple or persimmon, and silvopasture pigs in forest areas where nut trees are most present; pigs love nuts, and a side dish of acorns makes for some highly flavorful pork. (Search “jamon iberico de bellota” online if you have any doubts.)
Give your pigs plenty to forage for in their pasture, be it grass or woods. This will keep them happy and entertained—an important win, as bored pigs are prone to escape and go for a walk.
4. Water, Water, Water
Part tip, part admonishment—you need to provide your pigs constant access to fresh, clean water. We’ve used halved plastic food-grade bins, a fenced-in pond and a two-sided hog watering-trough (my personal favorite). Someday, I hope to try my hand at making a PVC nipple-watering system.
Many watering options exist, but ultimately you just need to keep your pigs hydrated. Thirst can kill a pig in a short amount of time. In the hot months, check often to make sure your pigs haven’t spilled drinking water to make a wallow (they will); in the winter, also check often to break up frozen water.
5. Mix It Up
If you’re dissatisfied with your growth rate or the quality of your feed-store mix (or you like controlling what happens on the farm and are up for a challenge), you might try crafting your own feed mix. The exact recipe is something to discuss with an extension agent so you can tailor it to your farm’s needs.
In general, pig feed can be made from protein-heavy ground corn and soymeal, then mixed with ingredients such as diatomaceous earth, vitamins and trace minerals (VTM, sometimes sold as “swine grower”), fishmeal, trace mineral salt and sea kelp. The cost savings are dubious, and sometimes it takes some tinkering to dial in the right recipe for your breed and growing conditions. Like bread, butter or beer, though, homemade is often just plain better.