Spring is here, and we’ll soon be over our heads in grass! And we want to make the most of every bit of it, using our skills—and our animals—to put pasture to the best use on our farms and homesteads.
Ruminants are out there turning grass into milk and meat already, but what about the pigs? Let’s find the best ways we can use pigs to increase food (and fertility and sustainability) for the whole farm.
As omnivores, pigs can find a lot to eat on a diversified small farm or homestead. In fact, if you let them, they’ll eat almost everything. So keeping them under control is the first step to managing pigs to benefit the whole farm.
Pasture Means Plants
It used to be common to see pigs pastured (or “pastured”) outside in large permanent pens or paddocks. We still see it sometimes here in Appalachia. It’s easy to spot, because the whole area will be completely bare of living plants.
Bare soil in dry weather, churned mud in wet—a pig lot of this kind can’t supplement the pig’s diet. Nothing’s growing! And manure dropped here doesn’t get taken up by plants or the soil. It ends up washing into the nearest stream or smelling up the neighborhood.
Good pasture practices and modern portable fencing have gone a long way to changing all that. With reels of polytwine and some step-in posts, we can use one or two strands of hot fence to hold adult pigs where we want them, for how long we want them there.
Piglets are better controlled with electric netting. In either case, paddock shifts can be made relatively easily.
All in the Timing
Periods of fast growth—typically spring and fall here in Appalachia—can be ideal times for running the pigs across the pasture.
When pastured pigs move quickly over an area of grass, weeds or brush, they can find food without devastating the landscape. Meanwhile, manure lands where it will be incorporated into the living soil. Forage recovers quickly, allowing for more passes in a season.
Running pigs directly after ruminants can be an especially good system. The ruminants get first choice of forage, while pigs following them can utilize even the ruminant manure.
Late fall, after most or all growth has stopped, can be a good time for a little pig pressure, too. After that all-grass steer moves to the freezer and you’re thinking about tidying up the pasture (all those tall, woody perennial weed stems look so raggedy!) you might consider letting the pig do the job for you.
Much of this plant matter has food value for a pig. In any case, that big, lumbering body is going to knock over a lot of what it doesn’t eat.
Of course, there are times when pig impact is not what we are looking for on our pastures. When forage grows slowly, you may need to reserve grazing for the animals who need it most—the ruminants. For these periods of high demand/low production, it may be time to bring the pasture to the pigs.
Keeping soil impacts season-appropriate is vital. Wet soil is easily churned up by a rooting pig. Any spot where pigs choose to wallow grows compacted and swampy.
In any wet season, holding pigs off the pasture until soil firms up should take priority.
Cut & Carry
But wet weather doesn’t have to mean that your pastured pigs can’t be ‘grass-fed’! Cutting plants and bringing them to the pig pen is a quick chore for us (and is only seasonal in any case). Moreover it lets us make more efficient use of what grows.
We can mow areas of less choice or most abundant forage. On our farm that would be large patches of Japanese knotweed and jewelweed (summer), or amaranth (it’s even called ‘pig weed’ around here’), and ragweed (fall), to name just a few. We then carry these plants to the pig pen, which works on weed control, pasture improvement and bacon-building all at the same time.
In the end, the choice to pasture or pen a pig isn’t a one-time decision. Pig-rearing practices should vary with the fluctuation of season, forages and other pig food sources. Nature never stops changing, and the homesteader should always be alert to make the most of what her farm can offer.