Grazing Pigs

I don’t have any photos of my pigs grazing. They mostly rooted when I rotated them around the pasture last year and there is still snow on frozen soil here today. For a whole host of reasons I don’t like bare dirt, and the pigs I have now are quite skilled at creating it. I have plans for the coming season about how I’m going to manage their rooting behavior, but primo among the strategies is to search for pigs that exhibit a desire to graze. I believe grazing ability is heritable in swine. If I search widely enough I ought to be able to find some that will show more desire to eat above ground vegetation than the group from 2014 did. It took a while, but my current pigs did learn to eat hay in substantial volumes. There is hope they’ll carry that experience over to consumption of fresh grass,  even though I’m not counting on it. And I’m not expecting to find pigs that never root. I’d like it, but I think it would be foolish to expect. In my dream of dreams someday I’ll have pigs that graze placidly on clover rich pastures.

I want my pigs to eat a lot of forages for the flavors they impart to the meat. During the growing season that means I want my pigs to graze. Of course it’s possible to keep pigs inside year round and haul feed to them, but that management style doesn’t meet my holisitic goal for this farm nor does it appeal to me on a quality of life perspective. I want to work with animals that have the space they need to express their various behaviors, and I believe that means they need to be outside moving to fresh ground regularly (every day or two) during the growing season.

Here are fascinating photos I lifted from the web, if you’re like me and think grazing pigs are extremely interesting –FireShot Capture - Towers of Ushguli in Svaneti, Georgia_ - http___www.slate.com_blogs_atlas_obs

Those two pigs are in the nation of Georgia, on the outskirts of a roadless village. I’m quite certain the fact that there is no road and it is mountainous means that they do not get much of a grain supplement. I suspect they get garden and kitchen scraps, but no balanced ration.

And here is another image from Spain where those famous hams come from – Grazing Iberico - http___cdn.pura-aventura.com_images_

Notice how neither of the grass swards are torn up? Notice how they’re all grazing? Notice how long-legged both sets of pigs are? Notice how skinny the pigs are? See how small the Svaneti pigs are (below)? Do you wonder how old those pigs are (I do)?

Wooley pigs


My series of questions are all directed ultimately at farm economics. There are various people around the USA who claim to have raised pigs from weaning to market weight on “pasture” alone. I don’t know of anyone who claims to raise grass-fed pork generation after generation. Forcing a sow to lactate for a litter of piglets without any supplement might work breifly, but chances are her condition would run down and it would be difficult for her to get pregnant again until she regained lost weight. The protein level in her milk would be lower than a supplemented sow, so her offspring would get a poorer start to life… all in all I think it would be a hard row to hoe to go 100% grass-fed with pigs. That’s not to say I think it would be impossible to do. I think it probably is possible to breed pigs capable of thriving and reproducing on forages alone, particularly if the farmer in question is good at putting up dairy-quality baleage. The more salient question for my situation is whether it is possible and profitable. I think the production of pigs from generation to generation on pasture/hay alone would require that I charge insanely high prices for pork, or to operate at a significant financial loss year after year.  The sows would need to have small litters at wide intervals. The pigs would grow more slowly than their conventional peers, they’d be skinny and therefore poorer eating for large parts of the year, which would make for fewer repeat customers… All in all I think a grass-fed pig is an interesting idea, but not one I feel called to pursue.

In the fairly near future I’m going to begin breeding my own pigs. I plan to push the genetics of my pig herd toward better and better utilization of forages, but I don’t envision going supplement free. There is a lot of room for “improvement” of pigs under my management style since most other hog farms don’t have the same breeding goals I do. I hope you’ll keep checking back on my blog here over the years to see how my journey with pigs goes.


Photo Credit – opening photo, Normandy Alden. The web photos have credits attached, but I could not figure out who to attribute the middle picture to.


Edmund BrownGrazing Pigs

Comments 8

  1. Bob Burkinshaw


    Yes, I certainly plan on checking back to see how your journey with pigs goes. We are moving to acreage in eastern Ontario next month and I hope to start raising pigs as soon as is reasonably possible. I appreciate your analytical and thoughtful approach to pasture-raising and supplemental feed. My hope is to base the pigs diets as much as possible on pasture and hay but hope to have access to whey, apples, nuts, vegetables and other good things from both our land and the farms and businesses in the area.


    1. Post
      Edmund Brown

      Hi Bob,
      I wish you the best with your porcine adventures. If you plan to raise enough pigs to sell meat (as opposed to just home consumption) you’ll need to watch your costs. Good quality hay can cost almost as much as hog ration at times and pigs grow a lot slower on hay than they do on seeds.

      If you’re going to feed hay as a large portion of their ration I recommend sourcing the highest quality you can find. And make sure it’s haylege or baleage, not dry hay. In my experience they eat a lot more of it when it’s already a little fermented.

      Also, do you have any pasture management experience? I had cattle for years prior to taking on pigs. I therefore had a sense of what really good pasture looks like, where on my land the fertility is lowest/highest, etc. Pigs are still very much a work in progress for my management plan. I guess I’m just trying to caution you to take in little steps, don’t jump in ‘whole hog’ with tons of pigs all at once. Not that anything you’ve written gives me the impression this is your plan…

      1. Bob Burkinshaw

        Thank you for your advice, Edmund. I appreciate it. Yes, I plan to start small, 6 pigs or fewer the first time. Once we have moved there (we currently live across the country on the west coast but are moving in several weeks), I plan to visit the local small scale cheese factories, brewery, apple orchards and cidery in the area to enquire about sourcing free pig food.

        We have plenty of pasture but it was abandoned for many years so it will take time to improve. I don’t have much experience with pasture management but am reading a lot about it. Our son, who will be joining us in the farming enterprise, knows grasses and pasture better. From what I see, there is some good clover and trefoil there but the larger weeds dominate. We may need to assist the pigs at first by mowing the more vigourous weeds and grasses to expose the clover, trefoil and grasses to the sunlight. Or maybe acquire some goats to help remove the brush and weeds. But we will wait and see what the pigs like and how they respond. It may be that I will be happy if the pigs root a fair bit for the first while so that we can sow more of the seeds that we want.

        If we do well with pigs and have worked out the food issues, I would consider breeding. Have even toyed with the idea of acquiring breeding stock from Walter Jeffries but border regulations and quarantine issues may make that too difficult. A number of farmers within an hour or two of here advertise ‘pasture-raised pork’ so I may find a good local source of pigs which are bred to do well on a diet with a significant amount of pasture.

        I don’t know a lot about haylege but certainly will look for it. One potential source of bedding and food that intrigues me is the ‘mountains’ of oak, beech and maple leaves and mast that people in the cottages near our property haul miles to the county composting area. Some even pay people to come in and remove it. I am intrigued with the idea of using all of that as fall/winter deep bedding for the animals. I am hopeful that most of the neighbours would enjoy the idea of dumping it in a designated area on our land rather than haul it for miles. My thought is that the leaves would be adequate to absorb their waste but that the pigs would enjoy rooting through it looking for acorns and beech nuts etc.

        I will continue to consult your blog to gain further insights and ideas.


        1. Post
          Edmund Brown

          I think getting leaves and incidental mast from neighbors is a great idea. I suspect it would make reasonable bedding. You’ll need to figure out a way to store a pile off to the side “dry” and then feed it into their wintering area bit by bit as needed. If you dump it in all at once the pigs will have fun with the pile of leaves, but it won’t last nearly as long (they’ll compact it and pee/poo on it). They need fluffy, dry-ish material to nest into when it’s really cold.

          1. Post
            Edmund Brown

            Of course you could use the leaves as a starter course wherever you winter the pigs. Then just keep piling “hay” on through the winter. That’s what I did with woodchips instead of lawn waste.

  2. Bob Burkinshaw

    I hope to get enough leaves for 2 big piles, in addition to the initial bedding. One pile kept dry under a large tarp (until we get our big hoop house up. Something like Walter Jeffrey’s, but not so big) from which to top up the bedding (along with their excess hay) and another large pile outside their shelter for them to root around in. We hope for a great deal of compost from this b/c the site where we are building our house has thin soil so we want the composting leaves to build the soil. I don’t think that it should be a problem to get that many leaves, given the number of neighbours with 1/2 acre properties covered in large, mature hardwood trees and the propensity of many to go to great lengths to try and get rid of every single last leaf.

    At least that is the theory. We’ll see how close reality ends up being to the theories.

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