Why is there no 100% Grass-fed Pork?
Pigs are by nature more adventurous in their dietary choices than cows are sheep. Pigs will graze for a significant amount of their diet, but they also root up grubs and tubers and anything else they can get their snouts on. The gut and metabolism of a pig is significantly different than ruminates like cows and sheep. As a result, for pigs to grow well and stay healthy they need a portion of their diet to be more concentrated than pasture alone. Our pigs eat grass and hay, whey and non-GMO local grain to produce our exceptional pastured pork.
What our customers say
“Just had your bacon for breakfast this morning and was struck by how much more flavorful per bite it was than the store bought variety.” – Kay in Bryn Athyn, PA
“I want to thank you for the quality of the meats. Amazing. I already used up the ground beef and I would like to buy more.” – Adriana in NY
“My friend said that the rib eyes and the top sirloin were probably the best steaks he had ever had – including a $100 steak he had recently had at one of NYC’s top steak houses. And I have to say that I agreed with him. ” – Jamie in Cherry Valey, PA.
Grass is Greener
Industrial, factory-raised pig farms have huge waste disposal problems. Oftentimes there is not enough arable land nearby leading to giant piles of manure that contaminate the local water supply. However, on our farm we practice rotational grazing which improves soil quality and animal health as well as distributes manure over our pastures in need of its nutrients. Win-win!
Our pastured pork is distinct from the pork in your grocery store because our animals exercise, live on pasture, and eat a varied, forage-rich diet. These farming practices produce meat that is more flavorful and more nutritionally dense than the conventionally raised products. Eating lots of plants, rather than grain alone, increases the omega 3 content of the fat; lard from pigs that have been exposed to sunlight is high in vitamin D, while the fat of CAFO hogs contains only negligible amounts.
From the time the weather warms in the spring through the fall our pigs live outside on pasture. Every two days or so we give them fresh ground, which lets them forage for a significant part of their diet, and express the full range of pig behaviors. In the winter they move into hoops bedded with wood chips and hay. Pigs on factory farm by comparison live their entire lives in huge barns, standing on slatted floors, packed so tight they barely have room to lie down.
Want to know more about how we raise pastured pork? Here are the details.
Because pigs are not ruminants, they require a higher quality of forage than cows or sheep, and they also require shade. Supplemental feed of some sort is also “required”. It is possible for some pigs to survive solely on grasses, roots, and other stuff they find in a pasture, but their growth rate is so slow we would need to charge $20/lb for the meat from the super long grow-out period. These extra requirements makes it much more of a chore to move pigs than other types of livestock, but we feel it is worth it both to keep the pigs eating fresh grass and to keep the land healthy.
To go into greater detail it helps to understand a little bit about how pigs work. Pigs are the only (mostly) herbivorous large mammal that have their young in litters. A 500 pound sow can easily give birth to 40+ pounds of babies but because that weight is distributed over many individuals (~2 or 3lbs each) they’re all small and relatively undeveloped. Baby pigs cannot get up and run from danger the way a lamb, calf, or colt can after less than 24 hours. They’re so small that to survive they need to grow very quickly, which they’re genetically programmed to do if their protein and energy requirements are met. These requirements gradually change depending on the size and age of the pig. Starting out from birth they need to suckle on their mother’s milk, which is richer in fats and protein than cow or goat milk. When they’re weaned typically the ration is 20% or more protein. Farmers come to different conclusions about the most cost effective weight at which to ratchet the protein levels down, but at some point below about 100 lbs liveweight the ration shifts down to 16-18%. Then many take it down another notch to 14% until slaughter.
If everything goes smoothly a pig can go from 3 lbs at birth to 350 lbs only 6 months later.
We’ve experimented with various feeding regimens that reduce the total amount of grain we need to feed our pigs to get them to market weight. Most hog farmers feed their pigs with a blend of corn and soy. When mixed in the proper proporations and blended with minerals and vitamins, corn/soy rations can grow out a pig very quickly. Our experiments with alternate feeds attempted to address several issues –
- Tillage – corn and soy are both annuals. They require large ongoing inputs of fertilizer and diesel fuel. They make soil more prone to erosion than perennials.
- Health of the pig – swine didn’t evolve eating grain rich diets. In the wild they’d eat all manner of things – roots, nuts, vegetation, carrion, and all sorts of small bugs and grubs – but not much if any grain. Phytates in seeds affect nutrient availability in the gut (so even if it is in the seed, it might not be available to the animal). Many grains also have irritating substances in them that can cause systemic inflammation.
- Health of the human consumer – grain rich diets can concentrate omega 6 fatty acids in adipose tissue at far higher levels than “wild” type diets do. Omega 6 fatty acids have been linked to inflammation and auto-immune conditions.
In the fall of 2016 we rotated them along the edge of a section of woods, but we were unhappy with the amount of rooting they did. A number of management challenges arose and our rotation was too slow (meaning the pigs spent too long on each piece of ground). They rooted very heavily and some of the trees they dug around will either die or be stunted for years. Parking pigs in the woods has a certain appeal, but if the goal is thriving trees in a few years time, doing this is a bad idea. On the whole it was a valuable learning experience and we were cautious enough in our allocation of land that they didn’t affect a large area or a great number of trees. The current plans calls for moving the pigs straight from pasture into their winter housing situation.
We also are breeding for large mature size. We want the boars from Cairncrest Farm to hit mature weights above 1000 lbs and the sows to consistently surpass 650 lbs live weight.
A second benefit of wallows is that the mud baths the pigs take is good for their skin and helps to prevent sunburn on clear summer days.
One of the primary benefits of pasturing pigs is the way they distribute manure widely. In CAFO barns (confined animal feeding operations, i.e. industrial ag) pig manure collects in lagoons in the basement of the barn. If the ventilation fans in a CAFO barn fail the pigs can die of asphyxiation from the manure gasses the lagoons emit.
During the winter our pigs live in hoop structures bedded with woodchips, hay, and straw. These carbonaceous materials help capture manure stink and stabilize it as fertility for plants rather than off gassing as air pollution – a true win-win!