Pastured Pork

Bryn Athyn, PA – Cooperstown, NY – Chestnut Ridge, NY – Long Island, NY – Franklin Lakes, NJ – Parsippany, NJ –

Want to know more about how we raise pastured pork? Here are the details.

We keep our pigs out on pasture for as much of the year as possible. With their propensity to excavate below ground rather than nibble at leaves and the climate of upstate NY this means the pigs are actually out on pasture about six months of the year. From November through April we keep them in shelters not out in the field because the plants there are too susceptible to damage from digging when the ground is soft, and because for four of those months everything is frozen or nearly frozen.

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.

Very briefly we feed pasture, whey, a byproduct of the local dairy industry, and non-GMO grains grown by a neighbor. In the fall and winter we also feed hay once the pasture goes dormant. When it’s available we also occasionally manage to source various types of food products that are at or near expiration. The quality of this food is still good enough to go on a grocery store shelf, but for logistical reasons the company that produced the loaves of bread, cottage cheese, or sour cream cannot get it to market and would rather give it to us than pay for a dumpster to haul it away.

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.

Unfinished —


When it gets cold our pigs move into hoops bedded deep with woodchips, straw, and hay. This is the longest stretch our pigs stay in one place, and it is the aspect of our management that we are most actively trying to improve.

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.

2016 was the first year pigs were born on our farm. In prior years we’d bought weaned pigs from a number of other farms, but too often we were not completely satisfied with the quality of the piglets we ended up with. It is hard to find pigs that have been selected for our goals, particularly grazing, robust constitutions, and efficient forage conversion, we feel breeding our own is the best way to get a reliable source of pigs that will thrive in our management system.
There is a genetic component to flavor, but equally important are feed and age. Feeding a varied, forage-rich diet and raising animals much longer than their factory farmed counterparts ensures that they produce exceptionally rich and flavorful pork.
We purchased weaned piglets of a variety of heritage breeds. In general, these pigs are more suited to the forage-heavy ration and outdoor life than those that have been selected for maximum growth rate. Now we farrow our own pigs and rarely bring new genes into the herd.
Instead of keeping only a single breed, we are selecting pigs that have the traits that will allow them to thrive on our farm, regardless of what they are called. We want pigs that graze more than they root, are docile, have a moderate but consistent rate of growth, and produce the highest quality pork. These qualities are more important to us than maintaining a recognized breed.

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.

To keep comfortable, wallows are critical during the hotter times of year. Pigs only sweat from their noses and their feet. Pigs can’t even come close to shedding heat at the necessary rate during hot days if forced to rely only on these two small areas for sweat exudation.  As they get hotter and hotter they’ll begin to pant, but they’d much prefer to not get heated to the point they need to. Getting damp is the solution they prefer. Rather than providing for their own moisture they seek it out and apply it. Wallows are the result of pigs digging into and lounging in wet spots.

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.

Shade is important for pastured pigs, particularly if the pigs have pale skin. White pigs are susceptible to sunburn much as pale skinned people are. Shade is nice for pigs when they want to cool down, but wallows are more important for regulating body temperature.
Pig poop is variable stuff. When their diet is comprised largely of corn and soy the resulting manure smells truly awful. When the ration is mostly pasture plants, hay, and whey, the odors that waft off are actually less offensive than cattle manure.

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!

Normandy AldenPastured Pork