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Grazing Pigs

Garth Brown |

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 -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 -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)?

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.


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