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The Low-Grain/No-Grain Pig

Garth Brown |

In the paleo diet world much is made of the essential fatty acids omega 6 and omega 3. In case you don't read Mark's Daily Apple assiduously, these fats are found in plants and animals. The term "essential" means that humans must ingest them because we physiologically cannot produce them. It is therefore essential that our diets include them. The concern among paleo adherents is that seeds oils are predominantly omega 6s, and while we need some 6, it is also important that they be provided in the proper proportion with omega 3s. Too much of one, coupled with a paucity of the other, can elicit inflammation, weight gain, and other health ills. The ratio of these fats in grass-fed animals is typically between 3:1 and 1:1, and this is used as the rationale for the advice that humans aim for a similar ratio in their food choices. Modern Americans often have 6:3 ratios pushing 20:1. From what I've read, bumping the omega 3 content upwards in an attempt to balance out the ratio does not work well for fixing health problems. Limiting seed oils is the recommended method to adjust the ratio toward a better balance. That means no veg oil deep fried snacks (e.g. potato chips, french fries, etc), no crisco, no processed foods with corn, cottonseed, canola, soybean, or other seed oils. Once those things are in place the last major source of omega 6 imbalance comes through what you eat ate. Poulty and pig rations are mostly corn/soy, and their fats reflect it. "Conventional" beef also gets a corn rich ration for several months prior to slaughter. This skews the fat produced heavily towards the omega 6s, which, so the argument goes, is unnatural. Upon further reflection, it is also unnatural for swine to consume large volumes of seeds. Wild boar eat a lot of vegetation, worms, grubs, and whatever other small creatures and carrion they find. They don't harvest plant seeds and use them as staples. I think a pretty good case can be made for the fact that pig generations are short and we've selected for enough hundreds (thousands) of years that they are now well adapted to a seed based diet. It's possible. But if the concern is one of human health and reducing omega 6 intake, then it doesn't matter if swine are adapted to corn because humans are ill adapted to corn fattened pork. One of my long term goals is to get samples from my pork analysed for these fats and their ratios. It costs hundreds of dollars to do that though, and I'm new to pigs, so I haven't done it yet.

I try to manage my animals as "naturally" as I can. By "naturally" I mean giving them access to the out-of-doors, fresh pastures, space enough to do what they want, no routine antibiotics or hormones, provision of foods they're adapted to. With the cows this is pretty straightforward, and in many cases less is more. Meaning, the fewer things I do to insert myself into the herd, the better and "more natural" it is, the one big exception being the daily allotment of grass during the summer and hay during the winter. The line is a lot blurrier with pigs.

One of the reasons pigs are the most efficient mammal at turning feeds into meat is the number of offspring they have. Cows have one single calf each year. Sows can easily have 12 to 20 piglets each year. The carrying costs of the mother cow ride on a single animal, while the sow gets to distribute her feed costs across many more. To put numbers to these things, at the end of a year a 1000 lb cow might provide (through gestation and suckling) a 500 pound weaned calf. A 400 lb sow that gives birth to 16 pigs (assuming two litters per year) can spread her costs over 4000 lbs of offspring liveweight in the same timeframe. That is a pretty dramatic difference.

And here is where things get less natural. For the sow to be able to wean that many pigs each year a human has to step in. Little pigs don't just decide to stop suckling on their own. They're forceful, ravenous little beasts who will beat up on their mother until she relents even if she tries to nudge them off. She can pay a heavy toll in weight-loss and even damage to her teats and sides if she can't be rid of her young. Wild boars don't have this problem because they have smaller litters (2-6), they farrow (give birth) less often, and they lose young to predators. So even if a wild sow suckles piglets for 4 or more months, chances are it is only 1, 2, or 3 pigs, not 10.

Obviously the world doesn't revolve around the needs of the mother though - what is best for weaner pigs? The ideal, as in nature, is more weeks of suckling. But barring that route since does not work for the sow, and it is economically non-viable. I am a farmer not a wildlife biologist, what to do?

In previous posts (I, II) I wrote about my pigs directly and indirectly. In the second of those posts I make a point about how big pigs can digest roughage better than small pigs. Bigger pigs can thrive on the ration I want to provide them - pasture and whey. But smaller pigs, weaners up to a bit over 100 lbs struggle to thrive because they can't pass enough material through their digestive tracts, and can't digest it as fully as bigger pigs can. In the wild those little piggies would be supplemented with mother's milk. I provide whey, but whey is a poor stand-in since it has been stripped of almost all the fat and most of its protein. Grains and (roasted) soybeans are pretty digestible and make for an adequate substitute for the milk wild piglets would get from their mother. I'm always open to finding clean food processing waste streams that could help me provide a balanced ration for the little pigs. Something like spent brewer's grains fits the bill, but I have not sourced a good amount of anything like that.

I fed very, very little grain to my first cohort of pigs in 2014. They each got about 40 pounds of ration spread over December, January, and February. That's 13 pounds/pig/month, and they each got approximately one loaf of stale bread per week. Each loaf was a bit over 1 pound, so call it 5 pounds of bread per month. In case you're curious, that means they got less than 3 days worth of regular ration per month for similar size pigs on "full feed". Other than that it was all hay and whey. It worked, but they took a long time to size-up. The lag compared to their full-fed cousins was most glaring when the pigs were smallest. The course I decided to chart this year is a hybrid, compromise approach. I'm going to feed about 1/2 a normal GMO-free grain ration when the pigs are little. They'll also have access to all the pasture and whey they could ever want. Pigs accumulate most of their fat when they get bigger (like past 200 pounds). When they're under 200 pounds they concentrate gain toward lean mass. I'm going to gradually taper the grain away when they're a bit past 100 pounds. Their growth rate will slow, but the fat they lay down *should* have a good balance of fatty acids. The grain boost when young will help the pigs quickly get to the size they need in order do a better job of digesting plant fibers. Well before they're finishing, the ration will shift over to the "no grain" end of my protocol. I think this approach will actually be better from an animal welfare standpoint. They'll be less nutritionally stressed trying to meet their growth needs when they're at the age of fastest growth.

The question I need your help with is this - what do I call the final product? I want an easy to say name that differentiates my product from pork in the grocery store.

"Grass-fed" does it for beef, but to my mind that term implies only grass, no whey and no grain when young. Another option most small scale producers use is "pastured pork". This is OK, but I've seen some pathetic looking pastures that clearly provide 0.00 percent of the animal's daily food. Putting pigs on a dirt lot is better than keeping them in a sty all day, but not really ideal. I don't want to be lumped in with that production method. I want to market to people interested in good food and to paleo diet folks. But the title of this post is too cumbersome - "low grain/no grain" is the production protocol I'm using this year. It just doesn't leap off the tongue. Another option that might work if it sounds good to customers (you?!) is "Paleo Pork". It's easy to say and will readily lead into a conversation about the ration I feed. But if it sounds weird or strange I'd like to know before I spend a lot of time saying it... If you have any other terms that would work to describe what I'm doing please put them in the comments below.

Another marketing route I've considered going would play on the flavor superiority of vegetation-fed pigs. The meat from a pig fed a lot of vegetation is so vastly superior to grain-fed pork it is difficult to believe they come from the same species. I bought some "pastured pork" a year ago, and it was significantly better than the meat available in most groceries. The pork I cut up last week blew that stuff out of the water in terms of deliciousness. I don't even have a term for this angle though... any and all ideas are welcome.

Thanks much.


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