Our pigs eat a varied diet of pasture, whey, and locally grown non-GMO grain. Coupled with exercise, sunshine, and plenty of room, this creates superior pork. 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, and lard from pigs that have been exposed to sunlight is high in vitamin D.
Pigs are more difficult to manage on pasture than cows or sheep, because they have a tendency to root. But this instinct can be put to good use; instead of using machinery to till and replant, we let our pigs root out goldenrod, burdock, and other weeds we’re trying to control. They get to eat the energy rich roots, and we get more clover and grass. Another traditional use of pigs is as recyclers. We feed our pigs whey, a byproduct of the local yogurt industry. This improves the quality of the meat, prevents the whey from going to waste, and improves the fertility of our farm.
From the time the weather warms in the spring through the fall our pigs live outside on pasture. We regularly move them to 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. By comparison pigs in a factory farm live their entire lives inside huge barns, standing on slatted floors, packed so tight they barely have room to lie down.
The pillars of our pigs’ diet are pasture or hay, whey, and local, non-GMO grain grown for us by our friends at Inverness Farm. From early spring through the middle of the fall our pigs are outside. They are usually on pasture, but sometimes we’ll put them into a section of woods to help clear brush. We also don’t move them on the same sort of regimented pasture rotation schedule as the ruminants. Pigs both graze and root, so we will move them quickly if they are on a piece of ground we don’t want them to churn up, but we’re happy to leave them in one place for a bit longer if we aim to renovate a weedy spot.
One of our long term goals is to figure out how best to maximize the pasture intake of our pigs. This is a complicated issue, and it has several components. The first is genetics. Some pigs are more inclined to root than others, just as some have longer legs or bigger hams. But fertility also plays a role. Pigs are less inclined to root particularly fertile pasture, so as our management practices increase the overall fertility of the farm we expect the amount rooting to decrease. They also root less on land that pigs have previously worked over, which is a real mystery to us at this point.
Conventional pig production has a huge waste management problem. When thousands or tens of thousands of hogs are packed ham to jowl in giant barns they produce municipal amounts of manure, and there is often not enough agricultural land in the immediate area on which to spread it. This causes water pollution - both of wells and surface waters - and it also degrades the quality of life in the local community, because the smell permeates the air for miles.
Keeping our pigs outdoors for much of the year and moving them regularly ensures that their manure is spread over an appropriate amount of land. It actually helps improve the fertility of our farm without polluting the air or water.
Our ideal pig grows well, has a large mature weight, enthusiastically forages, has a calm temperament, and produces superior pork. Most modern factory pigs have been selected solely for the fastest production of the leanest possible meat on a diet of corn and soy. They are fragile, aggressive, and easily stressed. But various heritage breeds do have the traits we desire, and therefore a blend of Berkshire, Large Black, Gloucester Old Spots, Tamworth, and Red Wattle is the foundation of our herd. It’s a long process, but we are working to breed pigs that are ideally suited to our farm and others like it.
One nice thing about pigs is that they are curious, and they love food. Often we need to do nothing more than lead them with a bucket in hand to have them follow us anywhere. They’ll run straight into a new paddock or hop right up in a stock trailer if they think there’s a chance they’ll get a full belly out of it.
Unlike ruminants pigs need winter housing. Once the weather gets cold our pigs live in hoops bedded with mulch hay and wood chips. Using enough bedding serves a number of functions. It gives them a warm, clean place to bed down, it absorbs nutrients that would otherwise be lost by offgassing or leaching, and it controls unpleasant smells. If given enough space pigs will set up a latrine in one area and bed down in another, which makes it much easier to keep their house tidy.
The quality of pork reflects the quality of the pig from which it came. Conventional hogs live their entire lives with thousands of their brethren crammed into huge barns on slatted floors above manure lagoons. If the exhaust fans fail the pigs will asphyxiate in a few hours from all the noxious fumes that these lagoons emit. Those conventional hogs eat the blandest diet imaginable and are sent to slaughter at less than six months of age. The net result is the cheap, pale, flavorless meat found in supermarkets.
Our pigs have plenty of space their entire lives, first in deeply bedded hoops and then on pasture. Forage and whey make up ever greater proportions of their diet as they approach market weight. Exercise, age, sunlight and diet all contribute to their superior flavor.
The push for ever leaner pigs in factory operations leads to bland meat. Pork fat, whether in the form of bacon, lard, or a shoulder, is exceptionally delicious, and just as marbling contributes to the flavor and juiciness of a steak, a healthy quantity of fat makes any cut of pork taste better.
No meat is more reliant on the quality of the butchering than pork. The best pork belly in the world can be ruined by a bad bacon cure. We make sure our processors use simple recipes with simple ingredients to produce bacon, sausage, and ham that highlight the quality of our meat.