×

What Does Pigs on Pasture Mean?

Spring is here!

Flowers are blooming, trees are budding, the weather is warming… but more than anything else, the sign that indicates spring’s arrival is that we finally moved our pigs out of the barn and onto pasture!

There is a long tradition of herding animals in this area. The old Drover’s Road comes right through the farm. Farmers from the West drove their mules, pigs, turkeys, and cows to eastern markets along what is now 74-A. The house that my great grandparents bought when they moved to Fairview in 1916 was actually an old Inn. Fairview is about a day’s walk from the city, perfectly situated for the drovers who were pushing their way east.

One thing I will say about days spent herding pigs: It’s not easy. I have so much respect for those farmers who were driving their animals hundreds of miles. We only herd our pigs several hundred yards. We set up fences and gates to keep them from taking off wherever they please. We make sure to have people ready to block off routes that look enticing. And, even with all those precautions in place, we have plenty of disasters.

Pigs are smart. Once they learn a fence line (especially an electric line where they’ve experienced a good shock) they are loathe to cross it. Our herd has been in the barn all winter, enjoying deep bedded warmth in a small and well defined area. The most difficult part of herding them to new pasture is getting them out of the barn. They know their space, they have rooted right to the edge of the fence line and made the contours their own. When we take the fence down, they can still see the line where their rooting stops. They know from experience that they shouldn’t cross that line.

One trick we learned that helps us get the herd over that mark is to spread fresh hay on either side. This disguises the line and the pigs also like to root in it, searching for food or anything else exciting (pigs find a lot of mundane things exciting… bits of wood, rubber, metal, basically anything they can gnaw on). Once they’ve crossed the threshold, they are perfectly willing to go as far as their chubby legs can carry them.

This week, when we moved the herd out the barn, our biggest issue was that one group moved out over tate line quickly but a second group was more obstinate. Pigs are not like cows. They don’t have the same strong herd mentality. One group took off toward greener pastures while the rest refused to leave their home of the past four months. Zach had to sprint off after the first group and herd them into the corral while Walker and I stayed back to watch the second bunch. Eventually we had to grab several unused metal gates and use them like plows to slowly push the pigs out over the line. Once they crossed it, they ceased to have any qualms about leaving the barn. From there out it was as simple as stopping traffic along Sugar Hollow to allow the porky fellows to make their way to the corral and rejoin the herd

It feels great to see the pigs out in the pasture, happily rooting through dirt and grass, stretching their legs in the wide open space. I also like joining in the tradition of the drovers. I am glad that our route only takes us down the road a little ways and not over mountains and across hundreds of miles of rugged terrain. Hats off to the drovers. They must have known their animals well by the end of a trip like that.

Happy springing,

Sweetbread.

Hoop Houses

Some of the farm crew decided recently that, when it’s time to really settle down and build a house, we’re not gonna go with wood, or brick, or stone, or even the slightly more hip clay and straw mixture for our material. We’re going with plastic!

We’ve been in the hoop house building game for the past few months and, not only are these structures large, clean, open, and bright, they are also cheap and amazingly resilient. I mean, the roof blew off our barn just a few weeks ago but the hoop house that is up behind the barn stayed remarkably intact.

Hoop houses, for those who don’t know, are basically greenhouses without any kind of temperature or humidity controls. They’re meant for animals. We recently built two that are 30ft wide x 108ft long x 16ft high. We’re housing 1000 laying hens inside each one for the winter. They are simple structures of metal hoops, spaced four feet apart down their length with a kind of end wall at the final hoop. A sheet of thick plastic stretches over top and on the ends to create a completely enclosed building that heats up quite nicely with a little sun and the body heat from all the animals.

We had quite a time getting the plastic over the first house. Walker, Zach and I chose a relatively calm day after we’d finished building the basic structure of the house. We unrolled the giant sheet of plastic and tied several ropes to one side so that we could toss them over the hoops and pull the plastic over from the far side. As we were pulling up the sheet, as slight wind began to blow and our hoop house cover became a massive, impermeable sail. Walker and Zach held on for dear life but, since I didn’t have a rope in my hand at that moment, I dove onto the plastic and tried to act as an anchor. For a few minutes I thought we were going to get lifted off the ground but eventually the wind died back down and we were able to pull the plastic over our hoop frame and get it secured before any more big gusts could tear it out of our control.

When chickens and pigs are inside a barn for the winter it’s dark and stale, much less appealing than the bright, warm interior of the hoop houses. They are also large enough that, when spring comes around and it’s time for the animals to move outside, we can use the tractor to clean everything out. My recent blog post about deep bedding the pigs in the barn through the winter also applies to the hoop houses. Chicken and pig manure is too concentrated in nitrogen to make good compost by itself but the added biomass of carbon from the hay we spread in the buildings provides for a great composting milieu.

So far, our experience with these houses has been very positive. They are relatively easy to build (if you have the right tools) and sturdy (though I suppose a few years wear and tear will be the true judge of that). I do hope they work out for the chickens though, because there are a lot of birds strutting about in there and they seem pretty content right now!

Best,

Sweetbread

Deep Bedding the Pigs

Pigs are gross. Plain and simple. Ok, maybe these pigs are cute, but on the whole– not cute, gross.

A Pig may make a nice pet if it is well trained, consistently cleaned, and not allowed to grow to enormous proportions.  On the whole though, pigs are pretty nasty.

Even when they have a huge paddock full of grass and shrubs, it only takes them about two weeks to turn it into a muddy, stinking wasteland. I’m always amazed, when we move our hogs to a new pen, how quickly they destroy every living thing within the fenceline. Granted there are anywhere from 130-200 of them, but it’s still an impressive feat of rooting, mucking, and eating.

It seems strange then to suppose that we can keep our herd inside the barn for a full four months without the space becoming so fetid that it becomes impossible to enter. Surprisingly, the barn remains fairly pleasant through the winter mainly due to our practice of deep bedding.

Every couple of days we roll out one or two round straw-bales, spreading it evenly through the barn (we have to buy our straw because, as you may have picked up from the last post, we no longer have our own hay equipment). This bedding not only cuts down on the smell, it also provides warmth and comfort for the pigs on especially cold or windy nights.

Over the course of the winter we spread upwards of 70 bales which, weighing roughly 500lbs each, comes out to around 35,000lbs of straw! In the spring, when we move the pigs out to pasture, we can take the tractor and scrape that rug of hay and manure out into a pile and let it sit for a few months. It will reach temps of over 100 degrees and quickly break down to a beneficial compost for some of our fruits and vegetables.

They may be nasty, but pigs are an important part of the farm. They may destroy plants, but they help us grow plants too. That is part of the beauty of farming!

Best,

Sweetbread