Archive for the 'pastured pigs' Category

Rotating pigs

By Tom Read

All piggies on deck! Almost all, anyway. That's the pallet feeder in the foreground, with bits of plywood attached for better piggy footing. The mobile pig house is back left, while you can see the modular fencing panels beyond. Eventually we'll put a door and a watering system on the pig house. The grass is gradually being transformed into fertilzed bare soil, after which we'll move the pigs, then plant a crop.

Last year’s initial pig-raising effort went so well here at Slow Farm on Texada Island that we’ve decided to try it again this year — but with a few differences.

First, we’ve taken on four piggies this time, compared to last year’s Spot and Pinky duo. The larger herd will help pay for purchased food inputs without generating much additional labour. Building on what we learned in 2009, non-purchased food inputs will continue this year. The pigs will spend their lives on pasture with ample feed grass and weeds, plus we’ll gather orchard gleanings, carefully screened food scraps from our own kitchen and leftovers from the Texada Island Inn’s restaurant (“the slops”).

Second, we’ve built an experimental rotational grazing system that we designed over the winter.

The pig house is the same recycled shipping crate we used last year, except that it’s been further modified for mobility by adding wheels, steel reinforced undercarriage and removable trailer hitch. The whole thing tows easily into tight spaces using our quad. We think it’s big enough for four 200-lb pigs, but if not, we’ll add another mobile unit as needed. Thanks to the creative scrounging and construction efforts of our friend Jim, we were fortunate to obtain the wheels, steel and trailer hitch for free from Texada’s “heavy metal dump” transfer station rather than have to buy new parts.

The fencing we started with last year was bare-wire electric, which alone did not quite work, so we backed up the wires with a stout pallet fence. This was effective but not mobile. This year we’re trying out a homemade lightweight fence consisting of eight-foot-long wood panels (made from scrap wood, naturally) with built-in electric fencing. Each panel fits with its adjacent panel by means of a slide-together wood connector, while carriage bolts and washers connect the electric wires between panels. So far, it’s working — but the herd just got here 10 days ago and they’re still a wee bit small.

We’ve also redesigned our watering and feeding approach as part of the rotational grazing system. Feeding and watering last year took place within a steel tray and rubber tub that the pigs easily upended at will. This year’s feeder is a modified pallet — it’s got shallow troughs on either side hinged for better clean-out, plus firmly attached scraps of plywood on the “deck” for better porcine footing when the inevitable mud comes along. It’s too big to be upended by a less-than-full-grown pig, yet can easily be lifted by two humans when the time comes to change pastures. Watering is currently done with just a simple tray, but our plan is to use a nipple waterer attached to the mobile pig house, fed by two water containers on top of the house.

I’m sure this current crop of piggies, so far unnamed, will find whatever weaknesses we’ve overlooked and thereby help us refine the system. Why bother with all this mobility stuff? Partly because I’m still determined to avoid using a gasoline-powered rototiller on our farm. Plus, we like the idea – and taste — of pastured pork.


Pigs: lessons learned

By Tom Read

Pinky, the young weaner, in July weighed about 25 lbs (above).

By his last supper in late November, Pinky now weighed about 215 lbs.

What did we learn from our first pig-raising experience here at Slow Farm on Texada Island this year? We learned:

1)  That it’s ok to name your pigs, even if you plan to eat them, because human affection helps raise happier and healthier pigs. In my opinion, we take better care of animals if we see them as worthy of our respect and affection, and giving them a name, however whimsical, helps set the stage for a mutually beneficial relationship. I enjoyed training our pigs to patiently wait for their food to be placed in the feeder before digging in, and they enjoyed their many mini-massages, especially the behind-the-ears rub.

2)  Pigs are, indeed, natural rototillers and great fertilizers. This year’s pig pasture now needs only a little touch-up to remove some large tree roots that the pigs couldn’t eat, plus some raking or harrowing to smooth out the bumps, and it will be ready for planting in the spring. We’ll not need to put pigs on this ground again for quite awhile.

3)  You can feed a pig nearly anything, but they especially enjoy greens, apples, milk and potatoes. Ours also got a daily ration of “hog grower” grain pellets, plus some fried veggies and thick soups later in their lives when we were given “slops” from a local restaurant.

4)  Fencing matters with pigs. One day Spot, the adventurous female, built a mound of dirt up against the electric fence and then vaulted herself over it to freedom. She quickly found some adjacent plantings of potatoes, beans and pumpkins, and made quite a mess before our friend Jim happened along and eventually put her back in the pasture.

5)  In fact, several friends and neighbours helped us all along the way. We bought our two “weaners” from Richard and Linda on Vancouver Island, but Richard kindly brought them over to Powell River for us, a big savings in time and money from our perspective. Our friend Jim fed the pigs for us when our work schedule sometimes interfered with feeding time. We’re also grateful for the many gifts of apples, garden gleanings and restaurant leftovers that were given to us as pig food. When slaughtering time finally arrived, we were able to borrow a clean steel drum for dipping, a “tiger torch” for water heating, and a freezer for carcass storage. And I’m also grateful to Colin, a Tom’s Texada Journal reader who lives in Cariboo country, for sharing his wisdom and literature about pigs.

6)  As for the killing and dressing, we were fortunate to obtain the expert services of a friend who came early one Saturday morning. Each pig died instantly by the .22 method, one while eating an apple. The dressing also happened cleanly and quickly, and that night we enjoyed dining on fresh pig liver prepared with an Asian sauce and veggies. Linda also made some pork liver pate, a true delicacy.

7)  The weather wasn’t cold enough to hang the sides, so we packed them carefully in a large chest freezer using clean wood spacers between the quarters. By keeping the freezer on a timer, its temperature held at exactly 2 degrees Centigrade until we could transport everything to the Texada Market in Van Anda. James, who has built a well-deserved reputation on Texada as an excellent butcher, had all four sides cut, wrapped and labeled within a few days.

8)  About half of the out-of-pocket cost toward raising the pigs was for commercial grain-based pig food purchased in Powell River, but undoubtedly grown and processed well outside our coastal region. In future years we hope to replace most if not all of this imported feed with a comfrey/seaweed/grain/root crop concoction of our own making.

The bottom line: We found raising pigs a very positive experience, and plan to do it again next year. Yes, pigs are a whole different challenge compared to raising chickens, but it’s all about animal husbandry. If you like animals, it feels good to take on such challenges. To borrow a phrase from Colin, it really does make a person feel wealthy to have a freezer full of home-raised pork.

Pork and Chop or Spot and Pinky?

By Tom Read

Spot (obvious) and Pinky take a drink after some serious rooting in the grass.

Spot (obvious) and Pinky take a drink after some serious rooting in the grass.

They’re here! Yes, it is pig time at our homestead. A pair of two-month-old weaners born on a small farm on Vancouver Island arrived here at our place a little over a week ago and settled right down to rooting, snorting, fertilizing and, most of all, eating. This is our first experience raising pigs, so we’ve been getting advice from local veteran pig-raisers, plus doing some reading, naturally.

So far, so good. I’m quite pleased with the effects of rooting. What started as thick, tall grass now looks much like soil that I’ve dug with a shovel, except lumpier. After a bit of raking it should eventually make fine garden beds, no rototiller needed.

We generally do not name our food, so when asked if we’ve named these young pigs we make a joke out of it by saying, “well, we call ‘em Pork and Chop.”  Or maybe “Meat 1” and “Meat 2.”  But the truth is much more personal, at least for me. The surprisingly quick movements, wide range of sounds and aggressive rivalry of these pigs are quite fascinating. I can’t help but feel a familiar fondness for the little porkers. Our friend and chief animal-raising mentor, An, assures me that naming creatures in our care should be considered a normal part of animal husbandry. Perhaps every bit as normal as someday killing and eating them.

But for now I’m starting to think of “Spot” for her spots and “Pinky” for his complexion. I’ll keep you posted on progress with these two, since we intend to enjoy their live company for another four or five months.

Pigs can do that?

By Tom Read

Here's our field. Would you choose clearing it by hand for planting new crops?

Here's our field. Would you choose clearing it by hand for planting new crops?

We’ve got access to about four acres of good, arable land here at Slow Farm on Texada Island. This land has a farming history going back about a century, but it’s been fallow for the last 40 years or so.  Here’s the problem: What’s the best way to remove the grasses and other “weeds” now growing in profusion on this old farm field in preparation for planting new crops, without damaging the soil?

Before discussing our tentative answer, which you might guess from the title of this post, I’d like to mention a few of the considerations we use for land-use decisions.

First, we view ourselves as land stewards, whether the land in question is officially “owned” by us or not. Our minimal standard is to do no harm, and ideally we’d like to leave the place better than we found it. Thus, we don’t just rush in and change things. We take our time to think about our actions in some detail before actually doing anything to the land.

Second, we strive for frugality. This requires living within our means and making full use of resources already at hand. We must avoid the temptation of buying our way out of problems. Thus, if the “problem” is how to remove grasses and weeds on a field without damaging the field’s fertility, then we will have to solve this problem affordably.

Third, our goal is to create a sustainable and resilient food supply from this land. Therefore, we must solve our land-clearing problem without creating more problems in the future, which means recognizing that everything is connected to everything else. This will become clearer below.

So let’s look at some alternatives we’ve been considering for solving our problem:

Option 1:  Use well-sharpened hand tools to mow and kill the grass, then to loosen the soil, a little at a time each day. This method is detailed in Steve Solomon’s (must-read) 2005 book Gardening When It Counts, and it’s by far the simplest and least expensive approach. We already own the tools. I could use the exercise. Most days I could afford some time for this effort. And this solution can be sustained as long as I’m in good health. But four acres? One acre is 200 feet x 200 feet, or about 40,000 square feet – then times four. That’s a lot of digging for a middle-aged guy with office-worker hands and a shovel. We don’t need to clear it all at the same time, of course, but the scope of our clearing effort at any given time is still a lot bigger than the typical backyard garden.

Option 2:  Borrow or barter a gasoline-powered rototiller from a neighbor and start tilling. I discovered that renting such a machine from Powell River is out of the question due to the $15/hour cost and same-day return policy. But if we could find one on Texada then we might complete the clearing job in a week. Solomon also discusses this approach, including its flaws.  The obvious ones: fuel cost, noise, breathing fumes, transport of a heavy machine, and “if you break it you’ll buy me a new one.”  Less obvious: plow pan compaction, strained muscles and possible back injury, vibration damage to capillaries and nerves in hands, fossil fuel dependency and excess carbon emissions. Plus, we would have to borrow/barter the machine every season.

Option 3:  Buy a walking tractor, by far the best machine for solving our problem. Unlike rototillers, which they superficially resemble, walking tractors are made with precision engineering and can last a lifetime. They’re widely used on small-scale farms in Europe and Asia, and they’re much more durable, comfortable and versatile than rototillers. Walking tractors come with a power-take-off, which allows you to choose from among an amazing variety of special-purpose attachments. One such attachment, the Berta rotary plow, would be quite nice for solving our soil-working problem. The Berta operates like a horizontal auger, churning through the soil without leaving a plow pan. It can easily incorporate standing cover crops into the soil.

I’m not a boys-with-toys kinda guy, but I want this machine. Alas, we can’t afford it – the purchase would be about $5,000+ up front, then add ongoing fuel and maintenance costs. As a fossil-fuel burner, the walking tractor has some of the same drawbacks as the rototiller, too. These include noise, having to breathe fumes, planet-warming emissions and keeping us dependent on the oil companies.

What to do?

Option 4:  Pigs.  When we mentioned our soil-working problem to An, our chicken mentor, she said “pigs can do that.” It turns out she’s right. I phoned the BC Ministry of Agriculture office in Courtenay, where the very knowledgeable Jill Hatfield confirmed that, under the right conditions and management, pigs can indeed clear grass and weeds from a field without damaging its fertility. Indeed, pigs can do this while simultaneously loosening the soil, fertilizing the land and feeding themselves. Pigs have other virtues: they’re self-reproducing, we can grow their food right here on Slow Farm, of course they’re good food for omnivorous humans and there’s even a market for “weaner” piglets for people who want to raise their own pork. They might even be fun to watch, too.

Pastured pigs are easier to keep confined with electric fencing equipment, which we already own from our horse-keeping days. Linda and I enjoy animal husbandry. We can see ourselves patiently caring for a few pigs, letting them do the work of land-clearing while we look after their health and well-being – right up to the moment when they become our food. Flaws? They’ll probably leave the field a bumpy mess, so we’ll have to drag a harrow (which we already own) with our quad (ATV) to smooth things out before planting. That’s a bit of fossil fuel use, but if necessary I could use a hand rake instead without any great sacrifice.  And neither of us knows how to slaughter and butcher pigs, so we’ll have to pay someone for that work, at least initially.

Of the four options we’ve considered thus far, options 1 and 4 seem to make the most sense for us. A combination of me working with hand tools and a few pigs having a rooting-in-the-grass fiesta should meet our decision criteria: protect and improve the land, frugal, and sustainable without causing future problems. So that’s why, after a few hours of research, we finally found a couple on Vancouver Island who are following much the same logic on their acreage and who are willing to sell us a few weaners. We promptly placed our order earlier this week.  If their sow is actually pregnant, as suspected, we should take delivery after her delivery sometime in July. In the meantime I’ll keep digging.

Post facto

July 2018
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