Crabgrass a favorite of pastured pigs

by Allan Nation

SWOOPE, Virginia: There probably has not been a lot of thought given to the grass species preferences of pigs in quite a few years. However, from Joel Salatin's observations of his pigs' grazing behavior crabgrass wins hands down.

Pork production started on Joel's Polyface Farms a few years ago as a by-product of compost production. Rather than aerating his cows' winter manure pack with a tractor and borrowed manure spreader each spring, Joel used pigs' natural rooting instincts for the aeration work.

To encourage rooting, during the winter he would periodically spread a five gallon can of grain around the cowshed. Of course, this was quickly buried in manure.

In the spring, he would buy feeder pigs who would root through the manure pack in search of this grain effectively aerating the manure pack and causing it to self-compost. The pigs were also used to plow the garden and glean it of old buried root crops.

He called these early pigs "pigerators" and saw them primarily as a cost-saver rather than a production enterprise. However, his direct marketing customers loved the firm, pink pork from these pigs. Today, pastured pork has become one of Joel's fastest growing new enterprises.

200 PIGS IN 2002

In 2001, he raised 100 hogs to slaughter and doubled those numbers in 2002.

A favorite of high-end restaurants, Joel has had no problem getting $10 a pound for pork tenderloin and $8.00 for pork chops. He figures he nets a little over $70 a pig when all costs including depreciation are figured and $100 a pig over direct expenses.

What he particularly likes about pastured pork production is its low daily labor needs. This is particularly important on a farm as management-intensive as his with multiple enterprises and each enterprise requiring its own marketing.

Most of Joel's 500 acre farm lies on the side of a steep mountain. There is 1000 feet in elevation change from front to back.

A big believer in the importance of the "edge effect" increase in productivity seen whenever pasture meets forest, he began clear-cutting small areas of forest and putting it into pasture.

He originally planned to use these remote, upland pastures with his beef cattle but has found them far better suited to pork production.

SUBDIVIDED PASTURES

These forest pastures are two acres in size. Using electric fence, Joel has subdivided them into eight, 1/4 acre paddocks.

By training the pigs to electric fence before they get to the remote pastures, Joel is able to use only two wires and a solar-powered charger.

The two acres are stocked with 30 to 50 feeder pigs with a one-ton, self-feeder. The pigs are shifted to a new paddock each time they empty the feeder. This is important because the feeder is turned on its side and rolled into the new paddock before being refilled.

One ton of feed works out to about a 12 week rest for the grass between grazings, which Joel has found is about right for the annual grasses to reestablish themselves.

He also rests the whole two acres for 12 weeks between the two turns of pigs he finishes each year.

Joel figures grazing currently saves him 20 to 30 percent on feed.

He said the two grasses that take well to the pigs' natural rooting are crabgrass and foxtail. Of these two, warm-season annual crabgrass is by far the pigs' favorite.

The crabgrass has also proven to be a great deer attractant.

BEAR MOUNTAIN

As the mountain is heavily infested with Black bears, he buys his feeder pigs at 80 pounds rather than the more traditional 40 pounds. These heavier pigs are able to avoid the bears and so far he has only lost one pig to bears.

The pigs are bought from local farmers with small four to five sow operations. Joel pays a premium over the market price to get the heavier pigs he wants. Joel likes pigs of Yorkshire and Duroc/Berkshire breeding. He does not like the Poland China breed.

He said it is important that trees be left in pig paddocks as they need shade in the summer. He said a good pig pasture should have a savanna look to it.

By using self-feeders and nipple self-waterers, the pigs only need to be checked twice a week.

At the stocking rate he is using, Joel figures the stony, mountainside pig pastures are netting him over $3000 an acre.

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