North Carolina research indicates managed pig grazing can actually improve hardwood timber stands while producing an artisanal pork product
GREENSBORO, North Carolina: The beautiful park-like, oak savannahs that covered the Piedmont and Appalachian region of the Southeast in the 19th and early 20th Century may have been largely created by pigs.
Until World War II, allowing domestic pigs to forage in the forest in the summer was a common Southeastern practice.
These pigs were then brought home in the winter to forage on remnant corn and peanut fields.
“Peanut finished pork” was a major specialty throughout the Southeast, particularly in Virginia.
Chestnut finished woodland pork was said to be the “sweetest of all pork” and was also highly prized.
However, forest floor pig grazing was frowned upon by the Forest Service and publicly discouraged as poor forestry management. On Federal lands domesticated pig grazing was eventually prohibited by law.
In subsequent years, the Southeastern forest has become a tangled, largely impassable jungle rather than the grassy open park it was prior to World War II.
Recent research by Dr. Charles Talbott at North Carolina A&T; indicates that controlled pig grazing in the forest may actually improve hardwood timber stands by removing forest floor competitive vegetation and improving acorn regeneration.
Depending upon stocking density and duration of placement, over the two year study Talbott found the sows tended to girdle soft woods and elms but leave high value hardwoods alone.
The pigs removed blackberry and other low-growing brushy growth that sap soil moisture from the high-value hardwood trees.
In the two April-to- late September seasons studied, the sows removed 70% of the forest understory.
PIGS LOVE ROOTS, TUBERS AND SNAKES
In an example of Nature’s serendipity, the hardwood trees provide mast crops for the pigs to fatten on and protect the heat-intolerant pigs from the Southeast’s broiling summer sun.
In addition to mast, the pigs relish roots, tubers, snakes and lizards.
He said the straight-line rooting often seen by pigs was largely caused by them trying to catch a subterranean mole, vole or snake. Pigs are definitely not vegetarians and relish meat.
This opening up of the forest floor has allowed for grass to come in and create a park-like forest floor where it was previously impossible to walk.
However, he emphasized that forest improvement with pigs was not a “turn-out and gather” system but rather a highly managed “put and take” system whereby the pigs foraging was closely monitored and controlled.
Similar to pasture with ruminants, Talbott said the forest must be subdivided into paddocks and the foraging time-controlled.
Every three to five years, each paddock must be given complete rest to allow for young hardwood regeneration.
Contrary to what foresters previously thought, hardwood regeneration appears to be improved by the complete passage of some acorns through the pigs’ digestive tract.
This scarifies the acorn which promotes a faster initial growth and makes the hardwoods more competitive with other tree species.
He said the pigs should not be over-wintered in the woods but should be used to glean crop fields or build the soil in the farmer’s garden.
He said just by overwintering pigs in his own personal garden the soil organic matter has gone from 2% to 5% in just two winters. A deep layer of leaves is spread over the garden to prevent winter mud. This leaf layer also completely eliminates the unpleasant smells common to pig lots.
He said that by spring this leaf layer has largely been turned into dark rich soil by the pigs manuring and rooting.
THE PIGS IN SPAIN GRAZE MAINLY ON THE PLAIN
Actually, the discovery of the forest improving properties of pigs was a by-product of Talbott trying to produce a high-value, specialty meat product.
Talbott said the idea of returning pigs to the woods came from a visit to Spain where he saw pigs foraging on acorns from ancient cork-producing trees.
This pork is highly prized by world pork connoisseurs and sells for $40 a pound.
Recently, researchers have discovered that the fat from these acorn-finished pigs is largely unsaturated and high in healthful oleic acid.
Talbott said the Spanish call their acorn-finished pigs “four-legged olive trees.”
In a literature review, he found references that chestnut-finished pigs’ fat rendered down into a dark liquid rather than a solid white lard like the fat from grain fed pigs.
He said such a non-industrial, healthy pork product appeared to be ideal for small farmers with access to oak filled woods.
He was encouraged to pursue this research by New York Times food writer Peter Kaminsky who was writing a book on artisanal pork production.
He said thanks to subsequent publicity by Kaminsky, his North Carolina farmer research cooperators have found a ready market for their pigs in New York City restaurants at $1000 per head.
Talbott said this is a net profit in excess of $800 per pig.
The forest farrowed pigs are finished on free-choice acorns, peanuts and alfalfa hay.
© by The Stockman Grass Farmer
If You Would Like To Read More Articles Like This One, CALL 1-800-748-9808 And Request A Free Sample Of THE STOCKMAN GRASS FARMER TODAY!
Or Order A Free Sample Of THE STOCKMAN GRASS FARMER online. CLICK HERE.
To subscribe to THE STOCKMAN GRASS FARMER CLICK HERE.