Virginia grazier Joel Salatin finds pigs can profitably create pasture from cut-over forest lands
SWOOPE, Virginia: Several years ago, Joel Salatin decided he would start to put trees in his pastures and pastures in his trees. His mountainside home farm at the time was only about 20% open land.
His desired landscape was that of a savannah - a park-like tree-studded pasture.
Savannahs have been found to be more nutrient efficient than open pastures because the trees’ deep roots serve as an effective nutrient and mineral recycler. Nutrients that would be lost to the shallow-rooted grasses can be caught by the trees’ roots and put back on the soil surface in the annual autumn leaf drop.
The trees also provide shade for livestock and resting platforms for the aerial predators that keep pasture vermin under control.
Small, interconnected, rain-fed reservoirs are being built up the mountainside to provide both stockwater and lowland pasture irrigation.
Logging, a small on-farm sawmill and construction projects are what keeps the Salatin family and their two employees busy in the winter.
His inspiration for this combination of forestry and animal agriculture was a Depression-era book called Tree Crops.
However, he found that land that had been in deep forest for several generations was very difficult to convert directly to pasture.
“ The successional sequence after logging is to quickly go to briars and brambles - not grass. The stumps and steep aspect prevent us using mowing to control this lush regrowth,” he said.
While this secondary succession forage would be ideal for meat goats, Joel said he had neither the fences nor the consumers for goat meat.
“Our customers are suburban Anglos. They wouldn’t have a clue about how to cook a goat.”
He did need a place to put his pigs in the summer however. He had read that pigs love the roots of these early succession plants and could largely clear cut-over land with their rooting.
Salatin had been using pigs to aerate his winter manure pack in the spring. The customer response to these pigs was so good that he wanted to expand his pork production.
That was more than 12 years ago.
Today, Salatin buys and finishes 250 pigs a year in his upland pig pastures. These are sold to the same urban consumers who purchase the farm’s grassfed beef, chickens and eggs.
PIGS CAN CLEAR LAND TOO CLEAN
He said that pigs will indeed clear land. In fact, they can make it look like a moonscape if you let them.
“Pigs love tree roots and the bark of young saplings.”
However, he wanted to develop pastureland and not bare rocks and dirt.
He has found that the best way to create the landscape you want is through rotational grazing (pigging?).
“If you have too low of a stocking rate, the pasture will go back to brambles and saplings.
“If you have too high a stocking rate, the pasture will go to annual weeds.
“But if you get the stocking rate just right and subdivide the pastures. You can create perennial pastures without planting a single seed.
“We are putting about $3000 an acre profit in our pockets while we develop our permanent pastures.”
His oldest pig pastures have volunteered into a mixture of perennial ryegrass and crabgrass. He doesn’t know where the seed came from and said the pig pastures are the only paddocks on his farm with perennial ryegrass.
He currently has three pig finishing pastures and another one under development. Each pasture is about two acres in size and is divided into eight smaller paddocks. These pastures are each stocked with 30 to 50 pigs.
He said it is very important to leave some trees in each paddock as pigs are very susceptible to sunburn.
He said it is very important to get the pigs on the cutover land as quickly as possible because pigs are ground oriented and will ignore anything that is taller than 24 inches.
“A goat can climb and will ride a tree down to eat its leaves. A pig won’t.”
All pig fencing is solar-powered, two-wire electric with the bottom wire at six inches and the top wire at 14 inches.
By keeping the top wire at 14 inches, deer can easily step over the fence and not knock it down.
Round steel posts are used with insulators which can be adjusted so as to slide up and down on the post. This ability to easily raise the height of the fence is critical as pigs like to build a berm against the fence and this will short out the bottom wire.
“You must occasionally be lifting the bottom wire to clear their berm.”
FENCE BREAKING PIGS
The small incoming pigs are accustomed to electric fence in a wooden pen in the hayshed with about a length of electrified wire on a spring across one corner. He said the spring element was critical so that the pigs couldn’t accidentally knock it down.
He said after a week the pigs are electric fence trained.
“Once you check on them and they are all on the outside of the wire they are trained and will respect electric fence for the rest of their life.”
However, this respect for electric fence can make paddock shifting difficult as they are loathe to go where an electric fence has been even if it is no longer there.
Salatin has solved this by providing three, homemade, portable 16-foot-long by 30-inch-high wooden gates for each pig pasture. He said the pigs soon learn these gates are not electrified and like to sleep up against them.
To shift the pigs into the next paddock, the gate is lifted out and the pigs shift.
The back gate in the grazed-over paddock then becomes the front gate in the next paddock they will go to. In other words, the three gates are used in a leapfrog manner to provide a gate for each paddock.
To facilitate the paddock shift, the pigs are allowed to run out of supplemental feed on the day of the shift.
“It goes much easier if they are slightly hungry,” he said.
Once the pigs have gone through the eight paddocks. They are then driven back through the paddocks to the first paddock.
This is facilitated by having all the gate openings in a straight-line.
“The pigs soon learn that the best grass is back at the first paddock and aren’t difficult to lead with a bucket of feed.”
Because pigs do not have sweat glands, a wallow must be provided in hot areas like Virginia.
However, Joel said it is important that the pigs not be allowed to create a wallow with the waterer.
He said pigs quickly learn how to hold some self-waterers open to create a wallow and this wastes water. He said the only pig waterer he has found designed to prevent this was the Brower Pig Waterer from Hawkeye Steel.
BEARS ARE ONLY PREDATORS
The pigs are purchased from neighbors at an initial weight of 45 to 55 pounds. He wants them to be weaned for two weeks and castrated.
He buys both sexes to stagger the harvest cycle.
They do not go to the remote mountain pastures until they weight 75 pounds due to bear predation. He said bears have been the only predators to bother the pigs.
New pigs are never added after a group has been started.
They are harvested at a hefty 350 pounds.
“The unfair advantage of grazing pigs is that after 200 pounds they can get more of their feed from the grass. I figure I get a 350 pounder on about the same feed as a commercial finisher gets his to 250 pounds. It’s in those last 50 to 100 pounds where your advantage lies.”
He said the larger pig has a big loin and an excellent flavor.
He likes Berkshires, Hampshires, Yorkshires and Durocs best. He doesn’t like Poland China’s because they get too fat or Tamworths because they won’t root.
“Tamworths are great as a follower pig with cattle because they won’t root up the pasture, but this makes them useless for turning compost and clearing land.”
Because the stocking rate is going up as the pigs get heavier, Joel has discovered a unique way to time his paddock shifts.
Pride of the Farm self-feeders are used for the supplemental feed. Because the pigs are shifted while the self-feeder is empty they are easily moved to the next paddock. These are also available from Hawkeye Steel.
“We have discovered that shifting after every ton of feed is best. This means they shift faster as they get heavier. We tried two tons but it created too many weeds.”
The pigs’ ration is locally grown corn, roasted soybeans, oats and Fertrell’s swine supplement. The pigs also get a small amount of diatomaceous earth for internal parasites.
“The secret to healthy pigs is activity. This is critical for good respiratory function.”
FRESH GRASS IS IMPORTANT
“Also, just as with chickens and cattle, fresh grass is important. With pigs, it is the grass that creates the special flavor.
“And, it is this critical element of freshness that is overlooked in continuously stocked pig paddocks.”
The pigs are not over-wintered in the upland pastures but utilize the Hoop houses used in the summer by the pastured turkeys.
“You don’t want to keep pigs on pasture during the wet winter season as they will churn the soil into mud and it will bake as hard as brick the next summer.
“Keep in mind that thanks to our paddock rotation, each paddock only has pigs in it three times a growing season.”
He said it was important that the pigs not be turned onto the pastures in the spring until the grass was 7 to 8 inches tall to prevent damage to the sward.
Salatin said that in addition to clearing land, pigs could be used to till as well.
He has used pigs to till up his family’s 1/4 acre garden.
“There are two problems with using pigs for tillage. One, the moisture of the soil has to be just right.
“If it is too wet, they can destroy the soil’s texture. If it is too dry, they can’t root it up.
“Second is the problem of scale. To quickly till five acres would require at least 500 pigs. The soil has to be right and the numbers have to be right for it to work.
“It just isn’t practical in most instances.”
© by The Stockman Grass Farmer
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