Forage Options for Pasture-Raised Pigs
By John and Holly Arbuckle
I was looking at a children’s history book the other day when I saw something that piqued my interest. It was a picture of a tapestry. Rather dark and somber in tone, it was nonetheless a medieval snapshot of permaculture in action. A man in a hooded peasant’s tunic had climbed an oak tree and was shaking the branches to release hundreds of acorns. About a dozen eager hogs stood at the base, snouts up-turned as if waiting for manna from heaven.
This is something that catches your eye if you are an aspiring grain-free pig farmer living in modern Missouri. It certainly caught hold of my curiosity and hopefully some of the strategies I will share will catch yours also.
In 2011, we transitioned our pig operation (quite small at the time) to organic grain. This element of our supply chain was something that we had to ship into our farm on a semi truck. The delicate nature of this strategy became clear one morning when I ordered feed. The dispatch operator let me know that feed was unavailable and would not become available for 6 to 8 weeks. Somewhat at a loss I walked back to the pig pasture covered with thin, stemy fescue, timothy grass, and spots of red clover. Not worth much more to a pig for food than it was to me.
Right next to the pig pasture was a fallow market garden field, sown in the spring with field peas and turnips. My family had been eating from this ocean of cover crop greenery for the last several weeks and could attest to its nourishing qualities. I strung up fence and let the pigs loose in the cover cropped fields. They stayed there, for 7 weeks of rotational grazing, supplemented only with broken, unsellable eggs from our pasture-raised hens.
I estimated how much weight the pigs gained during that time. Then, I calculated cost of organic grain vs how much the grazing had cost. It was what you might call an “aha” moment. While it was clear that the pigs had gained more slowly without the grain, the cost had been a pittance in contrast. More importantly it awoke a curiosity to try something new and exciting. Something that, as we would find later, would increase the omega-3 content of our pork by almost 500%. This was then something that would begin our farm’s fastest carbon sequestration cycle in modern memory, something that would make us more and more dependent on polycultures, foraging, and perennials and less dependent on annual monocultures being trucked in from a great distance.
So how did we start grazing? With annual polycultures. This currently represents a very successful although small portion of our grazing lands. On the acres that we cultivate for annual fodder crops there are 4 patterns which are the most common. An additional 2 patterns conclude our forage finish pigs strategy. All of our forages were developed for grazing by highly productive dairy cows. We use them for pigs because pigs don’t have a rumen and cannot utilize a high fiber diet as well as a cow or a sheep. Dairy cows require the “cream of the crop” in grazing, because milk is so energetically expensive for them to make. They require much better forage than even beef cows.
Pattern #1. On the 21st of March we shoot for planting a combination of turnips, kale, peas, and oat grass.
Pattern #2. On the 10th of June we shoot for planting a highly digestible sorghum-sudan grass. We double the recommended seeding rate so we don’t get thick, woody stems. We want only crowded, thin, tender stems. This year we hope to include some buckwheat and climbing cow peas in the mix.
Pattern #3. If weather allows we will plant a crop of cold tolerant turnips towards the end of August for fall grazing.
Pattern #4. On the 5th of October we plant a field in cereal rye. This crop goes dormant over the winter. In the spring it wakes up and puts on 95% of its biomass. At the point when the rye is filling out its seed head we terminate the crop with a roller-crimper. This heavy, metal rolling pin has angled ridges that snap the stem of each and every plant close to the ground. Once laid flat, the field looks like we have just unrolled about a hundred big round bales of straw. Imagine the organic matter! We do this to mulch the field. In doing this we are opening the door to continuous, no till, organic, forage crop production (say that 3 times fast). We then proceed no-till drill our forage crops into this mulch (on the same day we roll it). Should this prove successful it will eliminate tillage on our farm.
Pattern #5. Permanent pasture. Permanent pasture represents over 90% of our cropland. The perennial polyculture of grasses and legumes is one of my favorite applications of permaculture. It is easy, cheap, and fast to establish. It is highly productive in terms of biomass per season and can sequester carbon faster than any other agricultural system I’m familiar with. We could spend a lot of time on the subject of mob grazing and perhaps will in another article. For the present though, the legumes are far more useful to pigs than the grasses. Red and white clover in particular. We move our pigs to a fresh paddock every 3 to 7 days once they have impacted the ground in a positive way and ensure that more and thicker grass will grow next year as a result of their presence. The goal should always be to leave 100% ground cover. Intense grazing followed by long rest for the grass.
Pattern #6. Alternative feeds (sometimes from off farm sources). This is the crux of a good forage based pig operation. Unless you have excellent grazing genetics in your pig herd and have extremely good luck with weather and establishing crops, none of the above mentioned patterns will grow a pig to finished weight in a reasonable amount of time without some addition. The most important of these alternative feeds is waste dairy. Whey from cheese houses is the most common. Our experience is that some form of dairy combined with any other high quality forage and good management will succeed in raising pork. Other feeds include apple, pears, acorns, hickory nuts, unsalable tomatoes or cabbage, the plant bodies of any member of the brassica family and pumpkins. Additionally, all livestock will need a small amount of salt.
We wish you all the best of luck in beginning to break the ties that bind us to to world of huge annual monocultures. Take the process slow and talk to old timers in your area. It has taken us generations to become so entrenched in the agricultural systems that we have. With that thought in mind, don’t feel bad if it takes you 10 years to create a system that works for you. With some imagination, who knows what you’ll learn or do. Perhaps one day you’ll climb up an oak tree to shake down some acorns for your appreciative herd below!
John & Holly Arbuckle are doing a kickstarter campaign for their paleo-friendly, hickory smoked, and bacon-licious pork snacks. These sticks are helping move pigs out of confinement and back onto pasture.