Pigs in Vietnam
Photos © Craig Mackintosh unless otherwise indicated
I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals. — Sir Winston Churchill, British politician (1874 – 1965)
Like Winston Churchill, I also like pigs. They are intelligent, highly social, are fun to watch, and make awesome tractors!
The use of animals to clear and manure land in preparation for planting is a well known permaculture approach to agriculture that can reduce the need for machinery, eliminate the need for artificial fertiliser, and provide pest control. The classic example is the chicken tractor for preparing veggie beds or the use of ducks for pest control once the veggie garden has been established.
The use of pigs enclosed in a movable pen or ‘pig tractor’ is a great way to clear large areas of land, or help break up hard packed, or clay ground.
As pigs are social creatures, to keep them happy it is best to have more than one. In addition to keeping them happy, this will also get the job done even faster.
Piglets having a ‘domestic’ in Vietnam
Pigs have a natural tendency to dig. If not restricted to the area you want dug, they will quickly turn a nice garden into a quagmire! This is why a lot of pigs sold as pets come with a nose ring as they use the tops of their snouts to burrow and the ring is supposed to prevent them doing this by inflicting some pain if they try. I think this is cruel and it really only works for a short while as the pig usually rips the ring out after a while.
Enclosing the pigs where you want them to dig is important, but be aware that pigs love to explore and wander far, so a decent size enclosure should be built. Once contained, it is possible to get pigs to dig in hard ground or around particularly difficult to dig out boulders by sprinkling some grain around the area you want them to concentrate on. In their frenzy to get at the grain (pigs really love their food), the pigs will dig boulders out in no time.
A ‘tractor’ can be built in similar fashion to a chicken tractor but on a much larger scale. Or, simply fence the area you want pig ploughed. A simple single electric wire fence constructed at snout height can keep pigs contained, is quite cheap, and is easy to relocate. However the pigs need to be conditioned to be wary of the fence (start when they are young), and the fence needs to be one that gives quite a strong zap if they touch it, otherwise they’ll just barge through.
Pigs in Slovakia
I found that once the pigs are conditioned to know the electric fence will bite, they pretty much stay away from it. So if there are periods when the power to the fence is out (for whatever reason) the pigs should still stay contained. Although, I have noticed that they test it every now and again (evidenced by an accompanying squeal), so try not to have the power out for too long.
If building a normal fence, then dog wire or normal fencing wire will keep pigs in. They will try to lift any wire to get under it so ensure it is taught and low with strands close together.
Getting pigs to move to a new tractor can be a challenge as you can’t just put a collar on and drag them with a lead like a dog; try moving a 150kg pig that doesn’t want to move! However, most will readily follow a bucket of food anywhere. Mine love biscuits, crackers or chips, so will follow the crackling sound of the packet if given one or two treats along the way. Anything sweet will also do the trick as, like most mammals, pigs love their sweets.
Pigs may be slower at ploughing than tractors or horses, but they do a more thorough job. They turn under and rip up sod and eat it. They eat weed roots and seed heads from thistles. Pigs will trample weeds and uproot small trees — resulting in ground that is open, aerated, and weed-free.
Pigs chillin’ out in Australia
It is a good idea not to keep pigs in one area for too long. Although I have read information to the contrary, I have seen evidence that, over larger areas, pigs will tread the same paths which will compact the soil in that area. It is better to move them between small sections that take them a week or so to till up than to leave them on a big section that takes them months to work over. Once you move your pigs to another area, follow them with your chicken tractor. Your little ladies will scratch the pig poo into the ground, even out the lumps and bumps, eat any pests, and add their own poo into the mix.
When running a pig tractor be aware that pigs can create a lot of mud and leave lots of poo. There may be situations where these nutrients can run off into water systems, such as if the tractor is on a hill or close to a creek. This is not an issue I’ve ever had but thought it worth mentioning as a caveat to this article. Not all systems are suitable for all areas, so, as with all things we do in permaculture, observe carefully and of course do no harm.
Please look after your pigs. In the long run they will be cheaper than running a fossil-fueled tractor, and definitely better for the environment. Make sure they are well fed, with easy access to fresh water that they can drink and make a wallowing hole with.
If a pig loses it’s voice, is it disgruntled?
Marty’s pig, Kevin, behind electric fence
Photo© Marty Miller-Crispe