The pork we eat is raised and butchered here on our small farm because we like to be responsible for where our food comes from, and because we also feel responsible to the animals we eat, for their well-being throughout their lives.
With the goal of healthy, homegrown pork in mind, this “RAISING PIGS” Series will share what we’ve learned so far about raising pigs on a small scale for home use.
We’ll begin Part 1 of the series with a question that has been a bit of a dilemma for us: can you have happy, healthy pigs if you don’t move them around?
Are mobile pens the best (or the only) way to provide a healthy environment for pigs?
Assuming you want your pigs to be able to enjoy natural behaviours like digging, foraging for fresh foods and wallowing, do they need to be moved frequently onto fresh ground?
Strategies for housing and feeding pigs vary according to circumstances, and in particular will depend on whether you keep your pigs in one place and can build permanent structures for them, or you want to move them around and need mobile infrastructure.
We’ve tried both – moving pigs around and keeping them in one place. This article shares what we have (so far) found to be the pros and cons of mobile versus stationary pig raising systems, and why we are currently trialling a stationary arrangement for our pigs.
Our pig-raising beginnings – moving pigs on pasture with cattle
We didn’t plan to raise pigs. We moved onto a rental property where the previous tenant had left pigs behind. He was coming back to get them, but the removal date kept shifting, and in the meantime we were taking care of them. So we thought we may as well learn to do it well.
We had read Allan Savory’s Holistic Management and some of Joel Salatin’s books about regenerative farming using electric fencing. Accordingly, we were moving our small herd of beef cattle regularly and we decided to try adding the pigs into the same grazing rotation.
We used electric fencing with a low strand nose-high to a pig, and a higher strand for the cattle and moved them as a mixed herd, together, using food that cattle like in one bucket and food that pigs like in another bucket to lead them to each new area.
It worked okay, but it was labour intensive and time-consuming to make the move often enough to keep the pigs from doing too much digging in one place.
Each move involved shifting the low-and-high fence, the pigs’ shelter (an upside-down rainwater tank), and the pigs’ feed and water troughs. The low strand of the fence was always impeded by tall, thick weeds and grass that had to be slashed out of the way for each move.
It grew tedious, and although we have no objection to hard work, in our opinion keeping animals should be more enjoyable than tedious.
So, for our next few batches of pigs we kept them in their own, smaller pens, separate from the cattle, and moved them less often but still frequently enough to keep them on fresh ground.
Arriving at the decision to try a stationary arrangement
Next, we moved to a new property where we experimented with using pigs to help establish new gardens, a food forest and a fodder forest.
Happily digging pigs clearing ground for a new food forest
However, as those became established and we had less new projects for the pigs to work on, we ran out of new places to put them. Then we found that returning the pigs to places they had been before required a lot of space to rotate them through, in order to give each area time to recover.
We have a very wet climate, so we also found it difficult to provide the pigs with a shelter that was adequate for their needs but still movable.
We tried an upside-down rainwater tank with a door cut in the side, but the rainwater ran underneath it. We tried a laneway system giving access back to a shed from each pen, but the laneway became an unpleasant quagmire. Plus, the space we could use adjacent to the shed was limited which resulted in increasingly barren, lifeless pens that didn’t have time to rejuvenate before the pigs were rotated through them again.
At this point if we list our pros and cons for mobile versus stationary pigs, a stationary arrangement is looking relatively attractive…
Pros and cons of mobile pigs, versus stationary ones
The big, obvious advantage of mobile pig pens is that you can make use of the pigs’ natural behaviours to change their environment, assuming that you have areas you want them to change and that they change them in desirable ways.
We’ve had this work both ways for us. One of the places we have put pigs was a gully that was infested with lantana. They killed the lantana very effectively, and in its place a lovely body of grass grew. Success.
On other occasions we’ve put pigs in grassy areas which they have dug over rapidly and enthusiastically, and weeds have replaced the grass, leaving a lumpy, weedy mess where previously there was level pasture. Not so successful.
For us, whether pigs do damage or do good work seems to depend partly on the weather. When its dry, life is easier, but in our extended wet periods the pigs make a muddy, compacted mess faster than we can move them on.
In our circumstances we’ve found there are lots of advantages to keeping pigs on one place:
- Their shelter can be more substantial, because it doesn’t have to be moved. No more lying awake while the rain pounds on the roof, wondering if the pigs are sleeping dry and comfy or if rainwater is running through their sleeping quarters.
- It’s easier to give them a reliable supply of clean drinking water, as opposed to water that they sit in or tip out within 60 seconds of your filling their movable water tub.
- You can set up a permanent feeding area and feeding can become much easier (more on this in Part 3 of this series).
- Moving the fence, of course, stops being a constant headache and becomes a non-issue.
- The ground that the pigs trample on or dig up, and the areas they wallow in, are contained to one area so you’re not trying to constantly repair the damage across multiple areas.
And, of course, there is one big disadvantage to keeping pigs in one place, which is that the ground the pigs trample on, dig up, or wallow in, is the only ground they have.
From the point of view of the pigs the big advantage to being mobile is that when an area becomes stale, muddied, and manured, they can move onto a fresh, clean area.
Stationary pigs: dry sleeping area and access to outdoors. The yellow circle indicates a nipple for clean drinking water; the blue tub is for blowing bubbles in.
How do you keep pigs and land healthy, without moving the pigs?
Recently we set ourselves the challenge of figuring out if — and how — pigs and their environment can be kept happy and healthy without moving the pigs.
Some aspects of this — clean, dry shelter, clean drinking water, and easier-to-maintain-fencing—are already working so much better than our previous mobile arrangements that we are feeling very encouraged. (I’ll talk about some of those in upcoming parts of this series.)
Other aspects — keeping their outdoor area fresh, providing fresh food that they can dig for, and managing their manure — are still in development. We have ideas that we think will work, but I’ll hold off on writing about them until we know they do work.
Coming up next
Now that we’ve looked at the question of whether we’re moving the pigs around or keeping them in one place, next up in this series I’ll share some of the things we’ve learned about getting started when you bring your new piglets home.