How to Start Raising Pigs on Pasture
How We Got Into Natural Pig Farming
The latest project here on our farm is raising pigs on pasture. In the last year and a half, seven litters of piglets have arrived, showed off how cute they can be, were weaned, and fed for a few weeks (and even months in some cases). All were sold and the waiting time would begin again. The sows had some time off after each litter, to gain some weight, rest and completely dry off. Then, Charlie would welcome them back into his pasture area and the breeding cycle would begin again.
We started raising pigs with two sows and Charlie, the boar. Soon after another sow was added.
During this last year and a half, we have learned a lot about how raising pigs works on our farm. It’s been a bit of trial and error on some issues as we tried some conventional ideas, and some of our own. One thing we knew from the start: we wanted the pigs to have as close to a natural existence as we could provide for them in captivity. The project was started by one of our adult children and he has been successful with the whole thing.
Inspired by books on pasture rotation and sustainable agriculture by Joel Salatin and Gaining Ground by Forest Pritchard, we learned how raising pigs on pasture helped them thrive. We agreed from the start that a certain level of cleanliness would be necessary. There were large fenced pastures available but it was a limited space. Fencing in more pasture ground might be possible in the future but it would have to wait. And we have neighborhoods and a road near the farm, so security and safety were of high importance. The other thing we agreed on was that we absolutely did not want pigs living in close, crowded conditions of filth and manure.
Instead of using cement slabs and metal fencing, we used run in stalls open on one side, soft straw and sawdust bedding plus pallet barriers with wood fencing. The entire area is wired with electric fencing and the interior of the pig acreage is broken into different parcels, fenced and wired. This allows us to separate pigs as necessary, gives the sows some space to raise the piglets and the piglets to be weaned.
Make no mistake, it was a lot of work to get this set up for raising pigs on pasture. The buildings were already in place as the area had previously been used as horse paddocks. But they needed repair and needed to be pig proofed.
And, when separated, they like to try to get back together. Charlie, Mariah, and Layla were quite the bonded family. Our third sow, Squishy, stayed with us an extra year and gave us one litter. When each sow would farrow, or right before if we were on our game, she would be escorted to a birthing room with a fenced in area surrounding some lush green grass and weeds. She would be pampered with lots of table scraps, fresh composting veggies and extra hay and feed. The babies would thrive and follow Momma around. All well and good but while the sow was being treated as queen of her pasture, poor Charlie was looking on from the other side of the fence, forlornly. When venturing into any DIY fence installation project, my advice is to make your fences “hog-tight,” as they say. Pigs love to escape!
Our Pigs Are Not Pets!
I think this is a good time to back up and explain some pig behavior. Telling you how good the momma sows are and how Charlie hates to be alone, might lead you to think we treat the pigs as pets. This is far from the truth. We respect the possibility that the pigs’ volatile nature means they can turn on us at any minute.
A sow protecting her piglets is a force that you do not want to cross. We respect that and take precautions. A pig board is a must to have between you and the pig at all times. If the piglets need to be handled, at least two people should be on hand, so one can keep an eye on Momma. Pigs might be cute and they sure are smart, but they are still livestock and have a volatile nature.
Ok back to the story. Charlie is missing his sows and they start to miss him too. They all pace the fence line trying to spend quality time together.
With the current litters of pigs we are trying something a bit different. Layla farrowed first and was moved to a maternity suite. Three weeks later Mariah delivered her litter but instead of moving her to a separate area and run in shed, we left her with Charlie.
A lot of references will tell you that this can end badly with the boar killing and or eating the piglets but if you observe pigs in the wild, that does not happen. While Charlie may not take an active role in raising the piglets, he isn’t bothering them either. He is behaving the same as he always does toward Mariah and is tolerant of the babies, three weeks later. Hopefully this won’t change and of course, we are keeping a close eye on the whole situation. The piglets don’t stay long on our farm before moving on to whoever buys them. Everyone seems so calm this time, with the situation. And if we need to switch things up, Layla is almost done with her litter so she and Mariah could switch places. All things considered, the little pig family is calm. We have tried to keep the human interference with this pasture to a minimum. Only my son cares for the pigs in this field. And I have even curtailed my picture taking! As we get more comfortable with the decision to leave Charlie with the sows, we might be more comfortable going into the pasture and run in the shed from time to time.
Pasture Rotation is Key When Raising Pigs
Rotation is the key to raising pigs on pasture. This allows the vegetation to regrow and the fields from being overfilled with pig manure and mud. Pigs are a great help in clearing land of roots and vegetation! Since this system works with nature instead of against it, the vegetation regrows quickly and a lush green area is ready for use every three months or so. Of course, if we have a rainy season like we did this spring and early summer, it’s hard to keep anywhere from becoming muddy.
I enjoy having the pigs on the farm. Keeping them from escaping takes some vigilance, and they do eat a good bit of food, vegetation, and grain. We try to feed them as naturally as possible but we do have to supplement with some grain. More woodland will be fenced in eventually, and we will see how they do with a more wooded environment, too. No matter how long you live on your farm or homestead, there is always something new to learn. That is my idea of a life well lived.
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.