Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What makes it harder to farm?

I got a call today from a man that I've done business with for the last 6 years.  He asked me if I'd heard anything, any rumors, and I said no, I hadn't, and asked him about what. 

"Well, the corporate headquarters decided that they are going to close the feed mill on highway 20, and you've been a bulk customer of that mill, and as of June you'll have to do something else for your feed". 

Apparently they will give a couple of weeks of pay for every year of service, which must be cold comfort for those guys working at the mill who are 55 or older; I see plenty of folks who get this sort of layoff and then take a substantial pay cut on their next job.  For the corporation it's pretty easy math; no more health care costs, lower employee salary cost, and more profits for the shareholders.  That's all that matters, right? 

The closing of this mill was a surprise.  That mill makes more than 100 tons a day of feed for the local market, which gives it roughly $33k a day in sales, or $600k a month; in the pig farmer area I know of at least 3 pig farmers who are going to have to find another feed source for their complete ration. 

I've just brought in 500 pigs, and I had plans to bring in another 500 a little later this year.  For me this is sort of like saying "hey, the only hardware store in your county is going out of business, so if you need hammers, or nails or whatever, you can drive 10 hours to get them.  Sorry about that!

I asked about the plans and there was some vague answer about relocating the mill to eastern oregon somewhere, or stockton california (more than 1,000 miles away), and that for bagged feed that they'd be running trucks up here to supply the 100 tons of bagged feed that they were currently selling, but there wasn't a solution for bulk feed as I need it. 

I'm glad that he called now, because I'm just about to start planting corn, and it looks like I'm going to plant a lot of corn.   I have been working towards growing and manufacturing my own feed - vertical integration - for years now, and I guess it's time that I started planting farm-scale crops. 

farm-scale:  Enough grain crops so that I have sufficient supply for 1 year or more of operation of my farm.  I'll do corn first, and then figure out minerals and protein later.  I can actually get concentrate that is designed to be added to corn to make a complete ration for pigs, and I guess I'm going there sooner than I thought. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

first pigs on the new farm

New pigs for a new farm.   This location is central to several fields, so it'll be the pigs home base.  I'll run fencing from here to various areas that they'll graze on.  

The pen is pretty simple; hog panels connected with torsion screws that I made from pieces of high-tensile wire.  I re-use these panels for years, so having a simple solution for connecting them that doesnt damage the panel is good. 

This fence isn't particulary sturdy - the little pigs won't push on it much as long as everything they need is inside the pen.  Full feeders, automatic waterer, and plenty of buddies makes for content weaners.  

Later I'll run my electric fence inside this physical barrier to teach the pigs to avoid it, and then they'll be ready to start rotationally grazing.  

The weather is just starting to warm up, the grass is growing, but we haven't hit the spring growth spurt yet.  

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Raising pigs on pasture alone

One of the things that I get questions on from customers is what I feed my pigs.  A mixture of complete feed, produce from super markets, bread and other human food that is past its prime or there's been some sort of accident that makes it available to me.  (Accidents like spearing the side of a container of pumpkin pie filling with a forklift.  The pie filling is just pureed pumpkin, but they can't use it in the food production because it's punctured - but the pigs like it just fine. 
click on picture for more detail

There's a segment of the customers who are puzzled by that - why don't I raise my pigs on grass alone, like the guy in vermont?   Or on acorns like the farmers in spain?   It's happened often enough that I have a standard talk - "well, that guy in vermont who claims to raise pigs on pasture alone, I offered him $10,000 to raise pigs per his claimed standards, and he declined.  "

There's no question that you could raise pigs on forage alone; wild pigs manage to do that every year, and in warmer areas of the country they've been so successful that they have become pests and are basically hunted without restriction.  If that's true, why not raise my pigs on forage alone? 

The claim made was that you could keep 20 pigs on an acre of ground and have those 20 pigs grow from weaned pig size to market weight on the forage they got from that amount of ground alone. 

So lets put some numbers on that:  to grow from 40lb feeder pig size to finished pig size at 250lbs is 210lbs of weight gain.   In a heated barn with very good nutrition and no immune challenges like the common cold - that amount of weight gain would take 520lbs of feed (2.5 lbs of feed per pound of gain).   

There's a lot of research on what to feed pigs and their nutritional needs vary by the growth stage they are in, but in a general sense we can get close enough for discussion by using the calorie value of a pound of corn (1660) and a pound of soybeans (2030).  Pig feed is about 70% corn and 30% soybeans, so (.7 * 1660 + .3 * 2030 = ) 1771 calories per pound of feed.

To raise one pig from 40lbs to 250lbs takes a little under a million calories in perfect conditions - remember, these pigs are in temperature controlled barns and are protected from disease or anything else that would impede their growth. 

That's different than the environment when they are raised outdoors.  My experience with pigs raised on pasture is that they consume more feed; in the early parts of the year they're using the calories to keep themselves warm, in the later parts to keep themselves cool, and all of the time to fight off all of the small ailments that they're exposed to in nature.  Every time they get a sniffle it doesn't hurt them, but it does hurt the efficiency of gain. 

So for this hypothetical pasture I'd need to grow roughly 20 million calories worth of food at a minimum, with the real number probably being closer to 30, in order to meet the nutritional needs of the pigs. 

Lets take a look at how many calories per acre various crops produce

Corn:  15 million
Potatoes:  15 million
Rice:  11 million
Soybeans:  6 million
Wheat:  4 million
Broccoli:  2.5 million
Spinach:  1.7 million

To get 15 million calories of corn from an acre you can't keep the pigs in the same area.  The corn has to be planted, grow and mature in order to get the full calorie advantage.  That is not what the claim
is:  the claim is you can keep 20 pigs an acre and have them get all of the food they need from that acre while they live here.   Even if you reduced the number of pigs by half - 10 pigs per acre - you'd still need to have the entire acre covered with either corn or potatoes that grew unmolested and were harvested when maximum calories were available. 

That's why I don't believe the claims of having raised pigs on forage alone.  Not in the area described, and not at the speed claimed ("10% to 20% slower than on regular feed"). 

Now it's entirely possible to raise enough crops to feed pigs on your own.  I'm doing that on my farm now - I plant separate acreage with corn and harvest that corn to form the bulk of my pig feed.  My pigs are kept outdoors, on vegetation - mostly alfalfa, which they enjoy eating - and they're given a ration of last-years corn to grow on.   In the winter the pigs allowed out,but choose to spend most of their time in the barn, sheltered from the weather. 

What would it take to grow a pig on pasture forage alone? 

To raise 10 pigs on pasture you need an acre of corn somewhere to feed them, or you need to provide enough acreage so that each hog has multiple acres to forage from, as wild pigs often do.  And you'll get a result that is closer to wild pig than farm pig - a much leaner body, a much smaller body, and much less fat.   I am not aware of any commercial pig venture that is doing that now.  Even iberico pigs in spain are fed a grain ration: