Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pastured pigs: SARE grant

My friend Sabra reminds me from time to time that the government does a lot of stuff that is valuable and useful, and one of those things that they do that I find particularly good is the SARE grant program. 

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) is a program where farmers can get money to help them experiment with different practices to figure out what works the best for them, and for others.  The grant is given with the condition that the results are shared with the public, and there has been quite a bit of work done with these grants that most small farmers find interesting. 

You'll find more information on the SARE program here

The video that I'm going to talk about today is the product of one of those sare grants,
you'll find that video here.    You'll find the farms website here

Pigs are kept on grass or on fields planted with barley and peas, and the feed they're given is carefully measured out to see how effective the pasture mix is.   These pigs are on what I'd consider good pasture, and are what I would visualize when someone says "pastured pork"

00:10 : what pigs eat on a field in this farmers experience. 

00:38:  Why pasture -- less feed costs

00:56:  As with most pasture operations, this one is also feeding a prepared feed.  I'm guessing that this is a corn-soybean mix. 

01:00  They use cows to move their feed around.  No tractors. 

01:20:  We want to use the pigs to till the soil so that we could plant things that pigs eat. 

01:28:  Note that the pen that the pigs are kept in is bare dirt with rocks.  They feed the pigs by pouring the feed on the ground. 

01:30  Pigs on pasture, rooting up the grass.  this is pretty typical pig damage.  Left to their own devices they will turn over all of the sod. 

01:40  The experiment:  Take some pigs, divide them randomly, put half on grass and half on stuff they planted for the pigs to eat.  Weigh the pigs every week, and weigh the food that they gave the pigs. 

02:10  Notice that the pigs are in greenery up to their shoulders, and they're eating it.  This is what I'd consider pastured pork. 

03:26  The pigs are getting 6.4lbs of feed per day plus what they can forage

03:53  Again the feed is poured on the ground


bc said...

That was kinda frustrating - what happened? After talking about the experiment she left out the results. I was getting interested.

Bruce King said...

I've emailed the farmer to ask about the results. The initial stuff sounded interesting. She basically was able to put the pigs on half the rations of the other pigs.

This is the first time that I know of where the basic premise of "good pasture replaces feed" has been tested.

bc said...

Her cereal/legume crop will only work for a part of the year. Two/three months?

There's a whole lot of work the grassfed/finished beef folk have done with "forage chains" to provide green matter all year round with both permanent pastures and annual crops. You could use the annual crop system to provide year-round grazing for pigs.

I'd also be keen to see the state of the field after grazing. The video misses out all the info on preparing the seedbed and seeding, but the pigs themselves might do a fine job of soil prep. Still, I'm guessing you'd need to disc and roll before seeding.

Plus she needs some real oxen. Too bad they don't have Mirandaise over there (http://bit.ly/obBWpg).

Joanne said...

I'd be interested to see if the pigs getting half of their feed from foraging were leaner and what the foraging did as far as the flavor of the meat but more importantly the fat.

Also, I wonder for them what the difference in finishing time was, or if there was a difference, between them and the control group.

I raise cornish X broilers. My birds get around half of their feed from foraging (I run them loose with my layers) and they eat layer ration instead of grower or finisher ration. It takes my birds 4 months to get to my 3-5 lb. target range. But it doesn't cost any more to feed. Once I get them past 2 weeks of age, I almost never have any health problems with any of them. Short of predators, I almost never loose a bird. The birds are heavily muscled and extremely lean, I've had people say they've never had a bird that lean. Yet they're still nice and tender. I've noticed that they do taste different, and it's got to be what they're foraging because these are the same birds going to the big commercial growers.

On the legume foraging, and how long during the year it would last, depending on where she is in Maine, given that the hogs are eating the leaves/stems and not so much interested in the pods, she would have a lot longer than 2-3 months if she rotates paddocks. If the pigs are eating the young barley when it's really sweet, then she should get more than 2-3 months out of that crop too as long as she rotates paddocks.

What I'd do would be to plant the paddock as soon as the hogs are moved out of it. Just keep moving the pigs around and planting right behind them. If the pigs like the peas nice and tender in warm weather it should take about a month for them to get 18"-24" tall. That's the ideal size for large tender pea leaves and stems.

I grow pea threads for restaurants and it usually takes 1-2 weeks for the younger threads, 2"-3" tall, and a month or so until they're big enough to harvest the leaves for salad greens. Having eaten a lot of those kinds of greens, I can understand why the pigs would like them. They're very good. I almost don't even bother growing peas for pods anymore.

Bruce King said...

You'll find an overview of this particular study here:


you'll find the final documents here:


I called Ms. Tierney today and talked to her for a few minutes; she said that the gain experienced towards the end of the growout wasn't as close as the first weight gain was, and that she attributed that to a variety of factors; competition between the hogs for the little bit of prepared feed that they were fed, differences in the age and composition of the foliage, etc.

She also said that she regretted not raising a group of hogs on dirt as a control. The pastured hogs - the ones one grass - could have gotten some benefit from that as well.

I appreciate her work on this.

Bruce King said...

And it's interesting to note that feeding pigs off pasture was more expensive than feeding them via feed.

that's not the conclusion I would have thought they'd come up with.

Little Seed said...

I was also surprised that the pastured pigs ended up costing slightly more. It looks like the primary factor was that the incremental cost of the seed and the ultimate seed crop production was not converted efficiently enough to outweigh the amount of grain it would have taken to finish the hogs. Grain for control pigs cost $319, seed and grain for experimental pigs cost $307, roughly the same. But avg meat/hog was lower by 20lbs for the experimental. The lighter weight helped offset some slaughter costs, but not enough to account for the lower weight gain.

Maybe a higher protein forage like peanuts or something would lead to greater weigh gain and feed conversion on pasture? Maybe better use of the forage through higher stock densities and more rapid rotations (as she notes in the write-up)?

Very interesting experiment, thanks for sharing.