Sunday, March 1, 2015

"managed intensive rotational grazing" and pigs


I've been raising pigs primarily outdoors for the better part of the last decade, and I've read a lot of people who "pasture" their pigs, and there's some of those folks who claim that the pigs get all of their dietary needs from "pasture".  I'm writing this post as a summary of a decade of experience.
In this post I'll be using some photos from various sources; I do that for educational purposes, and in some cases I've used the photos despite being specifically forbidden from using them.   Here's why I'm doing that:

One of the biggest proponents and advocates of pastured pigs isn't doing anything like managment intensive rotational grazing, despite years of claims to be doing so;  in my opinion.    His farm name and blog are on the photos I'm using to illustrate this post, and he's welcome to say whatever it is he'd like in response, but I think you'll agree that discussion of farming practices is best when you get all sides of the issue.


one of my sows grazing on my alfalfa from Bruce King on Vimeo.

"Pasture" defined 

The first thing to do is talk about what people mean by pasture.  I've visited a lot of farms over the last decade; more than a hundred.  Pigs, when they're kept outdoors, have had areas that ranged from bare dirt and rocks to lush growth, and in every case the farmer called it "pasture".  For the purposes of this discussion I'll talk about pasture as being any outdoor area that is used to raise pigs; it may contain trees and brush, or be grass or a planted crop like alfalfa, or it may contain a mix of different plants or it may have no plants left there at all; bare dirt and rocks.   "pasture" is any outdoor area where you keep pigs while you're raising them.

There's no minimum size for "pasture"

There are no minimum size qualifications for "pasture".  I've heard people refer to a 20x20 pen as 'pasture', and I've heard others refer to 70 acres as 'pasture'.

What does Management Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) mean? 

MIRG describes a system of moving animals over the land, allowing them to consume some portion of the vegetation there, and then moving the animals to another spot, allowing the vegetation to recover from the grazing.  
  The theory is that confining the animals to a small portion of the land, the plants that the animals like are consumed, and those that they don't like are either trampled or manured to death. Once the acceptable level of grazing has occured, you move the animals to another area, and you want the rest perioed between visits to be long enough to break parasite lifecycles.  An additional theory is that you can improve the effects of this rest period by putting different kinds of animals out in successive waves -- cows first, for instance, and then chickens to scratch apart the cow patties for the fly larvae which would otherwise hatch and bother the cows.
  An additional benefit is that you are able to control where the animals spend their time.  Generally speaking critters will hang out in areas of your land that they prefer -- a shady tree, or nearby a water source, and those "camps" become areas where parasites thrive and re-infect the animals.  Presenting new, parasite-free ground reduces that.

It's an attractive scenario -- appealing to those folks who want to think that t hey're recreating the grazing of large herds of herbivores, and replicating natural pest control.   For a variety of reasons, if you visit a livestock forum you will often find many discussions of this form of land management for livestock.

Why is it "Management Intensive"?

This term refers to the amount of work that it takes to actually do this sort of management.  Traditionally in the USA most cattle are managed on a "free grazing" system.  This basically involves putting a perimeter fence around the land, and then turning the animals loose in that area to graze whereever they want.   

No fixed permanent feed or water stations

If a farmer is going to practice this form of pasture management they can not use fixed, permanent feeding or watering stations; they must either have a lot of interior fencing, or the ability to temporarily fence smaller areas to restrict access.  More to the point, they've got to move all of the equipment for the animals each time that they move the animals, or provide new equipment at every new paddock.  Fixed feeding and watering stations rapidly become the center for parasite infection, and often will show intensive wear and tear on the vegetation.  Very often they become bare earth or mud.  

Moves are based on the vegetation consumption rate

In addition to moving the fencing, equipment and animals, the farmer needs to keep a close eye on the vegetation itself, and to learn and work with the growing season of their farm and land.  For most of the world there's a part of the year that plants don't grow; out of the standard growing season it doesn't matter if there's a 6 month rest between grazing if it's too cold, or too hot, or too dry, or too wet, for plants to grow.    

Management intensive = your time and attention

You're moving animals, fences, equipment and water, and you're doing so on a semi-random basis based on how fast the animals eat the vegetation that you provide.  That's why it's called Management Intensive.  It takes your time and attention.  

How much vegetation can you  graze off before you move the animal?  

For most proponents of rotational grazing systems, one simple way to tell if you've taken too much is when you see bare dirt.  Bare dirt means that all of the above-ground plants are gone, and probably some of the roots, too.   Taking grazing down to the bare dirt means that the plants will have a harder time recovering, take longer to recover, and generally speaking it means that the favorite plants of the grazing animal are usually completely eradicated; weeds grow faster and larger than palatable plants for the most part.  That's whe they're weeds.  I have grazed down to bare dirt intentionally, but only do so in areas where I have a special need or project.  for the most part I want vegetation on every inch of every acre, for reasons I'll talk about below.

How much vegetation do you leave?    

I like to leave 4 to 6" of growth when I move my pigs to a new area, but the precise amount will vary from farm to farm, from species to species.  My cows, for instance, will naturally stop eating and move to a new spot when it's less than 6" tall, if they've got a choice.   If you're farming you can develope the skill to measure your grazing and its effects on your land -- remember "management intensive"?   This is where your time and attention go, at least initially.  You'll give them larger areas and smaller and over time will get a sense of what they can consume and how long it takes them.  But the key issue here is NEVER bare dirt in the normal course of grazing. 

To be absolutely clear here: I have areas on my farm that are bare dirt; I don't like it, and I work hard not have them, but they do happen.  But I am also making NO claim to be doing MIRG, nor am I proposing that other farmers take up that practice.   Properly done, it's a lot of work, and honestly, I've got a lot of other chores first; most farmers do.    

Here are some pictures of various "pastured pig" operations below.  I'd like you to look at the pictures and see if you believe that they're actually examples of "management intesive grazing".  there's a comment about each picture at the end of the list.  

Picture #1

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Picture #2
Picture courtesy of google maps
Picture #3

Picture #4
Picture courtesy of SugarMtnfarm over their strong objection
Picture #5
Picture courtesy of Polyface farms
picture #6
Picture credit

Discussion:
Picture #1 shows what appears to be a permanent feeding station.  Note large amounts of bare dirt and minimal vegetation.  Most MIRG proponents would say that this area is overgrazed.

Picture #2  shows an aerial view of a farm that appears to be using a free-grazing system.  Note what appears to be minimal remaining vegetation and large patches of bare dirt and apparently random animal paths that show no sign of fencing (eg, no straight lines)

Picture #3:  Small paddocks are good, but most of them show either bare dirt or minimal vegetation.  Most proponents of MIRG would say that the majority of these paddocks are over-grazed.

Picture #4:  Fixed, permanent feeding station.  Notice permanent animal paths on bare dirt leading to and from this feeding station.

Picture #5:  Does this look like rotational grazing?

Picture #6:  Unlike cows and other ruminants, pigs do need mud as protection from the sun and insects and overheating.  Bare dirt is hated by MIRG proponents, but is needed as part of an outdoor pig operation to allow the pigs to manage their own temperature.


26 comments:

chismheritagefarm.com said...

Bruce,
Not wanting to pile on but I do have something to add. Grady had a blog when he was a Polyface apprentice. There were some informative pictures of pigs on pasture and the results after only one day.

I do think the disturbance in the pictures Grady posted are intentional. I think the pigs in that pasture are a tool, being sold later as an added benefit...not pastured pork for the sake of pastured pork. Instead, pastured pork for the sake of improved pastures...in some way. For example, I have used pigs to set the fescue back and add fertility. But it's a delicate operation.

I enjoy keeping pigs and find there are many variables to consider. Pigs like to wallow...when it's warm. But muddy livestock in the winter? Not good. And it takes a long, long time for the pasture to heal over a wallow.

But producers often feel pressured by customers to keep up production year-round. And it has to be pastured! Otherwise we are not honoring the animal (lol). So we see folks trying to pig in the cold and keeping animals in conditions that honor the farmer or the livestock. Do we really think it's a good idea to drop a wet calf on the frozen ground in February? Do we really think the best thing for the pasture is pigs in the rainy season? Are you being deliberate or are simply responding to pressure from customers or peers?

I have no pigs on the farm right now. Makes me sad. But we will have them again soon. We are waiting for warmer weather.

I don't mean to imply that I have this whole farming thing figured out. But I do think we can do better than keeping pigs on slatted floors over a manure pit. We can also do better than keeping pigs on a muddy slope in the winter.

Bruce King said...

Chism, I agree with pigs being a good tool; in the post I link to a blog entry where I used pigs to clear the vegetation from an area of my farm that I wanted to clean up -- it had been used as a dump for decades, and there was all sorts of debris there. Used the pigs to clear the vegetation, and then got in there to clean up what they uncovered.

But that's a different operation than a straight pasturing/grazing experience; and for most people who are grazing pastures, bare dirt is clearly too much grazing.

On sloped ground, or where there's a fair bit of rain, bare ground will erode much faster than covered ground. In my experience pigs will create mud as part of their shelter needs if they can possibly do it; a mud wallow is a desirable feature for a pig. But bare-dirt pens isn't what most folks would call rotational grazing.

EBrown said...

Hi Bruce,
I practice MiG with cattle. I started in with pigs last year.

A number of points -

1. Yes, you're right I abhor bare dirt. The pigs rooting at my pasture last summer bothered me. I am working out how best to manage them in my system under my conditions.

2. Lanes do not necessarily mean there's no MiG going on. I don't have any because I have beef cattle and they stay in the pasture 24/7 with moves to fresh grass every day or so. Some of the best graziers I know have dairy cows though, and you better believe they have lanes to and from the barn. Some are developed (fabric and gravel usually), some are still working on that infrastructure investment. I'm under the impression Walter feeds a lot of whey at fairly fixed points. I can see how he'd get lanes visible from google earth under such a system.

3. Parasites. People make all kinds of claims about how much better MiG is for parasite control. Jim Gerrish (author of the book MiG and coiner of the term) and his colleagues found that rotations did not necessarily reduce parasite load. The life cycle length of parasites varies widely depending on moisture and temperature, so sometimes rotations bring the stock back onto infected ground at just the "wrong" time. At other times they come back around and the worm counts are low. What they DID find made a huge difference was the amount of post graze residual left behind when the livestock moved out of a paddock. Less than 4 inches of grass caused huge increases in worm loads. More than 4, very little worm loading (this was cattle and sheep research).

4. The primary reason I practice MiG is $. The fencing and watering requires investment, but it is cheaper than implements. Using my animals to harvest the grass is the cheapest way I've found to harvest that crop. I don't have the crazy alfalfa market you do there on the west coast.

Jeff said...

I'll just add a few thoughts. Although pasture and free range are words that get thrown around loosey-goosey, I think that common sense dictates that pasture is an area that is mostly covered by growing vegetation. Being outside on dirt/mud/feces is a lot different than being outside on a paddock that is mostly covered with growing vegetation. Second, we all know that pigs need mud/ a wallow to keep cool. Providing this is part of a rotational grazing of pigs, and it's not that hard to do. You basically create mini ponds in every paddock. It's a small sacrifice but it's for the good of the pasture. If you don't designate an area, they will designate one for you. Obviously I'm a big proponent of rotational grazing of pigs, but I don't think there is a "right" or "wrong" way of doing it. There are probably optimized ways of doing it, though, for every climate. Lastly, I think that people should be honest about the seasonality of pig raising. In Western Washington, you can't produce "pastured" pigs in the winter. You can produce cold muddy pigs outside or you can produce dry, warm pigs under cover. Pastured pork is a product of the summer.

Bruce King said...

Ebrown, thanks for the in-depth comment. What you are saying matches my experience; bare dirt is bad for all sorts of reasons, particularly if you're on a slope. Any amount of rain and whatever topsoil you have is gone; parasite loads is news to me, but makes sense.

there's lots of talk about rotational grazing, but when you look at the examples given in the pictures even the basic guidelines aren't being followed.

Bruce King said...

Jeff: You and I would both prefer there to be some sort of vegetation involved in "pasturing" animals. I provide good forage for the pigs in season, and pull them off in the non-growing months, and even with that work I still don't claim to be doing MIRG. I just feel that if you're going to claim to be a proponent of a husbandry practice you should probably actually do it, not just say it.

If we're talking to non-farmers they'll believe every word said uncritically. That's a disservice to every other farmer.

EBrown said...

Bruce,
You might like to read my blog. I'm "loosely" copying Walter Jeffries' pig system, i.e. whey & pasture/hay.

This is my first year with pigs. They have grown *slowly* on this ration. I have some slightly more precise feed numbers if you're interested.

http://cairncrestfarm.com/what-do-pigs-eat-in-winter/

I'm going to do some more posts about pigs in teh future, but if you poke around the blog you'll see that right now I'm doing a year long project of eating only food I grew/grow. So a lot of my posts are about that right now.

Bruce King said...

EBrown -- I'm always interested in peoples experience with raising pigs; I'll take a look at your blog.

With respect to what you write about, what you are actually doing is what I like to read, personally. Even when it doesn't work out, sometimes it's the journey that's interesting.

That's one of the things that I really think the natures harmony guys are missing. He could write a pretty good book about trying, and then failing, to start various farm ventures.
Not everything works out; no demerits for that. The first two businesses I tried failed; the third one I'd worked out the kinks and made a go of it, and the fourth.

Bruce King said...

Ebrown, I'm always interested in numbers. I've looked at your blog and I think you have hit the nail on the head about supplementing pigs diet when they're very cold; Walter does that with cheese and butter and spent barley from brewing and bread as well; so you're actually pretty close to his diet, honestly. All the quacking about hay is nice, but it's not where the calories are, or what puts weight on his pigs.

I think Walter gets his dairy products from cabot, but it really doesn't matter much -- whey is whey.

Walter reads my blog, and I wouldn't be too surprised if he showed up on yours, too.

EBrown said...

Bruce said, "whey is whey".

To some degree this is true, but there are actually two major "classes" of whey - sweet and sour. Sweet whey is a byproduct of cheesemaking. Sour whey comes from cottage cheese, a few soft cheeses, and greek yogurt. Depending on the quality control of the manufacturer, the feed value of the whey can vary by a significant amount.

In general sweet whey (what I believe Sugar Mtn gets most of the time) has a little more protein in it than sour whey does.

I still need to do a few posts about how much feed value I'm getting from the whey, but I believe it is a bit more than 1/2 of what the pigs use each day.

EBrown said...

I hope Walter does check out my blog. He's been a veritable font of useful ideas. It's great to have somebody break the trail for me in a management system I think I can adopt large pieces from.

He and I have had a few email exchanges. We don't see eye to eye on how much feed the pigs get out of hay vs whey. Suffice it to say I think his pigs would look like skeletons if they really get as much (little) feed as he says they do - i.e. 7% of feed from whey and only 1 lb/cwt/day of hay.

My cows eat close to 3 lb/cwt/day of hay and ruminants are significantly better than hindgutters at extracting nutrients from forages. I trust you can do the math...

Having said all that, I do believe he's raised pigs from weaning up to "market weight" on forages alone. I doubt the pigs on that kind of ration are well finished, but he's not the only peron I've communicated with who's done so.

Bob said...

Bruce,

We are planning to begin raising pigs within the next year once we have been able to move on to our land and get settled. I have been following a number of websites, including your own and those you are referring to in this blog, in order to learn as much as possible.

I must confess to wondering why you posted this. What I mean is, as far as I have seen, Polyface never claims to use MIG for its pigs. Instead, they use them to help create savannas from recently logged land. They keep them in an area until they have cleared the land of brush and then move them on to the next area. They say that thy tow the big feeders with a tractor at the time they move the pigs to the next pasture. They also put them in forested areas for a short time in the fall to harvest acorns. Otherwise, they don't hide the fact that they use grain for pigs and don't raise them like their cattle, where they seem to use MIG.

Sugar Mountain does seem to be much closer to MIG but Walter frequently talks about the trails or lanes between the various pasture areas. He also talks about the system of feeding and watering stations all over his mountainous terrain and the wintering areas that are cleared of vegetation twice a year and planted as gardens. The arial photo seems to confirm what he says about all that plus the fact that some of the pasture was recently logged and may not yet be good pasture.

While Walter's methods are more 'radical' than most, I really appreciate that he always cautions us newbies to proceed with caution, to use other feed, including grain if necessary, and not to copy him to closely. He stresses that his pastures have been enriched with many legumes and other vegetation which they have planted and also that he has bred selectively for animals that live on pasture. Thus, according to him, a beginner won't be able to duplicate what he does.

Perhaps he is not quite right re the exact percentage of nutrition that his pigs gain from whey but he doesn't counsel limiting whey but says that he wishes he could get more whey at times.

Given all that, I am not able to understand why you posted this article. Who gains by it?

Bruce King said...

Bob: The simple answer to why I post this sort of entry is for you, and others like you, who are looking for examples of different husbandry styles on the web and making decisions on what they want to do.

Polyface/Joel Salatin, he talks about what he does, and you're absolutely right, he's never claimed to be doing MIRG. But the general public might believe that he does, and so a picture of the conditions on his farm helps illustrate that MIRG is different than what he does.

Sugar Mountain farm / Walter Jefferies is a different sort of animal. He claims to be doing MIRG, but when you look at the pictures and read the descriptions, in my opinion he's not doing anything like the MIRG he claims to be doing.

Specifically: The animal trails don't show any signs of fencing anywhere; that picture is dated 2011 and is the latest I have. I believe the area it shows was clearcut between 2008 and 2009, so it had a few years to regrow.

the "cleared areas that are used as gardens"... I planted 5 acres of acorn squash and pumpkins on flat, level, fertile river-bottom soil. Probably 4500 squash plants. I cultivated the weeds, side-dressed with manure, and produced a good crop of squash. Probably 3 tons an acre. My 100 sows and 200 piglets ate it all in 3 days. All of it. Seeds, vines, squash. So when I look at my experience with growing more than 10 tons of squash, and his claimed number of pigs... it just doesn't fit. I'm pretty clear that my temperate river-bottom soil and long growing season outproduced anything he could do. The video at the top of this entry is a sow of mine grazing in an alfalfa field that I planted. I know what a good stand of alfalfa looks like, and I've never seen anything on his blog that looks viable to me. In fact, I've never seen a picture of more than one of any plant he claims to be growing, with the exception of pumpkins. I think i saw three one time.

He talks about "proceeding with caution" because so many people have come back to him and said "hey, I tried what you said, and it just flat didn't work. what did I do wrong?" He doesn't allow that discussion on his blog, and if you approach him on a forum, like the pig forum on homesteadingtoday.com - you're more than likely to get banned from that forum, too. If you go through the archives of the pig forum on homesteadingtoday.com you'll find many message authors "banned" - at least 50. Including myself.

The other things about walters blog is that he goes back and edits entries so that when people refer to something he said it dissapears, or the link suddenly doesn't work, or there's a completely different statement replacing the one that is being asked about. While that's fine for him to do, it is his blog after all, there's no way to see the evolution of what he has said over time, and I think that's a pity.

Walter has made so many claims about his results that I finally offered him $10,000 to raise 4 OF HIS OWN PIGS per his published specs. he refused. That's not some newbie who can't get things to work, that's the guy making the claim. You can draw your own conclusion on why he declined, but I think it's pretty clear to me. I challenged him in 2009; search for "10,000 sugar mountain challege" on this blog for the entry and walters responses.

In particular, with Walter, you are not getting a balanced or unbiased view. He's out there to sell his pigs, and his image, and my opinion is that what he describes and what he actually does are two completely different things. His "90% pasture-diet pigs" are a marketing point that allows him to sell pigs at a higher price than neighboring farms, and to garner a fair bit of publicity. Nice Marketing.

Walter raises his pigs outdoors, and feeds them stuff that isn't grown on his property, and sends pigs to market. Just like about every other farmer out there.

Bob said...

Bruce,

Thank you for taking the time to give me such a thorough answer. I can appreciate being a little bit skeptical of the figure of 80% that Walter claims is the proportion of the nutrition that his pigs' gain from pasture and hay. At least to question the exact percentages gained from whey as I recall that EBrown did in an exchange on his blog in the past. But it seems to me that it is more a matter of degree (i.e. is it 70% vs 80%?) than outright denying his claim that the majority of his pigs' nutrition comes from his pastures and from hay.

I say this because he provides so many pictures, almost every day, of what he does. Pictures of lush pasture (e.g. see http://sugarmtnfarm.com/2013/07/03/moving-sowth/ or http://sugarmtnfarm.com/2014/06/17/lush-weaner-pasture/ ), pictures of his fences, pictures of the trails that his animals use to access the whey etc.

Also, he discusses his methods in such detail that it would be hard to imagine that it is all made up. E.g. of MIRG, he writes:

"There are many variations the details of how it is done depending on the terrain, climate, soils, farm layout, species and fencing. Some rotational grazing systems look like grids from the air and others look more like natural grass lands and brush, blending into the terrain with trails for moving animals between areas."

That seems to make sense to me, given his mountainous terrain, and would explain the trails that we see in the photo.

Of course most of us are in no position to verify what he claims, but I would think that the locals, who seem to be his main customers, would have a pretty good idea if he was regularly sneaking trucks full of grain or other feed up to the farm.

An important factor in my mind is that it seems his fields have become much more than just 70 acres of grass. He talks about them spreading pounds of various types of seeds each year to enrich the pastures in addition to the vegetables he frequently mention. He describes his pasture:

"Some of those forages are grass. Others are legumes such as clovers, alfalfa, lupins, trefoil and other nitrogen capturing plants. We also have various brassicas, millets, amaranth, chicory and other plants."

Add into the mix his other supplements (apple pomace, whey, cheese, spent barley etc) plus his generations of breeding for the ability to thrive on pasture and I don't see a real reason to doubt that he is doing things quite a bit differently than "every other farmer out there."

But don't worry. I will follow Walter's advice and will not try to copy his methods too closely right away. However, I am intrigued to see how much I can reduce the amount of expensive grain needed as I get more experienced.

Cheers

Bob

Bruce King said...

"lush pasture" - I don't see any alfalfa in that picture, although he claims its there. I also see quite a bit of pigweed, which is a common weed on weak or disturbed soil, but not particularly nutricious. Take a look at picture #3 of this post. Those are his weaner pens, and they're mostly bare dirt - of the 4 pens pictured, 3 are bare dirt. One of the key principles of MIRG is that you don't have bare dirt as a regular part of your rotation, for all sorts of reasons. erosion being a big one. Especially on slopes as shown there.

Walter paints a very pretty picture, and it sure sounds good, right? Excellent marketing. But not MIRG.

EBrown said...

Hey Bob,
I've had a few feed discussions with Walter. Did you see the back-and-forth we had on the Yahoo pasturedpork listserve (it's another one of Walter's little fifedoms)? I did call him on his blog once, but most of our discussions have been on the pasturedpork list.
I think there is a good chance that pasture composes 50% or less of his feed regime despite his claims to the contrary.

1. He has never had an analysis of the whey he feeds, yet he claims quite precise numbers, i.e. 7% of the ration, comes from whey. I think he gets his whey from a smaller producer (not Cabot as Bruce mentioned in the above comments). With a few analyses there really is no basis for making such precise claims. Depending on the level of quality control and the type of cheese being made there could be a lot of calories left in the whey. I also am feeding my pigs whey from Chobani (the greek yogurt maker). Even with a big industrial dairy processing behemoth, the loads vary a bit in the amount of solids they have, and I'm pretty sure they've got their quality control dialed in at a plant of their scale.

2. He claims his pigs could grow to "market weight" in 6-8 months or so. Market weight is a shifting target. Some people think that is 200 lbs live, others think 300. Big difference. Recently I've seen him writing that it means around 250 lbs.

3. If we take 250 as market weight and get there in 180 days under optimal conditions that means the pig has to gain 1.4 lbs per day through its life. Obviously when they're small they aren't capable of gaining that much per day. Once they're bigger they can make up the difference and average out to 1.4 lb/day for the whole period. So to hit those growth numbers a pig needs to put on 3 or more pounds per day during finishing. On forages alone 3 to 4 pounds per day of gain is considered reasonably good for a 1000 lb steer. A steer of that size will eat 30-40 pounds of dry matter per day to put on 3-4 pounds of gain. A 250 lb pig is not capable of eating that much forage per day, not to mention that hind-gut fermentation is less efficient at extracting nutrients from roughage than foregut fermentation is.

4. I've now tried to copy him. My pigs took about a year to get to get to an average weight of 250 on the hay/pasture and whey diet. While I think there is some room for improvement, I certainly don't expect to get the same kind of growth rate from hay/whey that I could from a corn/soy ration.

Bruce King said...

Ebrown: that's an interesting result; most folks don't want to carry a pig for 4 additional months (12 month vs 8 month growout) but if the feed is free, well, that's not a bad result.

Walter has claimed that he has raised "two batches of pigs on pasture alone, with the growout only 10% slower than on feed" repeatedly. What do you think of that claim? No additional feed of any sort -- no whey, butter, milk, cheese... nothing.

EBrown said...

Oops - in my #1 it should say "Without a few analyses..."

I wonder if he stopped making that claim? I've read pretty much of his stuff and never seen that one. I have seen him claim to have raised pigs "on pasture alone" and that "they take a few months longer than supplemented pigs". But no precise numbers to it. I do think it's possible. I went to a talk by Greg Judy a few years ago and he said he'd done it. He didn't give me numbers on growth rate or ultimate slaughter weight, but he sure gave the impression the pigs grew all through the summer. His pastures are really clover rich... I have no reason to doubt him. Also there is that guy Slankers claims to raise "grass-fed pork". Anyway, I think it's possible, it just takes a long time and in many, many cases it is a money losing proposition. The whey is free but the hay is not. And they need a fair amount of it to get through my winters. I guess my hay (haylage really) costs me about $100/ton. It's medium quality. Some parts of the country hay and formulated ration are not too different price-wise.

I think there is no chance on earth one could get a pig from weaning to 250 lbs on forages alone by 7 months of age(i.e. a little more than 10% extra).

Link to Slankers - http://www.texasgrassfedbeef.com/meat-store/products/category/omega-3-pork

Link to my blog - I need to market this more positively (look at the Slanker's page then read my link here) - http://cairncrestfarm.com/5-5-1/

Bruce King said...

I just did a quick search on walters blog and turned up a comment dated June 4th, 2014, and I quote: "...We have raised several batches of pigs to market weight on pasture alone. It works. They’ll grow more slowly and be leaner taking about nine months to get to market weight..." You'll find the quote in the comments section of this post: http://sugarmtnfarm.com/2011/11/17/hays-here-2011-pigs-eat-grass/

the claim varies; sometimes he does this stocking at 20 pigs an acre, sometimes at 10 pigs an acre, sometimes he comes up with some formula saying feed X hay per cwt (hundredweight) of pig, etc. I agree with you: I don't think that 9 months from birth to 250 on pasture alone is possible, and certain not with a 4 month growing season on poor ground. When you call him on it suddenly it's your fault you're not doing things right, basically. If you go back to the sugar mountain $10,000 challege post I provide a link to every parameter I listed there, each one a quote direct from walter.

Honestly, if he dropped the 'pasture alone' claim, and stopped claiming the 90% number I'd have no problems with him at all. I'm just tired of the "do you feed your pigs grass" question that I get every week or so.

Just to be clear: pigs can grow and thrive on forage alone. just not in a timeframe or with carcass quality that most farmers would be satisfied with, much less consumers expectation. Pigs raised outdoors with some extra calories are both happier and better tasting for it.

Bob said...

Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful comments. I think that you are right, Edmund, it must have been on the Yahoo paturepork listserve that I read your exchange with Walter. It might be wise for Walter to have his whey analysed.

Also, thank you for the link to your site. Looks interesting. I have added it to my favourites. The land we are moving to is in eastern Ontario, near Lake Ontario, so the conditions likely won't be too different from yours so I will follow your experience with interest.

I have not yet raised pigs and have been following Walter's and other blogs for only a couple of years. But in that time, I haven't found Walter to be as hard-line or cut and dry about the numbers as I read you to be saying, Bruce.
E.g.:
1. I have seen him use the 80% figure most often for nutrition coming from pasture/hay but on reading your comments today I did some searching and found a couple of older ones that mentioned 90%. Interestingly, on March 6 2009 he mentioned 60-90% coming from pasture and hay and he repeated that on in a reply on Oct 9, 2013. But usually he mentions 80%.

2. He mentions 10 pigs per acre almost all the time in entries that I have read. On digging back I found that he did mention 20 pigs per acres on Oct 12, 2007. However, he also says in that same blog that "For figuring stocking densities I tend to use the figure of ten pigs per acre." He also stated in the same posting that "If I only had the pasture I would have only about 25% - 50% as many pigs on it, so about 10 pigs per acre."

He also added at the beginning of the post something which I have found instructive and fairly characteristic of what I have felt to be his attitude:

"WARNING!
If you are a person with too sharp a pencil please put it down. You can not take numbers from one situation and misapply them to other situations willy-nilly. Each pasture is different. Pig sizes and ability to digest forages varies. Pastures vary with the season. Things change over the years. Management techniques are adjusted. How I do things in 2001 is not going to be the same as I do in 2011. How many acres we have open for pasture does not stay linearly smooth with how many pigs we have – e.g., in 2009 we cleared a large new section of fields but we didn’t all of a sudden quadruple the number of pigs we had. There are too many variables to apply numbers as absolutes and expect graphs to all look smooth. Instead, use the article below as a guide to give you a feel for one situation. Now relax and enjoy…"

So, while he has mentioned both 90% nutrition from pasture/hay and has mentioned 20 pigs per acre, those seem to be the exception rather than the rule from what I can find on his blog.

Thanks for the conversation!

Bob

Bruce King said...

Bob, the disclaimer that walter puts on his blog entries ("...sharp a pencil...") was the result of people who basically told him that his stuff was not possible. It's a cheap way to not have to defend his promoted method of raising pigs.

Walters blog plays best to people who don't know much about farming or pigs. He paints a very attractive picture, but the details are pretty messy. The "sharp pencil" might be EBrown, for instance -- who independently decided that the claims were not possible either (9 months on pasture alone, etc).

regarding 10 pigs or 20 pigs or whatever. You're assuming that what walter writes remains the same, or that he doesn't edit stuff that is older. It doesn't, and he does. What that means is that his blog isn't a useful reference for what he was saying/doing 5 years ago; if it doesn't fit todays point he'll go back and edit it to match. or outright delete the entry entirely. It's also not an unbiased source of information; walter tolerates no discussion of his methods on his blog or, generally speaking, in any forum he is involved with.



Bob said...

Bruce,

I am not sure what you want Walter to do.

Above you state: "Honestly, if he dropped the 'pasture alone' claim, and stopped claiming the 90% number I'd have no problems with him at all. I'm just tired of the "do you feed your pigs grass" question that I get every week or so."

When I pointed out that he is no longer making those claims you seemed to be accusing him of changing his tune. But isn't that what you want him to do?

I am not saying that I am fully agreeing with everything that he says (how can I say for sure at this point?), but I just haven't found him to stating things as you state that he does. I found and followed his long exchange on the Yahoo site with EBrown and, while I agree with Edmund that it would have been very helpful if Walter had some batches of his whey analysed, I didn't sense that he was hostile to the respectful questioning combined with sharp analysis.

Thanks again for the exchange!

Bob

Bruce King said...

Bob, I'm not sure how to put this. You found quotes on his blog yourself that contradict each other. You want to cherry pick and say that "well, he actually meant this quote, and not that one". Why not just ask Walter directly what his views are, since he's said both things.

I don't think he's changed his tune, or that he will. I also don't think that he practices MIRG as most people understand it, and I certainly don't think that 90% of his pigs diet comes from the pens he keeps them in.

I haven't seen the exchange on the yahoo group you reference. The forum that I know of there is effectively dead: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/PasturedPork/info

But I have seen many people get banned by walter when they questioned his statements or promoted practices.

If you'd like a forum about hog raising that is a little more open, try

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/homesteadhogs/info

EBrown said...

Bob,
I'm pretty sure he's still making the 80-90% claim about his pastures. Google his farm for "one day's grazing" from last year. There is a comment on that post from this year (well after my exchange with him on that topic).

I also had an exchange with him about a paragraph in the above post - must have been on pasturedpork. I pointed up the fact that my climate is similar but a little better. Alfalfa is a great pig forage. It yeilds somewhere around 4 tons/acre if well managed in NY. To grow-out 10 pigs (simple math = 2000lbs/gain) would require that they be able to convert forage to flesh at a ratio of 4:1. Pigs can do a bit better than that conversion-wise on formulated ration, but the total digestibility of forages is so much lower there is no way ANY animal is capable of that kind of turn around. As they say in Australia, "pull the other one".

Obviously there are plenty of assumptions built into my thought experiment, but Occam's razor tells me either Walter is well off the mark with how much feed value he imports or he is well off the mark with how long it takes his piglets to get to "market weight". Or both.

EBrown said...

I am more forgiving of his claim about MIG than Bruce is. IMHO there are a lot of different incarnations of "managed grazing" and it appears to me Walter is doing at least a fair job of practicing it. He clearly varies the paddock size and length of stay according to the forage and the # of animals in the grazing unit. The bare dirt to my eye looks like it is mostly in weaning paddocks, lanes, and under trees where little forage could possibly regrow by the time a pasture had bounced back. I hate bare dirt and the erosion and leaching (of minerals into the subsoil) it allows. But if there are pastures adjacent to the bare spots we see in the photos they'll capture almost all the erosion from those bared spots.

I also wanted to say that I appreciate all the info and ideas Walter puts out on his blog. I think he's come up with a nice little business. It's a shame he undermines his credibility by making such outrageous feed value claims, but that need not detract from the other nifty aspects of his operation.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm essentially trying to copy him. It's nice to have an example to look to for various ideas and problems I come up against, i.e. how to deal with whey when it is -20 degrees out.

Bob said...

Thank you, Edmund. Yes, he still makes the 80% claim but I haven't seen 90% for a long time. If he is off with those figures, it is my hunch that you are correct that the difference is in the actual nutritional value of the whey vs his estimates. I agree with you that one can learn a lot from Walter's blog, as long as one takes very seriously his (and others') warnings not to try and copy him exactly.

BTW, I have discovered your blog and really appreciate your analysis of the effect of different feeds (e.g. grains) on pork fat. I am looking forward to following the further development of the pork side of your farm on the blog.

Bob