Tuesday, June 7, 2016

What is overgrazing when it comes to pigs - or any animal, really?

Walter Jefferies over at Sugar Mountain Farm has made promoting pastured pigs his main enterprise for  the last 10 years, and he's reached a lot of people with that message.   But every now and then I think he goes off key.

The hardest part of putting animals out to graze is learning how to graze to get the best production of forage off of your land.  How fast the animals eat, what they eat, how much damage the hooves do to the ground, and the weather are all factors.
picture cropped from a larger one at sugarmtnfarm.com
The picture above is one that was used to illustate how the sows "...mow the grasses, clover and other forage down to a almost lawn-like consistency...",

The grass in this picture is less than 1" tall, and is sparse.  there's a fair bit of rock and bare dirt showing in the picture, and honestly, this looks overgrazed to my eye.  Why do I say that?

Colorado state university pasture management
As you can see from the picture above, the roots of the grass are very likely very short, and the total energy that the plant has -- energy used for survival, growth and recovery - is likely to be pretty low, too.  Ideally when you're done with animals grazing there's going to be a good length of forage still available.  The picture that Walter promotes as his practices doesn't show much of any stubble left.  

Rain crow ranch, picture source
In the picture above you can see cattle to the left that are on new ground; just grazing, and a grazed area to the right.  With a rotational grazing system - which requires a fair bit of work, both with extra fencing and extra management to move the animals from place to place on time - you can keep your forage in good condition, and double or treble the amount of forage actually produced.  

As always, when you see something promoted on the internet, take it with a grain of salt.  


plummerj said...

I was interested to see your entry today because, by chance I heard a TED talk by Alan Savory on combating desertification (and global warming) by free grazing and adding more animals. Dynamite speaker! Can it really be this easy? Well, I think the answer is no, for just the reasons you mention--the amount of pressure the browsers put on the pasture must be carefully monitored and managed. It strikes me in the attempt to do things in a more natural and sustainable way, people often get distracted by ideology, rather than careful observation.

Bruce King said...

Alan Savory is a compelling speaker, but there's a fair bit of controversy about what he says and the results he claims. Including skeptics who have tried what he promoted and failed. I watched what he said, and I understand his theory, but after reading the skeptics, I'm not convinced that what he says works, with respect to over grazed land.

But I do know that property managed ground can be much more productive if rotationally grazed and managed, and so I try to use that technique whenever possible.

But I'll be the first to admit that I do free graze my animals, too. It is much simpler if you have sufficient ground to prevent overgrazing. So my 50 head of cattle on 90 acres can't keep up with the grass and alfalfa during growing season, so I haven't had to rotate them much. the cost of this? the herd has favorite areas that they over-use, and I'm going to start excluding them from those areas while they regrow

Southern Geologist said...

This post brings up an excellent point. My point is more pig specific, but there are also good arguments against raising pigs entirely on pasture, even ignoring the need for rotation. (http://www.righteousbacon.com/pigs-pasture-only-supplement-feed/) There is a middle ground to be found, of course: Joel Salatin makes it very clear that he installs pig feeders in pastures so they have access to feed as well as forage, and Mark Shepard, while he does claim to raise the pigs entirely on forage, has many nuts and fruits (berries etc) for the pigs to forage through and advises people to plant trees, bushes, etc. that produce high protein fruits and nuts if they plan on running pigs.

Unfortunately, many writers paint a much....rosier picture of how pasturing pigs works, and people end up convinced that all you have to give a pig is a grass pasture and occasional kitchen/garden scraps and they'll grow out just fine. (Kelly Klober has ranted about meeting people like this, and I have seen them too.)

Jim Ross said...

Walter also feeds 1000's of gallons of whey each week along with many other inputs he salvages. Grass alone won't cut it.

I know a guy locally who grows large black hogs largely on forage. A buddy got a pig off him to grow out and at 12 months of age, it was 120 pounds. My friend has had it 6 weeks and it's doubled in size. Ready to go in 2 weeks.

We feed half brew mash and half grow ration for the most part. We feed compost too but consider it more of a treat than anything. Something to keep them busy and make them happy. Sorta like grazing pasture. Lots of fiber keeps them healthy but doesn't contribute much to the end product in terms of weight.