Monday, October 10, 2011

Joel Salatin and his pigs: Pastured?

Joel and pigs "on pasture" (courtesy of Jessica Reeder)

Pastured pork is a popular topic these days; and there are a lot of people who are saying a lot of things about raising pork on pasture.  Over the next few days I'm going to talk about some of the videos that are out there from various farmers. 

The first video I'm going to talk about is from Joel Salatin, who is a very famous farmer over in Virginia.  He's outspoken and has spent years talking about agriculture.   You can see the polyface farms website here. 

Executive summary:  Joels pigs are fed a pretty standard corn-and-soybean feed mix that Joel purchases off the farm.   Joel also purchase the pigs themselves off his farm.  His involvement in pigs is to raise raise them from wean to finish.   While they do have access to green stuff at some point during their lives, they spend a big part of their lives in small pens on dirt.  Even when they are on "pasture" they are provided free-choice feed at all times.  The amount of feed value the pigs get on pasture is not clear.  Joel does not use the word "pastured" on his website, preferring "pigerator pork".   

The first video is Polyface:  Piggies

00:00  These are 40-50 pound pigs, with a few 60-70lb pigs in there as well. 

00:05:  Notice the large grain feeder in the left corner of the pen, and the floor of the pen.  This pen is providing no nutrition for the pigs at all; all of their food is coming in the form of some sort of feed put in the feeder. 

00:06:  The intern mentions that they'll be put out to pasture "when they get bigger" -- not clear when that is.

Looking at the panels, this pen is 20x16, and there are approximately 30 pigs in that space.  Each pig is given approximately 10 square feet of space. 

01:38 you can see a second pig pen, with another large feeder, again on dirt.   That pen is smaller; 10x20 or so, and the stocking rate is similar. 

Now this guy is famous for his pastured poultry and as a proponent of pastured livestock.  He talks a lot about it, but these pigs in this video aren't what I'd consider pastured.

Summary:  Pigs are in pens, 10 square feet or so per pen, and fed some sort of prepared feed.  Joel has talked about the feed in other areas, it's a standard corn-and-soybean based feed that he purchases from off his farm. 

You can get a feel for his "pastured poultry" and another view of his pigs in this video

00:00  The chicken houses are greenhouse frames with plastic.  From his clothes I'm going to assume that this is during cold weather.  In warmer weather those hoophouses can get hot enough to kill chickens. 

02:54:  this is basically what industry calls a "cage free" or "barn raised" chicken egg operation.  It's actually pretty similar to how most industry chickens are raised -- here's a picture of what a "factory farm" operation looks like.   The factory birds are meat birds, but the basic layout is the same.  Feeders and waterers, birds have some floor area they move around on.  In the factory farm they're using solid buildings, so it's dark, or maybe it's night.

03:29:  You can see a pen of pigs in there.  I'm going to guess that the stocking rate is again about 10 square feet of space per pig, there's a big grain feeder.  In fact, the more I look at Joel Salatins pig operations, the less pasturing I see. 

Here's a video of his pigs "on pasture"
00:06:  I count 17 pigs laying along the fenceline next to the feeder.  I'd guess these pigs are 150lbs average. 

00:10:  Note that the ground is bare dirt under the pigs and around the feeder. 

00:13:  They explain that the pig paddock is 2 acres split into 8 sections, for a 1/4 acre per paddock. 

00:27:  "they are in here just as long as it takes them to eat that feeder" -- they're not managing the forage, they're filling the feeder.  This is contrary to what most people who pasture animals do -- watch the forage available and move the pigs when the forage is exhausted. 

A quarter acre is 10,890 square feet, and assuming 17 pigs, that's about 640 square feet per pig.  . 

summary:  The pigs are given a chance to root and forage, but the vast majority of what puts weight on these hogs is in the feeders.  It's the standard corn and soybean feed mix Joel has mentioned in the past. 

You can see a video of his "eggmobiles" here.  This is apparently in the summer.  But the take home lesson is that for some portion of the year, even the animals that he's famous for pasturing -- chickens -- are kept in fixed locations under cover. 


steve said...

So many times buzz words like "grass fed" beef and "free range" chicken are bandied about.

Without getting into specifics, these terms don't tell you any details about how the product is made which just makes them ordinary marketing slogans.

Joel makes a strong emotional connection with his customers because of passion and expression. While I have never been a customer, I am an admirer of what he has done.

E said...

You might like

Lots of interesting reading about pasturing poultry.

Joanne said...

I think you're missing part of his whole management program. On Joel's farm, a lot of the animals are used for more than strict meat production.

The reason why Joel calls his pork Pigerator pork is because he uses the pigs to break up the bedding in the winter cattle barn. During the winter the cattle are brought in and fed hay, in part of the first video with the young pigs, you can see the movable feed bunk and the stack of hay in that barn. While the cattle that he's overwintering are in being fed hay, he brings in wood chips periodically. Evertime he puts down a new overlay, of course the bedding deepens, hence the need for the movable bunk. In the spring when the cattle are ready to go back out on pasture, the pigs are brought in and wind up turning all of the old cattle bedding while they root (hence the name pigerator). By the time the pigs are ready to go out on pasture, the bedding in the barn is pretty well decomposed and loosened and can be used elsewhere (spread on fields, used as soil ammendments for row crops, etc.).

The laying hens are used to break up the cow patties and eat fly larvae. Kind of hard for them to do that when the cattle are overwintering in a barn. It only makes sense for the layers and other animals to be brought indoors in a set up like he has during the winter. I don't think I'd be worried about the hens going through heat stroke in those hoop houses if they're on pasture during the summer being moved along behind the cattle. I would suspect that those hoop houses are being used for something other than layers during the summer. Personally, if those were on my place, I'd be growing row crops of some sort in them while the poultry was out on pasture. Maybe a hot weather crop like corn, tomatoes, peppers, etc. Heavy feeders like those would love being planted behind poultry that had been depositing manure all winter long. I wouldn't want to grow crops that come in contact with the ground, like lettuce, right behind poultry unless I was going to put down a good layer of wood chips prior to planting or seeding, but as long as a crop can stand the nitrogen you should have bumper crops.

As to the pigs in the paddocks and feeding grains, etc. to 'pastured' animals, I see nothing wrong with that. You do the same thing, only instead of feeding milled grain feed, you're feeding produce. Your pigs are pastured, so are Joel's. While I agree that Joel's pigs are no doubt getting the lion's share of their food from the milled grain feed, they're also no doubt supplementing their grain feed with what ever plants they feel like foraging in the paddocks. I have a suspicion that the grain feeders are used as a timer. The pigs need to stay in a paddock for only so long before they destroy it. Given the number and size of the pigs in that paddock, it'll take them a certain ammount of time to drain the feeder and if the paddock is stocked properly, and you're using the feeder as your timer, then when the feeder is empty, it's time for the pigs to move on.

Michael Pollan described Joels pig rotation through the paddocks thusly - pigs rotate through a set of paddocks going from the first to the last and then rotating back again. By the time they get back to the original paddock they started out in, they are market weight and are loaded up for slaughter. That's a pretty slick system if you ask me.

Joel's whole farming system is based almost entirely on one production unit supporting another and using animals own natural behavioral patterns to support the farming system as a whole. Everyone has to do at least two jobs, every system has to support at least one other system. As such I wouldn't call his farming/ranching business so much pastured as I would call it agroecological.

Urbancowgrrl said...

Years ago I worked for an mechanical engineering company hired by places like Energy Star to go through and makes sure companies who bought the Energy Star name qualified for it. I once asked what goes into qualifying for that label and they said "Pretty much nothing more than you can afford it." My dad also pointed out to me that all you need to get a "free range" brand is to have a chicken coop with a door that opens. It can open into a muddy spot with not vegetation the size of a postage stamp and that still counts.

Ideally (and I need to get one of those giant freezers to do this) I'd like to go out and see the cow, pig, and chickens I'm getting for meat and meet them *before* they're killed so I can know how they lived. Ok, ideally I'd live off-grid and raise my own meat but can't quite get the husband on board for that.

Bruce King said...

Joanne, Where I'm going with this series of entries is to educate folks on what pastured pork looks like. That's Joels' version. In the next entry I'm going to talk about another farm where the pigs get a pretty substantial portion of their diet from the vegetation they're put on to, and in the third entry I'm going to talk about a factory farm.

I think that many folks have heard the word "pastured" and that it is, as Steve points out, a little fuzzy. So here's one operation raising pigs on pasture -- salatins. The next entry is another, and the the third is industry practices for contrast.

Joels operation is pretty similar to mine, actually. The primary difference is that he uses milled feed and I use produce, but we both provide free-choice feed to the pigs as well as providing space and land for them to be pigs.

Anonymous said...

Bruce, I was going to jump all over you about critiquing Joel's 'pastured pork' as that's not what he sells it as, but I suppose that would just deviate into a semantically argument... and I think we probably agree, given your comment above.

I did see a video of the winter hen 'barn' during the late summer, on 'meet the farmer TV' on YouTube, Joanne you are right, they plant row crop (tomatoes and corn if I remember right) but he mentions that it's for personal consumption, not sale.

I would say all in all I probably have more respect for Joel as a business man than as a farmer, but I suppose you can't really separate the two in this industry.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

I think the biggest thing that people miss about Salatin's operation is that no one species exists there to the detriment of any other species. All animals are confined in the winter and bedding gathered. It's too cold, it wastes manure and pasture is the number one thing at Polyface. Pigs are used during the "growing" season (plant growing season, that is) to clear out areas in the forest. They hit each paddock once per year to give the land enough time to recover, and to give the pathogens a no host situation. Pastured pigs are a pipe dream as long as you don't care about your pasture. Then go ahead, and pasture your pigs. There are some "pastured" pig and free-range/pastured growers near me. Entertaining to say the least. Frankly I wouldn't want to buy eggs from chickens living in swill holes, and wet straw. But by gum, those chickens are free to range around in their own muck, year round. But, the health food store & CSA that sells their pastured eggs,and pastured pork is happy to perpetuate the marketing scheme. Deep bedding in winter in a hoophouse or barn, gives you more eggs, and pork, and keeps more money on your farm, turning a liability (wet manure on dormant soil) into a positive to the bottom line.

At least Joel is honest about feeding his pigs, I have never heard him say otherwise, like some producers. There is nothing wrong with feeding pigs their natural food, (waste produce/outdated human food) like your doing or grains if they are available.

Bruce King said...

Matron, what I find most fascinating about Salatins operations is that he's pretty clear about exactly what he does, and people just don't hear it, or they make stuff up for Joel to have said, but he didn't say it.

For example, in this video they talk about their rotation scheme. They're not following the cows into pasture, nor are they hitting this ground once per year. What they describe is a fixed set of paddocks, where they fill a feeder and then when the feeder is empty, move them to the next paddock. No cows in this mix. Now they may do different things at different times, but this video is pretty darned clear on what they do.

I'm pretty happy with being able to put the food I feed to my pigs to a better use than a landfill. And by doing so I'm not longer connected to the price of feed. Price of corn is up? *yawn* Love that.

And I'm going to a deep-bedding pigerator setup for my cows and pigs this winter. Thanks to both you and Joel.

Joanne said...

Theadalynfarm, if a person is farming to make a living, you have to treat it as a business.

If you're farming for your own food only, then you can treat is as such. But if it's your only or primary source of income, then it is a business and you treat it as anything else at your own peril.

Unknown said...

I just happened by this post. I think that there's a sort of nuance in how you describe what Joel does that makes me think you don't like him all that much. I love your blog, but at the same time, I find myself having to look beyond a little bit of the narcissism. Let me give a couple examples of the nuance.
When you say he's not monitoring forage, hes filling his feeder, you neglect the fact that Joel talks about having determined the proper amount of impact on the land desired, and he came to the conclusion that 1,000 lbs per 1/4 acre was appropriate. It is measured and considered, you don't give it that credit. When you say that his pigs aren't part of the rotation, that's because its a different concept. Not a big deal. You alluded to the idea that he couldn't guarantee that he doesn't re-use paddocks because he has a fixed number of areas, you aren't considering that he's measured and planned for what he needs. I just don't like how you're trying to sow doubt in the whole thing. Kinda haterish. And, as to the "confinement housing", he has a much more harsh winter than we have. Again, its nothing too on the nose, its just the nuance, and the tone. I think you're an amazing farmer, but I wonder if you couldn't keep it more positive, and less subversive.