Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Pigs :: The Good

A farm is a constant lesson in humility ... or at least my farm is. When one thing is going well that usually means that ten things aren't. But, one (faintly) bright spot this year has been the pigs. I still feel like I have a lot to learn when it comes to farrowing, handling, feeding, selecting, sorting, etc ... But, on the whole I would say that the pigs are the highlight of the farm for me. Despite all the things that still need to be learned or figured out the pigs are still doing well as the center piece of the farm and at least continue to provide a cash flow.

This is the first year that I've had a somewhat organized plan for getting them to the woods and on pasture. I was able to make a five or six acre semi-permanent paddock for the growers that was a good mix of pasture. Although I did not get it divided up for rotation like I wanted to the area was large enough to give them plenty of room to forage through the woods and the grass. They truly were happy pigs (and still are) out there.

The downside of course to pigs on five or six acres is that when it comes to loading up three of the forty odd pigs out there things aren't as easy as in a confinement operation. Let's just say that I have spent "a while" loading up pigs ... even when I thought I was taking the time to do it right! What I did do is build a "sorting/loading" area around their water. The idea being that if they are used to coming into an area at least they may give it a chance when it comes time to loading. I also tried to strategically let the feeder empty when it was time to load them so I could feed them by hand in the "sorting/loading" area.

Sometimes it has worked ... sometimes it has not. One of my major problems is that my small livestock trailer has no center divider so there has been times when one pig has escaped while trying to load the second or third pig. I'm getting better at it, but it is not a perfect system. What has happened though is that each time I've had to load pigs my loading system has grown ... my most recent (and successful) method had me putting up an electric netting fence all the way to their feeder to corral them ... it worked!

Raising the pigs to market weight isn't the only issue though ... sometimes I think marketing is even more important than any sorting system or rotational grazing. This year we have been marketing through our usual channels like the Iowa Food Coop and by selling wholes and halves, but have also added the Downtown Des Moines Farmers' Market (for twelve Saturdays). All of the time marketing has led to my deep belief that selling wholes and halves is the most financially and ecologically sustainable thing for the farm, the heritage breeds, and our customers! More on that later...

:: Farm Rock :: Able by NEEDTOBREATHE ... listen here ... buy here ::


Shawn said...

Thank you for this great article. I'm looking into getting pigs for the first time soon and this gives me a boost of confidence :)

Big Jim said...

From one Beginning Farmer too another

Just a couple of thoughts on what I have learned so far, I don't have as many pigs as you so I built a 12 x 14 ft hog house that all the pigs sleep in. All the feeding and watering is done next to the house when it comes time to ship and thee pigs are feeding I can close off a 32 x 32 ft pen when the pigs go in the house I have another gate to keep them in the house, on the back of the house that is outside the main pen I put in
a "guillotine door" that opens into a kill pen (I do my own butchering for personal use) that doubles for a loading chute once in they can't turn around or go back only forward This combination has made things a lot easier for me


Rich said...

I can't find the link, but somewhere I have seen plans for a simple set of portable sheep working pens that had a forcing pen (swinging gate and semicircle fence) with a short chute. Something like that might also work for pigs.

Since you have both sheep and pigs, in the long run it might make sense (and also save a little work) if you had a centralized or portable set of pens to sort both pigs, sheep, and possibly calves (although I'm not sure how big Dexter calves are).

Walter Jeffries said...

We load pigs to take to the butcher weekly and have developed some tricks that make it go easily and smoothly. We're gathering a few pigs, one week's load, from out of the 100 or so out in any pasture.

1. Train your pigs to come when you call. Food is the way to a pig's heart. Every time you feed, use a call. Teach them to follow you - a white bucket with some bread in it works wonders. Just don't get mobbed.

2. Make some sorting boards. Ours are about 6'x3' sheets of stiff plastic, maybe 1/4" material. They are the sides of 60 gallon drums we cut off and flattened out. Works wonders for sorting and moving pigs.

3. Learn about flight zones and how to move pigs. Temple Grandin has a lot of videos, books and articles about this. Good stuff.

4. Have sorting pens with gates. Feed the pigs into the primary sorting area, sort out the ones you don't want. Sort further to the next area the ones you do want. Then move them on.

5. Have a well setup staging and loading area for getting the pigs into the vehicle. We use a Ford Econoline E-350 extended body van which we put an animal transport space in the back two thirds that docks with our final sorting staging area's ramp. It is a breeze to move the pigs from there up the chute to the van. Then they ride in comfort to the butcher.

6. Setup your farm as a cycle of life with the animals progressing around the rotation of pastures to the loading area. This is something we have been gradually perfecting, each year improving a little. We're working on building our butcher shop at the end of this cycle.

7. Dogs. Livestock herding and guarding dogs. They are amazing. It takes time to train them but they do the work of five people.

8. Patience. Take your time. Get things setup. Rinse and repeat. Work out the patterns. It comes with time. We do this 52 times a year and over time have worked out lots of little details that work with our terrain, climate, etc. (For example, herding in the winter is different than in the summer because the snow acts like fencing.)

doublehphoto said...

Just found your blog, and enjoyed this post! The same is true for humility on our ranch.

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