When I was a child we lived in rural Saskatchewan on a mixed grain and beef farm. I was never involved in 4-H but I always had some type of business venture on the go. I was fortunate enough to have a YEP (youth education program) in my home. One of my favourite profit centres was the pigs.
We would pick up a few each spring for us kids to manage and then we would sell pork off in the fall to neighbours. As young boys would, my brother and I spent hours out with the pigs, playing with them, scratching, tormenting and quite often riding them! I’m sure my mother appreciated how dirty we could get. It was never all play and no work. We all had our chores: feed, water… the “pig pail.” We had to pay for feed and processing and we almost always managed to make a profit out of it. Except for the one year that our wolf/shepherd cross decided he liked Huey, Dewey and Louie a little bit too much. It was a hard lesson on death losses, but most years we did all right.
It’s been a long time since I fell off a pig in the mud, but I have gone back to my roots. We now raise pasture pork. Not quite the same as the barn-raised, grain-fed pigs we had back then, but they are still just as entertaining to me as they were when I was a child. If you ever have a bad day, just go hang out with the pasture pigs. They will always put a smile on your face.
- More with Steve Kenyon on Canadian Cattlemen: A Greener Pastures walk
We buy weaner pigs in the spring and they go straight onto pasture. We have a portable pen that we drag around the grass and added a big tarp to make sure they always have some shade because little pink pigs from a barn have the tendency to burn when out on open pasture. When they are young we move the cage every day to give them fresh grass and get them used to the portable pen being “home.”
We provide a hog grower as well in a self-feeder which is attached to the pen. In the spring, the majority of their ration is from the pellets as they are just learning to eat grass. As they get older we open up their cage and give them more space with the use of an electric netting fence. This trains them to electricity and helps keeps predators out. We try to move them before the ground starts to look damaged, which this year was about every second or third day.
These little piggies put on the pounds fast, so it’s not long before they are eating a lot more grass each day. We switched to using a one-wire electric fence to keep them contained. The netting is difficult to move compared to the one wire, and by now they need more space and are big enough so we don’t worry about predators any more.
By midsummer, we give three or four days worth of grass each move. We still provide grower pellets, but by now their ration is a lot higher in grass than in pellets.
By August they are not only eating lots of grass, but have learned to dig around and are more interested in the roots of the plants. I guess that’s where the term “rooting” comes from. They love the roots. We still give them their pellets, but the diet has switched over to a majority of plants and less of the grower ration.
We produce all natural, pasture-raised pork. The “all natural” is what is not in the meat: no hormones, no chemicals, no preservatives, no additives. The “pasture-raised” refers to what is still in the meat. Pasture pork has higher levels of Omega 3 which are better for our diets. None of our little piggies go to market. We direct sell to the consumer.
We adjusted a few things this year. As with any business, we learn from our mistakes. The electric netting allowed us to move the pen less often at the beginning of the season. Last year we needed the pickup truck every day to move the portable pen. The netting allowed us to keep the cage in the same spot for three or four moves; as we can move the netting on foot. This lowered our equipment use, but still protected our pigs from predators.
We also switched from a small water bowl-style portable waterer to a water nipple mounted to the portable pen. The pigs seemed to always pack the bowl with mud so the nipple make less work.
Last year I would go out on hot days and give the pigs a spray down to help them cool off. This would give them a bit of mud to roll around in. This year, the nipple waterer did that for me. They would spill enough water when they argued over the nipple that they always had a bit of mud. I do not mind if it leaks a little.
We did get some advice from a friend about supplying extra vitamins to help ward off a skin parasite that was reducing our gains. A little extra vitamin A, D and E sure worked well. This makes sense as the vitamins and minerals in the grower are planned as if the pellets are the whole ration. As these pigs eat more grass, their vitamin intake gets lower so we add some extra later in the summer.
I love our pasture pigs — just like I did as a kid. I’m so glad that my children are able to enjoy them now as well. I know I should get mad if I ever catch them out “riding” the pigs but I will admit, I’ll probably just show them a better way to mount up.
I also look at our piggies a little differently today. Now I just see bacon and pork patties! Mmmmmmm!