Monday, August 25, 2014

A Bit About the Bacon

The latest paddock, slightly used.
As the pigs featured briefly in Friday's post, it is no surprise that questions about them cropped up over the weekend.  I have been fascinated by the boys since we first brought them home and it has been a learning experience throughout.

As we have discussed before the pigs are a welcome, if recent, addition to our farm  and my affection towards them has only increased as they continue to demonstrate just how awesome they are.  Not as awesome as bacon or sausage though, which bodes well for their eventual graduation. (continued)

Unlike the new year's poultry who's care and keeping we've covered at length, the logic behind and infrastructure involved in the Pastured Pig Experiment has gone largely undisclosed. An omission to be rectified today.

The reason we are raising pigs really, beyond the desire to meet our food needs in general, is me.  Or, actually, what happens to me when I eat most pork.  If I eat pork, or sometimes even smell bacon a physical reaction immediately occurs.  I will get bags under my eyes, become extremely tired, often become irritable and (sometimes) experience symptoms very much like a conventional hangover. All in all, very good reasons to have avoided bacon these last few years.  Especially because the people who usually have to deal with me after that
deserve better.

So much belly. Mmmmm bacon.
The hope is that by growing a variety of pigs very different from industry hogs, in a manner that is also very different from industry hogs, on feed that is very different from that given to industry hogs, that I will have (rather unscientifically) avoided whatever it is that causes my problem when I eat pork that comes from industry hogs.  Truthfully, as long as I can eat the pork all of the other perks of this method are a bonus.  It is also possible that it is not the pork, but the processing methods or additives during processing that are the issue.  I will avoid those also by processing them ourselves here, or by using small local processors. The chances of success are high, I hope, having eliminated so many potential problems up front, but if not well there's not much else left to try.  This is an all or nothing experiment.

Having decided to eliminate all of those variables the rest comes together pretty much by itself.  The boys spend all their time outside in the sun, on pasture.  There is a little shelter (seen in these photos) which is not bad repurposing of a small plastic storage shed.  The boys go inside only rarely to avoid the rain.  If it isn't raining they spend more time sleeping next to it than in it and as long as they are not sleeping they are eating something or looking for something to eat.

We started off with the little guys inside electronet fencing, the sort suitable for chickens and what we had on hand at the time.  The boys clearly understood we wanted them inside the fence, but also that if there was something more interesting outside it than the fence, and apparently the shock, were more suggestions than barriers.  This resulted in several occasions where the pigs had to be chased, or caught and sent back inside.  Not a problem when they were light enough to lift, it would be a bigger problem if not impossible to try such a thing now.  It didn't take much chasing though (stressful on the pigs, and on my body) to realize that only a few feed pellets rattling around in a bucket were enough to lead the piglet back in.  Often, the others would come out of the fence to follow the bucket and all three would go back in.  Fencing 0 Piggies 1.

From L to R:  Bacon, Tenderloin, and then Porkchop
who is "hamming it up" in this photo.
This would not do, not only because by that time the gardens were interesting places for pigs to explore and very vulnerable to pig noses, but because the precedent, one where escapees got treats, would only reinforce the behavior.  So we abandoned the use of the electrified poultry netting in favor of high visibility poly wire, which it turns out, provided a vastly superior shock.  The boys adjusted to this very quickly.  The yellow rope is not for touching, stay inside, gotcha boss.  In addition to just flat out working better, and being cheaper, the poly wire is so much easier to set up and use.  After moving to the new system, the situation vastly improved.

When selecting the location for this "trial" paddock with the new fence I wanted them under my watchful eyes which meant being close to the house.  So the 20x40 area was set up, the pigs were brought in and the observation began.  Initially fearing more problems with escaping the oversight was initially tense and stressful.  It was with some satisfaction that I heard the first fence POP and resulting squeal from a pig suddenly mindful of a barrier and with even more satisfaction I observed just how fast the boys learn.  The escaping was a non issue nearly instantly.  With that hurdle out of the way, I sat back to observe some more. I was curious to see just how hard the boys would hit that paddock and how quickly behavior like rooting and digging would begin.

Almost immediately isn't quite accurate but it was close.  After a few days of grazing the pasture and other mostly friendly treatment of the ground the damage began.  Slow at first, presumably chasing grubs and choice roots the action accelerated in intensity as time went on.  The effect was incredible.  in a matter of weeks the boys cleared, cleaned, fertilized, turned, and beautifully prepared that paddock.  I could step in with a crop the day they were moved and not have worried about weed pressure or fertility issues.  This is huge here, especially with our extremely sandy sub soils and general lack of organic material or top soil.  I will be putting pigs to work here in precisely this way for a long time I hope.

With shifting poly wire paddocks extremely targeted doses of this activity can be placed all over the farm
with laser precision.  I am looking forward to the transformative results this will no doubt have for our landscape here.  The less often I shift the paddock the more feed needs to be brought to the pigs of course, but the gains in concentrated action more than outweigh that I think.  Later, when transformation and enhancement of the pasture is secondary to good conditions and pasture maintenance paddock shifts will occur more frequently and a "leader / follower" system will be used.  These are systems where different livestock travel through the same paddock spaces used by the others but at different times.  I've seen systems as simple as chickens following behind cows, and heard of systems as complex as to involve chickens, geese, turkeys, pigs, cows, and or goats.  Simple or complex the principals are sound.  Breaking pest cycles, browsing different plants, cleaning up after each other, the web of interactions and benefits only broadens with the addition of more elements.

It's likely that L/F system won't be in full swing for years to come, but until then the boys (and everyone else) have their own jobs to do which they are uniquely suited for.  I hope you enjoyed this detour through the pig pen.

Thanks for stopping by.

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