We've spent the last two years pasturing our pigs. Pasturing, meaning, putting our pigs in temporary, rotating pens on the pasture. Pasture, meaning, a grassy, outdoor area, sometimes including trees, shrubs and hedgerows.
We moved them every 9-14 days...it was necessary to keep them from rooting and compacting the land into being unproductive. That involved setting up a temporary fence, convincing them to move into the new area, moving their food and water, observing them to make sure they stayed put for the next couple days, keeping the fence lines from being buried by their rooting (a constant issue), and keeping track of the quality of the land.
Instead of doing the intensive rotation this project-heavy summer (the name of the game these days is work smarter not harder and also work less in general), we set up temporary fencing over the lower portion of our property -- the spot where two streams meet, beavers have taken up residence to wreak havoc on the aspen and apple groves, and scrubby brush creates a barrier to man and machinery alike. It includes at least ten acres of land. We fenced it all up tight. Then we put the entire grower herd in it.
It was a bit of a crazy move. After all, every week like clockwork, we have to sort out the biggest pigs to send to the abattoir. We routinely have to check the pigs for illness or injury. How would we do that if the herd is running wild through impenetrable dense brush and woods, criss-crossed with streams, bogs, swamp, and beaver ponds?
Three reasons made Pig Paradise v. 1.0 a no brainer. One: less weekly chores; Two: super happy pigs; and Three: we are actually getting quite good at intuiting how to handle pigs. Thus, the sorting of two or three choice animals from ten acres into one 3x5 crate was no longer an insurmountable issue.
One is obvious. We've got a bucket list for the summer a mile long, and we need to minimize the routine farm chores to get it done. We now have the experience and a bit of the money to make both the list and the pig paradise possible -- streamline processes and invest in some infrastructure upgrades so that we, for example, don't have to carry, by hand, 350 pounds of feed down the hill, bag by bag, twice a day to feed the herd (I wish I was joking when I say that we did this, but I am not and we have the shoulder muscles to prove it).
Two is also obvious. We've long since learned that happy pigs are better pigs (they are like humans and all other animals in this way). They are healthier, safer to handle, and better for the soul of the farmer and the consumer. It's one of the major reasons we are farmers; since the beginning one of our mantras has been "let pigs be pigs." The way to let pigs be the piggiest they can be in the hot summer months is to give them a wet, shady, green, sprawling area, full of flora and fauna to explore.
Three is a little trickier. We had some ideas about what would work; how we would be able to sort pigs and do a general head count every week. Thankfully, it's worked out great so far (meaning, we are one for one).
Pigs love a home base as much as they love to wander, and with pigs, home is where the food is. We built a short alleyway leading out pig paradise and into a flat, dry area of the pasture. There we constructed a movable hard pen, where each side can be disconnected and opened or closed. Thus, it can be a "U" shape, or it can be an "O" shape (really it's more of a hexagon, but there of course there isn't a hexagon-shaped letter on my keyboard), just by moving two panels slightly. Because of its location it is accessible by tractor and pickup truck from three directions -- key for maneuvering in the sometimes treacherous wet of our land. We strategically placed their feeders: one in the alley, and one in the "U". When we moved them down into their paradise, we moved them into that area first to establish a sense of "home."
Now, all we have to do is time their eating so that they run out of feed the day before we need to load up pigs. That guarantees that all the pigs will be hanging out, if not in the pen or alleyway, in the immediate vicinity. Then we simply size them up, close the pen, and herd the chosen ones into the crate that we can clip into any corner of the pen. Easy peasy. At the same time, we can do a once over of the herd. Pigs are made of steel; if someone is hurt or sick, us farmers have a couple weeks to notice and intervene before they are beyond help. (Sheep are a different matter. As our neighbor said a few days ago, "a sick sheep is a dead sheep!". Our experience thus far bears him out.)
The locals who love to drive by the farm slowly to check out the pigs are likely disappointed, but for us farmers it feels amazing to know what the pigs want and to be able to provide it for them, all the while making less work for ourselves. For the pigs, it feels amazing to have acres and acres of varied, pig-friendly environment at their disposal for exploring throughout the summer. Here's hoping it continues to work!!!