Enjoy this section reproduced from the 256-page workbook which accompanies The Salatin Semester.
Pigs ─ Omnivores Par Excellence
Could you use young pigs to pigaerate?
How well do different size pigs work, and how long does it take? Are forty-five-pound pigs big enough to pigaerate?
DANIEL: No, forty-five pounds is not big enough, mainly because of the protein requirements of omnivores. When they’re just eating corn, it’s sugary and sweet, but the protein content is not enough for that size of pig.
In a perfect world, we like a two-hundred-pound pig. They’ll become much more muscular and toned, but less fat, through the pigaerating process. If you want a leaner pig, then you can do that. Or you can let them gain that muscle and structure, then throw them on a self-feeder for a couple weeks and they’ll fatten up and look great to send to slaughter.
JOEL: You don’t want to use little pigs because we don’t feed pigs while they’re in there—the pigs have to work. Try not to use any pig under about a hundred pounds to do pigaerating. Small pigs can’t dig very deep. If you want to go deep, you need a nice big pig, preferably two hundred pounds or more. If you were farrowing and had some sows, they would go incredibly deep.
No matter how big the pig, we have found pigs won’t go down more than about three feet. If we’re in a four-foot-deep situation, we will pigaerate down two feet, go in with a front-end loader and take off those top two feet, and then put the pigs back in to go down the other two feet.
We’ve also done leader-follower. Smaller pigs go down the first couple weeks and then we put on two-hundred-pound pigs and let them go down another eighteen inches. It depends on what you have. When we started, we only had two pigs. It took them a while to do it.
Now we try to get it done in six weeks or less. We have a time window that we can spread it in prior to releasing the grass to hay. We don’t have dedicated hay fields, so we graze everything early and then release it to make hay about the first of May. If cows come out of the hay shed on March 1 to begin grazing, six weeks pigaerating gives us April 15 to May 1 to get all the compost spread, or else we have to wait until after we’ve made hay.
Can the pigaerator be used to deep bed year-round in permanent barns?
DANIEL: You sure can deep bed year-round. You need a rotation because the corn won’t last all year long and pigs won’t go down more than about two feet deep.
I typically ask, why? Let’s find a place to put these animals outside. But if that is what you have to do, then it can be done. You can pigaerate better when it’s a moderate temperature, above freezing, but you can compost in freezing conditions also; it just doesn’t do quite as well.
How would you design a permanent pigaerator?
For convenience or lack of land, some folks also want to keep their animals in a barn year-round. You gave us the example of a seven-stable horse operation with two pigs in the eighth stall, moving the pigs every couple weeks to pigaerate the next stall. Marianne runs a dairy and asked, “If the bedding gets up to four feet deep, how do you move the cows out of the barn and in to be milked? How do you keep all the bedding from falling out when you open the gate, and how do you move the cows off of that high bedding buildup?”
JOEL: It’s all in the design. And we always call it a “hay shed,” not to confuse it with a typical barn.
If we’re going to have this deep bedding in there, we have to design the sill plates and the structure itself— whether concrete pillars supporting post and beam, or a pole structure, or a concrete sill up to a regular wall, whatever it is—so the design accommodates the deep bedding.
If you go to a barn builder and look at their designs, there won’t be one in there that can accommodate what I’m talking about. We like pole structures because they’re so cheap and so versatile, with nice poles to hang things on and strength inside to reconfigure gates and alleys.
Where the cows enter and exit, it makes a ramp. The bedding does fall in and fall out, so you would need to have the entrances far enough back so the bedding doesn’t go clear into the parlor. You’ve got to consider sanitary regulations. You also need it to ramp up to back the manure spreader in to put in more bedding.
Other areas are going to have retaining gates, and those will be sheer. If there’s a retaining gate to keep cows in, don’t use hinges. Just use wire or twine and keep shimmying the gate up, letting it sit on top of the ramp and bedding as the whole thing moves up.
How much space do you provide in the hay shed?
JOEL: At least thirty square feet per cow. Sheep and goats are considered about one-seventh of a cow, so at least four square feet for them.
When do you bring the cows to the hay shed?
Do you ever bring them in at night when they’re on stockpiled forage? Do you ever keep them in the shed longer than thirty or forty days?
JOEL: When they’re on stockpiled forage, they’re on stockpiled forage. The cows don’t go to the barn when they’re on forage.
It was so wet last year that we made a bunch of junk hay. We wanted to feed that to the old cows that don’t need as good of nutrition as young stock. So instead of putting the old cows on stockpiled forage, we put the old cows in the hay shed very early, about December 1, to shepherd the better stockpiled forage for the younger stock. That purchased us an extra month to six weeks running several hundred young stock on forage.
So there are times when we have cows in there for a hundred days. There’s nothing sacred about thirty to forty days, no question. Sometimes it gets to the point of having to take the ROPS (roll-over-protection bar) off the tractor and duck our heads to get in, and the cows are rubbing their backs on the rafters—that’s just the way it is!
How long does two or three feet of bedding take to accumulate?
JOEL: It will accumulate two to three feet in about thirty days. It’s about four feet deep by sixty to eighty days. As it gets deeper, decomposition creates a homeostasis. I don’t know if we’ve ever had it more than four and a half feet because there’s so much decomposition, the mass is diminishing as you add new stuff on top.
I saw pictures one time of a dairy in Germany that had bedding eight feet deep. It had massive, high concrete walls. It was amazing.
How do you lay so much bedding down efficiently?
We’re talking about lots of bedding—one inch in a two-thousand-square-foot hay shed is about five or six cubic meters of bedding?
JOEL: We started with fifteen cows under one sixty-by-forty-five-foot awning. We just used a heelbarrow
and a silage fork to add bedding every two or three days. You’d surprised how it adds up over the course of two months. Now we put carbon in with a manure spreader, just back it in and spin it off.
There are other things a person could do. Round-baled straw, for example, could be picked up with the unroller on a tractor and roll that off. If you have a big open-span structure, a loafing area with a roof—the definition of a hay shed—you could use round bale feeders. Where we have our vertical windup hay troughs, you could use round bale feeders instead. Feed in an area for a while, then pick it up and move it somewhere else. The junk stuff they didn’t eat becomes a bedding area. You feed over here a couple days then move it around, creating lounge and feeding areas. That’s a poor-boy way to build it up.
How much corn do you add to the bedding?
You put about eighty pounds of corn per cubic yard of bedding, about two-thirds of which you put in the bottom third of the bedding pack. So if your cows were in there for eighty days, on average you’d put about a pound of grain per square meter per day?
JOEL: We only put in the corn every third time we add bedding, and we only put on about two inches of bedding at a time, so adding corn once every six inches is fine. Those six inches are not like pieces of sheeting; it’s soft. Cow hooves step down six inches, so it’s not layered, it’s completely permeated.
With forty full-grown cows in a 120-by-16-foot hay shed (50 square feet per cow), we’ll put about a thousand pounds of corn in there at a time (half a pound per square foot).
It looks dusty in some photos; do you ever add water?
DANIEL: That’s steam from composting and drying out. It starts out really wet and dries out as they aerate it. It composts and cooks off the water. You can grab the pig’s toilet area (which gets wet) and mix it in with the bedding too.
To clean out, is anything more efficient than a wheelbarrow and pitchfork?
DANIEL: That’s exactly what Dad did for years and years until we bought a tractor with a front-end loader on it. We’d back the spreader right up to the bedding and load it in, or use a wheelbarrow with a fork—nothing beats it.
When do you apply the compost to pastures?
We don’t want to spread the compost on tall grass; we want it on just-grazed, just-mowed, hungry grass so we don’t destroy any grass while spreading it. Ideally we’d graze today, spread tomorrow, and the next day bring the eggmobile in to scratch cow pies and eat the corn the pigs missed in the compost.
You can’t expect pigs to get all the corn; they automatically waste about 10–15 percent. Chickens are a good way to salvage.
Can you apply pigaerated compost directly on vegetable gardens?
JOEL: Probably not for a garden. This compost is not like potting soil—it’s rough. Let it sit a long time, perhaps a year, and that’s fine. The beauty of it is it smells great—it’s locked the volatile nutrients into the compost.
That’s the key, to get it stable. But it’s still got carbon chips in it, it’s not fully done. Time is our friend.
Can you slaughter right after pigaerating?
DANIEL: You can send them to slaughter directly after pigaerating, but the question is how hard are you going to push them? If the bedding is two feet deep and they’re struggling a little bit to get the corn, you’ll see them getting skinny. But certainly, right at the top they’re just as fat as they would be off the self-feeder, down to about twelve to eighteen inches depth.
Would you take pigs through California’s Redwoods?
Do pigs work for all forest areas, or do you know of any forest regions that it doesn’t work in? How do you decide if land is appropriate for pigs?
JOEL: I don’t know; I sit here in my world. But pigs have been adaptable all over the place. The ratios and densities may very well change. It may be fifty pigs on ten acres for five to ten days.
I can scarcely imagine where pigs wouldn’t be beneficial. Prairie dogs are beneficial, in fact, so is any kind of rooting animal like moles, voles, or mice. Australia was built with trillions of marsupials and small mammals per acre, a moving mass of marsupial and mammalian land disturbers.
This is worldwide; there is no animal-less ecology. You can certainly overdo it, but generally we underdo it or we don’t do it properly—we’re putting them on too long and not moving them around enough. Animals move. Leveraging that movement allows us to capitalize on the gifts and talents that animals have.
My sense is, because of the benefit I see in almost all ecosystems—and I’ve been to places in Europe as well—generally all ecosystems benefit from some disturbance. It’s ecological exercise. A stagnant, lethargic ecosystem is no healthier than a stagnant or lethargic person. We don’t want a couch-potato ecosystem. That’s where I’m so appreciative and grateful for what permaculture does. I consider permaculture much deeper ecology than the kind of shallow ecology that emanates from most big cultural environmental groups. That’s essentially an ecology based on abandonment, “too precious to touch.” The assumption is that whatever a landscape has, it’s perfect without human molestation.
That is an incredibly naive assumption. The way the rivers and mountains fell together just happens to be the best possible lay and fold and place?
I look in the mirror and ask, why do I have these opposable thumbs and this great big brain? Is it to extricate myself from this ecological womb, or is it to use these tremendous gifts to caress and massage this landscape, to remediate some of the places that didn’t fall right and some of the valleys that could have ponds?
That is a much more special calling and involvement with our Earth than this whole paranoid guilt-complex, “I must levitate here and not interact in any way or I’ll mess it up.” Yes, history is one of pillage and rape and conquistador mentality, that’s true—but it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m a huge believer that periodic disturbance is a good thing, so I’d run the pigs through the Redwoods too.
Can a pig get too fat?
Can a pig lay down too much backfat, and is there the potential for castrated males to get fat too quickly? Why don’t you have this problem even though your males are castrated and your pigs have twenty-four-hour access to grain?
DANIEL: Fat has flavor. We don’t want six inches of fat, but a good inch or so of backfat is what our customers want, especially when the fat has grass in it, so it’s a good fat and a good-tasting fat. Our fat, opposed to industry fat, does not have to be trimmed off. It melds into the meat, it’s soft, and it’s actually great for you.
Why do you slaughter your pigs at eight months and not earlier?
DANIEL: We slaughter pigs between six and eight months old. The frame is built when they’re younger, but they pack some more eatable meat onto the frame when they’re older. We can’t take meat and turn it into something else through emulsification and mechanization like the industry, so it’s important that we get a nice fat loin and a big bacon—it’s the only loin and bacon we get.
How much feed do pigs eat?
Joel said a pig eats about 800 pounds of grain in your system and dresses out at 190 pounds hanging weight. How does feed consumption change over the course?
DANIEL: Feed consumption peaks when the pigs are around 200 pounds. You can’t keep the feeder full. Then it slows down a bit as they get older. And it’s okay for them to go hungry a bit, off and on, when they’re getting in the 270- to 300-pound range to avoid putting on too much backfat. It’s fine for them to go hungry for a day or two days; it’s not hurting their growth whatsoever.
They convert forage into meat more effectively when they are 250–275 pounds. That’s one reason we take pigs longer than most. It gets them to the point that they’re metabolizing grass or bugs or whatever they’re finding into meat more effectively than when they’re young.
What are smaller-scale means of moving feed around?
DANIEL: We have grainovator feed buggies. Any form of those work. You can use grinder-mixers. You can use super sacks, thousand-pound sacks you can pick up with a pallet fork on the tractor. You can cut a hole in the bottom of the pallet, then open the bottom of the sack when it’s over the feeder. Aside from five-gallon buckets, those are the best ways I know how to do it.
Can you make a decent pig feeder yourself?
DANIEL: It is very difficult to make one. Pigs are the toughest things you can deal with in terms of feeders and equipment. We use the outdoor feeder by Pride of the Farm made by Hawkeye Steel in Iowa. They’re pricey, but very effective. If you keep them on pallets or skids to get them out of muck, they are very effective and will last a long time.
What’s the youngest you can get a piglet on pasture without fencing headaches?
JOEL: Some of the slickest farrowing operations around us use polywire netting material and just farrow right in it. They throw a bale of hay in there, the sow makes a nest, and the piglets are perfectly controlled right from day one.
Others don’t use a net and are more land extensive. They’ll use a single wire so the sows don’t get out. The piggies don’t stray far; they always come back.
How do you move the pigs through the twenty-acre grid of paddocks?
JOEL: We have forty half-acre paddocks with four groups of fifty pigs that move through. We only need eight wooden gates that move with the pigs—the front gate keeps going to the front of the next paddock, and the back gate comes up to the back of the pigs.
We feed two tons of feed per half acre and try to hit each paddock three times in a season. The pigs move paddock every five to ten days and move through ten paddocks before they’re into paddocks that have already been grazed. They’re on pasture for about six months, so we graze paddocks at least twice and usually three times, but not always.
The second time through, what condition is the paddock in?
JOEL: Blown out. Fully expressed. Once in a while, in a good season without drought, we run cows through there to knock grasses down because the pigs haven’t come back soon enough. Pigs eat a lot of grass, so we would like to keep enough grass so that the pigs are only hurting for grass in a paddock for one or two days, otherwise they have all the grass and vegetation that they want to eat in addition to the concentrate.
How would you scale down to ten pigs or fewer?
JOEL: The principle here is that it’s all relative. It’s all about the short period of stay and the long period of rest. Holistic management has been stellar in helping to explain that ten animals on an acre for ten days is not the same as a hundred animals on an acre for one day. It’s a totally different dynamic.
Let’s take two pigs. That means 440 square feet per pig for five days, or an 880-square-foot paddock for two pigs. That’s 20 by 44 feet for five to ten days. That is way better than putting those two on a half-acre for sixty days.
One reason is parasite load. Also, pigs are going to pick a toilet area and a path to the water, to the feeder, and to the lounge. In a month or two they’ll wear those paths down so much that they’re still visible a year later. But if paths are made and vacated in five to ten days, there’s no long-term impact. We’re moving those patterns around so campsites, manure sites, trough sites, and water sites go to many different spots. That fundamentally changes the interplay, the way the animals interact on the landscape.
Do you ever use nose rings?
Mark Shepard puts rings in the pigs’ noses to reduce digging in orchards.
JOEL: I don’t. I feel it so impedes the pigness of the pig. I wouldn’t fight with someone over it, but for me, I wouldn’t impede that pig from what it most naturally wants to do.
I do absolutely understand the value of it.
We have opted to not allow pigs to run in the pastures with the chickens and cows because we know they’ll tear it up and create divots. We go to other lengths to create separate areas for the pigs. Certainly, putting rings in their noses might allow us to leverage our infrastructure better, and our multispeciation better, so I absolutely understand the other side and I would not fall out with anyone over it.
What is the key to mixing different groups of pigs?
JOEL: Pigs are very social and not very charitable. If you’re going to mix new and old pigs—where “old” is any pig in the pen for more than twenty-four hours and they’ve become adjusted to the pen—you can either mix more, smaller, new pigs with fewer, larger, old pigs, or you can mix larger, new pigs with smaller, old pigs.
You can also put them all on an equal footing, regardless of size, by taking the old ones and putting them in a different pen and adding the new ones there—then they’re all new.
Could a pig nurse a cow?
Dan wrote, “I’m thinking about ways to get a pig to nurse a cow. Sounds crazy but just imagine: grass to cow to bacon.”
JOEL: Sounds like something for Dan to figure out! I’m laughing with it, not at it, trust me.
This excerpt is just five pages out of the 256-page guidebook which accompanies The Salatin Semester. We hope that reading the above selection, from the chapter on pigs, illustrates the depth of practical information passed along by Joel, Daniel and the questioners themselves.