Raising pigs on pasture is not complicated. All you need is some fencing, shade, feed and a steady, fresh water supply, right?
Right. Until you realize that pigs will destroy pastures at a rapid pace, especially after a rain. That is not the time to take pictures or to get some fresh air! You end up with what we call mud lot pigs. Mud lot pigs are smelly and disgusting, harm the environment (you need plants to use up the manure!), are more disease prone, and probably not too happy.
So you implement pasture rotations to move the pigs to clean land after every rain. Now supplying abundant, clean, fresh water is no longer so easy. They just will not drink enough stale, day old water out of an IBC or hot water from a pipe. You just lost lots of growth, and your pigs may seem happy, but they are in fact…rather thirsty. You had your water tested, right?
Maybe your pigs are growing unevenly, because you do not have enough water points or enough feed points so the boss-pig will hog the water or feed source. Maybe your pigs are wasting 20-40% of the feed you give them, because you do not have a feeder. Such waste is economically and environmentally unacceptable.
Then, it gets really hot in the summer and your shade huts prove inadequate, so you decide to take the pigs to the woods. It is hard to set up fencing in the woods. The undergrowth is not as dense as the thatch in an old field, so the pigs destroy your soil in no time, causing pollution. That is why raising pigs in the woods is illegal in Quebec (REA). The pigs seem happy now, but when you were fixing the fence you were devoured by deer flies. They drove you nuts! The pigs do not seem to mind…
Guess what. Spring and fall are muddy every year, and in the winter, even though your pigs still seem happy out in -30 degree weather, they surely will not grow. We tried it: it takes more than 10 pounds of feed to grow one pound of liveweight at -25C. It is madness whether you look at it from an economic, environmental or animal welfare point of view.
Raising pigs outside this way is not so easy and rarely improves animal welfare or limits environmental impact, and unless clients can be persuaded to pay crazy prices, it rarely pays the bills.
So we got rid of our preconceptions and rethought the model completely. Why would we insist that the pigs are always out? Why not start from what pigs need rather than from our own infatuation with raising pigs on pasture? Why not let the pigs choose? Our pigs can go outside whenever they want, but we accept that they sometimes prefer to stay inside.
Once you start to really listen to the pigs, everything will fall into place. If you do it right, pigs raised on pasture can grow at the same pace as their conventional counterparts, will taste better, will be happier, will not cause environmental harm, and will not cost much more to raise, so you can sell them at a reasonable price.
If you really listen to the pigs, raising pigs on pasture is not that difficult.
The real challenges lie in the maternity, where the piglets are born. ‘Seasonal farmers’ just buy conventional piglets, fatten them on pasture (or in a mud lot), tell a pretty story (almost organic!) and cash in the big bucks.
To really change the system, we need to reinvent the maternity too. But that is another story altogether!