Guide to Raise Forest Fed Pork - The Way Nature Intended
When we picked up our first batch of fifteen hogs Josh and I looked at each other and just laughed. We had a rough plan, a lot of ambition and a big ole dream to chase but we really had no idea what we were doing. We were going to either laugh or cry about what we had just signed up for. Thankfully, raising hogs in silvopasture paddocks (combination of woods and pasture) at our farm was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
First thing you should know is that I have had previous experience raising and caring for pigs. When I was in 4H, my parents let me raise pigs, steers, rabbits and although I didn’t show them for a short period of time, I had pygmy goats. To put it simply, I knew how to care for pigs in a basic manner - clean water, food, fresh bedding and a place to walk/practice my showman techniques but had no idea how we were going to use regenerative ag methods to raise fifteen of them. When we started, Josh had zero experience around pigs – to the point when we were loading them from the breeder he didn’t know where to stand, how to maneuver around them or what to expect.
Pork Industry Terminology
You’ll read pig and hog interchangeably throughout this article but I want you to understand the true terminology behind swine. Most people say pig when they are referring to a small, young swine and say hog once they are larger and more than likely close to harvest.
Swine covers the entire family of pork-producing animals but let’s get into the details.
A boar is an uncastrated male, that is left intact to breed.
A sow is a female swine that have farrowed (birthed) one or more litters.
Neither of which we have on our farm at this time, but may potentially in the future.
A gilt is a female pig that has not (and may not) produce a litter of piglets.
A barrow is a male pig that has been castrated, intended for meat.
We raise gilts and barrows because we buy feeder piglets from a trusted breeder.
What Do Pigs Actually Need?
Doing your research before you bring any animal onto your homestead is a good idea, but sometimes there is too much information that may cause conflicting feelings about if you should or shouldn’t raise pigs.
All pigs need is fresh feed, clean water and a clean space to keep growing. That’s it! You don’t have to have a barn for them to sleep in at night, we don’t and they actually prefer it that way. There are plenty of alternative methods to provide shelter, which we will discuss later that won’t cost you an arm and a leg like building a barn if you feel the need to do so for your environment but in Ohio, it's pretty mild weather and the hogs love to lay under rose bushes, shadey trees and in the cool, tall grass. Pigs can't sweat despite the saying, so it's important they have way to stay cool.
Breeds of Hogs
There are several breeds of pigs that are readily available for purchase all over the United States but you must do your homework before deciding to purchase the first litter you see for sale.
Each breed has a unique set of characteristics from their size, temperament, foraging ability, meat flavors and suitability to your climate.
There are “Heritage Breeds”, which means they have purebred bloodlines that date back hundreds of years or there are “Cross-Breds” which is common practice to take favorable traits from two breeds to make a new one.
Some of the most popular breeds for small production breeders are Berkshire, British Lop, Lincolnshire Curly Coat, Landrace, Gloucestershire Old Spot, Large Black, Cumberland, Tamworth, Welsh, and British Saddleback. Any mix of a heritage breed will work as long as they will finish around 280+ lbs.
We work with a small breeder to raise Gloucestershire Old Spot hogs or a cross with them. They are a heritage breed, pronounced (Glostersheer) which I still can’t say correctly. The breed was developed in the Berkley Vale of Gloucestershire, England, in the 1800s, according to livestockconservancy.org. This breed is well known for its docility, intelligence, and prolificacy and the meat is dark with marbling and a succulent texture.
Unfortunately, this breed is on the endangered heritage list so they are harder to find, this is because of the advancement in commercial hog operations calling for a change in the pigs produced to be one that would be raised indoors in close confinement on grain.
How to Find Piglets/Feeder Pigs
The best way to find feeder pigs in your area is to talk to people! Head on down to the local feed store, 4H state extension office, farm service agency, or check out auction houses. Google can be your best friend as well if you don’t have time to visit places in person, call those places listed above and find a breeder who you trust to work with. Be weary of Facebook ads, Craigslist and other sales sites unless you see the healthy piglets in person before purchasing.
When looking at the piglets in person, you want to see them moving freely – head up strong, if they just get up look for a big stretch (good sign of health) and also check their rear ends to make sure no one has the runs. If you question its health, get a second opinion before purchasing. When we purchased our pigs, they were around 50 lbs. Piglets that are weaned around week 8 are perfect because they have had an adequate amount of time with their mothers’ milk to build a strong immune system, therefore you can avoid the medicated starter feed.
Each farm has a different set up when it comes to electric fencing. On our homestead farm we have a Stafix M36R (electric) but at the leased farm we use a Stafix X3I (solar panel). Regardless of what brand or type the important part is that you maintain a minimum of 5,000 to 6,000 volts of electricity at all times because the pigs will constantly test it to make sure they know their limits. You never want it to be down for longer than a short period of time or else you could end up chasing hogs! We only had one hog get out and it's because the step in posts wasn't completely stepped into the ground in a shallow area and the wire pulled it up - the hog walked right underneath it. After coming home from work to find it standing right outside the wire in the brush, I unhooked the electric - lifted all the wire in that area up high and waited patiently for it to walk back through.. it was stressful so I can't imagine all of them getting out.
Alright, so you’ve decided to pull the trigger and buy some feeder pigs to raise for you and your family, now the real work begins. When pigs are young, they have to be trained to the electric fence before you can let them out in the pasture with polybraid. This means there must be an actual structure built – we chose to use metal t posts, 12.5-gauge galvanized wire and 16 feet long cattle panels. We created a square with 8 cattle panels (32 feet x 32 feet) and a swinging door cut out from one panel for easy entrance/exit for us. We also chose to put a shade tree in their training pen because these piglets did have access to a barn and were brought onto our farm in April when the weather was just starting to show signs of spring.
Once we brought the pigs home, unloading them was a little tricky. We transported them in a small stock trailer with straw bedding on the trailer floor with straw bales still in tact surrounding them so they didn’t get tossed around. It was a little over an hour drive from the breeder’s farm to ours and they snoozed the entire way home! Once we got home, we pulled back one of the cattle panels just enough to back the trailer up and open the door for them to walk into their training pen. At that point we should have waited to have the electric wire strung, but we didn’t and they got tangled in it so here’s where I’m going to tell you how to correctly do it.
Once you have your cattle panels set up with t-posts and wire, take your step-in posts and go around every 5 feet and step one in but wait to string your polywire (which is where it is going to have an electric current flowing). Once you unload your pigs, then string the polywire immediately so they will start learning their boundaries. When using the step-in posts there are little hooks that you will run the hotwire through, when training we ran the reel around the square pen two times on the bottom hook and the one right above it. Pigs go one direction and that’s forward – the first thing that gets shocked is their snout. That’s why you have the cattle panels behind the electric, it teaches them to back up!
Pigs are extremely intelligent and they learn quickly so prepare yourselves to hear the squeals the first few days and for them to seem skittish when you enter their area but don’t give up! We kept our pigs in this training area for around 4 weeks because we had never done it before and we were honestly scared they were going to escape. I think anywhere from 2-3 weeks is long enough for pigs to learn the hotwire but ultimately, it’s your decision on how long to keep them in an area. I won’t lie, it’s nerve wracking wondering if your pigs are going to get loose the first time you put them in their paddock with just hotwire and no structural fencing but it’s so worth it in the end.
Shelter & Bedding
Thankfully we have lots of farmer friends who have raised a variety of animals in their days. Our friends over at Shupert Farms raise dairy cattle and had an extra calf hut that they were willing to part with. This is how we were able to provide shelter without having a barn! The calf hut was the perfect solution to giving them a warm and dry place to rest during the cooler nights in the spring time while they were adjusting to their new life. We put some straw down on the inside and many mornings when we would check on them, they were all huddled inside snoring while piled on top of each other. Let me tell you, they were snoozing good and steam was rolling out of the opening in the hut. Their body heat and the thick plastic hut caused a greenhouse effect that grew grass for them to forage later! We kept the hut available for them in their first paddock but they chose to sleep under the shade trees instead. We removed it all together and they just had the trees alone for shelter after that, which was plenty through any rainstorm or wind we had in the summer.
Pigs in The Paddocks
The first paddock should be connected to the training pen – we learned this the hard way after it took over an hour to get the pigs to trust me enough to walk down an electric fence alleyway. Note to self: pigs are not like cows. Our paddock sizes were 100 feet x 100 feet for 15 hogs, moving them into a new paddock every 5-14 days. Ideally you want around 450 square feet per pig, so ours were a little bit big but we were learning. You will also want to move them faster as they grow and become more destructive. Another thing to note is that you want to have enough paddocks to give enough rest to the starting paddocks if you need to go around more than once. Shoot for 2-3 months of recovery period for each paddock after the pigs have move on to the next one. Now, the tricky part to this is how to set up the next paddock and move the hogs into it without it being a rough transition. It took us a while to get the hang of it but once we figured it out, we were set.
We set each paddock up right before we move the pigs into it, the whole point for us to move our hogs is for them to work for us. God gave them a plow and four-wheel drive so by putting them in wooded areas with brush that need cleared they are working to clear the land all while doing what they love.
You will know what timeline works best for you depending on when your butcher appointment is and how well your land handles the hogs. For us we kept them doing this choreographed routine for 24-26 weeks so give or take a few paddocks as you need them. The size of the land doesn’t matter as much as the forage available for the hogs plus the weather they are in. It takes time get a good idea of how much time they should spend in each paddock; we judge it based on how much disturbance there was to the land and rainfall amounts are the biggest force of change. If they stay too long in an area it will come up in weeds with no grass. You don’t want it to look like a moonscape so leave plenty of forage behind you as you move them. Another good resource for learning to judge how long to leave them in the paddock for is YouTube, Joel Salatin has several videos that will give you some real world examples.
Transitioning from One Paddock to The Next
When setting up paddocks, keep in mind that the hogs are constantly moving forward. Moving from paddock 1 directly to the right, which is paddock 2 is the easiest way we found to keep them moving in the right direction. We set up the paddock starting at the left corner of North, working our way to the right to head down East, then across South. (Draw it out on a piece of paper and plan accordingly for your land). Once the pigs are cross the old paddock meets the new, we would bring the hotwire back up the West side to connect at the North corner again. We would move them without the wire hot so the pigs could walk into the next paddock, once they were across we made it hot again.
Raising Hogs on Pasture
Some people weigh their pigs but finding a scale then transporting to get an accurate weight is a lot of work. There are some folks who choose to use a measuring tape around the bellies to give a good estimate but we knew ours were large enough for harvest by looking at them. Rule of thumb is hogs will weigh around 280 lbs. around 6 months of age, market weight (or where you want to finish your hogs) can be anywhere from 180 lbs. to 250 lbs. but don’t be scared if your hogs end up closer to 325-350 lbs.
The best part about hogs being on the move is that they are given a certain timeline in any given area. They have x number of days with those surroundings and once it’s up, they can’t go back and tear it up. For us, the hogs cleared out rose bushes, poison ivy, small shrubs along with nuts and anything else they can find on the forest floor. Now, with that being said – they can also make a mess if given the opportunity. They love to wallow in the mud, it’s how they keep themselves cool and with our white skin pigs, they keep from getting sunburnt but we choose to only give them small areas to wallow if the weather is really hot and they aren’t getting adequate shade from the trees.
We’ve also learned that the best way to ensure good grass comes up after the hogs are done working the ground is to spread grass seed about 2-4 days before moving into a new paddock so they can work it into the ground. If there is a moonscape area around where they set up camp, definitely throw some seed out there.
Transporting Pigs to Harvest
I mentioned earlier that we used a small stock trailer to bring the pigs home with straw on the floor and sides so they didn’t get tossed around. Well, when it’s time to transport them again that means they are leaving the farm to fulfill their purpose. When getting ready for harvest you will want to train your hogs to go into the trailer. We did this by bringing the trailer back up to where we dropped them off in their starter pen. We took off two of the cattle panels and opened it up into their new paddock and moved their feeder into the training pen area for them to become familiar with the area. This time we did not have any electric around the bottom of the cattle panels. We started a week before our butcher appointment, 3 days before their appointment we moved the feeder out and started feeding by hand every day. We would pour their feed along the trailer floor so they had to walk onto the ramp and into the trailer to eat. This helps keep stress levels down and makes for easy loading.
When you are loading the pigs – get them into the designated pen and shut them off so for us this meant wiring the two cattle panels back together. We then had to get them into the corner where the trailer was – by the way, hogs will do the exact opposite of what you want them to do so prepare to get frustrated and try to keep your cool. The trick is to always have scraps readily available because hogs are motivated by food. We used a cattle panel to get them in the corner and used the trailer door as a squeeze to push them into the trailer. You may also need a sorting panel to help move the hogs with ease. My best advice for the day of loading is to give yourselves plenty of time to load your hogs. We loaded ours onto the trailer with food and water the night before because we have a 2-hour trip one way to our USDA butcher and they have to be delivered by 7 AM. Loading the night before means less stress on us and them in our case, but you’ll be able to make a plan for what works best for you.
Products We Use
Step In Post by O’Brien
Reels from Taragate
Wire: PowerFlex (Polybraid) or Tarabraid by Taragate
Waterer: 85 Gallon Brower Field Drinker with a modified lid to hold an automatic shut off float valve.
Valve: Jobe MegaFlow
Feeder: Self Feeder Osborne Livestock Brand – the exact brand we use is not in stock.
Pigs are extremely intelligent animals to bring onto your farm and they are so much fun. They each have their own personalities that bring joy so not getting attached is a hard task. The best thing to keep in mind if you decide to raise your own pork is that the animal you are raising is living its best life and only has one bad day. The pride you feel after feeding your family with meat raised as nature intended is better than any word can describe. We wish you the best on your journey with raising silvopasture hogs, and if you decide not to raise them then don't worry, you can still shop with us at Ayers Valley Farm. If you have any questions, or just want to say hi, leave a comment below.