Photos by T. L. Getting;
Text by Craig Cramer
THE IDEAL GRAZERS
and pens beat
crates and confinement
NEW HAMPTON, Iowa. Tom Frantzen's hogs must consider themselves
pretty lucky. Frantzen, president of Practical Farmers of Iowa,
has developed an innovative system that makes the most of his
hogs' natural abilities, keeping them happy, healthy and productive.
But Frantzen isn't running a nature preserve. With just 320 acres,
he needs to squeeze as much profit as possible from his 100-sow
That's why he:
- Runs gestating gilts and sows on
intensively managed pasture to cut feed costs by half or more,
and double per-acre net compared with growing corn.
- Parcels out strips of annual crops
such as corn, milo and field peas with portable fencing so lactating
sows and their litters can hog them down, eliminating harvest
- Farrows sows and gilts in A-frame
pasture huts to reduce capital costs and labor.
- Tore out his farrowing crates and
switched back to pen farrowing while maintaining litter size
and boosting weaning weights and making it a pleasure again to
work inside during winter.
"All this may sound pretty labor-intensive,"
says Frantzen. "But it's easier than running comparable confinement
facilities. Confinement may reduce labor for some. But it's more
than made up for by the increase in maintenance. Plus I'd much
rather bed pens or move portable fences than fix scraper systems."
Frantzen first experimented with grazing
hogs in '90 on a 3-acre site that was inconvenient to crop. The
previous a spring, he had drilled oats with a "shotgun"
mix of perennial forages (including red and ladino clovers, alfalfa,
brome, timothy and orchard-grass. "I used so many different
species because I wanted a lot of biodiversity and durability
," he notes.
In spring' 90, Frantzen built a three-strand perimeter fence using
high-tensile wire about 6, 12 and 18 inches high, and floating H corner braces. "I've never had any
problems keeping the hogs in. They train to the fence very quickly
," he observes. "The key is to use a good, low-impedance
Frantzen subdivided the grazing cell into three paddocks with
fiberglass posts and two strands of Premier Maxishock wire 8 and
16 inches high. (Premier , P.O. Box 89N, Washington IA 52352,
(800) 282-6631, (319) 653-6631.) Single-wire subdivisions hold
well-trained sows just fine, says Frantzen.
"I made just about every first-year management mistake a
beginning grazier can make," recalls Frantzen. First, he
didn't move bred gilts onto the pasture until June 1. "That's
too late. The forage was already past its prime, and stayed ahead
of the hogs all year."
The 20 gilts provided a stocking density (the weight of the grazing
animals relative to paddock size) that was too low at just 7,000
pounds per acre. And Frantzen moved them once a week on a rigid
calendar schedule. The gilts selectively grazed the legumes and
left overmature grasses. They still weaned seven pigs per litter
farrowing in the A-frame huts in a separate pasture in September
slightly below average for Frantzen's gilts.
In '91, Frantzen further subdivided his three paddocks so he had
nine altogether, and moved 38 gilts onto the pasture May 1. "That
got the stocking density in the paddocks up to about 40,000 pounds
per acre, and I based pasture rotation on forage condition not
the calendar." He cut back to 24 gilts when he moved a new
group onto the pasture as forage growth slowed in midsummer. Grazing
was more uniform and forage regrowth surged compared with the
first year. Gilts were on pasture a total of 150 days, and weaned
above- average litters of about 8.5 pigs each.
Not satisfied, Frantzen rearranged his interior fencing last spring,
increasing the number of paddocks to 16. And instead of radiating
from the central shelter, he arranged a system of lanes to each
paddock. Before, with the longer paddocks, gilts trampled and
overgrazed forage close to the shelter, and undergrazed forage
at the far end of the paddocks.
Severe winter weather had hurt the forage stand, so Frantzen reduced
his stocking rate to 30 gilts. But with smaller paddocks, the
stocking density increased to 62,000 pounds per acre. Gilts now
graze each paddock for about two days. "The forage regrows
so fast the gilts just can't keep up with it and I've had to hay
some paddocks," says Frantzen, who clips paddocks when gilts
leave overmature grass.
Frantzen feeds a supplement of l.75 pounds of ground shell corn
and a commercial mineral mix while the gilts are on pasture. Legume
pastures are usually high in calcium, so it's important to supplement
phosphorus. Be sure to use a source other than dicalcium-phosphate,
suggests Mark Honeyman, an animal scientist at Iowa State University.
Frantzen sampled forage to make sure his mineral mix properly
balanced those nutrients with pasture sources.
"I save about 20 cents per head per day on feed, which translates
into a gross of about $300 per acre," says Frantzen. "With
so little input, the net is easily twice that of corn and that
doesn't include the herd-health benefits or what I save by not
having to spread manure."
'Hogging Down' Crops
"After three years, I'm starting
to think hogs might be the ideal grazing animal,"
says Frantzen. Granted, they aren't ruminants and can't make good
use of low-quality forage. But with a single stomach, they're
also more adaptable to radical ration changes, Frantzen notes.
"If the pasture is too wet, I can just pull them off and
increase their feed to 4 pounds of corn and not have to worry
about getting their system off-track or ruining the pasture.
"I've learned that the key to grazing hogs is to use at least
a dozen paddocks and keep stocking density high," he adds.
As his sward improves and he hones his management, Frantzen predicts
the 3-acre grazing cell will carry 40 gilts at a stocking density
of 83,000 pounds per acre.
This year, Frantzen added a second 2.5-acre grazing cell on some
of his poorest pasture ground that's mostly dandelions and quackgrass.
With no renovation, it's carrying 32 of the third-litter sows
that grazed his original cell last year. "It's remarkable
how hard they graze. They remember what to do," he observes.
Gilts have selectively grazed the legumes in the original cell,
so now brome is the dominant species. To maintain a better balance
of grass and legumes, Frantzen plans to alternate grazing cattle
and hogs in the two cells each year.
In one drought-damaged paddock in the original cell, Frantzen
experimented in '91 with annual forages. In early April, he used
a garden seeder to plant four different forages in 6-inch rows
in randomized blocks. The forages included berseem and crimson
clovers, Tyfon forage turnip, and an annual hog-pasture blend
called "Laugh and Grow Fat," which consists of ryegrass,
rape, sudan and field peas. (Albert Lea Seed House, P.O. Box 127,
Albert Lea MN 56007, (800) 352-5247, (507) 373-3161.)
He turned in gilts to graze this "salad bar" June 1,
and they regrazed the annuals at roughly 30-day intervals. "The
clovers made an excellent stand, but were killed by the first
grazing," he reports. The mix fared best especially the rape,
which regrew quickly and provided forage well into fall.
That year, Frantzen also let 18 other lactating sows and pigs
hog down crops. In April, he planted about 1.5 acres in alternating
four-row strips of 85-day corn and a mix of milo and Canada field
peas. The sows farrowed on 3 acres of oats, peas, turnips and
rape. In mid-August, when the corn was well-dented and the farrowing
pasture grazed down, Frantzen used temporary fence to strip graze
the corn, milo and peas. He moved the fence forward eight rows
at a time, giving the stock about a quarter-acre of fresh feed.
"When I gave them a new strip, they weren't interested in
dry feed for four or five days. When they started eating grain
again, I moved the fence and gave them a new strip," Frantzen
says. "There was no harvest waste and no harvest expense."
This year he's trying the same practice using a drilled mix of
oats, triticale, rape and Canada field peas for early-season forage,
and planting giant hybrid fodder corn (also available from Albert
Lea Seed House) to be hogged down in late summer.
Last fall, after the sows and pigs finished off the corn, milo
and peas, Frantzen drilled 20 pounds of rye in the field. In early
May, he turned in 16 gilts to graze until late June, when he moved
them onto an oats/field-pea pasture. ("The rye did very well.
I only wish I'd mixed in some vetch or mammoth clover," he
Pasture Farrowing Pays Off
Frantzen's father started pasture
farrowing when he bought the farm (during the Depression, and
capital was scarce. That's still a good reason to pasture farrow,
says Frantzen. The housing investment is far below that of confinement.
Each year, Frantzen has a local lumber company build two new A-frame
farrowing huts from pressure-treated wood for $200 each. "I
could find cheaper huts, but these won't fall apart or blow away
in a storm," he says. He expects them to last 15 years, but
some of his A- frames are more than 30 years old and still going
Low capital costs aren't the only reason to pasture farrow, he
continues. "Like the hogs, I'd rather be outside in the fresh
air and sunshine. I don't want to mess with the flies, smell and
cleanup chores in a confinement facility all summer."
Frantzen also contends that there's less labor with pasture farrowing.
"It works out great with spring fieldwork. I only have to
do chores in the morning. The hogs can take care of themselves
in the evening." When he needs to move A-frames, he simply
picks them up with a front-mounted fork and drives the tractor
right over the interior fences (an 8-inch-high strand of Maxishock
on fiberglass posts). The outdoor system performs as well as indoor
farrowing, too. "My weaned-pig average for sows is about
8 to 8.5 farrowing inside or out."
The farrowing pasture's perimeter fencing is nearly identical
to the one in Frantzen's grazing cell, only he runs the lowest
wire just a couple inches off the ground to keep in little pigs.
An underground water system from Kentucky Graziers Supply adds
flexibility when arranging huts and interior fencing, says Frantzen.
(KGS, 1929 S. Main St., Paris KY 40361, (800) 729-0592. See "Put
Water In Every Paddock," The New Farm, Feb. '92.)
The sod is mostly quackgrass and brome, which stands up to the
heavy traffic. This spring, Frantzen planted 1,000 hybrid cottonwoods
in four shelterbelts 185 feet apart in the pasture, to provide
shade and slow winds.
Frantzen usually moves the first group of sows onto the pasture
in early May, and continues farrowing on pasture until October.
He makes sure there's never more than seven days difference in
farrowing dates among sows in a single enclosure.
It's important to have the right genetics for pasture farrowing,
says Frantzen. He's settled on the old four-way cross of Hampshire,
Duroc, Yorkshire and Spotted Poland. "They have to have some
color or they just can't take the sun," he says. Frantzen
adds a Lactobacillus-based probiotic to his starter-, grower-
and farrowing rations. But he feels the real key to keeping hogs
healthy is to reduce stress. My outdoor system is hardest on 75-
to 100-pound pigs in late fall and early winter when there are
wide temperature fluctuations," he notes.
Pens Make Farrowing Fun
Soon after he took over the farm in
'74, Frantzen built the Cargill units where he still finishes
hogs. "Investment tax credits and good
farm prices fueled my modernization fever," he recalls. In
'78, he removed farrowing pens from the old dairy barn that still
serves as a farrowing house. "I put in raised crates with
plastic flooring, elevated walkways, a scraper system, outdoor
liquid-manure pit, high-tech ventilation, heating pads and as
many modern conveniences as I could get my hands on," he
"It was trouble right from the start. Pneumonia and other
health problems plagued his herd. I went to crates because that's
what we were supposed to do. But after the first litter, I said,
'My God, what have I done?"'
While Frantzen weaned roughly the "same number of pigs in
crates as on pasture, the pigs were barely large enough to wean
in 30 days. I hated just being in the farrowing house.
I couldn't look my sows in the eyes, and I didn't talk to them
for 15 years. Confinement is psychologically bad for both the
animals and the operator." Last winter, Frantzen decided
to make things right again. His scraper system broke down in November,
and he dreaded the expense and chore of fixing it. Even though
his crates were in pretty good shape, the flooring and undersupports
were nearly worn-out. "So I went in with a torch, sledge-
hammer and skid loader and tore everything out," he recalls.
" In place of the 14 crates and scraper system, Frantzen
built 16 pens using wood from a basswood tree (Tilia americana)
felled from his father-in-law's grove and milled locally. "Old-timers
say basswood makes great pens because it's light but strong."
Frantzen built eight 10-foot gates that run along the central
alley, and eight 7-foot divider gates that run from the alley
to the sidewalls. "Wings" made from 4-foot sections
of three-fourths-inch plywood are fastened with hinges to the
dividers to form triangular creep areas at the rear of the pen.
A plywood creep roof holds two 100-watt light bulbs mounted in
aluminum shades. (See photo above)
Frantzen removes the dividers so sows can farrow together in group
pens. "That's a lot less stressful for them, especially compared
with using crates where they have to farrow where they dung."
After a sow farrows, he sets up the divider to separate the sow
and litter in their own pen. "I shut the piglets in the creep
area early so they know where to go to get warm." That, plus
the long, narrow pens and guardrails mounted on the sides, reduces
When the pigs are about 10 days old, Frantzen removes dividers
to re-form group pens. "That helps reduce feeding chores,"
he observes. "I bed the pens every other day, using straw
from the oats I rotate with corn and beans. It's not much work,
because the pigs always dung in the same corner.
"The best thing about going back to pens is that my attitude
is better. I don't dread working inside like I used to,"
he adds. The hogs seem to like it too. "My weaning average
jumped to nine pigs per litter on the first farrowing, and the
pigs are growing faster, too. Now they're bigger at 3 weeks than
they used to be after a month. "Crates didn't meet my needs
or the animals'. But these pens do."
Editor's Note: We still get requests for the A-frame farrowing
shed plans we offered in our Jan. '87 issue. For a copy of the
plans and the article " Profitable Pigs On Pasture, "
which describes how Colin Wilson manages pasture farrowing on
his family's farm in Paullina, Iowa, send a SASE to: Pasture Farrowing,
The New Farm, 222 Main St., Emmaus PA 18098. For more on Tom Frantzen's
practices, see "Strips Boost Yields, Save Soil, " Feb.
'91 an " Liquid Manure Magic, " Jan. '92.
Reproduced with permission of the
publisher. The New Farm, Sept/Oct. 1992 p. 19-23.