Profitable Pigs – On Pasture

Enjoy healthier hogs, bigger litters and lower feed costs
Craig Cramer

PAULLINA, Iowa–"The universities say pasture farrowing is a good low-capital, high-labor system, but you'll sacrifice production efficiency. That's just not true," asserts Colin Wilson. "If you manage it right, there's really no more labor than a confinement operation."

He should know. With his father, Ernest, and brother, Dan, Wilson pasture farrows nearly two-thirds of his 250 hog litters each year without sacrificing production or profits. They wean 8.8 pigs per litter for sows and 8.7 for gilts–excellent averages for even the best–run confinement operations. And in '85, their hogs returned $2.16 for every dollar spent on feed, 41 percent more than the $1.53 average for hog producers in the Northwest Iowa Farm Business Association.

The Wilsons are clearly in the minority. According to a recent survey by the National Pork Producers Council, more than 80 percent of all hog farmers use a central farrowing facility with pens or crates.

But that's not the only fact that separates them from their peers. With a $30-per-head break-even cost for their feeder pigs, the Wilsons haven't had to depend on today's inflated hog-to-corn price ratios to turn a profit. "Our feeders are always among the top-priced pigs at auction, and the auctioneers never fail to mention that they're pasture farrowed," says Ernest. "We can't always smooth out dips in the market as well as someone farrowing year-round, but we still have a margin, even when we hit a low market. And if it's too low, we can hold back some feeders and fatten more."

Rotation Cuts Costs
If pasture farrowing sounds tempting, the Wilsons are quick to warn that it's not for everyone. They've worked the bugs out of their system by trial and error since they started with 27 sows and 12 A-frame farrowing sheds more than two decades ago.

"Timeliness of management is critical," stresses Colin. "Many jobs require two people, sometimes three." But none of the Wilsons seem to mind: The hog operation, plus 880 acres of corn, beans, oats and alfalfa, is profitable enough to support all three of their families.

The Wilsons minimize feed and health-care costs with a three-year rotation in three 18-acre fields adjacent to each other. The rotation begins with corn, followed next spring with a drilled mix of 3.5 bushels of oats. 10 pounds of alfalfa and 3 pounds of orchardgrass. Oats are harvested in summer leaving a thick pasture cover for the hogs next year.

"It took us a long time to develop the mix," notes Colin. "If you get too little alfalfa, the pasture isn't as palatable. Too much, and you won't get a good orchardgrass cover and the pastures will be muddy in wet years."

It takes them about two days to prepare the pasture for the first farrowing on May 24, "about what it would take us to pump the pits if we had all the hogs inside," jokes Colin. They stress that the site needs to be well-drained with no low ground unless the soil is sandy.

As soon as it's dry in spring, they use a tractor-mounted post hole digger to set fence posts. Then, they string two, 14-gauge wires (carefully rolled and tagged the previous fall) around the perimeter of the field–one 4 to 8 inches high and the other 18 to 24 inches. Each wire has its own charger so there's always a hot wire if one charger malfunctions.

The Wilsons also use double wires to divide the field into 150- by 300-foot pens. "We learned not to charge the gates, though. The hogs will learn it's hot, and then you won't be able drive them through when it's open," notes Ernest.

Water is brought to the site in a flexible 3/4-inch PVC feeder pipe, and then to individual waterers in 1/2-inch pipe. A homemade tractor-mounted pipe roller built from a telephone wire spool speeds the job.

A week before the first spring farrowing, the Wilsons vaccinate sows in the winter farrowing house, then herd them to 20-foot-square group sheds on one of the pasture lots to help them get acclimated. Soon afterward, the first 15 or 20 due to farrow are moved to another pen, where they choose their own individual A-frame farrowing sheds.

$100 Farrowing Sheds
The Wilsons figure the 8-foot-long, bottomless wood-frame farrowing sheds would cost about $100 each, if built from new materials. "The three of us can build three a day–assembly line style– and still get chores done," observes Colin.

Colin Wilson checks sow in A-frame farrowing shed. The skid-mounted units are easy to transport, and cost less than $100 apiece to build. "The three of us can build three a day and still get chores done, " says Wilson.

"The originals are 21 years old and still in good shape," says Ernest. Rotted boards in a few lower corners have needed repair, so the Wilsons now use pressure-treated wood for the corners.

The A-frame design is deceivingly simple, but essential to minimizing labor. All of the units (including the larger group houses) are mounted on skids so they can be dragged into the pasture with a small tractor or pickup. The sloping, 6-foot roof sections form 60-degree angles with the base, to keep the sow from flopping onto young pigs. And the structure is just the right size so that a sow can turn around, but not quickly enough to injure someone working inside.

The open front of each shed faces southeast, while a rear access door can be opened and closed for ventilation. Cold weather has never posed serious problems during their late-May to mid-September outdoor farrowing season. Before the sows move in, the Wilsons spread half a bale of straw onto the ground inside the sheds to reduce drafts. "The first time you spread bedding, you need to shake out the straw well, so that the sows don't get used to laying on lumps. But after the pigs are a week old, you can just throw it in and the sows' nesting instincts take over," advises Colin.

If sows need more bedding, they'll rob it from nearby sheds or clip it from the pasture. "The bedding stays dry, even when we had seven days of rain and water was streaming by the sheds," says Ernest.

Since the pigs aren't restrained, the sheds don't need cleaning during the season. And when the sheds are removed in fall, the 8-inch pile of bedding left on the ground doesn't interfere with field operations for the corn to follow. (However, litter from the larger group houses does need to be scattered.)

Once in the A-frames, sows are fed as a group in the morning and checked twice each day. As soon after farrowing as possible, the Wilsons notch ears, clip needle teeth and dock tails. They also bolt a temporary 2- by 12-inch board to the front of each shed to teach baby pigs which A-frame is theirs. "We leave it on three days to a week. Once they start jumping out, you can pull it off," says Colin. Since the pigs are on pasture, they require no iron shots and receive no vaccines at birth.

Labor needs peak when the pigs are about a week old. The Wilsons like to castrate males on a hot afternoon when all the sows and pigs are inside their sheds. They rely on their collie to keep curious sows from wandering out of nearby sheds.

"After castrating, the workload really drops," says Colin. "It's the last time the pigs have to be caught until weaning. The sows go on a self-feeder and we just have to check the ventilation twice a day."

A week to 10 days after birth, sows and their litters are moved to group sheds in another pen. Up to 10 litters share each shed, and there are two sheds in each pen. The empty A-frames are moved to another pen for another group to farrow in.

At around 6 weeks–slightly later than most confinement operations– the pigs and sows are transported to a central barn for weaning. Before the feeders are sold at eight to nine weeks, they're vaccinated for erysipilis and treated for parasites.

Corral Eases Herding
Such a management schedule would be impossible if the Wilsons spent all their time chasing hogs around the pasture. That's why they've developed handling methods that make their work more like poetry in motion than a comedy of errors.

To start with, anytime sows or pigs need to be gathered for transport, the Wilsons build a small, temporary corral in one corner of the pen using 16-foot hog panels. Then they herd the animals around the perimeter and into the corral. But that's usually not necessary when treating individual sows, says Dan. "They're used to having people around, so it's often possible to sneak up and give one a shot while she's eating."

Herding sows between the winter farrowing house and the pasture is easy: The older ones know the route and the others simply fall in line. But young pigs need to be hauled. When it's necessary to capture and transport a single sow, the Wilsons back a simple homemade cart (resembling a farrowing crate on wheels) up to the front of theA-frame, and coax the sow in.

When working in the farrowing sheds after birth or while castrating, the Wilsons hold a small board near the sow's face to distract and calm her. They also ring the sows' noses each spring, which prevents them from tearing up the pasture and keeps them in line if they get too rough. "You can just tap her on that sensitive spot, and it will slow her down," notes Colin.

Unruly sows are sold.
After 20 years of careful culling and boar selection, the Wilsons have bred a herd with a temperament and other qualities compatible with their system. Their priority has been to eliminate farrowing problems. And they believe the timid Landrace breeds preferred for confinement operations aren't aggressive enough for pasture farrowing. "If someone pulls a herd right out of confinement operation stock and tries pasture farrowing, they're going to have problems," warns Dan. "Look for hogs not raised on slats. Anything raised on an outside lot would work."

The Wilsons have brought no sows onto the farm since 1949. Instead, they've improved the herd's genetic base by rotating Duroc, Yorkshire and Black Poland boars, buying the best available in lots of eight to 10. "Small breeders often don't have enough good stock, but we prefer them, because their boars bring in less disease," says Dan.

Breeding is timed so that a gilt's first farrowing is always in the pasture. One group farrows in August, is bred back to farrow in February, and then is sold. A second group farrows three times– June, December and May– before being sold. All open sows and gilts are culled. As a result, the Wilsons have had pregnancy rates as high as 98 per-cent for sows and 93 percent for gilts.

Pasture Comes Inside
The Wilsons eliminate antibiotics from all sow and grower rations while the pigs are on pasture. They grind and mix all their own feed, including just the starter ration they begin creep feeding three weeks after birth. "We don't need the fancy starters filled with milk and sugar that are meant for early weaning," says Colin.

In addition to eliminating the need for iron shots or supplements, the pasture allows the Wilsons to eliminate 50 pounds of soybean meal from each ton of feed. When standard self-feeders get tied up in replacement gilt pens, they dump shell corn into the pen about once a week, supplemented with pelletized protein meal, vitamins and minerals fed in troughs.

The Wilsons' herd is almost as happy and healthy inside during winter as it is on pasture during summer. Part of the reason is that the Wilsons don't abandon their sound management practices when the cold weather comes. "These are the only slats in the whole operation," says Dan, pointing to a small, plastic orphan pen. "Otherwise, all our pigs are on straw during the winter."

To be sure the pigs get a taste of the pasture year-round, the Wilsons make about 2,500 bales of alfalfa hay each year. They feed it free-choice through the winter, with the best hay going to the farrowing house and nursery.

Since the first farrowing is always on pasture, sows don't expect to be coddled during the winter farrowing. "They've been through it. So they know what it's all about," says Dan. They farrow on straw in a large, open room where the temperature seldom tops 65 F.

The Wilsons only check the sows every two hours during the day, and seldom at night. After farrowing, the pigs are scooped up in a basket and moved to a lactation area made up of 5- by 8-foot pens. Litters in adjacent pens share a heat lamp.

Sows aren't fed in the lactation pens. Instead, they're turned out for an hour or two twice a day to eat, drink, exercise and dung. "They'll wait to dung outside, because that's what they're used to doing in the pasture," explains Dan.

Just like in the pasture, sows and litters are moved to a communal nursery at seven to 10 days. Door flaps give them access to an outside exercise yard and self-feeders. When the pigs are about two weeks old, they start joining their mothers at the feeders.

The Wilsons have never had disease problems in the lactation pens, even though it's never been powerwashed or disinfected; nor in the communal nursery, which is powerwashed just once a year.

In addition to boosting profits, the Wilsons say pasture farrowing has taught them a lot about what makes a healthy, contented hog. "You see a lot more of their natural instincts when the hogs are out on pasture" says Carla Wilson, Colin's wife. "Watching the sows' elaborate nesting behavior, you see why confinement can cause stress–especially when a sow is kept in the same crate for several weeks. Besides, chores are more enjoyable in the fresh air with contented sows grazing and groups of pigs playing and hiding their heads in clumps of orchardgrass."

Colin agrees. "I can't really say our feed efficiency is the same, but our rate of gain is as good as confinement when I can produce 225-pound hogs in five and a half months."

As long as their 1,200 feeders and 800 fats continue to gain at a total cost of $39.50 per hundredweight, the Wilsons can afford a little inefficiency, and let their hogs have some fun.

Replacement gilts grazing alfalfa-orchardgrass pasture in early September. About a week before their first farrowing, they'll be vaccinated and moved into group sheds (background, right).

Reproduced with permission of the publisher. The New Farm, Jan. 1987, p. 26-29.

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