Profitable Pork on Pasture

Low-capital strategies boost hog health and beat the market.
Craig Cramer

He doesn't exactly like riding the hog-market roller coaster, but Bob Sloan does try to make the best of it. In '87, when prices were up, Sloan farrowed some 1 ,500 litters. Last year, after two consecutive years of low prices, he was down to just 400 litters. This year, he doesn't plan to raise any hogs on his farm in Jonesville, Mich.

How can Sloan afford to idle his farrowing facilities when prices are low? Because he's not paying off expensive confinement buildings. Instead, Sloan farrows on pasture, and has just $70 to $85 per sow invested in huts, feeders, waterers and fencing. "With a typical 500-sow facility costing $1 million, you can't afford to let it rest," he observes. But farrowing on pasture, I can get in and out in response to the market. I expect we'll be right back in it in a year or so when the market turns around. "

One acre of rotationally grazed pasture netted Richard Bennett $8 per sow, "which isn't bad considering I had it way understocked, " he says. This year, he plans to graze two groups of 16 sows on the same pasture.

Mark Honeyman, an Iowa State University animal scientist, agrees: "The flexibility of pasture-based hog systems makes them very attractive, especially for farmers who don't have access to a lot of capital. When I left home for college, we just stacked the huts and sold the sows. They helped pay for my education. "

Flexibility isn't the only advantage of pastured hogs, says Honeyman. Compared to confinement operations, pasture systems offer:

  • Lower initial capital investment.
  • Lower annual maintenance costs.
  • Healthier hogs, especially in regard to from respiratory diseases, rhinitis and foot and leg problems.
  • Lower (or no) heating. cooling and ventilation costs.
  • Fewer odor problems.
  • Similar gain and feed efficiency.
  • Similar sow reproductive health
  • Similar feed costs.

What scares many people away from pasture farrowing is the extra labor. "Labor costs are usually somewhat higher." he says. "But not by as much as you'd expect. If you're a good manager, you can keep those costs low. "

Some producers even note feed savings when sows graze high-quality pasture. But those savings are often offset by the cost of extra bedding needed with pasture systems, notes Honeyman.

'Great Grazers'
Sloan farrows on pasture in galvanized steel Port-A-Huts, which he sells through his farm supply business. His biggest fear when he started pasture farrowing a decade ago was keeping the hogs inside the pastures. "We find that three strands of high-tensile, high-power electric fence works fine if your lots are at least one-quarter mile from main roads and homesteads," he notes.

Sloan stocks about 45 sows in 3-acre lots. A minimum of three lots is needed for each breeding group. Any sow that has not farrowed within a week after the first sow that farrows is moved onto the next lot to prevent colostrum stealing by older pigs. Larger port-A-Hut shelters are provided in each lot for the sows before they farrow. That keeps individual huts clean until the sows pick their own hut in which to farrow. One-third of a bale of straw is placed in each hut for bedding.

In December, gilts are bred for first farrowing in mid-March. Breeding continues each month for farrowings through July. Sows farrowing in March, April and May are rebred for farrowing in August, September and October.

Young pigs are handled only once, when they are two or three days old. The sow is driven from her hut, while the pigs are castrated, vaccinated for erysipelas and have their needle teeth and tails clipped. They are weaned at four weeks and moved to a simple outdoor nursery consisting of a large Port-A-Hut shelter and hog panels.

"They're great grazers, better than you ever imagined," says Sloan. He supplements pasture with a low-bulk ration in central self-feeders. Sloan estimates pasturing saves about 30 percent on feed.

"Our soil isn't well-suited for cropping. So we may grow corn for a year and then go right back to pasture," he says today's wormers are cheap and effective, so it isn't as necessary to idle a pasture for a couple years. If the hogs tear them up, we'll use a Lilliston no-till drill to reseed clover and grass after a rain in August or September. By next June, it's a whole new ball game."

Sloan estimates the cost of land, labor and buildings for his system to be about $2.90 per hundredweight. "If you're using your own labor you can probably figure on at least breaking even, even in a bad market year."

Rotational Grazing
In '89, Rodale Institute on-farm research cooperator Richard Bennett of Napoleon, Ohio, experimented with a new twist in pasture-based hogs rotational grazing. "It took some arm-twisting at first to get me to try it, but I'm glad I did, " he recalls. And I'm going to keep on doing it, too."

In early April, Bennett broadcast and disked in 35 pounds of red clover seed in wire and nylon step-in posts. In mid-May, he started turning six bred sows into a grassy area of the pasture where the clover didn't catch. By mid-June they were grazing the 50-50, clover- grass mix in the rest of the pasture.

Bennett rotated the sows to a new paddock roughly every two weeks. "For the first couple of days, I had a hard time keeping them in the paddocks. But once they learned to respect the fence, it was no problem.

"I could have easily doubled the stocking rate," he continues. "They just couldn't keep up with the forage. " Bennett normally feeds 6 pounds of 14-percent protein gestation feed, but cut that back to just 2.5 pounds for the pastured sows. June grass samples were as high as l7.4-percent protein on a dry matter basis, and July clover samples were more than 25 percent protein. "I was surprised at how high in protein the grass was. The hogs actually work the grass before they graze the clover," he observes.

After 74 days on pasture, the sows' average weight was the same as when they started, 405 pounds. A control group fed in the barn went from 420 to 445 pounds. "The pasture keeps the sows in good condition. They don't get too fat," notes Bennett.

Both groups farrowed inside. In the first four weeks, the mortality rate for the pasture sows' pigs was just 8 percent -less than half the control group's, Bennett weaned 9.4 pigs per litter from the pasture group, compared to 8.6 from the control. Feed efficiency for pastured sows was slightly better during that time, producing a pound of pig on 5.32 pounds of feed, compared with 5.71 for the control.

All together, I figure the pasture was worth about $8 per sow, which isn't a bad return, considering I had it way understocked," says Bennett. This year, I'm going to go with 16 sows on the pasture, and then run a second group of 16 in the summer."

After weaning, the pastured sows rejoined the rest of Bennett's herd and were fed in the barn during their next gestation. The benefits of grazing did not appear to extend to the next farrowing. "If anything, they may have done a little worse than the rest of the sows," says Bennett. "Everyone tells me that clover does something good for sows. I'm not sure how it works. But now I'm convinced it helps."

Hay For Hogs
Not ready to put your hogs on pasture? Consider bringing pasture to your hogs. "Feeding high levels of fibrous feedstuffs can maintain or even improve reproductive performance," says Iowa State's Honeyman. Studies show that fibrous feedstuffs and protein by-products can make up as much as 90 percent of their rations, because gestating sows have low energy needs and large digestive tracts. Acceptable feedstuffs include alfalfa hay and haylage; alfalfa-orchardgrass hay; grass silage; sunflower and soybean hulls; distiller's grains; -corn gluten feed, corn and cob meal, beet pulp and wheat middlings.

Even growing-finishing pig rations can be 10 percent to 30 percent forage, if energy levels are maintained. "What's exciting about all this is how increasing forage levels in swine feed would change cropping patterns." says Honeyman. Take, for example, a hypothetical 400-acre corn-soybean operation producing 2,000 hogs annually with no forages. If alfalfa made up 25 percent of the total ration needed to produce a market pig, Honeyman calculates it would require about 70 acres of alfalfa.

"Every crop acre would be in alfafa once every five or six years," he says. "Think of the tremendous effect this would have on fertilizer needs, weed control, water quality, soil conservation and labor utilization. By changing the Corn Belt pigs diet, we can change the face of Corn Belt agriculture.

"If you encourage farmers to add forages to their corn-bean rotation, they ask, "What will I do with the hay? " he continues, "Feed it to pigs is one answer."

Reproduced with permission of the publisher. The New Farm, May/June 1990, p. 15-18.

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