Pigs have always been great animals for small farms. But when you raise pigs on commercial feed, the original $45 to $50 investment in a piglet can escalate into hundreds of dollars. Add in butchering costs, and the price of home-raised meat can quickly reach more than $2 a pound. But pigs haven’t always been such a pricey proposition. The traditional role of pigs on the farmstead was as garbage recyclers. That’s why pigs were always considered the thrifty farmer’s best friend.
Photo by Getty Images/Barbara Cerovsek
You may have lots of pig food on your homestead that you just haven’t recognized. Most of us are composting, burning, or throwing away materials that our ancestors would’ve seen as premium pig food. With just a little adjustment to your present practices in the garden, kitchen, barn, and pasture, you can take advantage of these sources of pig nutrients.
The Original Piggy Bank
Photo by Masha Dougherty
Pigs are exceptionally well-adapted to live symbiotically with human beings because, like us, they’re omnivores. They eat what we eat. But pigs are far less particular than humans, and will happily eat all the waste and spoilage from our kitchens, gardens, and dairies. Despite all the corn and soy in commercial pig feed, pigs don’t need either in their diets. Instead, they need proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients just like us, and these can be obtained from the farm.
Additionally, pigs are uniquely adapted to take advantage of times when nature produces a lot of good calories. Their adjustable metabolisms let them enjoy seasons of boom and bust. They’ll happily “pig out” when there’s plenty on the table, storing huge quantities of whatever nutrients are available. Then, when times are leaner, they can drop back to a maintenance ration, waiting comfortably until the next period of plenty. This makes them a huge benefit to the farmer or homesteader with seasonal surges of production in the garden, orchard, and dairy. With a pig on the farm, waste is no longer a burden. All of our surplus calories become delectable pork.
Pig Food from Your Property
Photo by Ashley Felock
Let’s take a look around the homestead to identify some nutrient sources:
Weeds. How many wheelbarrows of weeds do you cart out of your garden every summer to the compost pile, hoping that the heap’s internal temperature will get high enough to kill their seeds? Or to the burn pile, sending valuable carbon back into the atmosphere? Weeds are palatable to pigs, and many common weeds are high in protein and essential minerals. Ragweed, for example, has a dry matter protein content of 25 percent. If you have toxic weeds in your garden, you can choose to leave them. Pigs are smart; a pastured pig is exposed to many toxic weeds, and will quickly learn what not to eat.
Inedible food. Overripe, underripe, damaged, or low-quality garden crops are haute cuisine in the pigpen. In addition, the stems, vines, hulls, tops, roots, and stalks of our food crops — practically any part of food crops inedible for humans — are welcome on the pig menu.
Surplus produce. Think about all the surplus produce you have every year. Perishable produce is perfect pig food. And, for the more determined, there are easy-to-grow, high-yielding crops that are good for the garden and make excellent pig food as well. Kale is quality forage for pigs, and produces many pounds of green food with a small footprint. Turnips and rutabagas, heavy producers whose long, thick taproot will break up and aerate a heavy soil, have long been popular as animal feed in Europe. The mangel-wurzel is an enormous, sugar-sweet root crop that can grow up to 20 pounds, but is as easy to grow as its common garden brother, the table beet.
Photo by Masha Dougherty
Cover crops. You can make cover crops serve dual purposes by planting crops that — when they’ve done their job of weed suppression, nitrogen fixation, or soil retention — can be cut or pulled for pig food. For example, we often substitute beans for clover in our fertility rotation. We plant them in tight rows so they’ll also suppress weeds. When they’re mature, we cut whole plants and toss them into the pig pen, where our animals gobble them up. If we leave the roots in the ground, we still get the benefit of their nitrogen-fixing nodules to add fertility to our garden soil. Our sow also loves daikon radishes; we can feed her as many as we like without making a dent in this crop’s ultraheavy production. A winter or early spring cover crop of wheat, oats, or barley, combined with some field peas, makes a perfect pig crop when you cut it and haul it to the pig pen. Or, if your soil is favorable, bring the pigs in and let them harvest for themselves. A summer cover crop of buckwheat is often tilled in before it sets seed, but if you elect to let it mature to harvest for grain, be sure to offer the buckwheat “straw” to the pigs.
Orchards. Traditionally, periodically running the family pig through the orchard was a way to boost the pig’s nutrients and clean up the orchard at the same time. From early fruit drop, to harvest time, to windfalls and late-winter pruning, the orchard has many nutrients to offer your pig. It’s no surprise that pigs love fruit, but maybe you didn’t know that they also love tree prunings. Throw some in the pigpen and watch your pigs devour them. Even better, young twigs, branches, and tree leaves are a rich source of minerals and fiber.
Hay and straw. For more farm-raised pig food, look in the barn. Hay and straw add bulk, minerals, and ample energy to the pig diet. This isn’t limited to clean hay or straw, either; ruminant bedding is also welcome in the pigpen. Pigs will eat and derive some food value from the manure, and destroy ruminant parasite eggs and larvae at the same time. The bedding itself often has significant food value; straw, hay, and crushed corn cobs will all contribute to your pork chop production. Let that bedding serve as many purposes as possible before you cart it to the compost pile.
Kitchen scraps. Those wet, high-nitrogen messes left over from canning, freezing, fermenting, and dehydrating will draw scavengers, attract flies, and stink if added to the compost pile. Instead, offer your pigs tomato skins, apple peelings, wine must, beer mash, and the skimmings off the sauerkraut crock, and then cart their soiled bedding off to the compost pile.
Pig-Approved Protein Sources
It’s clear by now that the homestead has plenty of calories to pad out our porkers. But what about protein? Garden, orchard, barn, and kitchen offerings may be high in energy and minerals, but they’re often deficient in protein. The solution to that problem is also to be found on our farms.
Leftover bones from making broth still hold lots of good stuff, and you’ll be amazed at how welcome they are in the pigpen; even the biggest beef bones will disappear. Do you soak your baking and roasting pans before cleaning? Scrape them out and put the soaking water in the pig bucket. This also holds true for scrapings from the bread bowl, leftover milk from drinking glasses, and cheese parings.
An even richer source of protein is generated whenever you butcher. After we dress poultry, for example, the guts, feet, and heads (if we’re not using them for broth) are tossed into the scalding pot and boiled up for what we call “pig chicken soup.” Even the feathers are put into the pigpen; what the animals don’t eat gets added to their bedding, and, eventually, to the compost pile. Butchering larger animals — sheep, goats, cow, and deer — produces even more pig protein. The only thing we don’t feed pigs is, well, pig.
Use common sense when feeding protein to your pigs. Wild pigs are dangerous hunting animals. Even domestic pigs, if not handled with respect, can be a real risk to the farmer. Boiling butchering wastes, or searing them over the fire used for scalding the carcasses, is a good way to make sure the scraps taste cooked. Cooking animal protein before offering it to pigs helps keep them civilized.
When you have a dairy animal on the farm, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have excess milk and milk byproducts. Even a single goat producing just a few quarts a day can quickly overwhelm a small household. A family cow could be sending 2 to 5 gallons of milk to the house a day, or even more. Dairy animals and homestead pigs are a match made in heaven because milk — whole, skim, or buttermilk — and whey are excellent sources of the highest quality proteins. Just 3 or 4 quarts of milk provide more than enough protein for even the largest pig. Some people even raise pigs on just milk (or whey) and hay. Every drop of spare milk is welcomed in the pigpen.
Photo by Beth Dougherty
Healthy Pigs, Healthy Homestead
As with all animal husbandry, a little common sense is needed. While pigs thrive on a diet of kitchen and garden waste, some things shouldn’t be offered in the pigpen. Discard canned foods with compromised seals instead of tossing them to pigs to avoid botulism poisoning. There are also some molds that may grow in improperly stored feeds that can be toxic to pigs. Wilted cherry tree leaves may contain cyanide compounds, so don’t feed cherry tree prunings in summer. When in doubt about the safety of a certain food, do a little research. Even though hogs are famously smart about knowing which foods are appropriate for them, exercise healthy caution when tossing your scraps.
With such a varied diet, the homestead pig is probably getting lots of vitamins and minerals. But, just to be sure, offering a mineral supplement can be a good idea. Ask for one at your local feed store (not the big farm store, but the elevator where they mix the feed). Or, offer a balanced natural mineral source, such as kelp.
Take a look around the homestead. You’ll probably find that you have dozens of untapped sources of pig food. Pigs will eat almost anything, and they love to eat, so let them start recycling your farm wastes, and see how great the results will taste.
Beth and Shawn Dougherty have been farming together for more than 30 years, and have spent the last two decades on their homestead, Sow’s Ear Farm. Find them online at The One Cow Revolution. The Dougherty’s book The Independent Farmstead is available at our store.