Natural Land Management: The Power of Pigs

Convert woods to pastureland naturally through rotational grazing with pigs.

  • With the right setup, a few pigs can turn your overgrown property into workable land.
    Photo by Kate St. Cyr
  • Buckwheat establishes quickly and grows well in low-fertility soils.
    Photo by Kate St. Cyr
  • Pigs will graze on young saplings, ferns, grasses, and weeds, but they are also notorious rooters.
    Photo by Kate St. Cyr
  • Once overgrown forest, the author's property is now being restored to workable land through rotational grazing.
    Photo by Kate St. Cyr
  • A pig's strong snout and sharp hooves make them excellent rototillers.
    Photo by Kate St. Cyr
  • The author's paddock eight weeks after seeding buckwheat.
    Photo by Kate. St. Cyr
  • Gritty works hard to keep his property in tip-top shape.
    Illustration by Brad Anderson Illustration

When I first laid eyes on the neglected and overgrown property I would soon call my own, I saw through the saplings and trees that engulfed the pastures of the historic farm. I saw potential, and knew that with time and work it could be restored to its former use of pastureland again. It was apparent that no land management had been practiced on the 200-year-old farm for at least half a century. That meant in addition to the trees, there were decades’ worth of leaf litter and forest floor cover to work through to unearth the soil below.

What I did not see or plan for was the price tag attached to the equipment required to do all of this work mechanically, as well as the cost of properly fertilizing the land in preparation for seeding. To add insult to injury, being a New England farm, the land is riddled with ledge and boulders, which would make navigating any kind of equipment through the rock minefield nearly impossible. All of these barriers forced me to seek out a more natural method to work the land while simultaneously fertilizing.

Plowing with pigs

Pigs are the farm’s natural rototillers, and by utilizing intensive rotational grazing they can not only turn over the thick detritus with their snouts, but also provide necessary aeration and fertilization to the soil in the process. Utilizing cover crops after moving the pigs out of a paddock provides erosion control while increasing biomass and fertility of the topsoil.

Rotational grazing is the practice of rotating livestock throughout paddocks. An intensive rotational grazing system uses this method as a way to maximize the quality and quantity of forage. Pigs will graze on young saplings, ferns, grasses, and weeds, but they are also notorious rooters. This behavior earns them a bad reputation for being destructive animals that will ruin any land they are raised on. With continual exposure, their pointy hooves and strong snouts can and will do significant damage to the land and, over time, deplete the soil’s quality. However, by exercising good land stewardship practices, this behavior can be used as an advantage to enrich the soil and turn woods into grazing land.

Prep talk

Before getting piglets, the land should be properly prepared and fenced. I prepared my area in the fall, knowing there was a good chance there would be snow on the ground when it was time to bring the piglets home the following spring. Because I wanted to create a silvopasture as opposed to open pasture, I selected hardwood trees to stay that would provide shade, shelter, and food for future livestock. After the choice trees were selected, everything else was cut down as close to the ground as possible. Pigs will root down several inches, even up to a foot or more around the stumps, allowing stumps to be cut below the soil line where they can be covered with dirt and seeded over in most cases. This drastically cuts down on the amount of work required with a stumper.

When implementing a rotational system, proper fencing design is critical to success. Poor fencing equates to pigs escaping and potentially never being recaptured. When trained properly to respect it, pigs can do very well on pasture that’s solely electric, without any permanent perimeter fence. My piglets had exposure to a hot wire when I got them, but for safe measure they spent their first couple of weeks at my farm in a training pen with hot wire surrounded by cattle panels before I was confident they wouldn’t test it. They spent the next six and a half months contained by electric alone, and never once attempted an escape. A three-strand perimeter at 4, 8, and 12 to 16 inches above the ground is ideal, as it will contain a pig of any size. The lower wires will prevent small piglets from being able to slip out underneath, while the top wire will be at nose and eye level for a 300-pound hog. To break up the perimeter into paddocks, polywire fence with insulated handles is preferable, as it’s the quickest and easiest to set up with fiberglass posts, giving the needed flexibility in a rotational setup.

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Another thing you can do to help the pigs clear land that is overgrown is to use some cows. The Cows will be able to get the higher up stuff and also help knock down some of the smaller trees and vines. Then the pigs can come in and get the lower stuff closer to the ground and rototill the ground. You can even rotate chickens, goats and sheep through in some areas to create new pasture.

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