Plowing With Pigs: Woodland Edition!
By Suzanne Cox
Roughly ten months ago we embarked on a new journey into pig ownership. Our first gardening attempt on our new farm quickly turned into a colossal failure. Our chosen garden spot had been a well fertilized cattle pasture for twenty years. The rough winter turned into a wet spring, and an even wetter early summer. Then drought hit, and the few veggies that had survived the tremendous weed growth during the flood finally gave up. We were left with a horribly embarrassing garden full of weeds and dead plants. About this time I stumbled upon Hank Will’s article on plowing with pigs. He had wrote about his experience tilling and plowing his garden area with heritage hogs. The idea stayed with us, and we began researching hog breeds and looking for nearby breeders.
Within a month we found a local breeder of Poland China, Chester, and Yorkshire hogs. Our initial purchase of two piglets got us started, but we had four gardens plus a melon patch to weed! Our two became four and then six, and thus our journey into plowing with pigs began. For more details on our garden plowing experience, check out our previous blog titled “Pig Power! Using Pigs to Prepare a Garden.” Below you see our first two piglets, Bacon (gilt) and Pork Chop (barrow).
Our gardens are now growing beautifully, with very few weeds to deal with. Another benefit to using this method is the free fertilizer and composting material that gets worked into the soil by the pigs feet. Straw bedding and manure make for excellent soil after a few months of being trampled under pig feet! Below you can see just how bad the garden area was. Just a few short months with pigs on it and it is hard to believe the difference!
Here we are just three months after putting the piglets in the garden.
Last month Andrew and I were lamenting about how over grown our wooded area behind the house had become. When we first viewed the property two years ago, it was very park like and pretty after years of cattle grazing away at the undergrowth. Since the previous owner removed the cattle before our purchase, it has sat vacant without being tended to. This 3.5 acre section of land sits directly behind our home, and separates us from our hay field. However it is the first thing you see when you park in the drive, or look out any of our western facing windows. How nice it would be to see a clean and tidy space! Our plan has always been to clean it up by removing the numerous dead trees and underbrush, fill in parts of the shallow ravine that run through the center, and sow it in pasture grass to make it a workable piece of land. Unfortunately, there are several fallen trees, tree stumps, and holes hidden by the undergrowth that made it nearly impossible to tend to with a tractor for fear of damaging something.
In February we took our two barrows to slaughter, leaving us with a trio of girls and one boar. Our four breeding piglets now all grown up, were still occupying parts of our garden area. On this particular day, we were also discussing just what to do with the pigs since we needed to plant the gardens. The best solution it seemed to both of our problems was a new plowing adventure! Why not turn the pigs onto the wooded area, and let them clear all the underbrush for us? Then we could come along to cut the dead trees and remove the stumps without having to wade through a sea of waist high weeds and brush to do so.
As you can see, our wooded area had gotten quit grown up. The worse part was the thistles, poison oak, and the ravine (more of a deep ditch really). I have read that some pigs can develop allergic reactions to poison oak, much like a human. I worried that our pigs may have problems with this as literally every tree trunk in site seemed to have fallen victim to the climbing vines.
We already had an electric fence box that had been running our fencing around the garden areas for the pigs, as well as the remainder of a roll of electric wire. So all that was needed now was more step-in posts. Off to Tractor Supply we went, we purchased 45 step-in electric fence posts four foot tall. We also needed another 7 t-posts to secure the corners. The new pig pens are not equally divided. Instead, one side is roughly 2/3 the size of the other and both are in a triangular pattern to follow the lay of the land instead of in common square or rectangular dimensions. That is the beauty of temporary electric fencing, it is much more easy to follow the lay of the land than permanent fencing does. How many times have you spent hours trying to find a good way to enclose a ravine using wood posts and woven wire? It is very difficult to do so accurately enough to contain pigs. Not the case with electric! The entire system took in 1.3 acres and was up in a single afternoon.
Now going back to the design, why did we not make equally sized pens? Well Bacon (my parents gilt) and Boss Hog (our boar) are the oldest of the bunch. They were bred three months ago. So we should soon have our very first litter of piglets! Bacon is growing quit large, and needed her own space to prepare for her piglets. So we have Daisy Duke, Ellie Mae and Boss in the larger section and Bacon alone in the smaller side. When Bacon’s litter is near weaning age, we will move them into the “common area” and move Ellie Mae into the smaller section. She was bred in April and will deliver our first litter of registered Poland China’s. Daisy Duke, the smallest and youngest of our girls, will take her turn soon after Ellie.
Now that the pigs were moved, we had a problem. While our DIY pig shelters constructed with t-posts, two stock panels, and a large tarp were perfectly adequate for just hogs, they didn’t make for safe or secure furrowing areas. I hit the internet in search of the ideal furrowing arrangement for a pasture based system. We do not want to contain any of our livestock in stalls or man made shelters. Instead, we choose to allow them to graze freely and grow naturally outdoors. We ran across a company selling “Port A Huts” and found a dealer a few hours away from us in Lafayette, TN. Andrew drove down to pick up a small hut with pig rails. The pig rails are designed to give the piglets a little space between the Momma pig and the wall to prevent piglet deaths from being laid on. These huts are specially designed to be durable, light weight, and easily mobile for relocation from pen to pen. Perfect for our operation! Port-A-Hut farrowing pen is pictured above in Bacons pen.
So here we have Bacon set up in her new wooded pen with her Port A Hut. She’s a very happy porker now! We have her situated just inside a grove of trees, easily visible from our kitchen window. This way, I will easily be able to watch her and our first litter of piglets!
As for Boss, Daisy and Ellie they will still have their DIY stock panel shelter. Not that they use it, they have been much happier lounging under the trees even during rain storms and heat waves. They seem much happier in the woods than they were in the garden. All the trees make wonderful scratching posts, and their mud holes they have already wallowed out last much longer in the shade than they did in the garden areas.
The pigs have now been in their wood pens for nearly four weeks. It only took about a week for the trio to root up nearly the entire pen. I was surprised at how quickly they did this, and to see that they did not eat what they rooted. They reminded me of steam rollers going as quickly as possible destroying everything in site. However, I was more surprised to watch their behavior after this initial demolition. After first knocking down all of the brush, scraggly shrubs, and large undergrowth they attacked the weeds and what little grass there was growing. When this was done, they stopped rooting the entire area and began selectively rooting around areas where they dug their mud holes and an area to bed down at night. With this accomplished, they continued rooting around the outer most sections of the pen while leaving the center alone. After that initial week of rooting, grass began growing back in the center of the pen. They have not continued to root in this area, instead they now graze on the grass there while keeping the remainder of the pen rooted clean.
In just a few short weeks this area has gone from an over grown mess to a clean and clear work space. Now you can clearly see every stump and fallen limb, and the dead trees are easily accessible by tractor. Better still, the ravine that previously ran through the center of the large pen is now just a shallow dip thanks to our four legged wonders.
Here are a few pairs of shots for comparison. Each pair shows the area before the pigs moved in, and the other three weeks after the pigs.
Shot 1: Before and After
Shot 2 Before and After
Here you can see all four pigs that make up our current plowing team. Bacon in the forefront in her pen, and Boss, Ellie, and Daisy in the background.
Boss, Ellie, and Daisy are very friendly. They come to you immediantly when they see or hear you expecting treats.
We will leave the pigs in their current location for several more weeks before moving them. At that time, we will rotate them to the neighboring 1/3 acre section of the wooded area. Our plan is to separate this area into three rotations with our last rotation being completed at the end of summer. As the pigs are moved off of one section and in to another, we will come in behind them with the tractor and pull up stumps then cut up dead trees and sow seasonal grasses. Hopefully by next spring our rough woodland will resemble a new and improved park like setting!
Here we have their next plowing project, the adjacent 1.3 acres.
Once Fall arrives, we will leave our breeding stock in the woods. Our plan is to keep a pair of piglets from this summers litters to move onto the gardens for fall “plowing.” In this way, we hope to always have breeder pigs in the woods, feed pigs in the garden and then in the freezer, and a healthy and bountiful garden grown with natural (and free!) fertilizer. Eventually we hope to use this same system for the woods on the back of our property to truly make the entire farm clean and productive.
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