Before us, our pastures were first compacted by 15 years of continuous grazing, then lay fallow for seven months. This allowed any dormant seed, shoot, or root to seize the opportunity. We have a long term plan to support more grass-type forages and in the mean time, our animals are all rotating across the incredibly dense and fragrant, shoulder-high brush. It's a completely interwoven mat of various thorny brambles, saplings, grasses, broadleaf "weeds", and grasses. Each species picks their way through, sometimes digging their faces deep into the verdant thicket to extract their preferred nibbles. One of our favorite activities right now is to walk through each paddock and observe the grazing behaviors of each group.
This morning, I spent some time with our growing hogs to learn more about what whets their whistles at this late summer buffet. While I was there I made a short video of a gilt (young female pig) working for her breakfast. In it you will see some of the things she nibbles and a wider view of the pasture the pigs are enjoying right now. You will hear her gentle call grunts to the other pigs- this constant back and forth is how they stick together in dense brush, and you will hear the banging of the metal doors on their auto feeder. We provide free access to a corn and soybean based feed supplement to ensure a basic level of nutrition, but they clearly prefer the vegetation around them. When the grazing is good, like right now, as much as 60% of their feed comes from foraging.
That gilt (a young female pig) is chowing down on pretty much the same stuff as all her brethren today, so what are they eating?
This is a long lived bunch grass that grows well all over the South East. It does much of it's growing in the cooler times of the year and becomes unpalatable to almost all species, even mildly poisonous to ruminants during the hot dry periods of the year. Since we are enjoying a few milder weeks of early fall and there has been gentle rain over the last few nights, the fescue is springing out of it's summer doldrums with lots of tender new growth. All the pigs were ferreting out the bunches of fescue coming back to life in the understory of the brambly thicket around them. At about 1:36 in the video, the pig pulls out a whole clump of this grass by its roots, which she eats in all.
Around the 35 second mark we see the gilt begin picking the leaves off of an upright stalk. This is Smilax Rotifundula aka Common Greenbriar. It is a vining shrub that grows from a starchy, knobby root up to a height of 12' where it has some support. In the open pasture it is a 5' spiny stem with heart shaped leaves. I can tell you from personal experience that the young shoots taste somewhat like asparagus and pretty much all the animals agree that it is quite palatable. The internet even claims a root beer type beverage can be made by grinding and fermenting the root. Until today, Common Greenbriar has been the pigs' favorite forb. Like you see in the video, they carefully strip the leaves leaving the thorny stalks bare.
Sericea Lespedeza is an herby, medicinal legume that grows best in compacted, acidic soils so we have a lot of it. No one seems to eat it in huge quantities but from the donkeys to the chickens to the cattle and pigs, everyone does eat some. Since it is generally unpalatable, they might instinctively understand that that unpleasing bitterness comes from the concentrated tannins which have been shown to inhibit the fertility of intestinal worms, decrease inflammation, and improve the processing of some micronutrients and complex proteins. The Sericea variety of Lespedeza is unique among these legumes in that it grows happily all summer long in the hot, humid South. We wouldn't even have this tonic weed in Arkansas if enterprising road engineers hadn't imported it from eastern Asia in the 1930's for erosion control.
These are the top three forages that the pigs are chowing on today but we've observed them at least tasting the full smorgasbord which includes persimmon saplings, blackberry shoots, sweet gum saplings, 3 different clover varieties, wild hemp, sedges, spurges, mustard, bindweed, and so many others. I'm looking forward to checking in again in as fall progresses for another snapshot of the pigs' salad bar.