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.
Or, if you're not a fan of German Modernism you may prefer "Sal House" or if you're not a fan of classic children's books you may prefer the boring but direct "Sow House". Either way, those piggy mamas needed new birthing quarters and after employing all of our holiday visitors, Travis made short work of the job. Here's the backstory to the ski shanty gnome houses now populating our woodlands.
In prior farrowing times, we've allowed the ladies to do whatever comes most naturally to them. This usually meant a spectacular nest occupied by a fierce tank made of teeth and primordial noises. We bring her food and water to the selected home site, make straw available for nest-freshening, and erect lean-tos if inclement weather should bear down. I'm always impressed with the skills our ladies employ to keep their broods warm and safe in all kinds of weather and the tailored approach to the changing seasons. It has also been humbling and occasionally heartbreaking to see where their instincts and skills are unable to support the large families that domestication and careful breeding have brought them. Over a few years, this instinct-first approach has begun to feel less like a court-side view of nature at work and more like an unfair burden on our sows. We have ensured they bear much larger litters than their feral kin, and still expect their wild instincts to support the hoards. Last fall we decided it was time for a change, enter Farm Girl Farrowing 2.0 .
We have done our best to design a structure that respects our ladies instincts, but provides the extra support an extra large family might need. Some general observations informing the plan and how we incorporated them into our design:
- Sows choose private locations under cover of brush/low branches, often in deep shade, so our houses have a small door and very little natural light inside. The A-frame design also gives a feeling of a low ceiling and our houses are all sited so that only brush and woods are visible from the sow door, giving a feeling of privacy.
- Natural nests are roughly circular and 8 to 10 feet across on the outside, with a "bed area" of 4-6 feet in diameter in the center. Our houses are 8 feet square, with bumper rails allowing a 6 foot circular "bed area" in the center of the house. With deep straw bedding, the actual nest shape inside the house is virtually identical to nests built outside the house.
- Sows go crazy when you grab up their boy babies and perform minor surgery on them, also known as castration. In the unconfined conditions of a "natural" nest castration is a harrowing ordeal involving sneaking, kidnapping, and the aforementioned fierce tanks of teeth and primordial noises enhanced with murderous intentions. The new houses have a pig door on the front and a people door at the back, allowing us to feed mom outside the house, quietly sneak in the people door, then lock both doors from the inside creating a safe, contained environment to perform the procedure smoothly. This has already been a complete revelation for us with no trauma or upset for anyone involved. This alone makes the new houses a success in this farmer's humble opinion.
Almost all incidence of piglet loss occurs during birth or within 24 hours of farrowing. These are the most common problems leading to piglet loss on our farm and how our new houses (hopefully) compensate:
- Newborns hurry from the wet area where they are "deposited" to the sow's side for warmth during drying off. Sometimes in their disoriented, shivering newborn state, they are accidentally pushed out of the nest or crushed as they try to make their way past mom's enormous hind legs. To address this, a heat lamp area at the back of the house provides a warm, safe place within the nest where the piglet has a chance to gain its bearings and dry off before making its way over, under, or between the sow's massive hind legs for nursing. The sow's instinct guides her to face the door during delivery, placing her birthing end at the back of the house, almost directly under the heat lamp.
- Nervous, inexperienced mothers readjust their positions frequently during farrowing, sometimes pushing piglets out of the nest, leading to loss of piglets by exposure. With guard rails around the whole interior that allow bedding to extend all the way to the walls, piglets are never pushed "out of the nest" just to the side, preventing loss by exposure.
- In the "natural" nest, the only source of warmth is the mother, so when she stands up or begins to adjust her position, the heat-seeking newborns are drawn to the warm impression at the center of the nest- right where mom is about to lay again. Inexperienced sows don't always check before laying down, leading to crushing. The heat lamp area provides a warm area for piglets that have already nursed to congregate, protected from crushing by the rail.
The height of the A-frame, paired with removable panels at the very top, will allow blistering summer heat to accumulate away from the pigs and dissipate through cross ventilation. The height also allows us to work inside it with infinite more comfort and safety than any other arrangement we have tried or considered- bonus!
Now that we've had a chance to test our design with the first of our winter farrowing groups, I can say positively, we're never going back. Our piglet losses this time have been negligible and unrelated to the weather or housing conditions and working with the families and cantankerous matriarchs has been simple if not easy.