A Growing Culture

June6th

Written by William Rutherford and Loren Cardeli

There has been much discussion amongst swine producers throughout the world about the most optimal conditions for raising hogs.  The most common and preferred method has been raising swine on concrete.  This method allows for easy cleaning, removing of feces, and disinfection.  Some other systems found throughout the world include the Swedish deep-bedding system, forest-based, or even pastured systems. A new technique is building momentum as it offers a wide range of benefits for farmers around the world.  In China this technique is called Fermented Bed Technology and through our experience we prefer to call it LIVING BED TECHNOLOGY. In this system the swine are not the only livestock, the farmer is raising a living bedding material as well.  This bedding not only feeds on the pig waste but also creates a living compost to improve soils.  

We believe raising pigs in this environment encourages the natural behaviors of the animal instead of suppressing them.  It can be argued that pigs are naturally forest dwellers, and the softness of the forest floor provides them the ability to exhibit their natural behaviors especially rooting.  In places like Hawaii it is common to see wild bores foraging fallen fruits and rooting for grubs, tubers and insects on the forest floor. While in Europe there are areas that still forest their hogs in the fall to consume high protein nuts.

Today farmers most commonly use concrete because it is relatively low cost and also long lasting.  Concrete pig houses are also easy to clean and disinfect which is extremely helpful.  Concrete though considered ideal, may actually cause many problems.  Concrete’s hard surface prevents any natural rooting behaviors.  The hard and cold characteristics of concrete provide little comfort for the animals. Others would argue that concrete’s lack of beneficial organisms provides little competition amongst bacteria to prevent disease.

Swine production systems range in size and this makes it easy to understand the reasons for indoor production.  Indoor production allows for the collection and separation of pig waste that can then be used for compost, what a great idea.  Unfortunately, throughout our travels around the world, composting is rarely used, as most houses are designed with gutters to carry the waste outside to a pond, lagoon, or even river systems.  We view this waste as a valuable resource and choose to create compost from the waste instead of polluting our waterways. In some cases a lagoon can be used if composting is not an option, but the slurry must be managed correctly in order to prevent eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems.

Living bed technology offers many benefits but the core benefit is the most simple; and efficient way to turn both manure and urine into finished compost.  Imagine a bedding material that acts as a host to beneficial microorganisms, bacteria such as lactobacillus.  This absorbent bedding when healthy and designed accurately can actively breakdown all pig waste significantly decreasing odor and fly populations.  This bedding also creates an immense amount of heat through decomposition and breakdown that can help swine stay warm during cold weather.  This technique not only controls swine waste but, when managed correctly can create microbial rich compost for building soils.

Benefits:

  • Provides warmth
  • Allows for natural behaviors such as rooting
  • Helps prevents the outbreak of disease
  • Improves immunity of swine
  • Helps control fly populations
  • Helps decrease odor
  • Minimizes cleaning
  • Reduces need for disinfection
  • Effectively controls urine and manure
  • Reduces water consumption during pig house cleaning
  • Low labor
  • Low cost
  • Low tech

Preparation:
The preparation of the living bed technology is quite simple.  Most suggest using about 70cm of woodchips or sawdust to compose the bed.  Firstly creating a floor low enough or building a structure high enough to contain roughly 70cm of absorbent organic material must be provided.  We believe that most wood types will work for the living bed technology so there is no need to be specific on the kind of sawdust used.  However some sawdust may take longer to breakdown because their oil content is higher such as pine.  We have been advised that the one tree that cannot be used is a tree called Lim.  We would strongly advise not using pressure treated woods, or any woods that have been treated with anti microbial chemicals.  Other absorbent organic materials such as straw and rice husks can be used as well.  In our experience sawdust has worked the best. We encourage farmers to be creative with this technique and use any organic absorbent carbon materials readily available.  For our last installation of Living bed technology we used about 15% rice husks mixed with sawdust from a local saw mill.  The key is balancing the C:N ratio. Do not let your ratio fall below 1 with an ideal range being 4-10.

As you are filling up your bed mix activated EM completely into your bed at a ratio of around 800 parts water to one part EM.  Make sure the EM is distributed throughout all layers of the bed, allowing a healthy inoculation of beneficial microorganisms.  Note that this is not an exact science.  Therefore do not worry too much about how much EM to use or what ratios to spray with. A little EM can go a long way.  The key is to make sure your bed is not too wet or damp.

Once you have built up your bed and inoculated it with EM, it is time to wait for about 8-10 days.  I encourage all farmers to monitor their bed temperature throughout this waiting period.  Dig down with your hands and feel the temperature of the bed.  You will see how the temperature will increase the further down in the bed.  Also smell your bed, we cannot emphasize how important your own natural senses are to raising animals.  Monitoring conditions not only with your eyes but your hands and nose as well can tell you a lot about how successful your bedding is.

Introduction of Swine and Maintenance
After around 8 days your bed should be strong and what we would like to consider “alive”.  Understand that this concept is based on the theory of creating a community of bacteria and microorganisms rather than the common method of disinfection.  This allows for a community that competes and naturally fights breakout of disease, bacteria, odor and flies.  Once your pigs are introduced you will quickly notice how the like to dig around and can root around their pig house.  The pigs will ingest some of the sawdust, don’t be alarmed this is a natural behavior, and any ingestion of microorganisms, bacteria, and especially lactobacillus will actually help build their immune system.  On cold days and nights you may see the pigs digging deep in to the bed where the temperature is warmer to help regulate there body temperature.

You will notice that this environment will reduce not only the odor but also fly populations as well.  To help encourage no flies, no odor and assist the break down of fecal matter it is necessary to turn the bed.  As manure is deposited on the surface of the bedding it can still attract flies.  Therefore the little maintenance needed is to turn the manure into the bed.  This can be done every day or 2-3 times a week, depending on the preference of the farmer and the number of animals you have in the space.  The odor and fly control will only improve the more often the manure is turned into the bed.  The bed should never have a foul smell.  Also it is necessary to see if the temperature is maintained.  We recommend additional sprayings of EM.  Some farmers we have spoken to say they only spray EM once a month.  We would recommend initially every 2 weeks keeping the population strong and active.  The key is constant monitoring of your bed.  If your bed does not smell like manure or urine than your bacterial community is healthy and there is no need for spraying.  Though if you start to notice a foul odor then return to a more frequent spraying and turning schedule.  If the bed gets to wet it will rot. If you notice the moisture level of your bedding getting to moist add more sawdust.

Eventually you will realize that your bedding has aged, and the color has become darker and the sawdust has broken down more.  The EM, heat and feces have all aided in the decomposition of your sawdust creating rich compost.  This process depending on the number of pigs and allotted space of your living bed can vary from 6 months to maybe even 2 years. We recommend using this material in your garden as it will be extremely beneficial to your soil and plants. If you have the ability to soil test, send in your compost as well to get a better idea of the nutrient composition. This will give you a better of the compost’s fertility, and how much is needed. We would recommend to not fully harvest 100% of your bedding.  Instead take around 75-80% of your bedding and keep the bottom layer to mix into your fresh bedding.  The reason for this is you have worked so hard to create a healthy living culture there is no need to start again from scratch.  Use the percentage you saved to help inoculate the new bed to keep it strong and active.

Observed Insights:

Bedding Temperature:    
As the bedding matures and the bacteria become healthy temperatures at the bottom of the bed can raise to about 60 degrees Celsius. The temperature at the surface will be dramatically lower and often match the ambient temperature of the environment.  It is important to note that swine are not able to regulate their temperatures and they can be very sensitive to high temperatures.  We have observed this technique in several farms throughout Asia, though some farmers choose not to raise hogs fully on the living bed as they want to allow them to cool down during the high mid-day temperatures of the summer. They do this by pouring a concrete slab so that the pigs have access to a cooler area. Some farmers argue that they have not noticed problems with the bed becoming too warm.  So we encourage you to make your own decisions about this and to let us know of your experience.

Bedding Depth:
When we applied this technique we had an average bed height of 65 cm, which worked well.  We strongly encourage farmers to play around with bed depth and to test the response they receive.  It may be practical to have part of the bed a smaller depth, which may or may not change the temperature, to allow for the pigs to enjoy a wider temperature range.

Turning the Bed:
As the only additional labor is turning the manure into the bed, there might be some solutions to minimizing turning.  We have buried cracked corn into compost piles which encouraged hogs to turn the compost, we wonder if buy occasionally burying food deep into the bed you can encourage the hogs to actively turn the bed themselves? We also noticed that the corners of the pig house became more saturated with pig waste thus needing more turning and attention.

Bedding Materials:
For this project we used mostly woodchips and saw dust, with about 15% rice husks.  We believe that there are many materials that can be incorporated successfully into Living Bed designs.  For instance more rice husks, straw, and biochar.  We encourage others to test materials out and to play with the ratios and to let us know their success or failures.

Poultry Production:
Living bed technology can be used for poultry raising as well, though We would suggest, a depth of 15-20cm of coarser wood chips instead of saw dust.  As chickens are more sensitive to fine dust, we would recommend woodchips. Also as manure builds up more extensive spraying of EM as well as the addition of more woodchips is necessary to build bed height.  We think after building up bedding depth, turning the bed can than produce promising results thus making compost faster.

3 Comments

  • Comment by laurie — December 16, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    very good Idea and I am very tempted to try this but I don’t know what the EM is I can’t find any reference to it in this article. Thank you

  • Comment by admin — January 22, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

    EM is effective Microorganisms. Check: http://emrojapan.com/
    Thanks!

  • Comment by Paul Olivier — July 12, 2014 @ 11:56 pm

    Loren and Will,

    This is the approach that we have developed in Vietnam. We ferment just about all pig. Feces is removed once a day from the pen and placed in biopods or mesophilic bins to grow BSF larvae, and the residue of the larvae are fed to red worms. The processing of feces by larvae and worms takes place well away from the pig pen. The bedding is lightly sprayed once each day with a probiotoc liquid. We allot at least 2 square meters of bedding per pig. Surprisingly, if the bedding is composed of cut rice straw, rice hulls and a bit of rice hull biochar, the pigs eat bedding. Bedding never has to be removed,but only replenished about once each month. All of this is described in this paper:
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/22013094/Paper/Summaries/Alternative%20to%20Biodigestion.pdf

    Many thanks.
    Paul

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