Sectors of Production
Pig production is one of the most accessible enterprises for a beginning farmer or an established operation to get underway. Given the proper approach, the infrastructure required is minimal and pigs can adapt to many environments. Growing out purchased feeder pigs on pasture for direct market sale has a relatively quick turnaround time and good profit margin. While a farrow-to-finish operation is likely the most profitable, this production method is far more demanding. A brood sow operation that sells pasture raised feeder pigs can be quite profitable as well. The sector of production that interests you should be carefully considered. Your production model should be determined by your resource base and goals.
Farrow to finish, requires maintaining a herd of sows and at least one boar year around. Farrowing can be scheduled to provide an ideal marketing time for the finished hogs. The greatest profit lies in having your own breeding operation and finishing most of your hogs to sell the meat directly to customers, restaurants, or a pasture pork cooperative. This type of production requires an array of skills, and farm infrastructure. It is a method for the full time producer. You must have knowledge of the genetics that you are pursuing and how genetics, feed and other factors affect meat quality. Consistency is important, answering customer questions is important as well. Marketing skills are a must. One potential drawback is year around production and maintenance. Farrow to finish is a big vision that can be worked up to.
A less rigorous production model is a sow operation that sells weaned pasture raised feeder pigs. While this still requires year around attention, breeding can be arranged to produce litters at times of year that work for your system and ability to sell weaned feeders. Selling feeder pigs to other farmers is potentially more accessible to the average farmer than marketing meat to restaurants. It depends on the community that you are linked into and the available markets. Selling meat, even a quality wholesome product does not always come easy; this is why some feeder growers stick to selling live animals.
Growing feeders, from the ground up
From here on we will focus on an operation, which purchases weaned pigs and grows them out for direct market sale. This is amongst the most forgiving sector to get in on. One great advantage is that this can be a seasonal enterprise. Feeder pigs are purchased in the early spring and grown out and slaughtered hopefully by early winter. Minimal infrastructure is required, but creative use of your resource base is critical.
If you have not kept pigs before, you will need to determine where the pigs will best fit into your system. There is a niche that the pigs can fill. This may be turning compost, mobbing down vegetable crops, pasture renovation, and more. You will need to find feeder pigs that are not produced for confinement production. Visit the farms where you have interest in purchasing pigs. If the operation is heavily based on concrete and infrastructure, take a look elsewhere for your pigs. There are many breeds that will succeed on pasture. There will be a lot of variation within a breed as well. This largely stems from the production method that they have adapted to, and localized genetics. When you visit a farm looking for feeders, look at the pasture space, inspect the fencing, water system, and housing. Is there anything growing in the pastures that has feed value for the pigs? Inquire about the feed ration, medication, worming, availability of pigs, and any other points that you feel are relevant. Do some extra research and make a choice of pigs that will fit your production cycle.
What you must have:
Pigs can be trained to move through most any system that one can conceive. Ideally pigs can be rotated from one area to the next by simply walking them. My pigs load easily onto a skeptical landscape trailer that was converted for agricultural use. The pigs will adapt to your movement schedule and method. I believe that some rotation is a must over the production cycle. The more you move them, the easier and more relaxed they will be to collect and haul on processing day. More importantly the more you move them, the more you will save on supplemental feed. Moving pigs through natural areas is time well spent. Trimming down the feed bill is important for the financial structure of this enterprise; furthermore meat character and health benefits will likely be enhanced. You must be able evaluate the dietary needs of your pigs throughout the season and be able to provide a balanced diet.
Have these ready when your pigs arrive:
Water – can be as simple as a 50 gallon HDPE barrel with hog nipples; this is the $15 option. Any method that provides sanitary water and is reliable will do.
Shade – In the warm months shelter from the sun is an absolute must. Trees, buildings, and mobile structures are all options.
Non-supplemented food – This may be forage, fortified compost, fruit, mast/acorns, etc., something for the pigs to obtain feed value, minerals, and enjoyment from.
Supplemental feed – Energy and protein will be necessary in some form to achieve a finished pig in a single growing season. If you are not familiar seek out information on the requirements of swine throughout their lifecycle.
Minerals – Everything that your pigs need to be healthy is probably not available to them directly in their feed or forage. I am evaluating: Sea minerals, Kelp, Redmond minerals, and Fertrell products to strengthen our mineral program.
Fence – Evaluate your resource base. Initially having no existing fence for swine we use portable electric fence. Two strands of temporary polywire was used along with portable step in posts until the pigs were 5 months old, at this point they graduated to one strand of wire.
Market – Have some notion of how you are going to sell your pork before you start. You cannot truly market a product that you are not yet growing, but you can do research and decide where you are going to start.
There are market options such as, selling frozen meat in bulk to families, individuals, independent grocers, and restaurants. There are many options to evaluate. It will take time to determine who is your ideal customer, and what is required of you to regularly satisfy their demand. Growing purchased feeders allows for seasonal downtime when there are no swine to look after. During the seasonal downtime the entire enterprise can be evaluated, for improvements on feed, fencing, transportation, marketing and processing. This is an extremely valuable time for the new producer. You can decide whether you want to do it again or not, and should be able to get out without loosing any money if that is your choice.
Recap of a First Season
During the first trial with pigs on my farm, it took a few weeks to find a stable routine. With a little bit of planning I was able to put the pigs to good work, and get some work done myself in-between pig chores. As time went on the pigs demanded less field management time, but more time toward marketing the rapidly finishing product.
The pigs rotated through early succession natural areas throughout the summer. As these areas were rooted up, annuals were broadcast as the pigs left an area. The bare soil was quickly covered, and something palatable was established for the next rotation. Water, feed trough and fence were portable and moved along with the pigs. The pigs were rotated to new ground every 2-3 days. Good shade was always provided, as well as cool clean water, and some wallowing access when it was hot. Our pigs were fed uncracked shell corn at approximately ½ daily ration (3.5% body weight / 2). They were hand feed twice daily from a wooden trough. The rest they foraged on their own. The supplement of solid corn worked surprisingly well, this provided energy for the pigs so that they could graze the remainder of their required protein from forage, rooting, and acorns.
Fully evaluate your feed resources. Various versions of bagged swine grower ration are widely available from your local feed stores and farm supplies, consider these as a last resort. Ordering in bulk from a feed producer such as one that provides the bagged feed at your local stores makes better economic sense. Do your best to evaluate the quality of the feed, and run some numbers of how much it will cost you over the course of the production cycle. The amount of feed concentrate needed to grow a feeder pig to slaughter weight will vary widely. This factor hinges on how much quality forage you can provide and the ability of the pig to make use of the forage. Factors such as plant and animal growth stage come into play, and the forage to concentrate ratio. Your feeding method will affect feed intake as well. You can ration with hand feeding, but not so well with a self-feeder. Make sure your pigs are getting enough to eat; if their access to forage is not the best they will need more feed concentrate. In a pasture-based system, feed concentrate may range from 400-800 lbs to get a hog to 250lbs live weight.
For better quality we have arranged to have a custom ration ground by a local dairy that produces all of their own feed. We are planning on obtaining a feeder to use during the grower phase, but will continue to hand feed during the finishing phase when hogs will be in the woods for acorn finishing.
In the Woods
Finishing hogs in the fall works well. If you have hardwood forest available with oaks and hickory, there is arguably no better finishing feed in the world for hogs. The human diet has embraced the seasonality of pig production as well. Pork consumption peaks sometime in the fall and early winter.
With the first group of pigs, the whole month of October and most of Nov. required very little supplemental feeding. During this time the pigs rejected much of the grain ration in preference to acorns. However, the acorn crop will vary from one year to the next depending on growing conditions, and is said to be cyclical. Management in the woods posed a few obstacles, which we quickly overcame. Give the pigs more space in the woods, than you would on pasture if possible, and move more frequently. This is to reduce the impact upon the forest. The harder the pigs are on an area, the longer you will need to wait before returning to forage that area. Treat the woods much different than an annual crop that the pigs basically demolish with one grazing. Fencing in the woods was accomplished with a single strand of poly-wire that was tensioned from one small tree to the next with twine. Care must be taken to clear the fence line of limbs which the pigs tend to push up against the wire.
Ideally woods foraging would conclude around the time the last leaves fall to the ground. The areas that were foraged before the leaves fell look the best, as the leaves cover most of the bare soil that the pigs left exposed. In areas that the pigs worked through after leaf-fall more soil was left exposed to the heavy winter rains. Monitor closely the areas where the pigs forage the woods, the impact on the under story can be significant. It will take time to determine a sustainable rotation. Whether annually, every two-three years or even a longer rest period will vary widely from one site and situation to the next. Whether pigs are on pasture or forest, the intensity of rooting, grazing, and trampling, is affected by animal density (number of animals per acreage), the size of animals, the duration of time that they are on a given area. Soil moisture also play a big part in the intensity of the rooting.
Feeders were approximately 40 lbs at purchase, and the average finisher in the first group ran around 210lbs. The pigs under this management method produced 170 lbs in 178 days, that is a gain of approximately 0.96lbs./day. That figure walks the line between productivity and affordability, for this system anyhow. The feed bill came in at $82 per pig for the first group of finishers and amounted to 420 lbs of supplement per pig. This is about half of the feed required to produce a pig in a conventional setting.
The total investment was close to $300 per pig. With meat priced at $4.75/lb the net profit is about $200/ pig. This margin can be improved upon. Improving the forage quality and getting the pigs closer to 250lbs before slaughter will help. Feed efficiency could be improved by cracking the corn or adding soy protein to the supplement. Mineral uptake could be improved as well. These factors should increase weight gain, and profitability as well. Selling individual cuts and marking up the price per pound on the higher end cuts is a good option for increasing the profit margin as well.
There are many factors to get in line for successful pork production. Growing out feeders and finding a way to sell them is far from easy. Start small and direct market your pigs with a minimum order of ½ hog. Sell to friends, family, local stores and restaurants or pasture pork cooperative. If you have done the best that you can do, have confidence in your product, and remember you are marketing yourself as much as your meat.