Post originally published in Pennsylvania Certified Organic's Organic Matter Quarterly Newsletter Spring 2018 Issue.
A behind the scenes look at the Rodale Institute Organic Hog Facility with Farm Manager Ross Duffield
Hogs have 24/7 access to the large outdoor pastures through openings on the sides of each stall.
Rodale Institute designed and built our Organic Hog Facility in the winter of 2014-15 to allow for research on a variety of topics including production, pasture management, animal welfare, and farmer education. Our main goals on this 7-acre plot were to create a system that allows for high animal welfare and reduced labor for the farmer, while at that same time is scalable to a family farm operation that can use the fruits of this system to produce and market a high-value product. I, along with a former staff member, took great pains to measure the heights of the hogs, find the best quality of the concrete surfaces, the most appropriate watering system that is freeze proof, and even the tiny details of the most user-friendly latches on the doors, to provide a very workable model that farmers can either replicated or adopt into their present farming systems.
Our facility uses a feeding and gating system that you would see in most confined animals feeding operations but instead of slatted concrete floor, we allow our pigs to use a deep bedding straw pack. The straw allows the hogs to be comfortable and provides enrichment as they are playful and naturally enjoy manipulating their living quarters. The straw and manure are removed from the facility using a front-end loader (typically only twice per year,) and then mixed into our compost operations so we can provide fertility to other areas of the 33-acre PCO-certified organic farm. Sows can make a nest in their 9x15' pen where they farrow, at their pace and with limited interference from the facility manager. We rely on good mothering instincts and heritage breed genetics and in doing so, we have low mortality and high weaning rates for the four sows we manage.
After farrowing, the baby pigs have access to the outdoors almost immediately and are fence trained at 3-5 days of age. Hogs are very intelligent creatures and learn to respect the fence only after a few times being shocked. Our system relies on rotational grazing to reduce feed intake. Without having hogs that respect fences, we would not be able to manage our pasture in a cost-effective manner. When the pigs are weaned from their mother at approximately 6 weeks, they are moved to their own pen with their own feeder and water along with a paddock that is moved weekly during the growing season.
The hoop house structure houses stalls equipped with a feeder controlled by an overhead auger and two frost-proof waterers.
Rotationally grazing hogs is very similar to rotationally grazing cattle but the biggest difference is that we do not use grasses due to the fact that swine are monogastric and cattle/sheep are ruminants. Hogs are not able to gain much nutrition from grass and therefore, we must be very flexible in the species we choose to plant and select plants that are nutritiousness for swine. We rely on a combination of annual forages including turnips, radishes, chicory, corn, millet, beets, kale, and small grains along with perennial legume species like white clover, alfalfa, and birdsfoot trefoil. We often will establish pastures with a no-till drill, but we will rely on tillage to recover areas that have been in perennial stands that are ready to be turned over. Having hogs o pasture can create compaction issues along with areas that have been rutted by the animals. These problems can be reduced by planting covers that have a deep tap root (tillage radish, alfalfa,) but tillage is an effective means of correcting extreme problems.
We believe that the hogs should be allowed to wallow, but the wallows must be managed by the facility manager. When a section of pasture is given time to recover, the farmer will then fill in the wallows and re-seed the area to allow for the growth to be ready for the next group of animals. Rodale Institute also uses chickens and turkeys in the pasture rotations to clean up where hogs have been and to help manage internal parasites that may be present in the hog manure. Internal parasites are a major issue in organic swine production and strategies like pasture rotations, multi-species grazing, and holistic medical treatments are the few tools organic hog producers must rely on to help combat the worms in the systems.
In total the building cost can range from $150,000-$200,000 depending on what infrastructure the farmer already has in place. If the manager can reduce the amount of grain the hogs consume and can work their market prices to be competitive in their areas, this model can potentially allow landowners with limited or large acreage to turn a profit and get more organic pork on the shelves and on the dinner plates to eaters in their vicinity and beyond.
To learn more about Rodale Institute's Pastured Pork operation, visit RodaleInstitute.org/PasturedPork. We will teach an on-farm workshop on Pastured Pork in 2018: November 3. Another great opportunity to learn about hogs is at the Rodale Institute Annual Organic Field Day on July 20 in Kutztown, PA. Register for the events at RodaleInstitute.org.
Side curtains allow air flow and protection from cars elements. An open facility allows hogs to defecate outside, eliminating inside smell.