Feeding Hay


Rose Rosely wrote:
I sure have enjoyed your blog. A friend got us into raising six pigs this year and after reading your blog, I really want to get them eating hay rather than the pellets. We bought a bale of alfalfa from the neighbor to try it out thinking that we could go to hay, corn, fresh compost from prep at a restaurant and a few pellets. They are in the garden area 1000 square foot turning it up and getting some things in the ground too. We put the bale in the pen and they don’t have any interest in eating it. They’ve played in it, slept on it in the sun etc. We have tried putting corn and molasses on it trying to tempt them…Help? How can we get them eating hay? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. thanks a lot. rose
p.s. they range in age from 2 months to 4 months.

There are a number of issues related to raising pigs on pasture and hay in addition to getting them to eat it.

First realize that not all hays are created equal. Straw, which some people think of as hay, is just hollow tubes of fiber and little food value for pigs. Leafy hay is what they need, ideally with some clover or alfalfa in it which provides protein.

We balance the hay/pasture with dairy. The dairy has lysine which they need, otherwise their growth becomes protein (lysine) limited which makes them grow more slowly. By dry weight, how feeds are measured, the pasture and hay typically makes up 60 to 90% of our pigs’ diet with dairy (mostly whey) making up about 7%. The remaining ~3% to 33% is good things like apples, pumpkins, beets and such that we grow, spent barley from a local brew pub sometimes, etc. This ratio varies with the season and over the years but the pasture/hay is the foundation of their diet followed by the whey.

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Our pigs eat about 0.8 to 2 lbs of hay per day per hundred weight of pig. That is to say a 200 lb pig eats about 1.6 lbs of hay a day. (Note this is a Dry Matter Intake number which does not include the water.) Allow some extra for waste and bedding so figure a pound a day per hundred weight. See this article. Do not clean out the waste over the winter. Let it build up and be a deep bedding pack. Feed the pigs where you ant the waste to get worked into the ground. In the spring the pigs can do this for you. Or you can push it up into a pile and make a compost there.

Keep in mind that this is a herd average over many sizes of animals over a long period. In reality the bigger pigs eat a bit more hay per 100 lbs of body weight than the smaller pigs. Bigger pigs have bigger jaws, longer digestive tracts and are better able to digest the hay. That said, even piglets munch down on the hay within a week or so of birth just as they do on grasses and herbs in the pasture during the warmer season. Of course, fresh pastures in the warm months are better than winter hay just as our fresh summer garden veggies and fruit are better than what we can for our own table to keep us eating over the winter.

Hay is a low calorie diet for pigs. They can eat it and derive a lot of food value from it but they don’t get as many calories out of it as ruminants do. In the summer this is less of an issue but come winter they need more energy for warmth so the addition of something high in calories helps during that period. The corn that you’re feeding qualifies for that. For us the calories come in the form of dairy predominantly, often butter or cream – a little has a lot of caloric value.

Adding a mix of other things to their diet is a very good idea. Variety is the spice of life and diet as well. We grow lots of pumpkins, sunflowers, beets, turnips and other garden veggies using the excess for the livestock in the late fall and winter when the pastures are gone. In fact, the pigs help till the areas we plant an the chickens weed the spaces. Apple pomace, the pulp left over from cider making, is much appreciated by the pigs. For a while we were getting a small amount of boiled barley (high in protein) from a local brew pub before they closed last fall. We also get some excess dated bread from a local bakery – a great source of added calories during the cold winter.

Not all sizes of pigs digest all types of feed equally. Hay is better for larger pigs than small weaner pigs. The little guys don’t have the jaws or the longer digestive track to handle hay as well. When we have it available we tend to give more of the cottage cheese to the little weaners, a good transition from their mother’s milk to the hay and pasture. They will do well on pasture once that is available and they figure out it is good to eat. Pasture is more digestible than the dried hay. I would expect your four month old pigs to be definitely able to handle decent hay. The two month old pigs are just getting to the size they can handle the hay. Below that age they mouth and taste it more than really thrive on it. Our piglets are exposed to hay from birth so that probably helps.

Our pigs originally learned to eat hay from our sheep. That is how we learned that pigs could eat hay – they were stealing the sheep hay since they were all housed together for the winter. Now eating hay and pasture has become entrenched in their culture with the adults passing it down from generation to generation – i.e. the piglets see their mothers eating hay and pasture from when they’re tiny piglets so they start mouthing it and eating it in time. This is likely how pigs naturally ate in days gone by but they lost this heritage of eating hay when they became confined and fed grain pellet diets.

As to getting them interested in the hay, they need to learn they can eat it. You could try getting out there with them on hands and knees in the garden and chow down on the hay but our weak human jaw muscles just don’t cut it. :) Instead I would suggest pouring the corn and molasses over it, like you’ve tried, and then not feeding anything else. They will complain that they are starving to death. They aren’t. This should help them figure it out pretty quickly that hay is the breakfast cereal of champions.

The problem you may be faced with with your current feed management is that the other feeds you’re offering are more appetative. Hmm… chocolate cake or shredded wheat, which shall we eat… The corn, pellets and kitchen scraps are the candy they just can’t resist. They fill up on those and don’t want to bother with the hay.

After you’ve given them some time, a few days perhaps, to get acclimated to the hay, molasses, corn mix then start back on their regular other scraps and things in the last part of the day before they go to bed. This way they will spend their morning and afternoon thinking about eating hay/pasture and get their extra ration when it won’t interfere with their hunger motivation.

Commercial feeds have been carefully calculated by nutritionists. Simple adjustments can be made between corn and soy using the Pearson Square to balance the protein percentage vs calories on a gross level but that doesn’t account for the types of proteins. This can lead to protein limited diets that mean the pigs excrete excessive proteins and grow slowly. I used to do complex matrix calculations on paper
but fortunately we have spreadsheets today. I setup a spreadsheet that has the nutritional values of all the different types of feed I could get as well as what pigs and other animals needed and then set it to cross correlate. This is how I determined that pasture/hay plus dairy was a good match for our pigs. That helped with determining the nutrients but it is really too complex to bother with on a daily basis.

Fortunately, this complexity is not really necessary unless you love math. Once you have a general balance (e.g., pasture/hay & dairy) to cover the basics the rest of it is pretty simple adjustments. What I do for the most part is to simply observe the animals and provide a variety of diet. In the winter they need more calories. As younger animals they need more protein. If the animals are growing slowly they are lacking in protein or have worms – check for one and adjust the other. Noticing condition goes a long ways towards management.

For the confinement operations where they’re just feeding bagged feed and selling commodity pork it becomes critical to calculate these things down to the tenth penny or beyond. They make or lose $5 a pig. A little extra feed can break them. But if you’re feeding pasture and other alternative feeds you have a lot more leeway in the cost per pound. There’s a lot to be said for a natural diet.

Also see:
Hay Consumption
Pigs Eat Grass
Pig Page
Deep Bedding Pack

Outdoors: 35°F/15°F Partially Sunny, Glazed in the morning
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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor…

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30 Responses to Feeding Hay

  1. amy byrd says:

    How much hay per pig do you need to provide on average. We are feeding 4 hogs vegetable scraps and 100 lbs of corn every two days. 3 gilts and 1 boar.

  2. Kristin says:

    Thanks, Walter. This is a most helpful post. We’re looking for some piglets now as the cows are both in milk…lots of skim available.

  3. Good question, Amy. I have added a paragraph above to cover this. Basically, 0.8 lbs/100lbs of pig/day.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hey Walter,
    Have you ever considered growing the northern variety of Paw Paw as supplemental food for your pigs? I was reading that once established the fruit is high in protein and plus it is a lot less labor intensive. Originally, I thought it was just a southern tree, but found out it grows as far north as Ontario. Thanks again for the good post‌Chris

  5. Paw Paw isn’t one I’ve considered. I’ll put it on my ‘reading about’ list. We have planted pears and apples such that the drops will feed the animals. Gradually I plan to plant them all along the paddock divisions. Like with the veggies, the excess will help provide variety for the animals in the fall and winter.

  6. Pablo says:

    I was counting the days for my package to arrive, and now that it has I can count the days!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Where is your dairy supply coming from? Also, your .8 lbs of alfalfa per 100 wgt….is that the same for all ages? Gestation – lactation? Thanks!

  8. The 0.8 lbs/cwt is based on a herd average, so all ages and stages. As noted, bigger animals digest the hay and pasture better although even the little pigs eat it too.

  9. I enjoy your blog. I kinda feel out there on a limb, but I’ve got 3 gilts and a boar who are pretty well sustaining themselves on walnut hulls (I’m a walnut hulling station). There’s whole walnuts in there b/c I hear them cracking nuts quite often…also fragments of nuts and walnut husk fly larvae… They seem to be in good shape – I put out shelled corn (4-5 lbs/hd) every other day. I also had them in the garden, but was disappointed that the soil lost quite a bit of structure. I’m thinking that the missing ingredient is enough hay (carbon) to keep the soil structure and get it acting more like a compost pile. Thoughts? Encouragement? Thanks!

  10. Yes, I would definitely add some bulking material. Hay, straw, corn stalks, wood shavings, chips, etc. Just nothing toxic. That will help the soil.

    Next, rotate the pigs so they are only on an area for a little while. This gives the soil time to rest, grow beets there for the pigs, etc.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hi walter,

    After reading your blog and dreaming of pigs for over a year, we are going to take the plunge and buy six weaners I had planned to feed hay, as you do, but after learning that the little guys need time to adjust, I'm wondering how I'll make this work. I'm trying to avoid a grain based diet.

    If I buy my weaners young before they get too used to pellets, that should help, right? And then I could feed pasture,dairy, and offer hay?
    Do you think this can be done without corn?

    Thanks…I love your blog.

    Shae

  12. Yes, it can be done without corn – we do it without corn. However, it may take time to transition and I would suggest going slowly. One of the things that helps is the pigs having an example of what to eat. In our case it was our sheep who taught our pigs to eat hay. It is also easier starting them out after they've had time on pasture to get used to eating grasses.

    Note that the hay/pasture is not a complete diet. They can grow on it but it is low in calories and lysine which is a limiting protein. In sufficient lysine or protein in general will result in slower growth. Our solution is to feed dairy which is high in lysine and helps make up the calories too. In other situations other things could be used for supplementing the pasture/hay. Look around at what is readily available to you, either bought, grown or found.

    Corn is a calorie food. Lots of energy but little protein. In conventional feeds it is balanced against soy which is high in protein.

    In our pastures we have clover and alfalfa which are high in protein. Different hays will vary in their protein content so where you get your hay, what cutting it is, what was grown in the field will all affect the feed value of the hay.

    I would suggest providing a free feeding of hay, that is to say plenty of hay, and then feeding them their commercial feed or corn in the afternoon. That way they'll explore they hay in the mornings.

    Enjoy your new pigs.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Walter. I'm really getting excited about this. The hay I'm getting is an alfalfa/mix, some 1st cutting, some 2nd cutting. The pasture is wooded, which includes acorns right now.
    I do hope to locate a source of local dairy, but we'll see. Since I don't need a lot, I was just going to check the grocery stores.

    I have another question I was hoping you could help me with. I'm considering getting pigs of two different ages: 2 are female, 11 wks, 70lbs; and 5 are a mix of male(uncut)/female, 6wks, 15-20lbs. They haven't been together. Do you think I'll have to keep them separated? If so, can I run them together when they are bigger? I have 2 rolls of poultry netting, but I think they are half rolls.

    Shae

  14. Ooo! Acorns, you're lucky. I wish we had them. I'm planting them. But it will be decades before our oak trees bear acorns.

    Your hay sounds like a good mix. Do check the stores for dated dairy. Also check with distributors. What they need is people they know will consistently come to pickup product. It costs them money to dispose of it and they can not dump it down the drain. Pigs and chickens are an excellent way to keep the good foods from going down the chaos slope.

    On the pigs, start out with the pigs separated by a fence. Then open a gate in the fence after about two weeks so they can mingle but still retreat to their side. In time they should form unified herd.

    See these articles about poultry netting and pigs.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  15. outofmire says:

    I must be doing my math wrong here. Don't pigs need 3-6% of their body weight in dry matter daily? If so, then how is 1 lb hay per 100 lb body weight 90% of thier diet? Doesn't 3% of their body weight equal 3 lbs per 100 lbs? Assuming hay is 100% dm, that would make 90% of their diet over 2lb of hay per day.

    Please don't think I'm being argumentative; I believe you know what you are doing. I just started getting confused with the numbers when trying to figure out a hay order and supplemental needs.

    Another thing that has me puzzled is how you calculate that the dairy comprises 7% of their diet. As an example, I've read that you have supplemented their hay with 2.5gallons of milk per 100 lb body weight. According to the brief internet search I did, cow's milk is around 10% dm; so that 2.5 gallons would be 2 lb of dm. The reason that puzzles me is that 2 lb is more than 7% of the diet if all they are getting is 1 lb of hay. It's more like .67% of the diet.

    Somewhere my facts are flawed, and I'm hoping you can clarify this so that I can plan a feed budget.

  16. Outofmire,

    First realize I'm reporting what I've observed rather than what nutritionists say pigs need. The problem with looking at all the numbers together is that they were recorded at different times when the pigs were getting different diets. This was not a scientific study with control groups, double blind and all that good stuff.

    Don't look at the numbers narrowly. They're not just eating hay or milk. While they were eating hay at times they also got apples, pumpkins, cheese and always had the milk, whey, etc.

    The milk gallons recorded and averaged was at a time we were getting one type of milk. The type of dairy we get varies greatly. Sometimes we get whey, often, which is very little dry matter. Other times we get cheese. Other times we get whole milk.

    The hay numbers are based on how much hay we bought for the winter and then compare it with how many pounds of pig we had. There was little waste so most of it was eaten. (There is some waste which builds up as bedding pack, but that's a small amount out of 100,000 lbs of hay over a winter.)

    One thing that varies is that bigger pigs eat more per pound of body weight and littler pigs eat less. I've read, and suspect, that this is because the bigger pigs with bigger jaws and digestive tracts are better able to eat hay.

    Additionally, they eat different amounts depending on the type of hay we get. It isn't always the same. Over the years we've learned not to buy from some farmers and to buy from others due to the differences in quality of hay.

    Additionally, not all of the pigs are getting the same diet. The bigger pigs eat more hay, pasture and whey and get less cottage cheese, yogurt, barley, apples and such. Finishers get more apples too. Part of this has to do with the protein levels in the different foods, part due to how well they digest different things.

    The overall percentages of an estimate of 90% pasture/hay, 7% dairy and 3% other was based on comparing the consumption over long periods. Other years, or even a month or season within the year, will look different. It's just a typical example, not a hard and fast rule and not something you can pinpoint at any one time. I get my most accurate measurements in the winter because then I'm putting out all the feed – they don't have the nearly unmeasurable factor of pasture.

    I'm not trying to recommend a specific diet or give formulas that you can just plug in and go with. Its more of a sense of what the pigs eat based on long averages. Each combination you do will affect the other things in the diet and you use what you have. The diet for our pigs is not an absolute fixed thing but rather changes with the season.

    What is important is to understand that pasture/hay is low in calories and lysine. This needs to be balanced. Dairy helps a lot. Hay and dairy don't have enough minerals. Dirt helps so add some during the winter when the pigs are up on snow if your climate is like ours. Subject of another discussion.

    Most of all, experiment. Look at what your resources are and see what you can put together. Watch the condition of the pigs. If they're not putting on muscle then they're likely lacking in protein. If they're not putting on fat then calories may be short. If overall growth is slow and there may be other signs then it's time to do a fecal and look for worms. If they're growing and in good condition then you're probably doing well.

    Main message: Everything is approximate, it's an analog world, objects in the mirror may appear closer or further away than they are, this is my experience, your mileage will vary… Don't bump your nose on the glass. :)

    Last thought, recheck your math as I get different numbers. Not that exactitude is meaningful.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  17. Nance says:

    In what I have read that 3 lb of feed a day for pigs comes out of finisher pigs or grower pigs. it varys with each size and age of pig. so those numbers cant be compared with numbers across a whole hered like walters where he has pigs of every age.

    Maybe walter you youll have the time to do more on this topic and get controlled diet data. it would be very interesting.

  18. Anna says:

    Thanks Walter for you wonderful answers. Not only are your articles so deep but your answers are detailed and well thought out and clearly presented. I appreciate all that you share here and on forums.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Hi Walter,

    because of oaks:
    in his book "treecrops", J.Russel Smith says, that you can get every tree into bloom, if you "ringbark" it (not tried it myself).
    I had read, that you can ringbark, when the tree is 5 feet tall: After the sap rised (May-June, I think) you take a sharp knife and cut a complete cycle around the trunk into the bark. One inch above the first cycle cut another cycle into the bark. If the tree survives (he wrote, all his trees survived), there should be a fair chance, that above the cuts will occur blooms the next year.
    Other possibility: plant Quercus prinoides. A bushy north-american Oak-Species, which reportedly blooms 2 years after seeding and have sweet (!) edible acorns.
    If you find someone, who have seeds, please let me know … ;) (I nowhere found someone in the english-speaking internet yet).

    best regards
    Peter from Berlin, Germany

  20. Interesting. I would want to carefully test that before doing important trees. Ringing is a traditional method of killing trees so the wood dries standing and can then be cut the subsequent year for firewood. Perhaps he is not cutting as deeply or maybe his not removing a strip of bark is making it so the tree doesn't die. I would be cautious of this until I had confirmed it.

    Happy New Years,

    -Walter

  21. Anonymous says:

    Oops. I was to quick. J. Russel Smith`s girdling-technic is a little different, than I remembered (treecrops, S.200):
    "I can report that young oaks respond nicely to girdling, in order to force early bloom. I have girdled a good many, and never lost one. Cut away a ring of bark about l/8 inch wide (before July) and keep the girdle open fur 6 weeks. SOME oaks only 4 to 8 feet high (and probably 5 to IO years old) have bloomed the following year.
    On the other hand No. 4 on my list, about 20 years old, did NOT
    bloom in the two years after girdling- and I have not seen it since."

    Peter :)

  22. George says:

    How important is hay when pasture is good? Can you stop putting out hay at that time?

    • When pasture is good we don’t use much in the way of hay. Our hay usage starts in the mid to late fall as pastures wane and the snows start coming. For the farrowing sows in recent years I have started putting out hay as early as late October. They still prefer grazing green grass as long as they can get it through the hay but this gives them better nest building material. In the spring once the pigs are out on pasture they have no interest in hay. For us that means about six months of hay.

  23. Abe says:

    How do you feed them milk? Do you just let them drink it, or do you mix it with there other food? Thanks

  24. Hello, I am new to pigs and heard of pasture raising. We want to supplement with organic greens and roots from the garden as well.They are getting hay and leftovers right now. I want to pasture them but when it comes time to butcher them or to take them in to fallow, whats the easiest way to catch them to move them? We are in Florida , and there is much to root around the wild cabbage palms and such, but I am thinking they will hide in there. I am trying to befriend them somewhat to make it easier. We have 3 sows( wild but domesticated variety) and one male ( wild but raised as a dog by someone , and he acts like a dog as well and follows me everywhere) . Wilbur will come when we call him, but the 3 girls are more wild than anything else.( one is wild caught 3 month old and the other of wild decent born in captivity.) I like the “wild” Florida Hog since its a heritage breed and also smaller and easier to handle. Currently I have the 2 smaller sows in a stall with Wilbur visiting them , and one mama that came pregnant who just had 6 piglets who seem to echo her reticence of humans though we are trying to handle them daily to make them “friendy” but not “pets”. I want to put them out in the field, am I in over my head? :) ~ Christa

  25. Joanna says:

    I am raising a hog for slaughter for the first time. I have read mixed reviews about worming or not worming the pigs. I bought Porkchop in June and he will be 6 months old on October 24th. I have never wormed him but he is growing well. I would guess he weighs close to 200 lbs now. What do you suggest to do about worming. Also, if I worm him now, how long should I wait before I take him to slaughter?

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