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.
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.
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.
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