Root Less in Vermont


Finishers in South Field

As you can see, we don’t ring our pig’s noses. Some people insist unringed hogs on pasture are impossible. This picture was taken in the spring showing some of our finisher herd in the south field under the quaking aspen saplings. Below are other typical shots from our pastures. People can, and do, drive by and looking up at the fields and see this on any typical day.

I read about pigs rooting, but see little evidence of it in our fields. They do a little digging but not the cratering I often hear people talk about. So why are our pigs less “rooty” than other people’s experience? Based on my observations:

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Things that encourage rooting:

  • Wet or clay soil
  • Penning
  • Grubs in the soil – goes away with pasture maturity
  • Tubers in the soil – goes away with pasture maturity
  • Lack of grasses for nesting
  • Overheating – to get in contact with cool soil

Things that encourage grazing:

Basically, if there are plenty of grazing forages our pigs tend to graze instead of root on established mature pastures. They tend to root more on newly created pastures because there are interesting tubers and grubs to dig up. Once the pastures are mature the pigs generally graze first, root later, if left on pasture too long. Rotational management thus encourages the grazing by moving them to new pastures before they run out of easy surface foods and begin digging for what is below the top layer.


Jolie Grazing in North Home Field

Interestingly I’ve never seen them dig the deep 1′ to 3′ craters that some people describe. When they do root it is just a couple of inches down. We do have some places with deep soils, down to even five or ten feet of dirt, so it is not simply that our mountain ledge prevents deep digging. Rather I suspect their shallow activity is because our top soil layer is fairly thin. Once they’re through that marginal layer they stop because what is lower just isn’t interesting. Instead they switch their attention to the leafy forages up on the surface.


Winnie Sow Grazing South Field Paddock Four

If your pigs are rooting ‘excessively’ the first thing to realize is that they will root some – You’re not looking for a lawn, right?!? Next keep in mind that if they’re new to a pasture that has not previously been pigged they’re going to want to clean out any grubs and tubers below the soil surface so you will likely see more rooting the first time through. After that it becomes a matter of managing the rotational grazing. To do that the pigs do need to learn to graze as is discussed in other articles here. If still you’re getting too much rooting it could be too many pigs on an area for too long or perhaps a problem with soil conditions (wet and clay) which may necessitate moving the pigs even faster.


Pigs and Sheep Grazing South Field Paddock Five

Perhaps it also comes down to expectations. I have pastures, not lawns. Some rooting is good for the pasture, good for the soil, good for the grasses and other forages. The chickens follow smoothing down the soil. The rain reduces bumps. Green things grow again. It’s all part of the natural cycle. If over a five or ten year period the pigs turn over every bit of top soil on our pastures they will improve the grazing and I’ll be pleased. Because they graze, because they can get their food from our land, I don’t have to buy commercial hog feed which saves me money and produces a far better quality pork.

This is not to say that there don’t exist some pigs out there who will root no matter what, but ours do fine grazing without any need for nose rings.

Lastly, if nothing else works then you may want to consider this post about how Rooting Powder may be used with your pigs.

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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19 Responses to Root Less in Vermont

  1. I agree with this. When we move our pigs with the cattle’s daily pasture moves they do very little if any rooting. However, when we park them to farrow they begin to do significant shallow rooting once they’ve creamed off the best forages available.

    In this photo I would think this forage might be described as sparse? How much of their daily intake would you hazard is coming from this paddock and how much from the whey and other external inputs that you have?

    • This photo was taken in the spring before the grasses had gotten long and it is under a stand of aspen trees so there is less light. Later in the year, right now in fact, it is lush. We just today opened up that area to fall grazing. The pigs are loving it. There is a tremendous amount of clover in there – something they dearly love.

      As a general rule, looking at their feed consumption over the course of the year in dry weight they get somewhere around 80% from pasture/hay, about 7% from the dairy and we’re now up to about 13% from the vegetables and boiled barley we occasionally get from local brew pub. We also get a little bit of bread which is primarily used as a training treat so they load easily every week but that doesn’t make up much of their diet. How much of each thing varies greatly with the season. These percentages have changed over the years and they change with the time of year depending on what’s seasonally available. For example yesterday they ate several hundred pumpkins as well as squash, immature watermelons, corn stalks and other things when we let them onto the south field plateau. Today they moved onto the broccoli, turnip and cabbage patch. But they won’t have those things again for a while. We’ll probably hold the other pumpkin patches back for later eating. In the fall they get a lot of apples starting in mid-August through late October. When the beechnuts, hazelnuts and such drop they get a lot of those. The grass and clover are pretty consistent through the warm season but then in the winter they get those in the form of round hay bales. In a pellet diet livestock get the same thing day in and day out but we see a lot more seasonal variation in what they get to eat. It does make some flavor difference. Chefs tell me they can taste the flavors of what the pigs have been eating and I believe them. The good news is they like all the flavors of the year. To me, the biggest flavor difference I notice between ours and other pork is that the fat is sweeter and delectable to eat. I like eating the pork fat from our pigs. I don’t like pork fat from factory farmed pigs. Breed? Management? Feed? I suspect that a lot of it is the pasture/hay and dairy diet.

      How deep do your pigs root in the farrow paddocks? I was watching one of our sows, Torn, nest this morning. She plowed up a dish about six feet in diameter about three inches down creating a bowl with a rim about 8″ high and then lined it with grasses she gathered from the field. She’s now resting in it and looks like she’ll farrow any moment.

      • They don’t go very deep. Just a couple of inches to the subsoil layer. They do, however, root around small brush ‘n saplings to a deeper depth.

        If you didn’t have the whey, what would you feed in its place to get the lysine?

        Do you track how many farrowings each of your sows has had? If so, what is Torn up to?

        • Torn does about 2.5 farrowings a year. Two to 2.3 is pretty typical. Blackie does three farrowings a year and has large litters. Several of her daughters have also been superbe. One had 22 piglets, exceeding Blackie, Jill and Lady Diamond.

          We started with whole milk, then got cheese too. Mostly we get whey now but sometimes it is milk, butter, cream or cheese. If we couldn’t get dairy at all I would get cows and milk them to get the milk for the pigs. I can make more money selling milk pork than I can selling milk. The milk industry is highly price fixed by the government with little to no margins. Our pastured/hay + dairy fed pork has no price fixing by the government. I produce premium product and get to charge a premium price in a competitive capitalistic marketplace. That’s the way it should be. If I didn’t do cows then I would do goats probably. There are other sources of lysine, milk is easy and makes the meat sweet.

          Your pigs rooting sounds very much like ours, just a little down but more so in the new pastures where there are tubers and grubs to dig up. Still, we never get the deep crater like holes that I hear some people talk of. They even make machines specifically for grading soil after pigs so it is apparently a real problem in some places. Or maybe it is a feature. Come spring we plant behind our pigs in the winter paddocks.

          • Interesting. I think I see where this is going. What we really need to work on is training the pigs to nurse directly from the cow herd! That’d be awesome!

            I think I’ve also read that you culture your milk products before feeding to the pigs? Is this to make more nutrients bio-available and/or reduce the casein impact on the pigs?

          • Aye, we’ve joked about teaching the pigs to milk the cows. :)

            Yes, we make up five gallon pails of yogurt which we periodically add to our 1,000 gallon dairy tanks. There is always some yogurt in the tanks helping to culture the incoming whey, milk and cream each day. But I like to re-culture the tanks time to time as well. Yogurt is good for the digestion, helping add beneficial gut bacteria and preventing mold in the tanks.

          • Andrew says:

            In your opinion do you think goats milk or whey from goat cheese give the meat that more sour-y/tangy type taste as opposed to the sweetness of cows milk/whey?

          • We get both and it varies from day to day so I have not had any way to test this. It is an interesting question.

  2. mellifera says:

    Why go to all the effort of digging if there’s enough to eat on top?

  3. scott mein says:

    Walter,

    It has been some time since I had pigs. I am currently in the process of retiring from military life and am getting ready to restart my pig herd. I have 14 acres with three different pastures. one is 3 Acres, two 5 acres each. I am starting to reseed my pastures and plan on using a equine pasture seed and mixing in some extra white clover, crimson clover, alfalfa and cinn plus. Does this sound like a good mix? I am trying to do a dual purpose. pasture for a small herd of 6 breeding sows, 1 boar and sell the offspring as feeders. I also want to be able to hay on a rotational bases. I also have about a .5 acre garden and am currently putting in 20 raised beds as I am filling them with composted leaves and grasses. as I bag that out of the woods and collect the leaves from local homes in town. Trying to think outside the box on creating and adding more organics to my soils as it contains alot of clay. I also get manure whenever possible. Does this sound like it is on the right track? I do plan on changing the 3 accre pasture over to a fruit orchard with assoted berries inbetween the trees and strawberries on each side of the rows. Seed between the rows with the mentioned pasture seed mix and harvest that as loose hay by hand. any tips or onformation you can give would be great. Also I live in NY and wonder if you allow visitors to your farm? I would love to come out and see your set up some day. Respctfully, scott

    • Those are good field sizes which I would further sub-divide into smaller paddocks of about the size that the number and size of animals will eat down in three days to a week. Smaller is good and then you rotate more frequently, not coming back to a paddock until at least 21 days and preferably 30 days has passed. In the south consider resting a pasture for six months to a year for parasite control. In the north winter’s killing frost helps with this. This rest period is a great time to do the haying.

      I would get up a very good perimeter fence with a strong energizer such as 15 joules. The latest ones have remote control’s that double as voltage testers and only cost a little more – well worth it. I like smooth high tensile for the outer perimeter with a good visual barrier outside. That could be stone walls as in our case, brush, logs on the ground or even flagging tape on the fence. Off of that outer perimeter you can run the inner paddock fencing and only turn on the sections that are necessary. This can be lighter fencing on step in posts but have good corners such as metal T-posts.

      Our experience is that over the years the organics in the soil have dramatically improved and the pH has risen from 4.5 to about neutral. Plant plenty of legumes to suck the free nitrogen and carbon fertilizer out of the sky. The pseudo-postmodern-neo-greenie-environmentalist will think you’re helping prevent climate change but really this is self-interest to create a sustainable system and save money and improve your soils. They don’t understand that Mother Nature is a Capitalist. Don’t argue with them. :)

      I’m cautious about out sourced leaves, grass clippings and such due to herbicide and pesticide questions but if you know they’re safe then that is a great source of more organic matter. Another source is tree trimming companies.

      On the orchards, a trick we’re doing is to run double fence lines and plant the orchards between them. The trees get additional protection from wire around them. Little pigs, lambs and poultry can creep graze into these protected rows but the bigger animals stay off of the trees. When the trees drop fruit the animals are able to get extra food.

      There are a lot of other things that can be planted in these areas as well as in the fields such as pumpkins, kale, rape, turnips, beets, mangels, chard, sunflowers, sunchokes, etc. Winter paddocks are especially good places for the squashes and pumpkins. Resting paddocks for the others and then turn the pigs into them in the fall for extended fodder.

      We aren’t setup for tours but please ask any questions you have here on the blog and I’ll reply as best I know. Look in the right side column for the topic cloud, search, favorite articles and such to dig deeper into the thousands of articles and comments with answers.

      • Farmerbob1 says:

        I don’t believe I’ve seen you directly mention wood chips before, Walter. You have, however, mentioned that you’ve been cutting a lot of wood in the last few years – do you ever heavily use chipped wood for bedding?

        I imagine that, at least after storms, the tree-clearing companies have tons of wood chips to get rid of, though getting anything from the outside runs the risk of a can or bottle having been thrown into the mix, which might cut up an animal.

        • We’ve been using wood chips in bedding packs and composting for probably 20 years. You can find some discussion in these articles. We’ve often gotten them from the road side and power line chipping as we have miles of road crossing our land and a lot of power line across one section. We also buy in truck loads of wood chips at times. The chips are a very good source of carbon for bedding packs and composting to balance the nitrogen. The result is soil building. The bottles can be a problem with wood chips that come from the highways which is why I favor that from our own land – we have less litter.

  4. Wilhelm Kohl says:

    Very interesting reading about your suggestions, use of pastures, pasture maintenance as well as your comments about wood chips. We have not used wood chips in our pig pens in the past, but will start doing so in the next few weeks.
    Plan on setting up for more tours as well – as we are getting lots of interest in our efforts from the local community.

    • Wilhelm, for us the wood chips are primarily for our winter deep bed packs as they help generate heat to keep our pigs warm through the winter. The chips also break down due to the composting and are edible. The chips we get are mostly whole tree which include the branches. The pigs pick through the chips to get the branches which is much like eating the brush in the warmer months – a goodly portion of their diet on pasture.

      I recently read research about Maple Syrup having a component that was shown to be of health benefit for fighting disease for pigs. Since our pigs eat a lot of maple saplings this may in part help with their good health. They also eat spruce and pine at times which ave deworming properties according to other research I have read.

  5. Wilhelm Kohl says:

    Hi Walter,
    Thank you for your comments. Very interesting and very helpful.
    We will certainly have wood chips for the winter quarters of the piggies….

    • We find that putting down the deep bedding pack on a slope is good as that provides drainage. For example, in our south field arc, the big open greenhouse, there is a slope north-south along it’s long axis of 2′ (96′) and a slope of 1′ east-west over it’s short axis (38′). In a perfect world we put down large chips first, then the brush chips on top of that and hay on top of that. You may find these two articles interesting:
      Deep Bedding Pack Temperature
      Greenhouse Stocking Density
      Note that in our greenhouse we have the whole lee end (south) open and at the windward (north) end there are two large adjustable openings for ventilation. I also designed it to allow me to have openings at the top of the end walls although we have not used those yet.

  6. Someone asked: Have you found any species “less of a rooter”, I was just reading that Tamworth seem to root less than some of the other breeds. I know you’re “rootless”, but is that by breed or more just moving them all the darn time?

    Tamworth are generally considered to be high rooters on the scale of to root or not. The idea is that longer noses translated to more rooting and shorter noses to less rooting due to the physics. I have not studied closely if that is true but I can see where the idea comes from – shorter noses have a hard time reaching the ground.

    Breeds with longer noses are those like Tamworth. Breeds with shorter noses are Middle White, Kune Kune, Pot Bellied. All of these do some rooting.

    Rooting is controlled by a lot of factors, most of all, what is on the surface as forages vs what is underground as grubs and tubers. Thus the first pass or few through a pasture the pigs tend to root more than they will later during this initial time when they’re cleaning out the rich grubs. Later they graze more. It is key to do managed rotational grazing. If you see too much rooting, rotate the pigs to the next paddock.

    (I think you mean ‘breed’ rather than ‘species’ since all the domestic breeds of pigs are the same species – small technical point.)

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