Eats, Drinks, Shoots and Pees – Whey Economics & Infrastructure


Volunteer Tomatillos on South Field Plateau

As a result of this post Jeff R. asked:

Do you mind sharing your thoughts on the economics of feeding whey? I’m curious how you were able to get the creamery to deliver to your farm and the amount of infrastructure needed for whey holding and delivery. I was just researching a creamery in Seattle that apparently drains their whey into the city sewer!

We live just over the mountain from the creamery that provides the whey. They must get rid of the whey somehow, some way. They can’t put it in the landfill or the sewer system. If they spill into the sewer even accidentally they could get fines by the town and state. Feeding it to animals is what the state government most highly recommends. The other option, which some places do, is spreading it on fields, but that is much less desirable from the Agency of Natural Resources point of view as it can cause water quality problems. Spreading it on the fields has caused serious trouble with the neighbors for one creamery.

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Delivering it to us is the cheapest way for them to get rid of it And, it’s a good green marketing angle too since we’re reusing the material and keeping it out of the waste stream. Thus bringing it here, a very short distance, is a win-win-win. If it was a long distance the economics would change.

The whey comes to us in an 1,800 gallon stainless steel tanker truck about every day or other day. Sometimes it will be three days (rare) and occasionally twice in the same day.

Roads in the winter are a big concern. Although we live on a back dirt road it is well maintained by the town. The climb up the mountain from the south is longer and gradual so in the winter he comes that way many times to avoid the steep slopes up and over the pass to the north along the shorter route.

For infra-structure here, we built a driveway to their specifications at a cost of about $15,000 that climbs about 500′ up the mountain in our farm to let everything gravity feed. This way they don’t need to have a pump on their truck and we don’t need to have any pumps here on the farm. Pumps are a big problem in our cold climate, they freeze up, break or simply don’t run if there is a power outage as is often the case in the winter.

We have three 1,025 gallon poly-tanks set along the whey driveway. Tanks and troughs cost about $1/gallon generally with some economy of scale. Thus bigger tanks are cheaper per gallon of storage capacity. As long as the tanks are treated gently they seem to last a long time, greater than a decade easily.

When he comes over the mountains the sharp eared dogs call out “Whey Truck!” and one of us goes to meet him. Ben is generally first on whey right now although this has shifted over the years. Who ever is nearest generally gets things going.

The milk truck parks next to the tanks and we offload it with a 2″ hose. Two of the tanks are together in a pair so the driver can dump a whole load to them quickly. Add the two 300 gallon troughs right at those tanks and there is about 2,625 gallons of capacity right there. The third tank is higher up the mountain for excess when he’s bringing it faster than we can use it. They also have some reserve capacity at the creamery for when the whey is coming off faster than the truck can deliver it.

The tanks feed several 300 gallon rubber troughs. These are cattle waterers which are set into the ground because they’re too tall for pigs who have shorter legs than most cows, excepting the big boars like Speckles, Spot, Big’Un and Archimedes who are as tall as small cattle.

We also have some 100 gallon and 50 gallon rubber troughs as well as several bathtubs which are about 60 gallons each and we use some cut down 65 gallon plastic drums for small pigs. We put rocks in the troughs so the pigs can easily climb out if they get in. The rocks take a bit away from the volume of the troughs. This gives a total capacity of around 4,000 gallons which allows us to take a double delivery with ease incase the driver comes twice in a day. A full truck load is 1,800 gallons with the primary truck they use. That is coincidentally the amount the pigs drink in a day.

For piping we like the 2″ diameter pipes or even 4″ diameter pipes. Smaller 1″ diameter works but clogs too easily if there are solids. Our valves are 2″.

Speaking of solids, don’t let melted butter get put in your tank. It cools, solidifies and gums up the works taking up capacity. Then you’ll have the delightful task of cleaning it out with either hot water or a big knife. The fun never ends!

The valves are an ongoing expense because they wear out or break at the rate of one or two a year and are fairly expensive. Winter is not kind to them. Stainless steel valves seem like a good idea but they conduct the cold in too fast. Brass valves wear out faster and also conduct the cold in. Do not even think of using plain steel or cast iron valves as they’ll corrode very quickly in addition to the heat conduction problem. Plastic valves kept insulated and heat taped seem to be best and they cost about 1/4 as much. Just be very careful not to force the valve when it is frozen. See this post about unfreezing valves.

We insulate and snowbank the tanks to keep them warm in the winter, built concrete and stone pads for the tanks to sit on and put heat tape on the valves – other expenses over the years. That’s a couple of thousand for that infrastructure. In a hot climate you might want to shade the tanks to keep them cooler.

The biggest ongoing expense is the maintenance of the driveway. I spend about $1,000 or so a year on additional crushed stone to continue improving the driveway, sometimes a load of larger granite, buy a couple of big dump truck loads of sharp sand ($500) for keeping the driveway drivable and plowed with the tractor ($1,000 in diesel + time + tractor). Maintaining the driveway for the milk truck is my second biggest tractor work in the winter after putting out hay bales for the livestock – problem is it generally has to be done in the worst weather. Be sure to have chains, a wide stance and good mittens. Some days a face mask and goggles are required. I plow with a bucket as that means I don’t have to have one more big-iron tool (snow blower or plow blade). Using a truck to plow might be faster but it kills trucks. The tractor is slow, steady, powerful and more versatile. Remember, momentum is not your friend on the mountain.

Periodically we culture the tanks with fresh yogurt. Making a batch of yogurt costs about $30 if I have to buy the milk or less if I manage to catch milk when it is a milk or cream batch coming off the truck. This improves the dairy – the ‘whey’ is actually a mix of milk, cream and whey depending on what is happening at the creamery. Yogurt is good for the pigs digestion and it also helps prevent mold in the tanks. Eat more Gurt!

To make yogurt we simply take a clean 30 gallon barrel or a 5 gallon pail or something, fill it will milk and blend in some live culture yogurt. Leave this in a warm place such as near the wood stove in the winter or out in the sun for a few days and it grows to form yogurt. We dump that into the tanks, ideally just before the driver delivers so it gets churned up.

I find that the pigs drink more whey if they have the troughs filled more frequently. Putting the troughs near where we walk by means we top them off many times a day. The pigs hear the sound of us call and the whey flowing and come eat. Ones who are far out in the field (up to several thousand feet away) don’t but this does work with those who are closer.

Pigs drink about 20% water for the whey they drink. They drink about 3.6 gallons of whey per hundred weight per day. Realize most of that is water so they’re peeing out a lot. The whey is around 5% dry matter or so – it’s not consistent. This can sometimes give them the runs from so much fluid if they’re not eating enough pasture or hay. See that more in the spring flush as the grasses and other forages are then also very full of water. This gives rise to the occasional Eats, Drinks, Shoots and Pees.

Speaking of peeing, the pigs often will pee and drink at the same time. This means that the area right around the whey troughs should have rock and be sloped to allow drainage. They like it if it becomes a mud hole. Different strokes for different folks. I lay in granite and pour concrete pads with extra left over from construction work. This helps keep the mud to a minimum and it has the benefit of wearing their toenails down so I don’t have to trim hooves.

There is one major danger with feeding whey: salt sickness a.k.a. dehydration a.k.a. salt poisoning. Pigs are not very good at getting rid of salt. They can’t sweat it out like we do. They don’t tolerated it as well as the major meat eaters like our cousins the wolves and ferrets. Without sufficient fresh (non-salt) water pigs can go into a seizure caused by brain swelling. This can kill them. Always have two, count them, two, sources of water available to the pigs. Check them daily or more often. Running water is better than static. Static water does not work at all in half our year. Nipples and automatic valves clog with ice and dirt. We go with simple flowing waterers down the mountain. Susceptibility seems to vary. Be aware of this issue if you’re feeding stuff that has extra salt in it. Dairy comes from milk and milk has salt plus the cheese maker or butter maker may add salt.

So why feed dairy? Because dairy is a virtually perfect complement to pasture/hay and it is often freely available. Dairy provides the lysine, a key amino-acid, and calories that boosts their diet such that the pigs will grow about as fast on pasture/hay + dairy as they do on an expensive grain based diet. The dairy gives a delicious sweet flavor to the fat and meat which our customers love.

While I don’t have proof of this I have come to the conclusion from anecdotal evidence of talking with other farmers and observing our herds that it is very important that the pigs eat pasture/hay along with the dairy. This produces better digestion of both and produces better quality pork than either just milk or grain fed pigs. This means do not simply feed the pigs dairy in a pen or dry lot. The pigs also need the pasture. Managed rotational pastures are ideal and can be done in a small area.

Additionally, there is research to suggest that the pasture/hay diet increases the good, heart healthy Omega-3 Fatty Acids and CLA’s as well as having more vitamin D due to the exposure to the sun out in the pasture. This makes pastured pork a healthier meat. I am doing long term lab studies done on this topic as we speak. If that turns out to be the case then not only would our pork be green because our pastures and forest soak up millions of pounds a year of carbon but our pork would also be heart healthy! Yum!

So, use up that whey, recycling it as feed to the pigs and produce great pork!

Outdoors: 84°F/63°F Sunny, Short Rain at Night
Tiny Cottage: 79°F/71°F

Daily Spark: Gravity has never let me down. I like it’s dependability.

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About Walter Jeffries

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39 Responses to Eats, Drinks, Shoots and Pees – Whey Economics & Infrastructure

  1. Whey cool. You are lucky to have a high volume, organic creamery nearby. Do you pay them anything for the whey, or are they willing to deliver to avoid the cost of disposal? Any idea what (/if) you save on all your feed combined compared to buying commercial grain. I want to get off commercial grain as soon as possible, but I haven’t decided on the most efficient option yet. Ideally would love to grow my own feed but fear the numbers won’t come close to panning out.

    • We take care of our infrastructure here to make it easy for them but don’t have to pay them for the whey. They save a tremendous amount by having somewhere green to take it so it is a win-win. If we did not have the local creameries I would run my own dairy to get the milk for the pigs. I can’t make much money milking cows for human food but if I feed that milk to pigs then it becomes worth more. Value added sunshine.

      I would suggest also getting good at growing things that work well on your land in your climate. For us pumpkins, sunflowers, sunchokes, beets, turnips, kale, etc all flourish and are easy to grow. Corn does not do well here for us so we don’t use it for feed. Our soils are too poor and our season too short for some things. Each location is going to be different. Everything you can grow yourself is good.

  2. Faith says:

    Great post Walter!
    I love your well thought out ideas. They take a tremendous effort to get started, but once established are so worth it! Faith.

    • It’s a long term process. Things don’t happen overnight and we feel our way through many things, learning a lot over the years. Hopefully I’ll save someone else some of the pain by documenting things.

  3. Thanks for the details, namely: “Pigs drink about 20% water for the whey they drink. They drink about 3.6 gallons of whey per hundred weight.” Just the info I was seeking for our own planning.

    • Those numbers came out of particular times across large numbers of pigs during winter when we were able to measure things so it won’t necessarily apply to all pigs in all situations but it does seem to be a good guideline from observing them in other times.

  4. Stephen Clarke says:

    As usual Walter, a really interesting post!

    In a year or so’s time we are moving to place where we want to keep a couple of pigs and rotational pasture them. However, apart from the pasture and what I plant for them in the pasture (plus windfall fruit), do we NEED to supplement their pasture with dairy or can we just add some commercial feed?

    • What we found was that on just pasture our pigs took seven to eight months to reach market weights of 250 lbs. Supplementing pasture with dairy added the missing limiting amino-acid lysine needed to build protein and thus muscle as well as some calories. This reduced the time to market weight to six months, the same as with commercial hog feed/grain feeding. On just pasture alone they tend to be leaner. With pasture/hay+dairy we get an ideal back fat of 0.75″ at market weight. If you want more back fat (e.g., for the lard) then boost the calories, use gilts or raise the pigs to a later age since they tend to put on more fat at larger sizes. Even with that said, our big sows and big boars do not have much fat compared with grain fed pigs for the simple reason that grain is high in calories.

      If you don’t have dairy then supplementing with commercial feed is certainly an option. I would recommend feeding the candy, the grain, in the later half of the day, even the evening, so as to encourage the pigs to graze during the first part of the day.

      Do have your soils tested for mineral content. Some locations are low in iron, copper, selenium or other trace minerals which can cause problems for fast growing animals. Supplementing with a mineral mix or sea kelp (ration carefully due to the salt) can solve mineral deficiencies nicely.

  5. mark s says:

    Interesting blog.

    I was curious about the feeding of milk. It is my understanding that all mammals lose the ability to digest it after reaching adulthood. With humans being an exception due to a fairly recent evolutionary adaptation. I read that only 1 in 4 adult humans can digest it even now.

    Does the fact that it’s whey, and not milk side step this issue? Do the pigs fart a lot from the whey?

    • That is a myth. I think this myth is perpetuated by vegans trying to justify their dietary choices.

      No, the pigs don’t fart a lot from the whey. For farts, check out sheep and cows eating grass – they are the masters before who all others must bow. :)

  6. Adam Saso says:

    Yowsa what a great article! We have a CSA for vegs and want to ad meat next year and are thinking of chickens and pigs. Neighbor raises goats and makes cheese so I am going to talk with her about the whey. Could be a great deal! Thanks for all the wonderful info you provide. You are so generous!!

  7. Theo Meldin says:

    Excellent and timely! We have been wanting to get off the grain marry go round. We have been raising pigs in pens for a decade and I have been studying your pasturing intently. We would like to switch to raising our pigs on pasture for the cost savings most of all but also for the marketing cachet that the increased meat quality would bring. The price of grain is out of control and I think it is just going to get worse and never better. Thank you for this detailed article – and all the other wonderful articles you have written about how you farm. You are saving other farmers a lot of money. Really we should be paying for the privelage of reading your blog because you have so much useful information that is saving us so much money and time. You are trail blazing back to the future of farming! Keep in up and best of luck with your on farm USDA facility. I amamazed by that project and could only dream of something like that.

  8. Austin says:

    Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The
    text in your article seem to be running off the screen in Internet explorer.
    I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know. The design look great though! Hope you get the problem fixed soon. Thanks

  9. Susan Lea says:

    Thanks for all the great info! I took notes! Hopefully we’ll be milking some day . . .

    By the way, I keep meaning to say I like your new copy and paste password system instead of trying to decipher those ridiculous indecipherable, meaningless words that so many people use to reduce spam.

  10. Kenneth Stiller says:

    Do you know of humans who drink raw whey? I get it from a local farmer who sells cottage cheese and butter. It is a good protein but I don’t know if there are any bad effects from drinking whey. I mix it with fruit or vegetable juice. I drink about a half cup each morning. In Switzerland, they make a canned drink, called Ravella (sp?) and it is sold in store next to other drinks. It is delicious. send me comments. Ken

  11. Sam says:

    Fascinating article. Thanks for this in depth discussion and info on an alteranative to feeding the commercial grain diet.

  12. Bethany says:

    Great info! Feeding my pigs the goats’ milk I harvest daily would sure save me a lot of time filtering, pasteurizing, making cheese, etc… With 5 goats and 3 pigs (with piglets hopefully soon to come) I don’t know if our op is big enough for “milking for the pigs” to make sense, but it’s a little tempting! Thanks for the salt warning, I had wondered about that feeding out whey, even though I don’t salt chevre prior to or during hanging.

  13. Josh says:

    Excellent article! Thank you for all the helpful tips. This is our second year with pigs. Reading your blog got us going got us through the rough patches and has helped our first year succeed and our second year be better than the first. Many thanks for all you do and share!!

  14. jim says:

    Walter, first off let me thank you for the incredible amount of info you put out here! I thoroughly enjoy reading the posts and have enjoyed them very much! My wife and I have a small grass-fed farm in Florida where we raise beef and lamb. We have just been given about 20 acres to use that is mostly heavy old oaks with lots of old litter, acorns and brush and we are wanting to raise some pastured pigs on it. I know that our climate is much different than yours and there is no clear cut answer. But in general, if I use the electrified netting and move them very frequently do you think that we could get away with no supplemental feed? There is tons of underbrush, nuts and scrub but not a ton of grass.
    I know with cows to watch for gut fill to make sure they are getting adequate daily nutrition but Mainly what should I look for to know if I need to start supplementing them with feed? We have TONS of feral pigs down here and they do just fine with no feed so I figure it is possible somehow! Thanks again for you time!

    • Oaks! You lucky man! I wish I had oak trees. Nuts are wonderful pig food. Pasture, acorns and whey are a old time formula for delicious pork.

      My biggest concerns in your climate would be providing sufficient shade, water, deworming since you don’t have winter to break the parasite cycle and alligators. Do you have the latter? Seriously though, speaking of parasites, do managed rotational grazing where you move the animals on to a new paddock at least each week and don’t return to the same paddock for at least a month. This will help to break the parasite life cycles.

      See this post about Electric Netting and pigs for some tips.

      With no supplemental feed the diet will be short on lysine and possibly some minerals as well as low in calories. We have done that and it does work but the pigs take a few extra months to get to market weight and are then lean. See this post for details about diet. Also get your soil tested to make sure you have enough iron, selenium and other necessary minerals. Kelp is a good mineral supplement but make sure the pigs have plenty of water as the kelp is high in salt which can be a problem for the pigs.

      As to the feral pigs, have good fences and you may want guardian dogs. Alternatively, is it allowed for you to trap and feed them up? They are the same species and I hear many people do this.

  15. jim says:

    Walter, thanks for the quick reply! The oak grove where we would pasture them is very heavily wooded so we could set it up so that in every paddock they would have access to either trees or brush. I just plan to buy feeder pigs in the spring and butcher them in the fall. I am not super concerned with the speed at which they reach market weight as much as I am the profitability and the quality of the end product.
    Trapping the feral pigs is an option and many do this so we very well may end up withsome of those in our herd. We plan to provide the 85 gallon field watered from hawkeye as well. Would it be worth it to provide kelp and a hog mineral supplement free choice as well or will they not eat those by themselves without being mixed in feed? I believe fertrell has a high lysine hog mineral.

    We do have gators but they shouldn’t be an issue at this particular farm. I was planning on setting up the netting so that they could be moved every 3-6 days. I thought this would keep them from running out of forage.

    • I’m not sure on the question of free feeding the minerals or kelp. I would err on the side of caution and not give them too much so they don’t gorge on it due to the salt in it. I’m not familiar with fertrell. If it has lysine in it that is good.

      Note that the pigs need to be trained to the netting and electric. Piglets can become tangled so don’t just put them in there and leave. Hog panels are another way of doing it – a bit more expensive but they don’t tangle. With a single low electric line inside the hog panels they’ll leave the panels alone. Just be sure to make the area large enough such that they don’t pinball from side to side.

      • Jim says:

        For instance, I provide my cows and sheep with salt and mineral in a feeder that they can access at all time and they eat it as needed. Do pigs work this way or would they simply gorge themselves?

        We will be experimenting with different fencing. There is perimeter barbwire that I am thinking of replacing with high tensile electric and just running the bottom 2 wires at about 6-8 inches and 12 inches off the ground and then just using polywire to subdivide the interior paddocks.

        Would mixing a little kelp and lysine containing mineral with a couple of pounds of shelled corn be adequate for the lysine and bump up the energy level?

        • I don’t have experience with mixing the kelp or minerals with the corn since we don’t feed corn grain. I expect that would work fine though. Sheep and cows handle salt better than pigs so they may be fine free feeding while it can be a problem with pigs. On the fencing, be careful never to have barbed wire with electric. If the barbed became electrified and caught an animal it could kill it or cause bad ripping of the skin.

          • Jim says:

            Ok that is good to know. I will meter it out for them then.

            Yes I would remove the bottom couple of strands of barbed wire and replace them with the high tensile. Thank you again so much for all of the information and advice! It is greatly appreciated!

  16. john majerus says:

    i was wondering if u ever fed cheese to your pigs. i have a cheese plant nearby and get whey from them and they asked if i would be interested in alot of rejected cheese.

  17. Orrin Murdoch says:

    Good evening Walter,
    I am trying to make some decisions about feeding whey VS milk and wondered if you have a sense for how much milk one would need instead of whey? I currently feed whey from a goat dairy but am considering on farm milk production instead.
    Thanks for your thoughts,
    Orrin
    Nova Scotia

    • If you can get it, milk is better than whey because it has more calories and other nutrients. Caution though, you can produce some very fat pigs with whole milk. Free pasture/hay to balance the fluids. If I did not have a source of whey I would build a dairy to supply our farm with milk for our pigs.

  18. john hamel says:

    Hello I read every post and enjoy each one of them I am raising 5 pigs and am going to plant corn for feed what other crop can i plant here in Vermont to mix with the corn to make a good diet for them thank you
    John

    • First, realize I don’t grow corn for the simple reason that in our micro-climate here on the mountain and with our soils it does not grow well – my corn crop has failed five out of seven years in the past. That said, corn is a high energy low protein crop. So you’re going to be looking to balance the protein portion of the ration up. You’re looking for Pearson’s Square which you’ll find some discussion here. Legumes such as clover are things that we grow for protein. Soy is what is commonly used in commercial feeds to provide the protein but I have not been able to grow that well here either. Field peas are another option that I have seen grow in Vermont. Dairy, eggs and peanuts are other good protein sources.

  19. Dtucker says:

    I have the possibility of getting whey for my 2 pigs but I heard that it has a lot of salt in it. Is this true and is that something that needs to be considered when feeding it to the pigs? Thanks. Dottie

  20. A year later, and I might be finally close to a partnership with a local cheese maker to get some whey! It’s amazing how much I’ve learned in the last year, but glad your farm is there to serve as a model.

  21. Justin says:

    Hi there again! I was wondering if you know the effective shelf life of a tank of whey as far as pigs are concerned. We can’t get it on a daily basis and are hoping that every three days is ok. I have heard that the pH changes over time and this is bad for the pigs tummies. I have noticed that on day 1 the whey is clearish and by day three it has a more milky colour and has developed a smell not bad as per say just not the neutral stat on day 1. My options are to mix what is left from one batch with the new one, to flush what is left out or to make sure I finish one batch before we start the next. I imagine this will be less of a problem in winter than in summer!

    Any info very much appreciated,

    Justin

    • In our climate whey lasts a long time as in weeks. Note that we have a cool climate with an average temperature only in the 50’s and even in the summer it never gets very hot. We add yogurt to our whey which yogurtizes the whey to retard the growth of molds and other bacteria as well as being a probiotic (good for the gut) for the pigs. We also shade our tanks to protect them from sun and wind. One could also cave the tank to use the earth’s coolth. Since we are yogurtizing the tanks I do not flush them out. That remaining whey with yogurt in it cultures the next batch.

  22. Rita says:

    “They drink about 3.6 gallons of whey per hundred weight.” Is that 3.6 gallons per day? Thanks for all you do, Walter.

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