Pasture Post Pig Grazing


Pasture Pictured Post Pigs

There is the idea that pigs will destroy pasture. This is wrong provided they are properly managed with rotational grazing. Rotational grazing mimics the natural movement of animals over migratory routes and optimizes forage regrowth while preventing soil compaction and breaking parasite life cycles. This is the same for pigs as for sheep, goats, cattle and horses.
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There are many forms of managed rotational grazing from intensive mob grazing which can be used to knock down weed species to light fast passes that mow the area. There are also many ways of setting up the paddocks be they strip grazing, cell grazing, wheel grazing, wheels within wheels or lanes to paddocks that look like the branching tree of life from above on rough mountain terrain. These also can be combined for a great deal of variety to adapt to many, perhaps any, situation. Because of our terrain our grazing pattern is more the latter – the tree of life with paddocks budding off the lanes. The beauty of rotational grazing is it adapts to so many situations while providing positive benefits for the land, the animals and the farmers.

I often get asked what pasture looks like after the pigs have been through. People who have pigs on mud lots end up with cratered land and hard pack. This is totally different than pasture settings. Out on rotational pasture it looks more lawn like than moonscape as the photo above shows. That is not to say that pigs will never root – they will – they just root less if rotated, preferring to eat the easy surface forages as explained in the article Root Less in Vermont.

The photo at the top is from the Lower South Field from which we just moved over 100 pigs. They left for greener pastures in Underhill, the North Home Field and the North Field. There are two boars and a few sows with younger piglets remaining in the Lower South Field who will soon head out to the Far South Field now that the piglets are big enough.

What they’ve left behind is shown above. Most of it is short lawn like grass, clover and other forages. Pigs generally prefer to mow down the easy top forages rather than rooting. Pigs, like most animals are basically lazy – it’s a good survival strategy that conserves resources. They will nose the ground, root, a little here and there but not to a large degree once the pastures are mature and there aren’t interesting grubs below ground.

The result is about 93% forage coverage. The remaining land is about 4% bare like the little patch in the photo and about 3% rocks – after all, we’re in Vermont. In this paddock roughly 95% of the ground forage is soft grasses, legumes like alfalfa, clover, vetch and trefoil, brassicas such as kale, rape and broccoli, millets, amaranth, chicory, plantain, lambs quarter, etc. There are also some ‘weed’ species like milkweed and goldenrod which make up less than 5% of the pasture forages. Most of the pastures also have a fair number of shrubs, brush and trees to provide shade, nuts and fruit. Some pastures are a higher proportion of brush and trees than this one. Think of it as savanna style pasturing much like you see in National Geographic with the lions and zebras out on the velds. The difference is we have deep snows, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks and geese guarded by fearsome livestock working dogs.

There are a few spots where the pigs favor for lounging that get more impact but they’re a very small percentage of the total ground area. A bit of spot seeding now that the pigs have left those areas will fill them in with fresh forages in a month or two. For that sort of thing I tend to pick faster growing plants like brassicas with some grasses and legumes thrown in which then establish root mass below.

In this pasture the sows, boars and their piglets have left a cover of about 2″ of forage in a very even mowing. With mob grazing they might remove 80% of the cover but leave root fragments in the soil which will then spring back to new growth in a couple of months. If I have a lot of brush I want removed I’ll mob graze the pigs through but note that pigs are not the mythical bush hogs they have gotten a reputation for being. It takes a lot of pigs to truly bush hog an area. As a comparative measure we have a five acre field which we subdivided and then mob grazed about 100 large grower to finisher size pigs over a summer. They removed about 80% of the brush. Subsequent frost seeding resulted in lush pasture the following year. But that is a lot of pigs so don’t expect to put two or four pigs on five acres and have them bush hog it. What will happen instead is they’ll favor some parts and ignore the rest. Numbers and pounds of pig matter.

Hope observed the pigs in one of their new fields, Underhill, to catalog what they were eating first. This shows how their preferences lay. Lambs quarter was top on their list along with pigweed, a type of green amaranth. They also love plantain, softer grasses and clovers. They avoid the smattering of goldenrod in their new paddock which fits with the above photo showing mature goldenrod that they’ve left in their old paddock.

It is important to note is that not all pasture is grass. There is a tendency to think of pasture as being like lawns and all grass. Our pastures are a fair bit of grass but they’re also various clovers, alfalfa, vetch, trefoil, millets, brassicas, amaranth, chicory, burdock, thistles, maple, beech, spruce and a wide variety of wild flowers and other forages. Our paddocks look more like wild savannas than the King’s lawn. The difference is the King is trying to keep the lawn free of cover so enemies can’t sneak up on him – he has different grazing objectives than we do. We’re trying to maximize a variety of forages to produce a healthy diet while also having shade available for the animals in every paddock. The shade trees also drop fruit and nuts for the animals to eat creating food at different levels as well as wildlife habitat. Differing goals result in very different coverage.

We do have to make sure there is shade but we don’t have those high temperatures and as intense sun. I do find that where there is more over story cover the ground stays moister.

We plant:
soft grasses (bluegrass, rye, timothy, wheat, etc);
legumes (alfalfa, clovers, trefoil, vetch, ect);
brassicas (kale, broccoli, turnips, etc);
millets (White Proso Millet, Japanese Millet, Pearl Millet);
amaranth;
chicory; and
other forages and herbs.

What is pasture? It’s an interesting question. Silviculture, silvipasture, orchards, savanna and pasture are graduations along a scale.

Silviculture is what we do out in our forests for cultivating trees, lumber, veneer, etc. This varies from young to dense mature forest with little ground cover and low food value. If we had oaks and the like there would be a lot more food value in the forests – but we don’t.

Silvapasture would seem to be a mix of cultivating both livestock and the trees – not generally our focus. We do have some areas like this such as our aspen paddocks which have large numbers of young aspen trees that we’ve been gradually thinning over the years. There is nearly 100% over story coverage and very strong ground coverage of soft grasses, millets, clover, brassicas, amaranth and other good forage. The light in these paddocks is dappled with the wind moving the leaves such that enough light gets through to the ground for good strong growth.

Orchards is more focused on cultivating the fruit with the livestock helping to keep down the low forages. I like setting up orchards between double fence lines with paddocks between them.

Savanna is what our pastures are like: a mix of trees, brush and open ground with the goal being to maximize the livestock benefits. This is the majority of our grazing paddocks.

Pasture is more of the wide open king’s lawn that he uses to keep an eye on who is sneaking up on him. This is the classic “pasture” but not here. Typically these are found on flatter lands that can be mowed.

Lawn, well, that’s just imitation for wanna-be kings. :)

I think all of these work at different levels in different locals for different needs. We would tend more towards the silva end if we had more nut trees but sadly lack oaks. We’re planting apples, pears and encouraging the native beechnuts. Not all pastures are the same.

One final note: no, I am not tipping the camera. It is held level… Note the trees and plants in the distance. We live on a swiftly sloping land. Pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks and geese don’t roll over down hills but tractors do which is why we raise livestock rather than crop our fields. We do a lot of fencing with the contours so that the wind, rain, frost and hooves naturally tend to terrace the mountain. Our land is a beautiful example of an area that is perfect for pasturing but inhospitable to tillage or cropping. Our terracing is helping but will take a few more centuries to fully implement a system like those in Asia and Central America. Patience is a virtue, so they say.

Some Related Reading:
One Day of Rotational Grazing
How Much Land Per Pig
Pasture Post Pig Grazing
InstaPigs and Animal Units
North Home Field Sow and Piglets
Sugar Mountain Farm Pigs: Feeding and Grazing
Vet Visit Field Tour
Painted Probed & Pierced Pigs
Sorting and Driving Pigs

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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17 Responses to Pasture Post Pig Grazing

  1. Andrea S. says:

    Hay walter that is one of your gold posts! Thanx for all the deep info! you have helped us so much with your info on how to raise pigs! you should write a book are two or threee or more!! I bet you already have with all your blog posts!

    Ps your land is so steep it makes me dizzy! Stay safe while riding your tractor or pig!

  2. Bob says:

    Thank you, Walter, for another gem of a post. I know that you have written much of this in information various other posts but it is great to have it all together and with that picture. Also, it helps explain the bare soil tracks that one sees in the aerial shots of your farm.

    I have a question. Do you see 2″ length of grass and other forage remaining as the optimal length in your particular circumstances? Or is this simply the result this time?

    Thank you

    • Not sure. Often it is grazed down to less. At 2″ of length the forages grow back very fast. At down to putting green length it takes a month. At 80% turn over it takes two months to regenerate 6″ to 8″ length. I have been collecting a lot of data on this over the past several years. There is a strong seasonality as well as moisture (how much rain we get) to the issues of regrowth so it is more complicated that just what is left. With a few more years data I hope to be able to say more on this.

      The trails you can see in the aerial shots are several things:
      Logging skidder trails
      Truck roads
      Tractor roads
      Lanes between fields
      Livestock trails

      Something I’ve been experimenting with over the last couple of years is the effects of different widths of trails. For trucks I really need 20′ wide roads but 12′ wide does in a pinch. But we need those infrequently in most cases and they’re too wide for livestock trails. For the tractors 10′ to 12′ roads are good with a minimum gate distance of about 8.5′ but a comfortable gate distance of about 12′ to make carrying things through easy. For livestock with electric fencing on each side the bare minimum is a 6′ wide lane but 8′ is better. If the fences are hard such as stone, wood, stock panel, woven wire or a cliff side then 4′ wide lanes are fine – this allows animals to pass in each direction. For chute width about 18″ to 24″ is a good width – such as sorting pens and animal gates. Making lanes vastly wider is just a waste of land and results in excessive trampling and soil compaction. With all of this in mind major roads are 20′ road ideally and down as narrow as 12′ if there is room above the fence line. Then during use as livestock lanes those can be narrowed by one or two lanes of polywire to 6′ of width keeping the animals off the unused portion which can then grow forages. This seems to be working quite well.

  3. am in the pm says:

    Next to last paragraph on tree species, shouldn’t beach be spelled beech ?

  4. Andy says:

    Cheers for the useful info Walter.
    How big is that paddock, and how long had the pigs been in there for? My pigs are rooting a lot, in fact rooting seems to be all they do. Hopefully they calm down a bit once things dry out a bit.

    • That particular set is about one acre each for the paddocks. There are nominally six paddocks although it got adjusted this year to -1 and then +1 during the grazing time of June and July.

      Wet conditions certainly can produce more rooting as can having a lot of grubs and tubers under the soil. Once they’ve cleared those out in the first few passes then the pigs tend to go for the surface forages. See here for some more thoughts on why they root and why they graze.

      • Andy says:

        Thanks for that Walter, your website is a fantastic resource for someone like myself. I am looking forward to our pastures maturing a bit. So were the 100 pigs staying in a 1 acre paddock for about a week?

        • Andy, for figuring grazing space see this article: One Day of Rotational Grazing as that will give you a much more controlled and accurate measurement. This paddock is much rougher on the calculations in timing, pounds and are as well as forage depth. The linked article is much more of a controlled experiment. I just repeated that on a different very controlled paddock and will write that up soon too – another data point.

  5. Farmerbob1 says:

    Walter, I’m curious as to whether or not you have ever tried to grow cattail for forage in the fields that have ponds. My understanding is that they can grow pretty much anywhere that liquid water exists, and they grow like weeds, with a very high nutrient value in several different parts of the plant.

  6. Sally H says:

    Do you do any cutting or other removal of the plants the pigs don’t eat?

  7. D. Daniel says:

    Hi Walter.

    If I were to break up 20 acres in to 12 equal lots (1.66 acres) and use movable electric fencing and moving the pigs to the next lot every 3 days or so, how does this intensive grazing method change as winter comes? Do I keep moving them every three days throughout the winter to not let any of the lots get too rooted and muddy? We get a descent amount of snow but it melts relativley quickly as we get morning sun on our pasture.

    I had planned on using the standard transportable pig homes with skids as shelter in summer/winter rotating with the pigs in order to avoid building a hoop barn that would take up space, be an investment, and create a ´´sacrifice´´ area. How many sheds would I need in this type of setup to attend the needs of the herd?

    Love your blog,

    Daniel

    Another question: If a sow who is in this intensive rotational system is about to forrow (continuous farrowing), do I separate her into a seperate maternity lot? Or would she just stay behind in the current lot in a movable shed as the rest of the heard rotates on? What would the post-birth timeline look like for mother and piglets in their journey to rejoin the main heard that is in constant rotation?

    Sincerely,

    Daniel

    • I would suggest making more smaller paddocks for faster rotation. With 1.66 acres per paddock that is a almost 3,000 hundred weight pig days of grazing. e.g., 210 one hundred pound pigs for 14 days or 105 two hundred pound pigs for 7 days, etc. That’s a lot of pigs. Smaller areas will let you manage the grazing better with smaller herds. See One Day of Grazing.

      During the winter we shift to open shelters with hay on winter paddocks. The winter paddocks become summer gardens to produce fall feed for the pigs such as pumpkins, sunflowers, etc.

      Skid huts work fine on flat land. The pigs don’t need much in the way of housing in the warm season. Most of all they need shade which can be provided by brush, trees or open shelters. In the winter wind production becomes very important.

      The Ark[1, 2] is our best winter shelter but we have many other forms of winter housing as well. They need good fresh air – don’t close them in.

      You can drop sows behind the rotation or move them into their own rotation system. About two weeks pre-farrowing to about six weeks post farrowing when she weans works well. Several insync sows can be together.

  8. Shane says:

    Hi Walter,
    I recently started raising pigs by getting 8 IPPs that I planned to raise on a new pasture that was seeded with red clover and orchardgrass. The pigs are about 9-12 weeks old and are eating the clover no problem, but won’t touch the orchardgrass no matter how hungry they are. It seems they would rather root up the ground than eat it. Have I made a mistake by planting orchardgrass? Do you have any advice on how I can salvage my situation other than just feeding out more grain?

    • My first comment is I hope you realize that IPP’s (Idaho Pastured Pigs) are not a breed but rather a cross. This difference is important to understand. A breed breeds true, producing offspring like the parents. A cross does not breed true and produces surprises in the offspring. There is wide confusion about IPPs with people thinking of them as a breed. This is not to say they are not good, just that they should not be advertised or thought of as a breed. To get them to breed status requires perhaps decades more of selective breeding to stabilize the genome.

      That said, I would mix in white clover with the red clover – my first comment – since red clover in high concentrations has been shown to interfere with sexual development and reproduction. In moderation it is fine. I seed many different types of clover. The Ladino clover is more expensive than the red clover but you get a huge number of seeds in a 50 lb bag since the seeds are so small so it is worth making the investment. Arrow clover and others are also good choices.

      Orchardgrass is a good forage. They may simply need to learn to eat it and that may take time. Mixing it with other food may help. It is not as appetitive as clover. Also try feeding them any supplement later in the day so they explore the grazing during the day.

      As to the rooting, this is one of the myths about the IPPs – the claim that they do not root. Rooting is more a function of management and experience than of genetics. They may be going for the roots of the plants, which are tasty, or they may simply be going for grubs and other tubers in the soil. The first and even second pass through a pasture sees this quite commonly as they clean the ground. See the article Root Less in Vermont for more thoughts on this. They may need to rotate more quickly but I don’t think that is the solution in this case – my suspicion is mostly that it is new pasture and they have not yet learned grazing.

      Lastly, seed behind the pigs the day before they move out of a paddock. Use their action to drive the seed to soil. See more in the article Frost Seeding.

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