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.
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.
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);
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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