Winter Pig Dens

That is the start of winter housing for our pigs. We do not have a barn. If we did have a barn I wouldn’t house the animals in it because it would be unhealthy for both them and us. The animals need lots of fresh air and a conventional, closed up barn means a build up of ammonia and other gasses plus dust in the air that will irritate lungs, sinuses and cause respiratory diseases. None of that is good for the pigs, sheep, chickens, dogs or us.

Besides, the other problems with barns is you have got to clean them out and pay taxes on them. I don’t shovel manure. The animals do that for me. Who am I to take their job away from them, to play housemaid to a bunch of pigs and sheep. This way they keep their bedding clean and go out to poop in the fields and gardens. I just throw in more bedding occasionally as they eat it up.

Instead of barns we use open shed housing. The first one we built was a pole shed using post and beam construction techniques. That has been standing in our main kitchen garden for four, almost five years now. It is a simple open wall construction so there is plenty of air flow in the warm weather. In the fall we put hay bales on the west, north and east sides to block the wind. We also fill one of the bay’s in the shed with hay. The hay in the bay and then eventually the walls provide food for the animals in the shed – by spring when the days are warmer they have finished eating themselves out of house and home – although they still have a good roof over their head! We also gave them a deep bed of hay on the ground to give them a warm place to sleep. Originally we used it to house our sheep and then pigs when they were in the garden for the winter making the original sub-soil all rich and fertile. Now we use it for raising up baby chicks and over wintering the young poults.

By the by, if you use rock maple for your beams don’t expect to ever pound a nail, punch a staple or set a screw into it later once it has dried… It isn’t called rock maple for nothing. Nails and screws go in fine when it is green.

Last fall Will and Ben helped me dig holes along the upper hillside of the sow level terrace. We covered these over with a log in front and some old plywood concrete forms in two of the three dens – the third we roofed with two large slabs of granite. Remember, the third little piggy’s house was made of stone… Filled with hay for bedding these minimal dens gave the pigs and sheep comfy sleeping quarters for the winter. Each one was big enough for six sheep or four large sows and they only used two of the three.

Interestingly, on nice nights, even when the temperatures were in the -20째F’s or so the animals often just sleep outside the shed or dens on the hay. The time they use the shelters the most is when there is precipitation, especially wet sleet. What they mostly want is not to be in the cold wetness. Cold is not much of an issue. Dryness is very important. When it gets really cold they just dig down into the hay and snuggle up against each other.

This year we expanded the cuts in the hillside to make the dens much larger. A backhoe is a wonderful thing! The den that Kita, Holly and Hope are standing inside of in the photo above is the smallest den. The others are about twice that wide and deeper into the hill. I cut back into the weak ledge of the hillside to get very solid walls.

In the photo above we had just finished putting up the wooden structure consisting of a central post, beam, joists and battens. The beam and joists are raised up off of the earth on small stone walls and then 3′ long sections of 1/2″ rebar were driven through drilled holes in the logs into the ground to anchor the roof in place. The resulting structure is very solid. Next we will put on the roofing, the swimming pool metal. We’ll screw the metal to the battens which are spaced 12″ apart. The resulting shed opens to the south east so the pigs get the morning sun to wake them. On the windward side I build up a wall of dirt that acts as a wind break. When the snows get deep they’ll extend the windbreak considerably.

I’m not building the White House or the Ritz – perhaps it is the Pig-mahal. I do need to keep costs down. I figure that if I were to store buy the materials at the lumber yard for these sheds they would cost $500 to $700 each or even more even with the cash discount. I might be able to make it cheaper using lower dimensional lumber but it would not be as strong or last as long. As it was, we are building these three sheds for under $10 per shed – the nails and screws.

To keep costs down we saved good straight logs and tops from our wood cutting and land clearing. Since I am already cutting these materials and they aren’t high enough grade to sell this means the cost for the wood is zero. My firewood pile is already full. For hardware I mostly use spikes made of old sections of 1/2″ rebar as well as a a dozen 20p nails, some 2″ screws for the battens and two handfuls of roofing screws with the rubber gaskets. That’s for all three sheds combined. Keeping it simple.

For roofing material, a big cost, we did use store bought metal on one shed a few years ago – it comes to about $100 roof. Nice roof. Metal prices have shot up a lot since then. When possible I scrounge old roofing or other materials like what is going on the three roofs we’re working on right now. In this case someone down in the valley had their above ground swimming pool blow out – ripped the metal wall clean in half. I saw the mess in their yard and asked if they would like me to clean it away. They were delighted. I got a large amount of 4′ high heavy duty sheet metal with a baked on paint coat and the pool liner which makes great hay tarps. They saved on their trash bill – a win-win situation. That little win-win meant I now have enough metal to roof over the three pig dens for free. Word got around and we picked up another broken pool liner a few weeks later.

The sheds will last for a good long time. They have no foundation so the town considers them a temporary structure and doesn’t tax them. The only part touching the soil is the base of the central post which is 12″ thick. We set it up on a bed of stones in dry dirt under a protective roof which should make it last well. When it rots I can cut off the bottom few feet and replace that with a stone. I’ll pin the remaining post to that.

These sheds aren’t going to win any house beautiful awards. They will keep the animals dry and the wind off their backs. A little scrounging and careful design keeps the price affordable with simple post and beam style construction. A simple, low cost, easy to build, healthy solution to winter animal housing.

“A penny saved is 1.58 cents earned” -B. Frankling (adjusted for taxes)

Low 16째F, High 36째F, Sunny


Also see: Pig House Warming

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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33 Responses to Winter Pig Dens

  1. pablo says:

    That about covers everything. I have only one question. JEEZ, MAN, WHEN DO YOU SLEEP?

  2. Sleep… what’s that?!?
    *klunk* <--- sound of head hitting desk
    Zzzz… :)

    • Tim Friesen says:

      Hi Walter, I`m very interested in your winter shelter for pigs. I`m from New Brunswick with lots of snow and mixed precipitation in winter. I want to build an open shelter facing the west and stack round bales of hay in it, I think. Do you have any pictures of how you place the hay or would you just pile it and let them go to it? Do they need lots of room behind the hay or do they spend their time in the open area? Assuming there should be some open area and not all stacked with hay…I`m not sure how much room I need for a dozen pigs but I don`t want them to get too crowded and start fighting. Also, it would seem like the manure and wet would build up if they didn`t have enough space. Any advice or ideas would be appreciated, thanks.


      • Over the years we have done many different versions. The basic concepts that make it work are:
        1) Open to the sun but away from the wind which for us is the south or south east;
        2) Wind block for the cold winter winds which come from the north west for us;
        3) Deep bedding pack – wood chips for the bottom layer with hay on top works great;
        4) Slight slope for drainage to keep things dry;
        5) Block low drafts and wind but allow plenty of fresh air;
        6) The pigs enjoy having bright sky so they like a translucent greenhouse style roof over a cave like opaque roof; and
        7) Less than ten seconds from rise to get out so they can pee.

        Large pigs only need about six square feet per pig for sleeping. Small pigs need less space. They like to sleep in contact but should not pile more than a bout 1.5 deep or you may get crushing. In the winter we break the groups up into sets of fewer pigs. A dozen is well below that threshold.

  3. ohthatdeb says:

    As a full-time Mom (to daughters 6 and 7 months), 3/4-time freelance editor, part-time housekeeper (I don’t include that in the “Mom” job description), and part-time wanna-be homesteader, I’d just like to add thatzzzzzzzzz…..

    Fine looking structure! Excellent roof-scrounging! Beautiful dog!


  4. Walter – amen on the fresh air for animals! your animals are certainly to be happy this winter.

    ? how do you set up their water during freezing weather

  5. Basically it comes down to flowing water. We have a wonderful spring, actually several. That feeds our house. The overflow from that feeds the animal water. It is 45째F leaving the earth which means it can go through an 80% upright buried plastic 50 gallon barrel and out again staying warm enough not to freeze. These are scattered through out the various garden corrals and pastures to provide fresh year round water to the animals.

    This year I setup one overflow that is going off of an 8′ cliff and creating an ice sculpture. Fun stuff. :)

  6. Megan says:

    unfortunately we only have 1 pig. will he be able to keep himself warm with hay bales? its only 45 degrees and he is already shivering! how is he going to stand -20??

    • They can survive winter alone. We have ones that for one reason or another are separated out. They are happier and warmer in the winter to have sleeping mates. He will need very good wind protection, dry conditions and plenty of hay. Snuggled down into a blanket of hay and he’ll be okay.

  7. Your siberian husky in the picture is extremely cute, and that’s a smart idea instead of building a barn. And I hope all your animals survive the winter.

    • Hmm… That is Kita, and no husky lady is she although she does have a little bit of that look. Common ancestry perhaps. The animals did great with the winter. The open sheds, dens and greenhouses are better than barns because they allow for free flow of air. Closed in barns cause respiratory diseases in both the animals and the farmer, much like what happens in cities. This is the reason that influenza is so successful in urban areas in the winter. See the other articles about winter housing.

  8. Mark in Washington State says:

    I want to thank you walter for all the great info you share. Your experiences with how to do things, how not to do things, what works, what doesn’t are all invaluable to those of us trying to figure out things. It is great to read about it from someone who has as they say been there done that and gotten the tshirt. And probably worn that shirt out! Thanks again!

  9. I just found your site and I haven’t had time to read everything, but I’m wondering how you farrow in the winter? What kind of shelter do you use, farrowing pens that kind of thing?

    Thanks in advance,

    • We have many different solutions. Open shed greenhouses are my favorite. These let light in, block the wind, warm the bedding to dry it and shed wetness away while still allowing plenty of fresh air. See the links below.

      The critical issues are blocking the wind, providing plenty of bedding and dryness. Fresh air is important, do not close the animals in. Closed in space build up ammonia and other fumes which irritate the lungs of both livestock and farmer as well as building up dust. Warmth is not the issue. Animals burn more calories during the winter to make heat. I like hay for bedding because they eat it as well as sleeping in it. Very little goes to waste. In fact, what isn’t eaten immediately builds up a bit of a pack that composts making for warmer bedding and then in the spring is a wonderful material for building gardens.

      Portable Sow Hut
      Greenhouse Walls Inner Forms
      Winter Farrowing Ideas
      Musical Housing
      Winter Coop

      • Eric Hagen says:

        You say you don’t shovel manure, so how to you spread out the spent bedding in the spring? Do you leave the roofs up all year, or take them down and plant summer gardens? And a side note, you often seem a little cryptic about the ancestry of your dogs, they are oh so very smart and their predatory-turned-herding abilities seem uniquely sharp. It must come from that ‘whole lot of other’ part of their heritage.

        • Some of the winter sheds are fixed and some move. Some pigs use the shed areas, others, particularly the bigger ones, like to sleep out under the stars. What I’m referring to in that quote is we don’t do the typical shoveling out of stalls that is imagined on most farms. Rather we add carbon over the cold season. This builds up a deep bed of compost over the course of the winter. The compost heats up releasing warmth to the bellies of the pigs and breaks down. By the time we clean out a fixed winter space it is no longer manure but compost which we clear out with the bucket loader on the tractor during the summer, moving the material into larger compost windrows where it finishes before being applied to our gardens and orchards. This composting action reduces the volume by about 80%. Saves time.

          Our dogs came from the planet —– (deleted by MIB) on their advanced —– ships which were —- ——– ——– so of course none of that can be revealed lest the Earthlings panic. Now please look into this little light while I give you the MIB approved explanation:

          Our dogs come from a mixed ancestry which includes a pinch of German Shepherd and a pinch of Black Labrador that gives them their phenotype. Through generations of selective breeding and working on the farm they have developed not just the genetics but also culture of ranchers, training to their jobs from birth. Some research suggests that ancient canids were ranchers much like today’s humans, culling the weak and unfit from their herbivore herds, protecting their herds from predators, moving the herds to new pastures with the seasons, etc. This may be why wild humans and ancient canids were able to merge, effectively domesticating each other, since they had co-evolved similar cultures and mental processes. Of course, the canids appreciate the thumbkin’s abilities to use their hands to remove thorns.

          You may now look away from the light. Go about your business and remember, there was nothing unusual about a large fish.

          Realize that we work with our dogs every day from very young ages. That is more like the sheep and swine herders of old. Rather than being chained or cooped up in a house all day the dogs here are out working with us, doing things, interacting with us and the animals. This constant work is constant training, constant mental stimulation. Most of them apply that to farm related things with some exceptions like Katya who has shown a flair for number theory.

          • Eric Hagen says:

            Haha, alright alright, I’ll accept the old approved answer. It’s just a little too fantastically appealing to imagine a wolfish line rejoining their genetics a tad more recently than the average dog’s.

            I like your open shed composting solution. I’ve shoveled out stalls before and it’s alright work, but we had to worry about clogged drains and keeping animals in, and it never really got clean. The ammonia never really left, and everything was always soggy with urine because the floor was concrete and impermeable with poor drainage. Can’t be good for their health. I’m sure it wasn’t composting as efficiently either with the nitrogen imbalance and soddenness. Made it a waste product to remove instead of a value-added thing to spread, not to mention a comfortable heat source rather than a wet heat sink.

          • The ancestors for our current working dogs simply showed up and said they were going to work here. Dissuasion did not work. Acceptance of demonstrated qualifications was the only reasonable option. In time we developed a common language of words, signs, howls, growls and barks that we are able to communicate with each other. Now, please once again look into this little light…

          • Eric Hagen says:

            Haha, yeah, I’ve read that before. The potential mystery lies in the ancestry of those founding dogs. I forget the protopatriarch’s name, and I haven’t read of any of the other founders, but the fact that he just showed up means that you’re uncertain about his genetics. Or at least that’s what you want us to believe … [bzzt] … what was I talking about again?

  10. james norman says:

    we moved to New Hampshire and I want to keep some hogs but I worry it gets too cold up here. Everyone says if it gets below 50 we need a heat source. We never had heat for our hogs in Virginia and it got pretty cold a few weeks out of the winters.

    • Cold is not so much of an issue. Rather wet cold that sucks the heat out of an animal is a problem. Our winters get quite dry and that is good. Use lots of bedding materials, we use primarily hay, give them a wind block and provide a roof. The bedding area should slope to provide drainage. Our pigs stay outdoors all year round. Sometimes in the winter they use their three sided sheds but often they choose to sleep out under the stars.

  11. Megan says:

    I am proud to report that our lone pig survived until he met the dinner table in December. He bravely and happily withstood temperatures of -40deg. He dug himself a big hole and filled it in with the straw and hay we provided, and then burrowed down beneath the hay for the night. We fed him boiled whole barley twice a day mixed with plenty of water, and lots of table scraps.

    Thanks so much for your advice!

  12. kaitlyn says:

    great info!!!

  13. james norman says:

    I got 3 large black cross pigs at 10 weeks of age 4 weeks ago, just in time for them to clear next years orchard I am going to put in. I have them in the woods ask I clean trees around them. Then once it snows, I am going to move them into our garden and then focus on insemination of two in the fall. Thanks guys, very excited to get my pigs started.

  14. deb guard says:

    Hello there, My husband and I were going to start raising some pigs this year and I was wondering about wintering a couple pigs over in Pennsylvania. Our winters can get pretty cold and I was thinking about housing them in a three sided corn barn. I was wondering if that would be sufficient housing. Love your blog.

  15. Farmerbob1 says:

    Good stuff here, Walter, but I see several of those pesky Chinese characters, not just in the temperature line.

  16. Geoff says:


    Thanks so much for your website. It has become an invaluable resource for me for all things pig. I am trying to work out what to do with my pastured pigs this winter. This is just my second year and last winter I had them in a small barn but for various reasons (mostly that I have too many!) that’s not an option this year so I’m not sure what to do. I love the idea of keeping them outside but we get so much snow here in Atlantic Canada (think feet and feet of the stuff) that I can’t imagine them surviving outside through it all. Do you, or any of your other readers, have this problem? I gave them outdoor access last year until the snow got so high I couldn’t open the barn door to let them out!

    • We too have deep snows. The things the pigs need most of all are dry areas to sleep and wind protection. The deep snow is not such an issue. They pack the snow down much like a deer yard. A deep bedding pack of wood chips, straw and hay can compost to provide heat from below as well as food. See the article Deep Bedding Pack.

      The next level up is to have a two or three sided shed. It is important to leave it open for excellent ventilation.

      Above that is an open greenhouse, what we call our ark. These can be done in many ways and many sizes. See here and here.

      • Geoff says:

        Excellent – thanks. I particularly like the look of your “ark” as we get massive drifts which could completely bury a smaller structure and anything inside.

        • You may wish to make the side walls a little taller. Those are about 5′ high on the Ark. We get a lot of wind which blows snow off the tops of things and a total snow fall of about 14′ each winter but it packs to about 4′ of depth. You can see a photo on this article about snow buildup.

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