InstaPigs & Animal Units

South Herd on South Plateau at Compost Pile Wind Block

Ben asked:
  I have been lurking/reading your blog for a looong time now. You have been a true inspiration to me and I find our family now on 11 acres north of Omaha with our first home-raised pig (Myrtle) in the freezer! The other night we had pork chops (Mmmm!) and our four year old clara jumped up and down singing “Yay, we get to eat our piggy!” So much for worrying that the girls would be devastated when I killed the pig :)
  We are determined to transition to full-time farming because the J.O.B. takes me away from the family too much and we are all suffering. I have seen you answer many questions for other aspiring piggers in the past and am hoping you are willing to do the same for us.
  As I said, we have 11 acres. It is a bit over half timber and half pasture with a spring fed stream at the bottom (in a deep gulley). With Nebraska winters being what they are, how many head do you think we could reasonably run at any one time on pasture given that I am commited to MIRG? How many head do think that would reasonably yield for sales?
  Also, have you ever heard of Niman Ranch? and if so, would you recommend doing business with them or someone like them?
  Thank you!

Congratulations on completing a cycle of producing food! It is very satisfying. I find that children are more accepting of the idea of eating the animals than many adults. They haven’t yet learned the hesitation that modern society is instilling.

Sounds like you have a nice piece of land. I don’t know Nebraska personally but suspect your climate is slightly milder than ours but with winter still being a strong force and your soils a bit more fertile and deeper.

With flatter lands like I think you have in Nebraska the winds can be an issue so think about wind breaks. We’re high in the mountains and wind is also an issue we keep in mind. Wind is harder than cold. Worst is wet, cold wind. Dry cold in the lee is survivable, even thrive-able. Like us you will find that getting through the winter is a big part of the challenge and that places a limit on things.

Water is critical. The fact that the spring is down at the bottom of the gully means it is hard to get the water up where you want it if I understand the lay of your land. Ideally you don’t want to be pumping water. Pumps break down, especially in cold weather, which is why I avoid them. I like gravity fed which is one benefit of the mountain. If you scout around you may notice plants such as ferns growing in clusters that suggest there may be water near the surface such that you can develop a spring. Next look in those areas for very mossy rocks and other signs of wet that indicate where you want to prospect for water. I measured that each pig needs about 0.72 gallons of water per hundred weight per day on the pasture/hay plus dairy diet. On a dry diet they would need more water as that includes 3.6 gallons of whey per hundred weight per day.

Shoats in Winter Paddock with Hay Bale

Based on our experience with our herds on our mountain pastures with our managed rotational grazing and supplementing with dairy and winter hay I figure on up to ten pigs an acre is sustainable. See How Much Land Per Pig. In your climate I would start with the a similar assumption and adjust from there based on your experience. Watch the animals, watch the land, watch the forages.

According to the agricultural extension reports I’ve read, and this varies somewhat from report to report, a pig is about the equivelant of a sheep and a cow is the feeding equivelant of four pigs or four sheep. A cow is considered one animal unit in much of the agricultural math. However, just like when adding sugar to a cup of water you can put in more than you think.

So while the Ag math says:

1 acre sustainably supports 2.5 animal units
1 cow = 4 pigs
1 pig = 1 sheep

Aggie math would say:

1 acre supports
2.5 cows OR
10 pigs OR
10 sheep

But the reality is:

1 acre can support a mix of
1 cows AND
4 pigs AND
4 sheep AND
400 chickens

or something like that. The penciling Aggist might say that in animal units this is:

= 4 animal units

where only 2.5 can live. Think about how in nature we have a diversity of species rather than a monoculture. This works because the animals graze differently, each using slightly different resources, it works. Not only that but together they enable resources for each other which would otherwise be locked up. Add in any supplemental feeding and it again will change the balance. This includes garden gleanings, winter hay, grain, pig chow, etc.

Growers in Winter Hay

Now, don’t take any of those numbers too hard because they WILL vary with the size of the animals, the breed, the life stage, the quality of pasture, management techniques and the season. The point is that like adding sugar or salt to a cup of water you can put more in than one might guess. What you want to do is add animals slowly, watch your forage growths, do managed rotational grazing to rest the land and watch the animals’s condition. With careful attention your cup won’t overflowith.

So, back to your original question… if your fields and forests are similar to ours I would figure:

(11 acres – 1 acre for home)/2
==> 5 acres of pasture for managed rotational grazing


5 acres x 10 pigs per acre
==> ~50 pigs or their equivelant would be sustainable

By using a mix of species such as ducks, chickens, pigs, sheep and cattle you’ll get the maximum production from those acres just like in nature.

Pigs, and many species, can also make use of some of that forested land, especially if you have nut trees like oak, hickory, beechnut, etc. If you set your managed rotational grazing paddocks up so they are part woods and part field you’ll get the best use of the land and you’ll have all the fuel you need to keep warm by cutting the dead wood to heat your home. The animals will enjoy the shade and the forages, not harm the woods or the fields through too much much mobbing and soil compaction. Done right, gradually the land will improve.

In our northern climate this assumes buying in winter hay. We buy in about 400 lbs of hay per pig. See Feeding Hay. Buying in hay is good because it imports nutrients to our soil. Which reminds me, get a your soil tested to make sure you have enough iron, selenium, etc for both plants and the livestock. If you don’t have enough of the right minerals in your soil then consider feeding kelp or some other mineral mix. Just beware that sheep generally can’t tolerate copper and pigs can be killed by salt which is in cattle, sheep and goat mineral mixes.

Speaking of improving fields, I would strongly suggest planting legumes into your field mixes to suck free nitrogen from the sky.

Sow in Winter Paddock 5’s Shelter

Start slowly. A sow can easily produce 20 to 30 piglets a year so a sustainable level for your parcel is probably about two sows, maybe four tops. The rule of thumb is that you need three sows to justify the cost of a boar on pasture and on grain or commercial feed figure six sows to justify the boar. It takes the piglets from those sows to justify the cost of keeping the boar. A boar can service around 15 sows. Otherwise go with AI or a borrowed boar and keep well up on vaccinations and parasite control. A boar and three sows would produce give you 60 to 100 pigs on the land per year which is about 50 InstaPigs since they go to market around six months of age. Likewise do the math for other species.

Sows in Winter Paddock 1’s Shelter

I would err on the side of caution, that is on the lower end of the animal densities and then adjust. I like to let land rest well between grazing and ideally have plants go to seed to have them self-perpetuate the life cycle. This also helps with breaking parasite cycles and eliminating soil compaction.

I would also recommend that you start slowly on adding animal species. I recommend that people start the first year with chickens, then add weaner pigs which you have already done. Each year add something new as you gain your footing with what you have. Same goes for gardening. Find your pace.

Start just working to feed yourself and your family. This is how you learn the skills. If you want to farm full time and get away from the J.O.B. as you put it then the next question you’ll need to work out is how much money in your local market can you sell the pork from those pigs, or other livestock, that you can sustainably keep on that amount of land. Lots of variables there such as what supplemental feeds you can produce, get for free (e.g., diverting the pre-consumer ‘waste’ stream), what your costs of hay are, what prices you can sell for in your area and what your costs of processing will be like.

Once you have infrastructure such as land, fences, sheds, etc, the big three costs of raising a pig, as an example livestock, come out to be about evenly split between the cost of the piglet, the cost of feed and the cost of processing. Once you get going you can start working on whittling down those costs through producing your own feeds and your own piglets. Processing is the next big hurdle.

Definitely do up a business plan. Winter is a great time to plan. Figure it will take five to ten years to learn the skills, get things established and develop your markets. Don’t go too fast. Be sustainable. Most businesses fail in the first year. Be in it for the long haul.

You might find this Animal Unit Calculator interesting as well as checking out the Wiki on Livestock Grazing Comparison and Animal Units. Take all of that with a grain of salt since the same term, Animal Unit, is used by different groups for different purposes.

Last suggestion: Plant fruit trees and berry bushes every year, starting now. They can produce a tremendous amount of food for your animals and your family. If you plant ten trees a year starting now, even though you don’t know what the best location is yet, in a decade you’ll have nearly 100 productive and near productive trees. Don’t put off planting.

Not a Pig

I have heard of Niman Ranch but don’t know anything about them other than that they are a company which buys carcasses from a lot of different small farms who grow the animals to their standards – An aggregator if you will. I have never done business with them or anyone like them although I have been approached, and declined. I prefer working directly with our customers.

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

Outdoors: 8°F/-13°F 1″ Snow, Mostly Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 70°F/64°F

Daily Spark: When breeding remember that not all pigs are equal and some pigs are more equal than others, to misquote Animal Farm.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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22 Responses to InstaPigs & Animal Units

  1. Ellen Bridgeporte says:

    Fascinating Walter. I love how you share your experiences and all the knowledge you’ve gained over the years so freely with others. I love the detailed thinking that goes into your answers. Keep warm!!

  2. Walter, that is some good-looking grass hay!
    Ben, the last time I checked out Niman, several years ago, they were only paying about a nickel over the commodity price. In my opinion that is not enough, and why tie ourselves to the commodity hog price when we are trying to produce such a different product?

  3. Bob says:

    You could write a book. I suspect you are going to busy for a few more years though before you would have time for that. I suspect that you could really provide a massive amount of information.

    • I have a book in the works. I write a bit on it each day. Something to do late at night. I’ve divided it up into a series as there is too much information to put all in one book and still keep the price and page count reasonable. I hope to have it out next year. Several companies have asked to be the publisher but I might just self-publish. I used to own and run a publishing company long ago so I’m a little familiar with the market. The new iBooks, Kindle and other ePub formats are also an interesting angle to include as well as standard paper publishing. It will keep me busy, off the streets and out of trouble. :)

  4. Susan Lea says:

    What an amazing answer, Walter! Thank you for going to the trouble to share it as a post so the rest of us can appreciate it. While we don’t plan to raise our own pigs or sell our meat commercially, I still learned a lot from reading:

    We shouldn’t give the cows’ mineral salt to our pigs.
    We need to keep planting trees.
    We should test our soil.
    We can look for mossy rocks and clusters of ferns to see where there might be more water.

    The thought and calculation that you put into your farming are impressive and help all of us. I feel encouraged that we’ve done some things right, like gradually adding animals and building up an orchard (we hope to actually get some fruit from it in 2013!) And I’m ready to talk my husband into another planning session! :)

    May you have a prosperous 2013!

  5. Susan Lea says:

    P.S. I forgot to say, I love the photos of your cozy pigs in the hay! And the “not a pig” one, too!

  6. sue says:

    what a great response. water yes, pasture we are anxious to do this year as our pigs t have not had a great home this year. We live on 20 acres but fencing is the issue as its simply not cheep. Electric fence yes, but its way to big to do that with and we have a hot box that will accomidate that. Can we put our sheep and pigs out with the cows? I think so but need to ask. Also, will they come in to a bell or sound at night? Make the sound, lets call it a triangle, and will they come a runnin’?

    this is an amazing blog and am thrilled to get it!!!!

    • I don’t have cows so I don’t have direct experience with keeping sheep or pigs with cows. However, I have heard of people doing it successfully. The only negative I have heard of is with milking cows someone said their pig’s learned to nurse on the cows. That could be a flaw or a feature…

      We have kept our pigs, sheep, ducks, geese and chickens all together very successfully. When chicks are small they need a place apart from the pigs until they’re fast. When ewes are lambing they need a place apart from the pigs as a freshly born lamb is too tempting to try a taste. Once they’re up and running around they’re fine with the pigs out on pasture.

      Do train your pigs to come to your voice, a bell, a banging bucket, etc. Some sort of call in. Works for all the animals. Doing it at a regular time each day also helps train them to simply come in on their own.

  7. Beth says:

    Thanks for asking the question. It was my next one, but my first question had taken so much space for Walter to answer, I was going to wait a bit to ask it.

    Thank you so much for covering the other half of the year. I have heard the math about animals per acre, but hadn’t realized that you could run them together. That would make life simpler once the animals are used to each other. It might also allow me to have more animals, provided my soil was up to it and I could care for them in the winter or had a market for what couldn’t winter over.

  8. Victoria says:

    Walter, how do you collect eggs from your chickens? They always seem to be with the pigs in the pasture or a temp shelter – do they have a coop with nests as well?

    • We have nest boxes and shelves in various places such as the mid level hoop house and the south field shed. Mostly the chickens lay there. Sometimes we find a nest somewhere else. If it appears to be a well cared for nest in a good location we’ll give it a little more protection and let the hen hatch out the chicks, noting who is laying and setting.

  9. Ben says:

    Thank you for the amazing answer. As I cruise around your sight I saw things that I wondered if you would point me too rather than write a new answer (“How much land per pig”). Thank you for the answer that comes with so much new detail!

    Our land here is on a southern slope. So we are not so level as you might think. Quite a bit of hilly and some serious nooks and cranies (hills and valleys) especially in the timber.

    You have me strongly considering sheep. When creating paddocks for pigs it seems easy – make sure there is water, shade, and pasture. When creating paddocks for pigs and sheep, are there any other considerations? I figure it would need to be a bit more pasture heavy? I have one area that is completely timbered and as it is over one acre I had figured to run the pigs there for part of each rotation. Do I need to separate the herds in order to utilize this paddock?

    Thank you for your time!


    • The biggest issue with combining pigs and sheep is that during lambing you want to separate the dropping ewes from the pigs. A newborn lamb still in the placenta is too tempting to taste from the pig’s perspective. Once the lambs are up and running for a week they can be recombined in our experience.

      One big issue with sheep is keeping their wool clean if you’re planning to sell it. If you have burdock or similar plants then the sheep will help spread it far and wide. The seed pods will become entangled in their wool and make you hopeless and despondent. The good news is our pigs love burdock. They have cleared it all out of our fields where they go. Now the fields are sheep safe.

      Another issue with sheep is bloat. Read up on that.

      We too live on steep slopes. Be very, very careful with a tractor, better yet, don’t use a tractor on steep slopes. We do a lot of terracing. See these posts. The animals can help terrace.

  10. Ben Godfrey says:

    I have found some gilts I would like to buy for breeding. They are all red wattle mixes. The owner said the following:

    “I have one line that is an outcross. They are big, high performing gilts……but I’m expecting their offspring to only be as good as they are. I have three linebred/inbred lines going back to my favorite sow. All of these are perhaps a little smaller, but will produce phenomenal offspring (which is how I got the outcross line of hogs). I have two lines that are not as classy in build, but have really good litter sizes (like 14 to 16 pigs per litter which is over double the breed average). ”

    Litter size is very attractive, however I like the idea of a compact, high quality line also. Which direction would go?

  11. David Reimer says:

    Sorry, I’m almost 9 years late to the party…You numbers above on an acre and what is can support 1 cow, 4 pigs, 4 sheep and 400 chickens. Is the 400 chickens a typo and should be 40? I read a lot that an acre can only support about 50 chickens as the grass etc. would only be able to metabolize the nitrogen from 50.

    • 1 cow is about 600 to 1,200 lbs and can get all their food from pasture.

      4 meat pigs are about 1,000 lbs but most people feed them more. See The Pig Page for diet here.

      4 sheep are about 500 lbs and can get all their food from pasture.

      400 chickens are about 1,200 lbs or perhaps a bit more and they get a lot of their diet not just from the plants on pasture but also from the insects, mice, snakes, frogs, etc.

      So those are roughly the same range of pounds per group.

      What is key is to do managed rotational grazing. The smaller the number of animals, or pounds, the smaller the paddocks. As a general rule you need a bare minimum of four paddocks but more is better. Then it is a absolute max of 14 days on (grazing) and minimum of 21 days off (resting & regrowing the pasture).

      I have actually found that I can graze pigs purely on pasture at a rate of 23 sq-ft per hundred pounds of pig per day. This works out to be about 10 pigs per acre. BUT, realize I am very experienced. Start with a lower biomass of animal on the pastures and work your way up to what your land and skills support.

      The ideal situation is grazing a mix of species as they do slightly different grazing.

      • David Reimer says:

        Yes, Thanks for your reply! I was not really referring to whether or not the acre could support the feed requirements, but whether the acre could metabolize their waste (manure and urine, especially the chickens). Thanks again!

        • I don’t run the chickens that densely, rather they free-range follow the grazing of the other animals since their primary role is organic pest control. However, They range mostly within 700′ of their roost and I have had as many as 600 chickens at a time using several roosts that created an area of about 10 to 20 acres that they were covering along with the sheep, geese, ducks and pigs. The pigs are the primary biomass here and I have had as many as 100 breeders along with 500 growers from piglets up to hogs in size. I have not seen any problem with the land metabolizing the waste. In fact, I’ve gone from very poor acidic gravel mountain soil to rich pasture soil. It was an ag extension agent decades ago who suggested that animals grazing was the best way to improve the land and she was very right.

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