Winter Paddocks

Winter Garden Paddock

During the warm months from spring through late fall our pigs graze out on our pastures across the mountain side. We have about 70 acres of pasture which we use in a grand rotation of about 40 acres per year and then within that we do managed rotational grazing. Late in the year we open up those stock piled additional 30 acres as the fields fade into fall. As the snows deepen we call in the livestock to the central five to ten acres which are winter paddocks like the one in the picture which contains Spitz, our Berkshire boar, two sows Ophra of the Blackieline and PrettyGirl of the Yorkshires as well as 32 grower size pigs.

Winter paddocks are like deer yards out in the forest. These are places the animals pack the snow harder so that they can move more easily. I purposefully design these spaces to be low and in the lee of wind blocks. Our winters are cold and dry, and very windy. It’s windy here on the mountain pretty much all year round but the winter wind is particularly cutting. By putting the winter paddocks down low in the landscape and behind knolls, hedgerows, trees and open sheds we gain protection from the wind.

In these protected winter paddock areas we have three sided sheds, caves and open greenhouses that provide even more protection as well as belly warmth with their deep bedding packs. As the weather gets colder and the snows get deeper the pigs, chickens, ducks, geese and sheep naturally confine their activities to these sheltered areas, these winter paddocks.

Eventually our fence lines get covered as the snow pack builds up. We turn off the lower wires on the fences as they become buried and eventually the entire fence. The animals are not incline to wander because going outside their yards where they have compacted the snow means stepping into deep snow. Sharp pointy feet are not compatible with the deep snows. Even the long legged deer know this. Short legged animals like pigs are even more incline to stick to the trails and yards to avoid floundering.

In the spring the snow pack has become hard enough that some of the smaller pigs are light enough to be able to walk on the hard crust like the group of growers in the photo above who are exploring the new-to-them landscape. They were born during January in the winter paddock in the foreground of the photo, our lower garden paddock. They have know winter all their lives, almost a Helliconia Winter relative to their life spans.

In about a month these grower pigs will witness a strange transformation of the world where the white will disappear to be briefly replaced by sweet brown earth and then a strange color like that of the great tractor will splash across the land and feathery protrusions will burst from the tips of the tree branches. Liquid water will flows across the landscape as music to our ears. They will learn about the wonders of the wallow as the days turn hot, the sun rises higher and the herds migrate north and further afield out in to the mountain pastures filled with green grasses, legumes and other tasty forages.

In the spring with the flush of new foliages the pigs’s growth rate will explode. These pigs have thrived through the cold of winter on the dry hay stored from last year’s pastures just as we can fruits and vegetables for our family’s table. But the saved over foods are never quite as good as the fresh and during the winter some of our calories go towards simply keeping us all warm through the cold season. Being able to farrow and thrive through winter is a hard course and takes good genetics, something we’ve been selecting for over more than a decade.

With the bursting of spring buds in the warm sunshine the chickens will find insects and the pigs will find fresh forages. Both will blossom with the abundance of fresh food. So too will the summer gardens that were our winter paddocks. During the cold sterile frozen months the livestock shelter in these south facing wind protected spaces. Once the animals go out to fresh pastures in the spring we plant our summer crops on the inner acres. These will thrive in the rich fertile soil left by the pigs and poultry. Most of our land is poor mountain gravel but where we have wintered livestock the soil is rich with organic matter and ideal for planting nutrient hungry annual crops.

Weeds are minimal in the summer gardens for plantings because the livestock, the chickens in particular, peck them out for us. Weeds are just food by another name and the animals are eager to do their share by eating up the weeds. The result is we have gardens where the desired plants can get a head start. By timing the cycle of winter livestock, spring chickens and summer crops we minimize the labor of growing acres of pumpkins, sunflowers, beets, turnips, radishes, broccoli, squash, sunchokes and other foods that become late fall feeds for our livestock as the cycle revolves again to the snow season and the gardens become winter paddocks once again.

Spring is probably still a month off. We just got more snow and more is due. Our fields are blindingly white. But, in the good news the crust is hard and the animals have been able to explore further off the beaten path. They think that is grand. The dogs think otherwise and keep bringing them back down from the higher pastures. The dogs have other concerns the pigs don’t quite understand. The spring coyote songs are on the wind and our dogs are singing back. Time to reestablish territories and negotiate treaties anew.

Outdoors: 44°F/25°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 66°F/62°F

Daily Spark: No man should be allowed to be President who does not understand hogs. President Harry S. Truman

9 thoughts on “Winter Paddocks

  1. Lovely post , sir . How many acres of usable space do you think you could ‘get away with’ to run your current operation . I am on eleven and ‘dream’ of the possibilities with more .

    • We run about 400 pigs on pasture. My real world measurements show that we can sustainably do that on about 40 acres so about 10 pigs per acre using good managed rotational grazing on good pasture with good pastured pig genetics. Note all those qualifiers. Don’t start out with 10 pigs per acre but rather grow into that slowly as you develop each of those factors. This would suggest a maximum of about 100 pigs for your 11 acres once you have things established. Figure on several years to get there.

  2. My pigs have been tearing up a forest over the winter and have had a good time of it, this morning I let them into their new nice deep, green mixed pasture. They immediately were overjoyed and ate for about an hour, and the rest of the day they have all been in the new forest area attached to the pasture. I was sure they would basically eat and eat then just lay in the grass and get up and eat more grass, but I guess they are now first and foremost forest pigs. The chickens which have been in the pasture for weeks followed them right into the trees.

  3. Have you ever seen your dogs take on coyotes, wild dogs, bear, lion, or lynx?
    I’ve heard people say one good dog can take 1 to 3 coyotes, two or more for one bear, 3 + for a catamount. Have you lost any dogs or have any gotten hurt from encounters?

    • We’ve witnessed our dogs take on coyotes many times over the decades. Generally it is simply a matter of discussion – that happens close to daily as the coyotes and our dogs discuss the territorial boundaries. Occasionally it turns into a physical battle. It is gang warfare. Numbers and size matter. I’ve watched our dogs kill and eat the coyotes. They have no professional curtesy.

      I’ve also on occasion seen our dogs take on the bear, it has always been discussion and has never resulted in actual physical fighting. The bears have always backed off. They have enough territory that they do not need to invade the dogs’s territory so things are fine.

      On rare occasions the cougar have come through our valley. Only a couple of times has this resulted in close in discussion that almost resulted in physical fighting but did not when the cougar backed off. I am glad of that as the mountain lions are powerful predators. Fortunately they’re also very edgy and do not want confrontation for the most part.

      Crows and ravens are the biggest problem. They go after small pigs from new born up to about four weeks. They stalk up to the piglets and stab the pigs with their beaks which creates a wound that becomes infected. Kita was the one to first warn me of the danger of these beautiful birds.

      Other predators are foxes, who will steal one piglet a night, fishers, etc. These the dogs eat up too.

  4. Truly awesome and amazing. I forgot to mention wolves, not sure if you guys deal with them.
    When it comes to breeding your dogs is it breed the best (like your hogs) factoring in personality, strength, size, stamina, etc. From what I’ve read your dogs seem a bit smaller than my Pyrenean mountain dogs. Do you spade/neuter not breeding quality dogs that stay in your pack.
    My white wolves have only taken on foxes and chase crows here in over populated MA

    • With our pack the breeding is even more restrictive as only the alpha pair breeds in a pack. All of the others act as support for the breeding pair. Spaying/neutering isn’t necessary since this concept of mutual support and management of limited resources is so deeply embedded in their culture. Mating requires cooperation and co-defense. This is very different than singleton dogs raised in human culture.

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