We farm 320 acres of which 160 are owned. The farm is a diversified crop and livestock farm featuring a grazing sheep flock, a farrow-to-finish hog business based on pasture and deep straw practices with a crop rotation of corn-peas-corn-grain-hay using ridges and conservation tillage. Our son is now joining us in the hog operation as a partner.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
We wanted to find a solution to the problem of farrowing our sows in the wintertime as a complement to our summertime pasture production. We thought we could farrow the sows inside of the hoop building early in the spring if we could give them a little extra protection. So we decided to try to put the pasture shelters, which for us as Port-a-huts, into the hoop house. We also thought that if it worked, we would be able to schedule that one farrowing plus two finishing groups (the hoop farrowed pigs and then the fall pasture pigs) for the hoop house making is a very economical structure and a good use of capital. These are the results:
In March of 1996, we farrowed 21 sows in the hoop house by setting up a free stall arrangement with the huts, such that the sows could choose their shelter and come go as they pleased. Watering and feeding (by hand for the first week, self feeder after that) was doe on one end of the building.
The sows farrowed 191 pigs, just over 9 per sow. 13 pigs died before market. One sow farrowed in with another and needed to be gated separately for a day. Chores took about one hour a day. Setup, installing huts and stacking straw took about one day. Time spent for all purposes was about comparable to pasture production.
The pigs were weaned at about 6 weeks. This was accomplished by sorting the sows out of the building and returning them to pasture for rebreeding. The pigs were caught and castrated three days later. This was the only handling of pigs done. They were then finished in the hoop structure.
The first load of pigs were marketed before five months of age. The last load was sold at 195 days. This is an average of 172 days to market, quite acceptable. The pigs are 3.3 lbs of feed per lb of gain, again quite acceptable. They were on a corn plus barley ration.
General observation: these pigs were handled less than any other we have produced simply because they were born where they were fed. Labor required is minimal.
In March of 1997, we farrowed 24 sows in the hoop house using a similar but arrangement. Complicating factors were the loss of two sows at farrowing, unusual for us, resulting in the loss of all but 3 of their pigs. Pigs are now being fed in the hoop from this farrowing. These pigs were weaned at about 4-5 weeks, again by driving the sows out. This time the pigs were castrated right in the building at 2 weeks. Ear notching for gilt selection was also done, but once again, no iron shots or vaccinations were given or teeth and tail cuts. These are low labor pigs, the sows do all the work!
– 228 pigs were born
– 192 pigs were weaned
– Observations: these pigs, like last year’s batch, are very healthy and are doing well with no vaccinations or drugs in the feed. We expect once again to be marketing before five months
– Our spring pasture farrowing this year resulted in weaning of 9 pigs/sows or about 1 pig better than the hoop house farrowing.
Conclusions from both years:
– This is a low labor approach, comparing quite favorably with our former confinement practice.
– The pigs are healthier, like pasture pigs. There is definitely less weaning stress.
– Timing is critical, especially in getting the winter pigs out in time for cleaning and stocking the sows.
– Manure pack gets pretty deep between March and September with no clean out.
We learned that it is best to start with 30 or 40 small bales of straw. We piled them on top of the huts for easy access. The second year, we split the space into two by running the huts down the middle and then gating up both ends. The sow groups were different in age and breeding and we experienced some problems when we pulled the huts our at about two weeks of age and added straw (which we did both years-two weeks is about the age at which the sows want to leave the hut with her litter both in pasture and in this system). When then unlike sows were turned together the less dominate group did not allow their pigs to nurse for a few hours and this set them back. It wasn’t a major problem but we have decided that we will make an effort to stock the hoop with sows that all belong to one group so that they blend more easily at turn-together.
Next year as well, we will try putting the hits into the hoop along both sidewalls rather than in a double row down the middle as we have done. Our thought is that the wall is colder and it would be good to have the common area in the center. It should help make hut removal easier and calm the sows at that time, as the space for them will look the same, but be bigger. One criticism we have had of our current arrangement is that having alleys around the outside of the hut row does not really provide enough room for the meeker sows to avoid the dominant one. We get too much “gate keeping” next to the feeder.
Sows work better in this system if they have been raised in it. We think there is some learning that goes on when the replacement gilts are little that cannon be duplicated with a purchased replacement perhaps raised in a create.
We have already incorporated this approach into our long term plans. We think it will allow us to compete in the hog business because it restrains capital spending while expanding on what is possible with a Minnesota pasture operation. It fits our attitude of spending much less and expecting more of the pigs because it lets the sow do what she ought to know how to do. The possible impacts of this approach, should any number of producers decide to give it a try, are nearly incalculable. It is better for the sows and pigs, it is more efficient in use of labor than the constant pig movement characteristic of confinement, and it is conservative of capital. I see no reason at all why this ought not be a major method of hog production in the future.
Richard Fisher and Steven Stassen helped us a great deal with outreach. Richard Fisher gave us access to the publicity available through the Minnesota Extension. Steve Stassen advertised our tours through his elevator newsletter. Stassen has also taken a few ideas home to try in his own hog operation and has secured a MDA grant to help with that. He also encouraged another pasture producer at Tyler, Minnesota to try the system.
We had only one visitor the first year. The second year we had 6 or 7 small groups come to take a look. Some of them came because they saw it in the state Pork Producers newsletter.
Both events were advertised in the state Sustainable Farming Association mailings which also go to the Northern Plains group in the Dakotas and the Practical Farmers of Iowa.
The project is part of the “Hogs Your Way” publication of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
We spoke about the hoop house farrowing as part of a presentation on our entire hog operation to:
– Two meetings organized by Dakota Rural Action in April of 1997
– An extension conference organized by Dr. Bill Lazarus at Minnesota in May of 1997
– The Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society in Milbank in July of 1997
And as part of the Hog Your Way presentation to the Value Added Conference in Montevideo in July as well as at the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Farmfest booth in August 1997.
We have reported on the results in our local newspapers via my column “Conversation with the Land” and in an article in the Stockman Grass Farmer in 1996.