Diversifying a Small Crop Farm with Hogs, Poultry, Apples and Plums

Final Report for FNC97-190

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1997: $1,536.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1998
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


We run 640 acres, 240 acres of which we own. On our 240 acres, in 1998 we raised 68 acres conventional corn, 33 acres conventional soybeans, 38 acres chemical free soybeans, 36 acres wheat, 36 acres canning peas, 4 acres of pasture, and a quarter acres market garden. Next year we hope to be certified organic on the market garden and on 36 acres, which will be oats. On the rented acres, we raise conventional corn, soybeans, and sweet corn.

In 1998 we direct marketed 150 broilers, 14 turkeys, and 18 hogs. We also sell some eggs from our seven free range laying hens. During the late spring, summer and early fall, all livestock is raised outdoors with protection from the weather. During the other parts of the year, livestock is raised in buildings with access to the outdoors (cement patios, dirt lot).

We have had our organic market garden for three years. We sell at the Farmers Market in St. James, make weekly home deliveries to customers, and sell off the farm. This is our third year with chemical free soybeans (HP204s), for which we received $4 per bushel over the market price of soybeans. We have also been planning tree lines around our grove and along a field road every few year for about 11 years. We are trying to get away from moldboard plowing, and have been using ripping instead. We are experimenting with winter cover crops. We direct market about 40 broilers last year, and a few eggs, as well as three hogs from a 4-H project.

We want to diversify our farm, thereby reducing the financial and environmental risks of specialized crop farming. Due to increasing concerns with erosion and the large amounts of chemical inputs and fuel of conventional farming, we hope to show that the use of livestock, pasture, and permanent type crops will reduce the use of these costly inputs, yet keep those acres profitable. Also, we hope to show how to get into hog production the low cost way, as opposed to the recent trend of large confinement buildings and their debt load. We hope to show how chickens and hogs can benefit from each other in the pasture, and if the livestock is beneficial to the fruit trees (eating bugs, fallen fruit, etc.). we hope to raise awareness in our area of the positive benefits to the soil, water, and consumer’s and livestock health using more natural methods of farming.

Dean planted four acres with a pasture mix in August following wheat harvest. The pasture mix of alfalfa, red clover, alsike clover, and tall fescue was selected because it would be palatable to the hogs. It would also make good hay. It had a slow start due to lack of rain, but it came beautifully the next spring.

We purchased some used wood and steel posts as auctions and from an ad in a local paper, and after harvest started putting them in around the perimeter of the pasture. We got almost all the way around the pasture with the weed posts before the snow came. We easily got the rest in during spring of 1998.

We originally thought we would use woven wire as the perimeter fence, and we located some used rolls in the area. After some discussion though, we changed our minds and decided to have a 5 wire electric fence professionally installed. The main reason we went for this electric fence was because we like to go camping and on vacation, and we would feel more relaxed knowing the hogs were in a good fence. We were able to use some of the woven wire behind the old hog house at the other place (where we later farrowed) and we plan on making another yard next to another old barn in 1999 for gestating hogs. Another reason we went for the 5 wire high tensile fence was it would enable us to use the pasture for other species some day if we desired (calves, turkeys, horse). However, it did make the pasture more permanent.

We decided to try and find some used individual port a huts to put out on the pasture, and put an ad in the local paper. We found one large hut and ten individual huts in good shape, and we used these instead of a hay wagon. They were much more pig proof than a rubber tired hay wagon. Again, we could use them for other species and/or machinery storage.

We also, through word of mouth, found a used feeder from a neighbor. We brought that home and cleaned it up. It saved a lot of money and works just as well as a new one.

During the winter, our son Ryan helped build the two chicken tractors (portable pens). We combined the Joel Salatin model and the Andy Lee model to come up with a 4 foot by 10 foot movable pen. We used all new materials except for the roof. There we used extra siding we had stored. We also used some green shade cloth for the part of the top without a roof, to protect the chickens from the sun without having to crowd under the tine. We had the extra shade cloth from the market garden.

We also studied up on apple varieties and plums, and after talking with the SCS office and a local nursery, we picked the varieties. We went with the American Plum because it is a native plant, hardy, disease resistant, and easy to care for. The apple varieties were chosen for their hardiness, disease resistance, harvesting time, and eating qualities. The apple varieties we picked were: Red Baron, Sweet 16, Harel Red, Fireside, and Honeycrisp.

After we had the port-a-huts, we decided to change our plan a little and farrow the feeder pigs for the pasture ourselves. We cleaned out the old hog barn at the other place and located a boar in January. We purchased 10 gilts from a neighbor in February, and started breeding in late February.

In early spring, we planted the plums with the help of the SCS office, and the kids and Nancy planted the apple trees. Dean and Nancy started putting up an outside fence around the platform and in the grass behind the old hog barn. We put the “hot tape” around the inside of the woven wire to train the hogs to the electric fence. They learned quickly once they got out there in April. Four of the ten gilts farrowed in June. We also had our 5 wire electric fence installed around the pasture during June.

We moved the gilts, sows, and piglets out to the pasture in early July. That was fun! They really enjoyed the pasture forage and running up and down the hill after their mothers. It was quite enjoyable watching them in the evenings, and we usually brought them rejects from the garden (tomatoes are a favorite!). We hoped that the gilts that had not farrowed would, out in the pasture, but apparently there was a problem, and the piglets were absorbed back into the mothers. That really brought down our piglets herd for direct marketing, but we did end up with 19 (some got laid on in the huts, and gilt only had 3 piglets) butcher hogs. Some of the little pigs got through the hot tape, but quickly ran back to their mothers. Of course, as they got bigger, they got shocked and learned to stay in the fence. The pasture stayed in pretty good shape – the only parts that got down to bare dirt were around the water tank, feeder, and inside the huts, which we expected and planned for. We will try frost seeding them next spring, and the pigs will be off of that part of the pasture next year anyway for parasite cycle disruption. The spots should have a chance to come back. We moved the hot tape towards the middle of the pasture to give them fresh forage as they ate the other down, but we never did work out a rotational pattern since our feeder and water tank were more or less permanent. Also, we did not want any more dirt holes made in the pasture than necessary. Next year, 1999, we will start on the opposite end of the pasture and work east. We tired planting the apple trees where we can protect them from the hogs by the hot tapes.

In June, we moved the first of three flocks of broilers from the brooder house out to the tractors. It is easiest to do it early in the day before it gets too hot, and they get a chance to get acquainted with their new surroundings before dark. We experimented with the tractors on just grass first, before the fence was up. The second and third flocks were put on the pasture. It was easy to see that the birds preferred the alfalfa over the other forage. We kept the chickens on the part of the pasture where the pigs weren’t, since the pigs would have probably tipped the tractors over with their snouts. In 1999, the pigs will be where the chickens were last year, and the chickens will be where the pigs were last year. We noticed that when we moved the pens daily, the spot under the tractor looked matted down and terrible. But after a few weeks and some rain, it came back lusher than ever.

In mid-September we moved the sows, gilts, and feeder pigs back to the old hog house. The nights were getting very cold. They all developed a cough, and the vet suggested we put them on tetracycline. We did that, and they all cleared up. We sold the big gilts and sows at regular market. We raised the 19 feeder pigs to market weight, and will butcher them mid-December. We have just about al of them spoken for, through word of mouth advertising and some ads placed in local papers. We charge 50 cents per pound, hanging weight, which is a lot more than what we got paid for the sows and the gilts on the conventional market (18 cents per pound). Some people responded to the ad and balked at the price when the market hogs were so cheap, but we stuck to our price since we know our pork is not the same as the pork in grocery stores, and there are people looking for good, clean pork. You just have to find them, keep looking.

All of the chickens were direct marketed through word of mouth. We sold it for $1.25 per pound, frozen. People are looking for good tasting chicken, and we plan on doubling our flock next year.
The apples and plums did very well during the growing season. We had ample rain, and we only had to water the apple trees a couple of times (right after planting and in September during a dry spell). We have the tree wraps on the apples, and they are mulched with wood chips to keep the moisture in.

- Gary Wyatt, Watonwan County Extension Educator, helped us by referring us to a grazing group near by.
- Rognlie Nursery helped us decide which apple trees to plant
- Brown County SCS office helped us with ordering the plums and with the planting
- Harold Rossbach helped us pick out the pasture mix
- Beverly Olson, writer for the local paper, gave us a lot of publicity on our project (three articles all together). She is very interested in environmental issues.
- CARGO, a local grazing group, provided pop for the field day, and a couple of them attended the field day.
- South Central Minnesota Sustainable Agriculture group, of which we are new members, offered to provide lunch for the field day (however, we managed to have more than enough and did not ask for reimbursement). One couple from the group attended our field day and ultimately bought a half hog and a turkey from us.
- Greg Gunthorp, via the internet, gave us helpful suggestions, especially when we were having water (mud) problems with the hogs and moving them. He is the fourth generation to be raising hogs on pasture and is very knowledgeable and encouraging. He helped us by letting us know that confinement pigs don’t do too well on pasture at first (that may be our poor weaning rate), and that to remember the learning curve. Confinement people have everything spelled out for them, what and how much to feed the hogs, what to set the ventilation at, etc. We are learning everything from scratch.
- Dr. Steve Anderson, our vet, helped us by coming and teaching us how to ring pigs, give shots, castrate piglets, and how to handle pigs in general. Just by watching him we learned what to do.

The pasture stayed in good condition, even when the humane rings came out of some of the sow’s snouts. The hogs seemed happy and thrived on the pasture. They enjoyed munching on the forage as well as eating out of the feeder. They remained healthy, except for during the weather change. The chickens also seemed to really go after the alfalfa when we first moved their pens each day. They grew well, too, and did no damage at all to the pasture. There was next to no odor in the pasture from either the hogs or the chickens. Nancy became a daily participant in the livestock chores, and the children learned (along with their parents) that if you treat animals with kindness, they are easy to manage. We also learned al lot about hog behavior. We made a profit of $55.50 from the hay, $272.10 from the chickens, and we lost $1094.11 on the hogs. The grant reimbursement will help make up for the bad breeding rate of the hogs, the poor weaning rate of the sows, and the rainy weather during the first cutting of the hay. We also had to drop our hog price from 65 cents down to 50 cents due to the 30 year record low hog prices, since many people could get pork cheaper through confinement systems (20 cents per pound). When we were planning this project, we were not expecting such a big difference between our price and the conventional price. It was disheartening to find people would pay so little even though it would mean a loss to the farmer.

We expected to have more butcher pigs to direct market than we had. We also expected a better hay income. Our first, and biggest crop, was rained on numerous times, and we finally had to give it away for bedding for feeder cattle. The second and third cuttings were satisfactory, however, we sold some and we even saved some fro our hogs for the winter. The chicken tractors worked well, chores were minimal. We really enjoyed the manure management (none!). We found we like raising hogs, and were glad to learn more about farrowing, castrating, etc. We enjoy the animals (I didn’t think I would like them this much!). Another result that I expected was increased awareness in the area about sustainable Ag, and I was surprised to have such an ally at the newspaper. Also, since people know what we are doing, they are more open to expressing their opinions about the livestock issue, confinement barns, organic methods, etc.

We did overcome our barrier of the notion of the only way to raise hogs is through the conventional market, in large numbers, with contracting. We have raised hogs by marketing our pork directly to consumers. If more things would have gone right for us, we would have made some good money at it, too. We have done it with little or no odor. The pasture system is a fun way to do it. And we tried to use what we already had, or find it used, or do it the low cost way. We did not have to borrow any money to pay for this project.

The only things we might do differently next time would be to make the chicken tractors one foot shorter so that Nancy could move them by herself early in the day when other family members are out doing other chores. We maybe should have stuck to the original plant, too, with the 50 feeder pigs only, and learned more about hog behavior and how to handle them on pasture. We had too many different groups of pigs to keep track of and not enough experience for it all. It caused a lot of frustration. But we learned a lot and will be even more prepared for next year!

What did we learn from this grant? We learned way more than what we started out to about hogs. We learned about haying, and timing. We learned that chicken customers prefer 3 to 4 pound broilers, not the 5 to 6 pound ones we raised previously. We learned about electric fencing. We learned that the more you look, the more you find people who support sustainable Ag. We also learned that there are people who are only interested in the price of their food, not how it is raised, and that in order for this type of marketing to succeed, we will need to get consumers informed on this issue. We learned you can’t put confinement-raised pigs out on pasture and expect perfect results, if may take up to four generations to get the pigs accustomed to pasture living, and some breeds are hardier than others.

The grant affected our farm by creating daily chores for us (we need to find someone to do them when we are gone for the weekend or on vacation). We now have a beautiful green pasture behind our grove. It encouraged us to fix up some old farm buildings that were not being used and put them to good use again.

Some advantages of this project were fixing up the old buildings, learning more about hogs and their natural behaviors and trying to accommodate them, and not going into debt to start out. We didn’t need a lot of fancy equipment, and what we bought we can use for other species some day if we want to. The disadvantages of this project are having to find reliable help to do chores for us when we’re away, and not knowing much about hogs before we started raising them, especially how to handle them on pasture (loading, vaccinations, etc.).

We would recommend that other producers try this. Start our small. You won’t have many customers to start with. You have to learn what to say about your product to get the point across about how healthy it is for the environment and consumer. If you purchase used equipment, wash it out well before using it. Try to find someone who knows a little about what you are trying to do so when you have a problem you can ask them. Besides the know how of raising the livestock and produce, you have to have a market to sell it to, and an idea of how to sell it. We didn’t need a lot of money to do this, and we had some fun learning about pigs. The stuff we didn’t have fun learning about we’ll just call “education”.

Economic Impacts:
If more people would raise and sell their things directly to people in their area, they could get a little better price than market price, and the customer would be paying less and getting a better product. If a group of organized farmers raising different things got together with a group of customers, things could really take off! The hogs and chickens on tractor will make a lot more money per acres than conventional soybeans or corn!

Environmental Impacts:
We have noticed on our farm are an increase in the number of pheasants, rabbits, frogs, and even a cardinal due to the permanent pasture. If everyone did this, we wouldn’t have such odor problems that we have around here from large confinement systems. We don’t have to worry about out manure getting into drainage ditches due to the pasture and the fact that we compost the straw/manure bedding before spreading it. We won’t have to use unnatural fertilizers on the pasture, and we can use the composted manure on our fields and market garden, reducing some fertilizer costs.

Social Impacts:
Customers would know where their food came from, who grew it, and how it was grown. The newspaper articles helped educate people on what sustainable ag is. We are getting acquainted with others close by who graze, and we can encourage each other (instead of feeling like you are “backwards” or weird). We’ve had a few parties ask for a couple of feeder pigs to raise for themselves. They know our pigs are hardy and can survive the outdoors. But most of all, people we run into around town occasionally tell us how horrified they are when they learn how livestock is treated in confinement system. They know our position on the issue and aren’t afraid to talk about it.
The first person we talked to about our project was Gary Wyatt, Extension Educator for Watonwan County. We also tried to coordinate his schedule with our field day, but it didn’t work for him to come. Gary, in turn, gave Beverly Olson of the St. James Plaindealer our name as someone who was working with sustainable agriculture. Beverly was doing an article on sustainable ag, and we were part of her article. That informed a lot of people in our area of our project and upcoming field day. I notified Beverly of our field day, and she intended to come and cover it, but was unable to that day. She did put a nice picture and short article in the paper a couple of weeks before the day. She came a couple of days later and took some more pictures and interviewed Nancy. She also met Ken Schneider when he was visiting our place.

To get the word out on our field day, we notified the members of our CARGO grazing group, the members of the South Central Minnesota Sustainable Ag group, and the St. James High School ag instructor via a poster mailed a couple of weeks in advance. I put a poster up at our neighborhood Godahl Store, gave posters to all of our garden delivery customers, and sent some to interested friends and relatives (especially those involved in the feedlot issue). I emailed notices to Wayne Monsen at the Minnesota Department of Ag, Jack Sperbeck at University of Minnesota Extension service, and Julie Tranquilla of the Alternative Swine Systems Management. They in turn put the notice in their newsletters that go out throughout the state. I also sent a poster to the AgriNews newspaper in Rochester, and the New Ulm Jounral. Nobody from these last two papers came or called.

We had 19 people attend our field day. Some were neighbors, some friends, some members of clubs we belong to, and even some from the LaSalle Farmers Elevator. Some comments heard that day were, “It was well worth the trip,” “It’s like the 23rd Psalm,” “Neat,” “Ambitious,” and “This is what we did in the 70’s”. People forgot about this and think they have to keep up with the neighbors. At a community event a couple of weeks later, a couple of pastors told us they thought it was nice what we were doing and how we are being so public about it.

After the event, Beverly ran her third story on us. I tried contacting the St. James High School Ag instructor, but he never returned my call or came to the field day. I was hoping he would bring his class out for a special tour, as he said he was interested in doing that when I contacted him before the grant project. I hope to get into closer contact with him when our oldest son takes an ag class from him. Our daughter, Terry, made a poster about pigs on pasture for 4-H at the fair. We are planning a tour for our 4-H club next May, as many couldn’t come and wanted to. Some friends who work during the week are wondering if we will have another one next year. If we do, I would like to have it on a Saturday for those who can’t get off work.

I am still working on getting our project on the internet, as of this writing. I have many pictures of the pasture, the hogs, and the chicken tractors. Unfortunately, there seems to be a glitch in getting the page from my computer onto the servers. We have had a professional computer person out who can’t get it up and running either, so now we are working with the server company to see where the problem is. We’ve been working on this for a couple of months now, and when the page is up, the address will be: http://homepage.rconnect.com/aspelund


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.