Profitably and Sustainably Converting Underutilized Forested Areas to Fertile Perennial Silvopasture Systems Using Swine

Progress report for FNE23-053

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2023: $11,533.00
Projected End Date: 11/15/2024
Grant Recipient: Skyline Pastures
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Charles Lafferty
Skyline Pastures
Expand All

Project Information

Project Objectives:

Our primary objective is to demonstrate a repeatable system where farmers can utilize wooded areas of their farms to raise pigs, improve the fertility of the wooded areas, increase the productivity of their farm, and add a profitable enterprise to their existing businesses. The secondary objective is to document which seed mixes and tree types do best in these paddocks to aid farmers in cultivar selection for their own properties. We will gather data through tree and plant surveys as well as soil tests to ensure farmers have the data necessary to tailor our results to their context.


Many farms have large wooded or brushy areas that are either too steep to be cropped or are intentionally set aside as windbreaks and dividers between fields. These areas are typically neglected and underutilized while still adding to the owners' property tax.  Additionally, farmers are seeing increasing levels of financial hardship due to inflationary costs of feed, fuel, fertilizer, and supply chain disruptions.  Using these wooded or brushy areas to create an additional income stream through pig propagation with minimal inputs will help farmers produce high-quality pork sustainably and profitably while improving the diversity of the fodder plantings on their farms. This project will empower farmers with additional income and market avenues while simultaneously improving the value and quality of their land.

We will develop a template for rotating pigs in one-third to one-half acre paddocks around a small animal control area.  This animal control area will serve as an area to initially train piglets to electric fence netting, as well as a collection point for the animals when they are ready to go to the processor.  Portable electric fencing will be used to establish the paddocks and will be moved once the pigs have sufficiently disturbed the area but before the disturbance has completely removed the vegetation.  The pigs will consume nutrition in the form of browse and through rooting activity while fertilizing the woodlot. Their rooting behavior will serve to create clearly defined paddock edges where fodder trees will be planted after the pigs have been rotated to a new paddock. Irrigation lines will be run to the saplings as needed to aid in healthy establishment, and tree tubes will be used to protect the trees from wildlife and pigs.  The disturbed soil of the paddock will be seeded with a mix of annual and perennial plants to cover the soil, conserve moisture, increase soil health using nitrogen fixers, and provide forage.  The paddock will then rest until the following year when pigs are re-introduced to it.  Soil samples and a plant and tree census will be conducted prior to the pigs entering a paddock, and then again after rotating the pigs to determine their effect on fertility and determine which plants they consume versus which plants they simply till into the soil or avoid. We hypothesize that using pigs in these areas will provide much needed income to farmers through the sale of the pork while improving the fertility and diversity of their farms. Additionally, this project presents an opportunity to create or increase employment in local farming communities by encouraging a variety of complimentary enterprises including non-GMO feed production, farrowing of heritage breed hogs, and custom processing.  As more farmers adopt sustainable silvopasture swine systems, local farmers and their markets will benefit.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • John Hopkins - Technical Advisor
  • Troy McClung - Producer (Educator)


Materials and methods:

To develop a baseline fertility level of our 2023 paddocks, soil samples will be collected from each paddock prior to the pigs’ arrival. These samples will be sent to the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences for analysis and summary reporting. Additionally a thorough plant and tree inventory will be conducted by a certified forester to determine species affected by grazing of pigs. Each year, our pig herd will consist of between 10 and 14 pigs and the paddock system will encompass over 5 acres, ensuring ethical and humane stocking density and ample forage for the animals. The paddock system will be established as a series of seven to eight wedges around an animal control area that will serve as the hub. When the pigs arrive, we will place them into the animal control area for approximately 8 days to allow them to learn to respect electric fencing. They will then be moved into the first paddock where they will browse on the existing underbrush, disturb the soil, and spread fertility in the form of their manure. The paddocks will be bordered with temporary net fencing and powered by solar chargers or battery power where appropriate. Once approximately 80% of the existing underbrush has been eliminated and the ground is thoroughly disturbed, the pigs will move to the next paddock in the progression. We will gather a soil sample and test compaction after the pigs have moved to the next paddock. Then we will overseed with a pasture mix appropriate for the time of year and level of shade. We will ensure this pasture mix is widely commercially available and has a known and repeatable composition.  

Additionally, along the borders of the previous paddock we will plant fodder and nut trees and run irrigation to them via drip hoses where appropriate. The species of trees planted will vary and likely include hybrid poplar, hybrid willow, white mulberry, northern red oak, hybrid chestnut, serviceberry, hazelnut, American persimmon, and various locusts. As the pigs go about their normal rooting behavior, they will cause a small, raised berm along the temporary fence line. This berm will serve as the planting zone for the trees and tree tubes will be used to protect the plantings from wildlife while the electric fencing will protect them from the livestock. The tree plantings serve as a sustainable method of environmental stewardship and a value-add both ecologically and economically for the farmer. Soil samples pre- and post-rotation will be collected to determine the change in organic matter, mineral content, and fertility, or in other words, to determine the effect the pigs and pasture management had on the composition of the soil. This collection will occur four times throughout the project. Plant surveys will be conducted in the same fashion, and comparisons to previous data will show the pigs’ effect on species diversity within the grazing area. This data will be published along with all applicable cost data, to include labor, so that farmers interested in replicating the project will have an idea of its cost in time and money as well as its potential profitability. The anticipated increased profitability will result in community reinvestment, more resilient farmers, and stronger local economies. This process will be thoroughly documented and published via the SARE Project Reports, our Key Cooperator’s YouTube channel and Podcast, our farm website, and through two on-farm demonstrations to ensure widest dissemination. Our technical advisor will be present at the on-farm demonstrations to offer consultation and input to attendees. Through this project we will reach not only local farmers looking to improve their landscape while adding a profitable enterprise, but also a much broader audience through our extensive outreach avenues.


Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
3 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

15 Farmers participated
2 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Farm Walk TrifoldI have uploaded my farmwalk silvopasture tour trifold to the main report. We have had quite a bit of visibility for our farm and NE SARE through our project outreach. We have had 3 articles published in the Reading Eagle, one interview that was publicized nationally and included the PA Secretary of Agriculture and a congressman, and multiple small farmers have toured the growing silvopasture and have started to replicate our methods on their farms. It is important to note that the NE SARE project was not the main focus of the TV interview but it was mentioned. That interview was associated with another project focused on distributing water on my farm, which does include one frost free hydrant in the silvopasture system.

Learning Outcomes

16 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

We know of 16 farmers (myself included) that have received usable data from our technical advisor while touring the silv0pasture and have either begun raising pigs on their farms (this is just a few) or have started business planning to incorporate our methods on their farms.

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$5,000.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
15 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

This project, although only half way done, has produced strong data and physical effects on our sub-standard woodlot that rotating swine through the area is a net benefit to the process and is quickly moving the woods into land that can eventually support ruminants. The transition of the wood lot has been thoroughly documented on our YouTube channel. Due to the size of the videos have not attached them to this report but I will include links to all of them in my final report.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

We have seen some surprising year one soil test results that indicate the pig rotation has caused an excess of magnesium in one of the paddocks.  We are not going to alter any of our practices in year 2 so that we can see if this is a trend or just a seasonal difference in soil testing. We do not have sufficient data to justify an alteration to the plan.

Information Products

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.