Background: I work with my family on our 75 acre organic farm in rural Carroll County, Indiana. I am mostly interested in my hogs and Boer goats along with the mechanical and building projects that come along on our farm. Four years ago I bought a hog from Purdue University that couldn’t be returned to the herd after a vet school petting zoo. Charlotte is a Yorkshire/Chester White cross. She had 14 live piglets in her first litter on pasture and was an excellent forager. She dug out of her farrowing crate and made a nest taking great care of all 14 piglets.
Farmer’s market customers and our CSA members seem to enjoy our pork products. We have our butcher make a whole hog brat, English style bacon (from part of the picnic) and several other types of sausage that we sell out of quickly. My pork chops are also very juicy after grilling, our customers tell me. We also find that lard is still popular.
We sell pork by the piece, quarter, half and whole. I have been able to get $2.99/ pound for the larger quantities which are significantly above the selling price commercial hog growers are getting from confinement hogs. I sell my brats and sausage for $5.25 per pound. I believe my pork is cleaner and more healthful as we do not use low levels of antibiotics, hormones or fillers in the feed. I am feeding my hogs non-GMO corn in their feed ration.
I also help my brother with his cows and chickens and my mother with the sheep, lambs and vegetables. Our family is in the process of moving from one farm to another. We have had many cleanup projects that are mechanical and construction oriented the past two years. Last Christmas, Graham and I built an egg mobile with a wagon frame we bought at an auction for $20.00. We bartered construction knowhow with a friend and contractor who also grows for Farmer’s Market. Together with my parents, grandfather and Nate we drew up the plans, made the materials list, bought the supplies and built the egg mobile. These projects and my SARE experiment have kept me busy this past year.
I got interested in Jerusalem Artichokes when Greg Gunthorp gave me some tubers. He was going to plant them in his hog pastures and see if they were good forage. I know they have been used in Europe and that Purdue studied them a while ago as an alternative crop. I could find little American work on them in current literature.
I wanted to raise high quality heirloom pork for our CSA customers and our Farmer’s Market clients. Pastured hogs seem to grow slower than factory farmed and intensively fed hogs. I wanted to see if I could speed up their growth and get them to market faster while I created more pasture diversity in our pasture. This will help me earn more profit.
I had been exposed to Sunchokes at a past SARE grant winner’s farm. Greg Gunthorp first gave me some organic tubers several years ago when we picked up our butchered chickens and got to talking about ideas we each had for sustainable farm projects. He wanted to see if his pastured hogs would eat them and if they would grow. I don’t know what happened on his farm, but I wondered how they might work on ours for several years. I wanted to see if the starchy tubers would grow well in our area and become a part of the pasture permanently creating greater forage diversity.
My plan was to have two groups of nine week old weanling piglets in my experiment. I wanted one group to be in the Jerusalem Artichoke area and another group to not have access to the Sunchokes. I planned on both groups getting the same feed ration as their supplement. I moved a ton feeder to each area. I planned to weigh them at birth, at weaning and after pasture. I expected to castrate them at weaning and our practice is not to clip their needle teeth or dock their tails. We don’t like to add stress to their lives if we don’t have to. They farrow in large hog rooms each having 10 feet by 10 feet with outdoor access and deeply bedded straw. We give them a bit of dirt to nose through to get iron and do not give iron shots or vaccinate. I planned to expose them to our boar at the same time thinking I would have piglets at about the same time. The boar was a young boar in his first breeding cycle. This was to be the first litter for each sow. We moved them early in the spring to help lessen the stress before my project began.
I planned to plant my artichokes by hand in the spring after the risk of frost had passed. I rototilled an area in the back half of the 6 acre pasture. It was located on a sunny, east facing slope that was not shaded by trees. I intended to plant my tubers in rows. I fenced them off with cattle panels to let them grow for the first part of the summer. They take 90 days to completely mature. The starches are more digestible after a frost. These plants are native to my area. I had hoped that this area was similar to their native habitat. We were expecting to weigh my hogs again after their pasture time and then compare the results of the two groups.
I began with three bred sows: Lily, Violet and Dandelion. Charlotte was not part of my study because she isn’t a Berkshire. These three are Berkshire cross or Berkshire sows bred to a young Spotted boar. I expected them to farrow close together in the early spring, wean at 9 weeks, and to divide them into two groups one exposed to my Sunchokes and the other in my regular pasture. My sows farrowed June 21st, July 12th, and July 29th…much later than I had expected. They averaged 8.6 piglets each and were good mothers. I had 29 piglets in my project. My piglets did well and I did not have any die during this time. It seemed like they all nursed well and that they drank on their own from our water troughs after a few weeks. They received no supplemental heat or light, but were deeply bedded in straw in a dry area. Ventilation was very nice as the doors are large in the front and there is a window in each room at the rear. Birth weights ranged from 1 1/2 pounds to 3 and 3/4 pounds. Each mother had uneventful deliveries. The weather was cool and rainy all spring. My sows were not in mud, but did have water sprayed on them during the day to cool off their skin as the days grew hotter.
At weaning, I castrated, put rings in their noses and weighed them with my Amish friend Elmer. We put them out on pasture at this time in two groups. It soon became clear that they didn’t respect my fences internally and the sows were gathering their litters into groups…This began a very frustrating struggle with pigs and fences that lasted the whole summer long. We have woven wire fence around the outside of the pasture with a hot wire 6-8 inches from the ground. We changed the charger midsummer to see if upping the jolt would help my pigs stay in their groups….it did not! I was not able to keep them separate enough to compare the results of the two groups as I had planned at the end of my project time. Graham’s cows were also in the pasture and a small portion was for our chickens. There were two water holes for cooling and two water troughs for drinking. Minerals and Redmond Salt were fed free choice. The pasture was fairly neglected with a lot of fescue, a little clover and a few forbs. We had tested other fescue on the farm and it tested endophyte positive, but we do not know if this fescue was positive for entophytes in this pasture. We did not see any problems caused by these little critters during the summer. We weren’t unhappy that the hogs were digging up our pasture as it needed to be reseeded.
I planted 50 pounds of organic Sunchokes tubers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. They dug them especially for my project and I appreciated that. I had a little difficulty locating organic tubers at first. These were damp when they were shipped. At arrival they met with our wet, rainy spring so we did not actually get them into the field until May 30th, 2009. A few of the tubers were rotten, but we planted what we had. Fifty pounds of tubers does not go very far. I planted them 18 inches apart and 6 inches deep. My plot was 40 feet by 15 feet. My plot turned out to be much smaller than I expected. I like the fact that these tubers will multiply when eaten and cut up. I wanted to save myself the money of planting them year after year.
Weighing the pigs at the end of the year was accomplished by herding them on to a trailer at the end of November (I wasn’t able to load six animals..Three feeder pigs and three sows) and running them across a friend’s scale. They had grown a great deal. They ranged from 200 pounds to 90 pounds. I was not able to really evaluate the difference between groups as they hadn’t stayed in their fences consistently during the summer. I noticed a large variation between gilts and barrows. They were also weighed again the next month at Christmas and some were at 250 down to 130 pounds…I had hoped that they gain about 2 pounds per day on feed made with non-GMO corn. This feed does not contain antibiotics or low quality feed like fillers. Two of my feeder pigs died when they were shot by hunters’ bullets. Twenty-four hogs were fed out and weighed November 28 and December 27 and 6 stayed behind. (Please view the attached chart)
Many people helped me with my project. It was harder than I first expected. My mother has helped me stay focused during the year. She has helped me do research and think about what my goals are for the farm and my projects. She keeps asking questions. I met several interesting veterinarians that were especially helpful.
Dr. Paul Detloff, a staff vet with Organic Valley, has encouraged me a lot. He consults with my Mom for our farm, but we don’t need him that often. He is a biological vet and thinks outside the box. I also met a veterinarian at the ACRES conference that raises Berkshire hogs himself. Dr. William Winter spent informal time discussing his hog farm and also presented a slide talk about his ideas. He has traveled widely and can tell many funny stories about other farmers who pasture hogs. Several of them were at the presentations and shared a little bit about what they do. He taught me how to farrow in the winter in two feet of bedded straw without extra heat sources.
Elmer Flory, an Amish man, who grew up raising hogs in our area. He had lots of practical advice. He doesn’t like hogs and so his information was a little biased. He also doesn’t see any value in research and thought my project was a waste of good time. His opinion by the end of the summer seemed to have changed. Elmer is pretty plainly spoken and didn’t always tell me what I wanted to hear. He was used to keeping them in a more confinement setting. At the end of the summer he noticed my hogs had helped to soften some of the slopes in the pasture and had cleaned up some areas that needed to be leveled out.
Dr. Lois Campbell, a science teacher and friend of my mom’s, encouraged me and asked me questions weekly at Farmer’s Market. She has a sense of humor and helped me see the big picture when my fences didn’t work very well. She is familiar with the scientific method and yet was practical enough to realize some of these things I didn’t [succeed] on were partly out of my control. I didn’t feel so much like my project was a failure.
Several of my pork customers were Purdue professors. One of my British customers really loves my “Better than Bacon.” Dr. Antonia Syson and several other customers make may hard work worthwhile. She has shown interest in me and my project all market season. I asked her if I could mention her name because she has been so encouraging. She teaches in the English department at Purdue and is a CSA member, gourmet cook and like minded about the way we farm. Another customer, Dr. Carr, tipped me and my siblings $100.00. He wanted us to tell him about our projects and invest the money in the farm and tell us what we did. He talked to us a lot about customer service, hard work, attitude and professionalism. Other customers have also shown a lot of interest in us weekly and have interest in us as a family. We shared our SARE project sites and the content of what we were doing at a CSA picnic we have for our CSA customers. We hope to put our Power Point presentations and our written reports on our farm website.
I enjoyed reading Dirt Hog by Kelly Klober and got some ideas by attending his seminar in Missouri this fall at the 17th National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference.
(Please see my weight records and my liter records.)
I was not able to draw any valid experimental conclusions from my project. This was frustrating. The hogs did not stay divided into groups. There were many confounding variables in my project. I was not expecting so many. My fences were the biggest disappointment. I have some ideas for other types of fencing and Dr. Winter suggested I train my piglets while they are still not yet on pasture with one wire in their pens. He uses just one or two wires on pasture and they stay where they are to be. He believes the first shock has to be really strong to impress on the pig’s mind that isn’t something to cross.
I don’t think Jerusalem Artichokes are the best choice for pasture diversity in our area because they have a 90 day growth period. Their long maturity makes them not as useful for 90 days and therefore unable to affect my hogs’ rate of gain as I wanted them to. I need a forage crop that has a shorter growing season. I would like to try foraging peas or foraging radishes. Peas grow faster and their nutritional value is available before Sunchokes. Sunchokes need a frost to make their starches more digestible. Radishes grow well and could extend my pasture time in the fall. Radishes also help to break up soils where they are planted.
I should have used an experienced boar. I think the younger boar wasn’t as reliable for breeding and that caused my litters to be more spread out. The piglet age differences were less desirable for research. I wanted to limit the variables not increase them in my project.
I am interested in continuing my pastured hog business. I believe it is cleaner meat, better for the environment, a more natural habitat for the hog to grow up in, and my method of raising hogs doesn’t contribute to antibiotic resistance. The meat also tastes better. My mother is a board certified nurse practitioner and one of her passions is to help clients avoid antibiotic resistance. Many antibiotics are used in confinement hog operations and result in health problems for the workers, hogs and consumers. Our neighbor Dr. Thomas Anderson was very involved in this issue. He worked with Iowa State University to study blood samples from his patients who had MRSA. MRSA is methacillin resistant staph aureus and can be deadly. It is a growing concern for communities and our world. My mom also strongly supports pasture based farming because it makes the meat healthier and our environment cleaner. She believes we are what we eat and that food can affect our health. She doesn’t want her patients to eat processed food or meat raised in a confinement setting.
I have a brain lesion the size of a walnut in my left temporal lobe. It is called a subarachnoid cyst. I used to have many seizures. I was sent to Cleveland Clinic by Indiana’s children’s hospital for surgery when I was almost 2 years old. They decided I could not have surgery. I was on four seizure medications and my liver was having trouble handling them. I have had many blood draws, scans and hospitalizations. My ability to learn and remember was effected by the drugs. My parents decided to cut out the dyes, preservatives and unnatural things in our diets. I have not had any seizures for 8 years and now am off of ALL my medications. I do not know if the unhealthy foods made me have seizures, but I do not want to go back to the way things were. Healthy food is important.
We have hickory nuts, acorns, walnuts and butternut nuts available for hogs in our woods. I would like to pasture my hogs in our woods for part of the summer. Joel Salatin does this and has been successful. I have heard that hogs can also help create savannahs in woods. We have 25 acres of woods. This would help the woods become profit producing. I don’t have my father totally convinced yet.
I am trying to get better at marketing. A group of farmers is trying to market together. The alliance would help us to sell to places we might not otherwise have the pork volume to sell to. I am advertising in a newspaper, on our website and in a regular email my mother sends out to Friends of Thistle Byre Farm. We are trying to market to a health food store and two restaurants. Contacting these takes a lot of time and my parents are helping me with this part of my business. My dad think that it is best to offer samples of our pork when we are at market….smells sell, he says.
I have been looking for a Berkshire boar I can afford. I hope to build a simple pasture shelter with Elmer next summer for the woods. I think we can use recycled materials and build it frugally. I have several plans I am considering. I want to pasture my goats and hogs together. I have 7 Alpine does and a Boer buck. I expect to kid in February. I want to work towards two litters per year per sow. I would like to buy land and a used Polaris Ranger to help me do chores and check my animals.
I appreciate the chance SARE gave me to look into something I have wondered about. It was an honor for me to be chosen as a youth grant recipient in 2009. Thank you.