By Jake O. Francis, Farmer, Pork Chop Hill
When I came to Georgia nearly three years ago, I didn’t know a thing about farming. Specifically, I didn’t know a thing about raising pigs. I came to farming via the kitchen, as a line cook and chef in farm-to-table restaurants in New York City. I wanted to connect further with my food and its source, and that desire led me South of the Mason-Dixon for the first time in my life. What I found was a burgeoning community of like-minded folks and kindred spirits, all trying to forge a different path. I have traveled far and wide in the Southeast (as well as the Hudson Valley and the mid-West), visiting an array of small-scale pork producers. From these farmers, and from my mentors in my home-base of Athens, I have gone from having vague ideas on what pig farming was to having the knowledge and capability to run a pig operation.
The following is broken up into different sections, each based on a certain aspect of pig farming. For many farmers, these anecdotes and pieces of advice will seem obvious or unnecessary to point out. This article is not intended for more experienced hands, but rather the folks looking to round out their existing operation with a few pigs – or someone who is looking to delve into pig farming for the first time.
These are things that I have learned.
Breeding v. Growing
The first pig farm that I worked on had two iterations; in both, they were breeding and growing operations. I decided early on that I was going to keep my own nascent operation strictly a growing one. Seventy-five percent of the problems we had on the first farm I worked with had to do with breeding. We lost sows after birth, had one sow get mastitis, had unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, had larger boars injure smaller sows, had unruly and randy boars not obeying fence lines, etcetera. These are all problems that a farmer starting out wants to avoid. Bottle-feeding a litter of piglets every four hours for four weeks isn’t easy for those folks with five boars and sixty sows, and less so for those just starting out. On the other hand, a strictly growing operation is easier to manage. You can buy piglets from a reputable farm at eight weeks (barrows already cut), let them grow out, and then send them on their way. Your herd of pigs can progress through your paddock or pasture system at roughly the same time and on roughly the same feed ration, and you can cull those that you need as you need them.
If you do decide to have a boar and some sows, there are a few things to keep in mind. Never let your sows associate you with a squealing pig. They don’t forget, and will become too aggressive around you. You will end up needing to cull a good sow due to no fault of their own other than being a protective mother.
There are a variety of ways to castrate piglets. It is best to visit an array of farms and farmers to see a few different methods. Avoid castration with piglets over four weeks – it is more traumatizing, for both you and the piglet. Make sure that the castrating is done well away from the sows, for reasons mentioned above.
Feeding & Watering
Feeding and watering should never be an “event”. With the exception of the boars and sows (who are on strict rations) pigs should be given free choice when it comes to feeding and drinking. For feeding this is most commonly achieved with a satellite feeder. (I call it a satellite feeder because it looks like a Cold War-era satellite. A simple Google search of ‘outdoor hog feeder’ will yield results.) The feeder allows hogs to eat when they are hungry, whenever they are hungry, and without any stress. A daily feeding time leads to a melee amongst the pigs, as they all jostle and fight for feed. It can also be dangerous for the farmer. Before we switched to the satellite feeder, I was knocked down and trampled more than once amid the scramble for feed. Your pigs will end up eating more, but they will also fatten up quicker. The key is knowing when your pigs have reached the point of diminishing returns – and taking them to slaughter just before or after that point.
Cool, clean water is the most important part of a pig’s diet, especially in the South. Pigs can’t sweat, so they rely on a good wallow and plenty of water to cool themselves during long, hot summers. Anyone that has seen a water trough in a pig paddock in the summer has also seen one enterprising piglet submerged in that trough. Troughs work, as long as they are shaded and are checked, cleaned, and refilled once or twice a day. Field waterers can also be used, and they are constructed so that water is dispensed in a small tray, making for a more efficient and clean system than a trough. The most effective method is to use nipple or gerbil waterers, which are exactly what they sound like. The pigs bite down on the nipple, and they get water. This method is the most expensive, but also the easiest to manage on a day-to-day basis. The water coming into the nipple needs to be cool, not from a hose that has been baking in the sun all afternoon. Make sure that the nipples are placed above a concrete surface and any runoff runs away from the pigs, preferably behind a hot fence. Otherwise the pigs will make a giant wallow underneath the nipples in short time. Whichever method you choose, making sure that the pigs have constant source of clean water is paramount.
There is a certain romanticism associated with land ownership that is hard to suppress. Every aspiring (and existing) farmer would love to own their own land; to find that acreage that they can work for decades to come, and to pass that land on to the next generation. It is an enticing ideal, but one that can be counter-productive to the beginning farmer (If you happen to be a highly-capitalized farmer, skip this section). The logistical reality of land ownership isn’t insurmountable – there are simply more creative ways to connect to a piece of land whilst avoiding a costly mortgage. Keep in mind that most farming operations won’t start producing real profits until at least a year into full-scale operations. There is plenty of existing farmland that hasn’t seen a farmer in years. Often times this land has been owned by a family for generations, and they are eager to put the land back to use. I know of many successful (albeit small) operations that exist on land not owned by the farmers themselves. I have often said that farming these days, in a small-scale, holistic manner, needs some sort of subsidy to survive (or even begin). Finding land owners that wish to have someone work their land is one manner in which a beginning farmer may find such a subsidy. There are, of course, many obvious pitfalls to such an agreement. Clearly written contracts and agreements are necessary, as is having a clear understanding of what the landowner’s vision is for the future, and making sure those goals mesh with your own. Developing a close relationship with the landowner is a must.
Networking & Resources
As in most professions, networking is vital. I realize the cliché of this statement. It has been very constructive and instructive to be a part of a variety of conferences, workshops, and meetings. Traveling to other farms to visit and work has also taught me a lot. Seeing how someone else approaches a problem and finds a solution can be much more illuminating than finding a solution on your own. Farming is a relatively isolated profession, and seeking out other farmers is both socially and professionally rewarding.
There are many resources available for farmers of all stripes. Georgia Organics puts on a variety of workshops and seminars on a weekly basis. Many of these workshops detail the business and marketing side of small-scale farming. And if you do not know who Jonathan Tescher is, you should. He is the Farm Services Coordinator for GO, and his full-time job is helping farmers figure things out. The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a government-funded organization that has helped many a farmer with land or farm-improvement grants. Georgia County Extension offices provide a variety of agricultural resources, training, and certifications. These are just a few that I have come in contact with.
This is but a short list, and is obviously not a comprehensive one. I could go on at length all day about any of these topics, and a variety of others.
It is important to note the above anecdotes are specific to my experiences. I hope that you might take something from them as you create and find your own.
Meat Quality, Cut & Yields, Clay Talton, University of Georgia
I have had many collaborators, mentors, and teachers that have had assisted me along the way in becoming a pig farmer. They are all the co-authors of this document. In no particular order: Jason Mann, Moonshine Meats; Benji Anderson, Anderson Farms; Andrew Thompson & Co., Thompson Farms; MAE Farms; Will & Jenni Harris, White Oak Pastures; Josh Egenolf, WE Farm; and Olivia Sargeant, Farm 255. Dirt Hog, by Kelly Klober, has been an indispensable resource. I have also benefitted greatly from my participation in the annual conferences put on by The Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture and Georgia Organics.