[Note: I no longer feed organic grain.]
To date, I have been raising heritage breed feeder pigs. A feeder pig is a young pig (usually 6-12 weeks old) that is purchased to raise (feed) to slaughter weight. Heritage breed pigs are older breeds that were abandoned by commercial farmers as more modern breeds were developed. There are two reasons that I prefer heritage breeds. First, the meat tastes better because it has not had the fatty marbling bred out of it. Second, I think it is important to preserve genetic diversity. The commodity pig market is based on the genetics from just a couple of breeds, and I think so drastically reducing genetic diversity is a recipe for disaster.
After arriving at the farm, I immediately place the feeder pigs on pasture, season permitting. To me, pasture is a good stand of actively growing (or stockpiled for grazing after the growing season ends) green grass, legumes, and/or weeds. I rotate the pigs off of one section of pasture to another section of pasture when they have grazed down most of the green stuff, or if they have started rooting up the pasture too badly. The purpose of pasture is three-fold, it permits the expression of the pigs’ instinct to root and forage, it provides essential nutrition, and wandering around it gives the pigs exercise.
The material essentials for pigs on pasture are food, water, shelter, and a wallow to cool off in, all of which I provide. The non-material essentials are a low-stress environment and calm conscientious handling and/or herding, both on the farm and at the slaughterhouse.
I feed the pigs a commercial grain mash produced at a local mill (with mostly imported grains), cull vegetables from a local vegetable farm (when available), and farm-grown forage, which is grown with no synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. I do not use hormones (saying this is superfluous as hormones are not allowed for use in pigs or poultry). I do not use antibiotics unless required by the presence of an infection that cannot be resolved by non-synthetic chemical means.
Currently, I either hand feed the pigs three times a day, using pig feed troughs, or the pigs are self-fed from a range feeder. According to Morrison in Feeds and Feeding, self-fed pigs consume slightly fewer pounds of grain per hundred pounds of gain, so the self-feeders pay for themselves over time, even not taking into consideration any labor savings.
I haul water to the pig pastures in 275-gallon totes, and they are watered out of the totes via pig nipples piped into the totes. The system is gravity fed.
For shelter I either use Port-a-Huts, which is an all-steel hoop-style shelter with an open front and a hinged window in the back for ventilation, or homemade wooden shelters. The shelters provide shade and protection from the rain, wind, cold, etc. The shelters are built on skids, so as I rotate the pigs from pasture section to pasture section, I use the tractor to drag the shelters along.
Pigs do not sweat and they cannot shed heat adequately by panting like dogs do, so they need to have a way to cool off when it is above seventy degrees. In nature, they use wallows, either streams, naturally occurring pools of water, or they dig deep holes until they hit the water table. If no water is available, they spend the hot hours of the day lounging in the shade of woods/forest. On a farm, wallows and/or woods must be provided. I dig a wallow for the pigs with the bucket on the tractor and then fill it and keep it filled with water. For a wallow to do its job, there must be liquid water in it, not just mud.
Environment and Handling
The pigs have plenty of space and everything they need or want right in front of them, so their environment is low-stress. To make handling easier, I spend time walking amongst the pigs, petting and talking to them. When I need to move the pigs, I do my best to set it up so they will want to go where I want them to go, or if I need to drive them, I try to do so without making them too anxious. I work them slowly and deliberately. For the most part, pigs (like other animals) happily move to where the best grass or food is, so I just take advantage of this natural tendency.
My preferred method for loading pigs on a trailer is to entice them with grain. However, if there is a loading chute set up, I do not mind driving them through it and onto the trailer as long as the driving is done slowly and the pigs are given a chance to get over whatever has them frightened when they balk. Given that chance, a gentle nudge with a knee is usually enough to get them moving again. If all hell breaks loose, I try to get things squared away as quickly as possible. If things completely break down, I walk away and to calm down and catch my breath, and then try again in a few minutes.
If the pigs I raise are treated poorly at the slaughterhouse, then I have failed in my effort to raise pigs according to the highest welfare standards. The people at the slaughterhouse need to handle the pigs in a low-stress manner, both from the trailer to the holding pen and from the trailer to the kill floor. This year I am working with a new slaughterhouse and I am hopeful that their handling will meet my standards.