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By Brenda Frick and Bert Dening
“To fully understand how to raise pigs organically, we first need to understand how pigs behave in a natural environment” claims Bert Dening, Business Development Officer with Alberta Agriculture. Feeding, housing and raising pigs organically depend on matching breeds to the environment and to the market, and then matching management to the needs of the animals.
According to Bert, “small scale organic pig production based on low cost grass based systems will have the greatest chance of success”. He recommends using older breeds, feeding special local diets, and developing unique specialty meats. Using modern breeds and the same diets as the modern pig industry will result in commodity meat and poor prices.
Modern pig breeds were developed to maximize production in large scale confinement operations. These pig breeds are not as suited to being raised out of doors as older breeds. Some of the older breeds were bred for specific purposes, such as grazing apple orchards. A little research may be needed before selecting an ideal breed. Although the gene pool in Canada is small, Bert suggests using older breeds such as Berkshire, Large Black, Tamworth, Hampshire and Lacombe. Older breeds can be too fat for consumer preference. A solution is to use older breeds of sows, and lean modern breed boars (such as Yorkshire, Landrace or Duroc) to combine desirable traits.
Pigs, like us, and unlike cattle, have a single stomach and cannot digest cellulose well. Forages for pigs need to be leafy, with less stems and straw than a cow would enjoy. Older pigs can handle up to 70% leafy forages, but young pigs need more of the high quality grain and protein. Bert recommends rotational grazing on high quality pasture, supplemented with local grains and legumes. In winter, pasture can be replaced with young grass hay or silage. In pork production, “you are what you eat” seems to apply. The flavour of the meat depends on the diet of the animal. This can be the key to niche marketing.
Organic management depends more on prevention of health issues than on cure. According to Bert, “the key to healthy pigs is fresh air, good feed, and rotating the pigs through pastures so disease does not build up. Pasture rest and sunlight as a disinfectant is one of the best ways to control disease.” Of course, starting with healthy, parasite-free animals is also important. Reducing stress is also important to healthy animals. Letting pigs wean themselves, not crowding animals, providing lots of bedding, reasonable shelter, clean water and good nutrition, all help to keep a healthy herd.
Rotating pastures quickly reduces the damage that pigs cause to hay lnad with their rooting, keeps fresh forage available, and also reduces disease. Pigs respond well to electric fences. For young pigs, a wire at 6 inches, and for larger animals, a wire at 12 inches is adequate. Pigs tend to chew through or dig under other fence types.
In summer, pigs need a mud hole or sprinkler to keep cool. They can’t sweat, so this is good for more than piggy morale. In winter, some shelter is required. Tarp covered straw bale shelters with lots of fresh air and dry straw can be ideal.
Pigs can have more than two litters per year, of 8 to 12 piglets. A sow prefers to go off on her, build a nest and give birth away from the herd. She will need plenty of clean bedding, and in the winter, well insulated structures (or heat). The sow and piglets will return to the herd after a week or two.
Pigs can be very prolific. A single sow can produce 20 piglets per year. These can be ready for market at about 250 pounds in 7 months. This 5000 pounds liveweight of pig would make 2000-2500 lbs of meat per year depending on the amount of boneless cuts. Alternately, those 7 month old pigs can be bred, and produce their own litters before they are a year old. With such potential, a sound plan for butchering, processing and marketing is important.
The options for marketing are varied, but best prices are likely to
go to producers who develop specialty local products, that reflect specialty
breeds, specialty diets and specialty processing. Pigs can be a good
fit in an organic operation, but success will depend on avoiding the
commodity trap, and marketing into niche markets.
Bert Dening is a Business Development Officer with Alberta Agriculture.
For further information on organic hog production, please call him at
1-780-674-8247 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2012, Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC)