Raising Pigs: A first timer’s experiences

This year we decided to expand the farm to include some hogs. For the past few years we had been purchasing half a hog from a friend and neighbour and the results are amazing. The taste and quality of the meat is unlike anything you get in the grocery store – and best of all, we knew how it was raised, where it was raised and how it was treated.

Since we got all the fencing for the cows sorted out last year, we decided this year it was time to expand and try our hand a raising a few hogs.

Our first step was to find some weaner pigs that were going to be ready for their new home in the coming weeks. I managed to find a small farm not too far away that had a few litters almost ready to go. We didn’t want to go crazy and buy them all until we had gone through the process and raised a couple first. You know, make sure we like pigs, that they were manageable with our schedules and so on.

Initially we were going to get 2 or 3 – give it a try and see what we wanted to do for next year. Well, somehow 2 or 3 turned into 5 (I decided it was a nice round number to start with). Turns out that was a good idea since they were all sold before they even got to the farm.

The next step was a place for the pigs to live. We had a few weeks to pull this together but wanted to take our time and do this a bit differently. Sure, we could have gone out and bought 16′ hog panels and been done in a few hours. But at $50 a pop and for the size we were looking to build, there had to be a better (read cheaper) way. And there was. Pallets.

Pallets are plentiful and for the most part, free. I have a friend with a warehouse that would give me as many as I could take. And a few local sources near the farm that were happy to get rid of their extras as well. In the end our pig pen was roughly 1000 square feet – 100 feet x 100 feet. All built from free pallets and a pail of deck screws.

The pen was pretty easy to make, but did take us a while. Basically we screwed each pallet into the next with decking screws and put a metal T-post down the inside of every 3rd or 4th pallet to add additional support to our fortress. If you try this – do not forget to leave one section out to be hinged as your gate later.

To make sure the pigs learned their boundaries, we also put a line of electric fence about 5″ off the ground all the way along the edge – except the gate. Rumour has it if you electrify in front of the gate, the pigs won’t want to cross that line when its time to load up for summer camp.

hog pen from pallets

Throw in a structure for shade and protection from the elements made of a few fence posts, some 2×3 and old election signs and your pigs have it made in the shade…literally. We ended up putting sides on it too after the first warm sunny day.

pig shelter

The pen was done, then it was time to figure out feeding and watering. Again, I am cheap (nicer people say frugal) so I wanted something that I could build myself but that would be strong enough and suitable for the purpose. I started feeding with a simple trough that was basically just a couple of 2×6 boards screwed together in  V and a couple of boards on the ends to keep it upright. It worked fine, but being as there was going to be some times we may not be back to the farm to feed them for a meal, I wanted something that could hold more at a time.

I ended up building a version of this feeder that could hold a few bags of feed at a time so the oinkers never missed a meal. I will probably need to try again next year as it worked, but wasn’t great.

hog feeder

You can see the full plans over at the Colorado State University website. 

Next up, a waterer. The waterer worked out really well. Basically a food grade barrel and a couple of pig nipples screwed into the bottom and we were in business. If you decide to try this, I suggest the barrel where the whole top removes rather than just the caps.

hog water

The pigs figured out the waterer pretty quickly. I was getting paranoid that they weren’t getting it and were going to get dehydrated so I ended up cutting little apple slices and wedging them in the nipple so the water kept flowing. That way if they wanted the apple, which they did, they learned there was also water there. By day 2, they were all on board.

So with a pen, shelter, food and water all ready, it was time to go pick up our weaners. We loaded up the stock rack in the truck,  filled the bed with some old hay and headed out to get the pigs.

pigs stock rack

Once we got the pigs home, we set them free in their new home. They had a great time running around and getting acquainted to their new surroundings. And of course, there was food, so they were happy.

feeding piglets

All in all, we had a pretty good time with the pigs. We had a couple of mishaps like a jailbreak. Turns out the little guy just wanted to run out in the pasture for a while and eventually came back to join his buds. Not going to lie though, I thought “Holy crap, I just lost a pig. There goes a couple hundred bucks.”

They like their ears scratched and their bellies rubbed. In fact, I could start rubbing their bellies while they were standing and they’d flop over like a falling tree to get more rubs. And they really liked the hose on hot afternoons.

And aside from the gong show that was loading the pigs to take them to camp, everything was pretty smooth. That gong show is a story for another day.

Now that they’re back from camp and in the process of being delivered to their new owners’ freezers, we are planning for next year. Going to double up and run 10 next year – now that we are comfortable with them and it really sucked having to turn people away that wanted some. Did you get in on our 2016 pork? Let us know how you like it.

And let us know if you want more information on 2017 pork. 

Required Reading: Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef by Julius Ruechel

Cattle Winter Hay FeedAs an ongoing segment here, I am going to provide some reviews, insights, and thoughts on books that I have read. And since you’re probably here to learn more, you may want to read them as well.

To kick this series off, let’s discuss Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef by Julius Ruechel.

When I first started reading up on what we might be looking at on this adventure, and really, to see if we really could actually raise cattle, this was the first book I picked up. And I am glad I did.

In this book, Julius touches on almost everything you could think of on your ranch. While it may not be a 100% definitive tell all book, it is extremely comprehensive and gets you thinking about a lot of things I bet you’d never even considered before. Chapters cover topics from herd selection, breeding, to maintaining a healthy pasture, fencing and earth friendly pasture rotation strategy.

Beyond the actual farming aspects of raising grass fed cattle, Ruechel also provides ideas and insights into marketing your product from niche market opportunities to labeling and financial planning. You know, the stuff farmers most often neglect in favor of raising animals. But let me ask you this: what good is raising animals, particularly in a small scale agriculture environment without a solid plan to sell your wares?

If you’re already ranching in a more traditional fashion, not to worry, Ruechel gets into a transition plan to move your operation towards a healthy grass fed operation.

As you read through the book, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Its not a small book. What I found particularly useful is the extensive use of diagrams and images. Trust me, when you start thinking about fencing systems and pasture planning, the pictures go a long way to help conceptualize the concepts.

I think I have probably read through this book cover to cover three times and still refer back to it often. I think what I found most alluring about this book is that not only is it a great resource for natural/organic beef production, but it is also a great resource for cost reducing financial thinking. For insight and ideas into running a lower cost, natural beef operation, this should be your guide.