Pig roundup: Lessons learned

When you tell people you are going to raise pigs, it seems that everyone has an opinion.

“Did you know pigs can eat people?”
“They’ll tunnel under your fence and escape.”
“You need a barn for pigs.”
“Pigs wreck the ground.”

It seems that those most adamantly against pigs have generally never had them. If someone’s raised pigs before, they still have opinions, but their initial reaction is a little different.

“That’s awesome! I want to raise pigs again.”

So it is with us. We may have started out seeking really local bacon, but their antics, good nature, and simplicity to raise won us over. We’ll definitely fit pigs into our homestead again. This post presents a series of before & after photos, and discusses some lessons learned. Some might even call them “opinions”.

Before

After

Wrecking the ground seems to be a common fear among non-pig raisers. My guess is that pig damage to your land is directly proportionate to the stocking density (porcine-per-acre?). Our two pigs had a roughly 80′ by 80′ area. They tilled over all the soil around their immediate pen, and did progressively less damage as they moved out from there. The two pictures above show that the grass behind our barn is still largely intact. It looks a little roughed up, but winter is just as much to blame as the light tilling and fertilizing it received.

Before

After

Here’s another pair of photos showing land impact. If you give pigs dirt and weeds, they’ll be happy to convert it into mud and weeds. Still, the barren landscape in the second photo is notably absent of massive moonscape craters or fence tunneling. They dug up a lot of new matchbox cars, but sadly did not produce even a single man-sized hole. A simple hot wire 16″ off the ground kept them away from the fences.

Before

After

Pig shelter is an area where some people really go overboard. I know someone who literally rebuilt his barn, poured concrete floors with drains, and sided the walls with expensive impact-resistant composite sheets .. just to raise 2-3 pigs a year. How many years will it take to break even on that project? (Hint: Never) Of course, once you add concrete floors you probably need to run heat-lamps 24-7 in cold weather, etc. The problems just compound.

No thank you! We looked at suggestions online from people who raise pigs, and after pricing calf shelters (too expensive in our area), we settled on the simplest solution that seemed to provide adequate shelter. The entire pig hut cost right at $100 and half of it is reusable (cattle panels, tarp). The straw bales will be used in composting the pig manure. The picture on the right shows the structure immediately after construction. During four months of use, our only change was to add some plywood scraps and loose straw to create an inner roof, and the pigs only change was to nibble on the straw and dig out the floor. In these simple accommodations, our pigs handled 17°F temps for a few nights and a number of 25°F days with no ill effects.

Before (2 months ago)

After

Feeding and watering systems can also get expensive quick. Our feeder was a standard one-door gravity feeder off Craigslist. People tell me that pigs can tear them off the wall and destroy them. To prevent this, simply bolt them to a solid surface using big washers, and keep the feeder full. (An empty feeder is a toy for hungry pigs.) I feel like we mishandled a number of things regarding feeding, as we changed the pigs over from a trough to a new feeder too quickly and slowed their growth for a couple weeks. Here are some points we learned in no particular order:

  • Don’t move feeders. It confuses pigs and they’ll stop eating.
  • Don’t place feeders in areas they dislike. Our original site for the gravity feeder was too close to a hot wire they feared, so they largely refused to eat out of it.
  • Metal feeders need a separate rain cover to prevent food waste.
  • You can remove the flip-up lid on metal feeders to initially train the pigs.
  • A six month old pig can eat 8 lbs of food each day. Gravity feeders save you a lot of time that would have been spent scooping food into a trough.
  • Having multiple feeders can prevent food aggression (our pigs developed a 40 lb weight difference), but seems excessive when just raising 2 pigs.

For as many mistakes as we made with the feeders, we were very happy with our waterer solution which we found suggested in a countryside magazine. We took a used $15 food grade 55 gallon barrel, drilled a hole, and installed a $20 gravity nipple. The piglets were already used to a nipple waterer when they arrived and took to their big blue water tank immediately. We refilled it perhaps 5 times in four months. It handled moderate freezing conditions without trouble. If we had days of cold weather we would have added an aquarium heater. The only problem, as can be seen in the pictures, is we did not expect the manure to build up almost 12 inches deep, and threaten to submerge the nipple. (We had to rake the poo away a few times.)

Speaking of poo, pigs really do pick a waste site and stick with it. Even when we gave them free run of their pen they always came back to their small pen to poo. In the future we will be sure to give the young piglets much more space so the can pick a waste spot far away from their food and water.

Okay, one more common opinion, “Pigs will kill your trees.” As this picture shows, pigs do enjoy nibbling on tree roots. I’d be concerned to leave them around small fruit trees and ornamentals, they aren’t going to put so much as a dent in a 90′ Douglas Fir.

This past Monday, 9 days after butchering, we picked up the uncured meat from the butchers: cut, wrapped, and frozen. One and a half pigs yields 8 grocery sacks of meat. We’re still waiting on the hams and bacon, so a future posts will discuss the total yield, as well as costs and a feed breakdown.

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27 Responses to Pig roundup: Lessons learned

  1. Ron says:

    I love your before and after, Lee, and the lessons-learned. So many people see things as black and white, one way or the other… it’s challenging to wade through all the opinions in order to experiment and formulate your own.

    I used a similar design for my feeder as the metal trough, but I actually made it out of wood, using plans from the 1930s on an extension web site (ND university, I think). I really didn’t think it would last, but I didn’t want to spend the money on a metal one at the time. I figured if the design held up well, I might build one out of metal or beef up the wood one. Surprisingly, though, it has lasted just fine, and I haven’t had any problems with rodents. If I did, I’d probably line the edges with some metal. I can dump about 800 lbs of feed in there at a time, and you aren’t kidding about saving time vs. a trough.

    Anyway, just wanted to contribute to your list – you can make a big feeder (or little) out of scrap lumber if you have the time and determination. Of course, it will last longer if it is under the roof of your shelter to keep rain off of it.

    Ron

    • lee says:

      I think you hit on it with the “black and white” comment. An awful lot of livestock/gardening advice seems to be based on snap judgments from a single experience at doing something. Of course, we’ve only raised pigs once too, but my post above wasn’t meant to create any new hard and fast rules.

      Great to hear that the wood feeder worked out so well. I can’t imagine being able to load 800 lbs of feed at once! I’ll have try to track down those plans you mentioned. If we hadn’t scored a good deal on two used metal pig feeders, I was going to try my hand at building something from wood as well. I was worried it wouldn’t last though, as common opinion seems to be that pigs can chew up 3/4″ plywood like a saltine cracker.

      • Ron says:

        They can chew wood, but only if they get a good hold of it. I use pallets for the walls of my shelter, and they work because the gaps aren’t wide enough to get teeth in there… and because they have other interesting things to work on.

        If I remember where I found those plans, I’ll post the link. Otherwise, I’ll write more on it when we get more pigs this year.

        Ron

    • Ed says:

      Ron, do you have a link to the plans for your feeder ? I’m a carpenter and trying to save money. Thanks !
      Ed

  2. Ron says:

    Oh, I mentioned using an aquarium heater a while back, but after reading what I could about it I concluded that a person has to get a pretty decent one for it to last very long. Instead, I ended up with a birdbath heater for about $35, I think… it’s in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket hanging from the ceiling of the coop, with nipples in the bottom, and it works great for the chickens. No more dirty water or cleaning out their muck. The heater is thermostat-controlled, and we haven’t seen any difference in our electric bill.

    Ron

    • lee says:

      I’ve heard of the bird bath heater trick, but our water barrels have a sealed lid. I liked the idea of fish tank heaters because they are typically narrow and could fit through the threaded ports. Too bad that they don’t hold up.

      • Carol says:

        I would think freezing wouldn’t be a problem with a 55 gallon barrel. If kept full only the top 6-10″ would freeze. Also, if wrapped in black tape or other black msterial you could take advantage of solar heat to assist in freeze prevention.

        • lee says:

          I doubt the barrel could ever freeze solid during an Oregon valley winter, but even an inch of ice forming on all sides renders it useless. Our experience was that the water near the steel nipple froze first and immediately rendered it non-functional. It’s very much a mild-climate watering solution.

  3. Leigh says:

    Great post! We’ve been doing our reading up on pig keeping (or rather Dan has) had he’s heard all those arguments against pigs too. They’re enough to make the uninitiated step back and reconsider. Still, we’ve picked our spot for them and may get started on fencing sometime this summer.

    • lee says:

      It’s like a lot of things on the homestead–if you believe everything you hear, you’ll never try anything. The first book we bought on raising chickens was particularly doomerish. I can’t imagine anyone being able to follow all that advise to the letter.

  4. We’ve been going back and forth on pigs for a year now, and this post definitely puts me more in the “forth” column. That you can build a shelter out of straw bales, cattle panels, and a tarp is positively revelatory. It’s also encouraging that one hot wire keeps them contained.

    Now, if only we can line up a butcher …

    • lee says:

      I’ve seen a variety of suggestions for low cost shelters: big metal culverts cut lengthwise and the ends buried, calf shelters (big plastic igloos), and tarp hoop houses. I’d be concerned about minimum temperatures living on the east coast (pigs can get frostbite in their ears), but there are a number of ways to shelter them without building a barn. If we ever find a used calf shelter on Craigslist, I’m going to snap that up. It would be easier to move, require less hay to fill, and be warmer to boot. Until then, the hoop house worked really well.

      Regarding the single hot wire … pigs have to be trained on the hot wire before you can trust them. Our pigs got shocked and ran through the wire several times over a week timeframe. In our case, the “forbidden” zone was still fenced in, so we turned off the wires and lured them back into their pen with boiled eggs. If we’d had no fences, they might have been on their way to the next county. (Okay, not likely … they don’t seem confident enough to explore that far.) Anyway, my point is that while I think single hot wires are a great way to subdivide, I wouldn’t rely on them to keep untrained pigs contained in the absence of primary fences.

      • Ron says:

        That’s how I lost my first set of pigs, the first day I got them. They ran through the open side of my pallet pen, hit the hot wire, and kept on going. Now, I have a shelter that is sealed pretty well, with logs on the inside so they can’t root out, and I run a hot wire on the inside until they are trained to it. It doesn’t take too long, and you can see them definitely giving any shiny wire a wide berth. After that, I can let them roam in a big area with just a single wire, and they get tame enough that they won’t go anywhere even if they do get out.

        Ron

      • lee says:

        Did you completely lose them or just temporarily?

      • Josephine says:

        We have two pigs this fall. We raised pigs a few years back as well. Our biggest problem now is the water. We tried burying buckets and filling them, but they keep digging them up. The barrel looks great, but we’re in the White Mountains of NH, I just don’t think the whole nipple thing would work this far north. As for shelter, we built a shelter using the plywood concrete foundation forms contractors use. Our neighbor had a few piled up. The roof is scrap metal roofing. There is an old glass door attached sideways on the high end of the wall so sunlight gets in to warm in the winter. We had built it for goats years back.

        • Beth says:

          A “quick & dirty” pig waterer that doesn’t generally get moved around can be made fairly easily with a small washtub or low-sided bucket, an old tire, and a bag of Quik-Krete. Fill the body of the tire with Quik-Krete and set the tub on the center. As it’s becoming solid, twist the tub several times so it doesn’t become permanently attached; doing so ensures you’ll be able to remove it easily for cleaning later. If you need to move it, tip it on to the treads and roll it to the new location. It’ll be too heavy for any but the largest, most determined pigs to tip or scoot around.

  5. Pigs are at the top of our list for livestock. At first I was thinking chickens first, but I’m convinced pigs are easier from what I’ve read here and elsewhere. Thanks for the piggie play-by-play. It really helps build the confidence of us un-initiated wanna-be pastured pig farmers. I can’t wait for us to experience it ourselves.

    • lee says:

      I’m glad to provide some encouragement. That’s the main reason we keep this blog. Before I try something I like to read all available information, and there was a distinct lack of complete records on keeping pigs for meat. The Ebey Farm site was a big help, but he does everything on a much larger scale than a homesteader. Ron’s old site was good too, but unfortunately no longer available.

  6. I like bacon but am not big on pork for the most part..but I do want pigs in the future so that they can level out parts of my land. Talking to friends they mentioned that the easiest way to get level ground is to have pigs in it ( as you demonstrate as well )..the problem for me is that it would need to be moved every year as my entire 2 acres is a bumpy mess and I have too many projects on the go as it is! And I am lazy. With the exception of water freezing for the chickens I have been enjoying that experience so far…sometimes being offgrid makes me envious of easy solutions like a heater for the water to prevent freezing. Just to add insult to injury we now get to trek out through another 45cm after the latest storm to give them warm water in the mornings! Now, if I could train a pig to get water for the chickens I might bump it up the priority list..pigs ARE supposed to be really smart right šŸ˜‰

    • lee says:

      I’m not sure about pigs for ground leveling. I suppose it depends on your ground. They’re very good at tilling and bringing rocks to the surface. Ours were pretty tame beyond that, but they do sometimes turn flat ground into the lunar surface. Once trained on a hot wire, it would be easy to move them around 2 acres of land by using push-in fiberglass posts and electrified polywire. When we eventually get sheep, this will be our method of choice for controlling them, and the next pair of pigs will be similarly managed.

      Yeah, the off-grid aspect does make things more challenging. A fence charger is still an option for you (ours draws about 5W), but electric heaters less so. I wonder about running a dedicated waterline for the pigs underground, and then wrapping the mount for the nipple and the riser with a small amount of heat tape. It seems like you could keep the overall electric draw very low by only heating the portion of pipe above ground, and only when temps were below freezing.

      I agree with the lazy policy. While I’m willing to take on almost anything as a project, I’m very leery of tasks that will add to our daily chores.

  7. Pingback: Complete Costs of Raising Pigs | Farm Folly

  8. Thanks so much for the tips on pig raising. We haven’t tried raising pigs before, but we started with chickens in 2012, which turned out very easy and very enjoyable and now 3 have goats.
    You give lots of practical and easy to follow tips, which is what a beginner like me needs!

    Elizabeth

    • robin says:

      Everyone is a beginner at first. Lee and I still have lots of things to learn on many things and sometimes it can be intimidating.

  9. C says:

    I just read on pinterest that using a metal cookie tin and inserting a simple light 40 watt bulb component into its side makes for a great water heater for chickens. The chicken waterer sits on top of the metal can and stays warm enough.

  10. Carlos Alfonso says:

    thank you for the great inf.

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