Raising woods-grazed pigs on new farms

Some new farmers in the northern Michigan woodlands are breaking into farming by raising pigs in woods pasture.

Grazing paddock on small hog enterprise in Michigan’s Alger County. Photo by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension.
Grazing paddock on small hog enterprise in Michigan’s Alger County. Photo by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension.

Two recent visits to new Upper Peninsula small farms started by people with limited, or no, farming experience brought to light some of the challenges and potential benefits of diving into agriculture. In brief, major challenges fall into a few categories:

  • Identifying a farm enterprise with profit potential based on the new farmer’s production and marketing skill levels and interest.
  • Identifying and understanding the available markets for farm products.
  • Developing a sound business plan, including careful consideration of labor needs.
  • Acquiring or developing a suitable land base.
  • Acquiring livestock from a high-health herd or source.
  • Acquiring and utilizing start-up capital efficiently.
  • Developing a good relationship with a local slaughter facility.
  • Understanding the regulatory side of farming, i.e., health papers to cross state lines, etc.
  • Developing relationships with a direct marketing customer base, other marketing options and the local farming community.

For new farmers interested in a small-scale, livestock-based enterprise, raising pigs may work well. Purchasing feeder pigs to raise and direct-market to local customers will limit the need for costly over-wintering facilities. Establishing a swine breeding operation expands the potential market to include selling feeder pigs as well as market hogs through the year. Either way, a new farmer should consider selling animals direct to customers to potentially maximize income.

Grazing areas for pigs can be created in woodlots. The animals will root up much of the vegetation if confined in an area for a long enough time. Providing there is adequate light penetration through the tree canopy, this could provide an opportunity for annual seeding of part or all of the pasture area with annual forage crops such as brassicas, small grains or annual grasses. By rotating the animals through pasture divisions, or paddocks, created by moveable electric fencing, the forage can be managed more productively. Paddocks need a chance to regrow between grazing periods.

Remember, pasturing your pigs in a wooded area or feedlot is a method to help supplement the traditional diet of corn/soybean and decrease feed costs, however this should not be the sole source of nutrition for your animals, as they will not receive the proper nutrients to efficiently grow to market size. A woods pasture does not have the forage production potential of an open field, but will help with getting the pigs fed.

Fencing and watering systems are important considerations. A solid, strong perimeter fence of woven wire is preferred. An electric wire or two should also be included. Pigs are easily trained on an electric fence and this will eliminate the occasional rooting under the woven wire fencing. Further use of electric fence can function as a divider in the grazing area so that the pigs are rotationally grazing the pasture. If feeder pigs are purchased and sold by fall, then this is all you need. A shelter or shade may also be desirable if tree cover isn’t adequate. If breeding animals are kept, then the facility picture changes drastically.

You can expect one or two litters of piglets from each sow, spread throughout the year. Consider a well-constructed shed and a supplemental heat source. Year-round feeding will not include any grazing/foraging for about five months in the northern areas of Michigan.

Benefits of raising woodlot pigs

  • Provides a low-cost, do-able entry into small scale farming, especially if feeder pigs are purchased annually.
  • Locally produced meats are in demand. More people want to know where their food comes from and are willing to pay extra for locally produced food products.
  • The satisfaction and enjoyment of a successful new farm enterprise, and its impact on the producer’s lifestyle, is a key benefit experienced by many beginning farmers, based on a 2013 survey of eight Upper Peninsula beginning farmers.

The Pork Information Gateway website is an excellent resource if you want to gain knowledge on raising pigs. Take some time looking around this website, especially the Small and Beginning Farmer section.

Once again, personal relationships with customers, based on a great experience and satisfaction with the meat product, are key to establishing a successful, small-scale woodlot (or other system) pig farm. The word will spread that you are honest and dependable, and the pork you raise is great.

Other livestock-based enterprises to consider as a startup for beginning farmers include stocker cattle—buy calves, pasture them for one season and sell in fall—and poultry for meat or eggs. If you are interested in learning about possible new farm enterprises, review the recorded presentations on Michigan State University Extension’s Beginning Farmer Webinar Series website.

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