Rain is forecast for the next week or so, which is this farmer's cue to get out there and plant seeds. The pigs were all moved a week ago and some seeds were sown then, but a week long cycle of showers is too good an opportunity to miss. Pictured above are some seeds I got at the dollar store, 4 packets for a buck. There aren't a lot in there, but when it comes to melons, squash and pumpkins, not much is needed. The cowpeas came from the grocery store for $1.38, less than I pay at the feed store for a pound. The buckwheat that they are resting on was purchased in a 50# bag at 0.97/lb, which saves me 0.30 above the bulk price. More on that later. I had work to do!
This is paddock #5, and at a casual glance, it looks unimpressive. As a matter of fact, except for being greener, it looks a bit like it did when we moved here. The pigs don't visit it in the usual rotation. It is reserved for overflow or to rest the other paddocks if we need it. It also serves as the last rotation for the month before the hogs go to be processed. It has nut trees and good shade. I plant extra special things in it, like lima beans, cowpeas, melons, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, and buckwheat. In a month, this area is going to look very different. The trailer is already there, so it won't be a strange thing that they see on the day. They get a fair bit of exercise walking from here to their stall or the water tank or the feed trough in the evening. There are thistles there that they will kindly root out for me and they will enjoy eating the root. They will fertilize it well, too.
Part of the challenge of sowing seeds for a diverse pasture is thinking ahead. It is springtime, but my sowing schedule projects 1-3 months ahead to the heat of the summer. .Meanwhile, seeds planted earlier this spring and some even planted last autumn are showing up out in the field. The peas are using the spent stalks of rye and turnips as a trellis. Pumpkin and squash seeds, undigested by the pigs last fall and nestled through the winter in their fertilized nest, are emerging with the warmer days. Turnip seedlings, tiny and green, are popping up all over.
This latter bit is important - the plants from last year have reseeded and are carrying forward to fill the pasture this year. I won't have to buy turnip seed or clover this year. I don't have to sow much squash or pumpkin, either. Last year's plants had their seasons of growth and fruiting, faded and died away, only to return this spring.
Promoting this cycle is an important part of the system of farming here. After 2-3 years, very little sowing will need to be done because the plants or the pigs have done it for us. After that, sowing to fill in bald spots or to add some other plant to the mix will be all that is required. Allowing the plants their full cycle benefits the soil (added material for the tilth in the form of plant matter, manure or nitrogen fixing by legumes), the plants, and the hogs (who are actually rather picky about what they eat when given the choice. They will eat a plant at its peak of flavor and/or nutrition rather than just eating it because it is green and available)..
It's good for the farmer, too, because it helps the bottom line. Feed costs are a major demand on the pig raising budget. Sowing seeds helps offset how much concentrated feed the sows and hogs require. I make a point of trying to save a dollar or two a day by improving my farming practices (but not at the expense of the pig). This offsets, just a little, the days that I spend $100 or more on feed or equipment or fencing. Call it a game, if you like, one that challenges me to improve my farming skills.
In the examples in the opening paragraph, I buy seeds from the dollar store because I don't require many of those to serve the purpose needed. You can also buy seeds like this when their usual gardening season has passed and the packets are marked way down, or go through the seed stash, if you are a gardener, and throw the out of date seeds into the pig pasture. The black eyed peas, which are indeed a cowpea, are needed in slightly larger quantities. I can buy them at the grocery store (make sure they are pretty fresh), same with the lima beans, which provide much needed lysine to our pastured pigs. If I bought these in bulk (by the pound, not the bag or bushel) from the seed store, I'd pay a lot more. If I bought them in 50# bags, there would be more than we could use. and the seed would go to waste. The buckwheat is sown generously in all paddocks and across most of the growing season. The pigs love it and eat it before it can seed out. It makes sense to buy it by the bag because it will be used by the end of the season and it is discounted. (You may have heard that buckwheat isn't good for pigs. It causes white pigs to sunburn, so it is fine for our black and red pigs. Don't sow much of it if you have white, spotted or blue butt pigs)
As I write this, there is thunder and rain outside. The plants in the paddocks will take off on a growth spurt thanks to it, and the seeds will sprout. In due course, they will feed the hogs well, and the hogs will fertilize the soil for the next round of planting. In another month or so, the red hogs will go into the fifth pasture and finish their time on this farm eating and living well before they fulfill their purpose feeding the families who have purchased them. As farm cycles go, it's something I can feel good about.
This is a story about Wee Hatch, and a bit of a caveat emptor confessional from your pig farmer.
When our sow had her false pregnancy earlier this year, I had already started taking orders for autumn pigs, so I found a farmer nearby that had pretty nice looking Berkshire x Red Wattle crosses. When I called to buy pigs, I asked if he had any barrows (castrated male pigs). "I have one left." I didn't ask why, I just said I'd take him and three of his sisters.. When we went to pick them up, they were in a small pen, and liketty-split, they were loaded in a large dog crate and brought home and unloaded in an area away from the other hogs. OK, I was desperate. There just weren't many heritage piglets available in our area. I didn't practice due diligence.
That's Wee Hatch to the right of the feeder. He's the only one with slightly droopy ears. They were all a little rough coated and scruffy, but he was a fair bit smaller, and scruffier, too. Probably why he was the only barrow left, and I would have appreciated a heads up before buying him. Caveat Emptor. But he wasn't a true runt, an animal born small and one which never thrives. I accepted that he was my error in judgement and I would deal with it in a way that we both could live with.
I correctly guessed that the scruffy coats and his ravenous appetite was an indication that they needed to be wormed. We do use a commercial wormer here on the farm when we get new stock, then the pasture rotations and some of the things they eat keep them healthy, so this wasn't an unusual step to take. I wormed Wee Hatch and his sisters twice, got visual confirmation that they needed it. They also got access to a good, balanced pig ration in a self feeder, so he could finally get all he wanted to eat without being pushed aside by his bigger sisters. They got warm oat mashes and yogurt to soothe their digestive tracts. They got tender spring grasses and greens in plenty. They got rotated to another pasture a couple of days after the last worm treatment so they wouldn't be re-infested.. I rubbed them down with vegetable oil. Things started looking up for the little man.
Wee Hatch responded well. His coat started to grow and become a glossy, coppery red. His energy levels increased, and soon he was the ringleader in games of Tag in the Pasture. He became the first one into a new paddock when we switch them over, and he's busy to work from the get-go. His appetite and his personality became healthy and large. Things were really starting to look up for the pig we now sometimes called Not-So-Wee Hatch.
Almost overnight, something happened. I went out one day and was quite amazed to see that, not only had Wee Hatch caught up with his sisters, he had surpassed them. He is a little taller, just as long, and is absolutely muscular and thick through his shoulders and loin all the way back to his hams. He's actually deep and burly! He is going to end up being the biggest hog we raise out of this bunch. Wow. I really was not expecting that kind of outcome. He's a contender!
There are so many things to learn from Wee Hatch (who is stuck with that nickname, no matter how big he gets). To ask questions. To check stock over before coming home. To refuse any animal that looks less than optimal. We really got off lightly on this episode. Worms are easy to control. That being said, I don't think things would have gone well for Wee Hatch if he hadn't come to this farm. Here, he was treated for what ailed him. He was given an opportunity to get food without being run off by the other pigs, and it is high-quality feed. He has paddocks full of good forage, and many of the plants are rich in vitamins and minerals, and many are also tonifying to the pigs' digestive system and to their over-all health. Our diversified pastures give the pigs the opportunity to eat plants that support their systems for health and growth.
While I didn't expect it, Wee Hatch has become something of a poster boy of what makes our farm special, and I am grateful. He's a scrappy little guy, and I'm a stubborn woman, and between the two of us, we wrote a success story.
Ah, springtime! The whole world seems to explode with a lush ripeness after the sleep of winter, and it is no different at our little farm in the Ozarks. The grazing areas are full of tender plants, the turnips have bloomed, bees have pollinated the flowers and turnip seed pods are forming. The little red pigs are frisky, and the two leading ladies, Pistachio and Big Lil, are feeling the allure of the season, too. They dream of motherhood, and they have certainly been letting me know about it. Their springtime reproductive cycles have been particularly strong and emphatic. Who am I to refuse such a plea?
In response, I bred our beauteous Berkshire sow, Pistachio, to a Berkshire boar named Super Stroke (honestly, I do not choose these names....) a few weeks ago. If she were to return to heat, it would be today, and there are no signs, so I can announce, with cautious optimism, that Pistachio is in a piggy way! The sire is a well muscled guy with a length and depth I prefer to see in a pasture raised hog. These hogs will be growthy and have good sized loin eyes (e.g. bigger pork chops). So here's hoping that Mr. Stroke (below) will do the right thing by our lovely Boss Lady.
It will be a couple more weeks before we know if Big Lil is also piggy. She is a gilt (hasn't had a litter yet), and it has been hard to always be sure when she was at the right point in her heat cycles. I also figured that she was cycling more rapidly than the standard 21 days. But she has been very vocal and demonstrative, and I figured out her timing, so last week she had her hot dates with the mail-order boar Let's Ride (see what I mean about the names?!). He's a Hereford boar that will add muscle and thickness to Big Lil's length and depth. Also, we will probably get red and white pigs with black markings. Spotted red pigs hit a button for me - I just adore the way they look. And the prospect of Big Lil being a mama with a bunch of them almost makes me swoon. There, I said it. I have a weakness for red pigs and floppy ears.
It's easy to get excited about upcoming litters; indeed, it is what will support us in our goal to have a closed herd and have pigs that are from this farm the whole span of their lives. But there's also a saying that you don't count your pigs till they are weaned. The first step will be having healthy litters from both our ladies in August. But like any farmer, the exuberance of springtime invites us to dream of life, and I invite you to join in a particularly piggy kind of dream.
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.