These beauteous, bountiful sows, these queens of the meadow, are two of our sows, a pair of Berkshires. Petunia is on the left, the boss sow, Pistachio, is on the right. We have added an English Large Black gilt (female that hasn't yet had a litter) recently, and these three sows will be the foundation of our pig herd and mothers of future generations of pigs born and raised on our farm.
Pistachio is the queen sow, and she rules in an understated manner, but when push comes to shove, she gets it her way. It's part of the pecking order, and it works for them. As you can see, she is pregnant and due on February 14. We are looking forward to welcoming her little sweethearts to the farm! In the future, when we keep any of her daughters to add to the sow herd, they will be given nut names to remind us of her parentage. Part of her job as boss sow is to make sure that the communal nest is arranged to her satisfaction, just as she will make a nest prior to farrowing (giving birth). We moved the sow palace this week, and she spent a day rearranging the new bedding and making sure it was just so.
Petunia is the one with the colorful personality. Everything is bold and showy with this girl, from the broad blaze down her face to the way she demands a back scratching. When she goes into heat, she walks the fence alongside of me, bites the gate while giving me a goofy look, and sometimes doesn't want me to leave the pasture.. She makes it pretty obvious what she wants most of the time. She's a large, fine looking sow, and we have just had her mated, so we are expecting piglets in late April. We'll know she's pregnant - she is a radiant mom-to-be. Bold in motherhood, just as she is in everything else in life.
The newest addition to the sow herd is Big Lil (officially Trillium), who will mother our herb-named daughters down the road. She is an English Large Black, and behind those big sunglasses is a sweet face. Everything about her is sweet, especially her temperament. She went from being the queen of her herd to being the bottom of the pecking order, so it was a harsh transition for her at times, but she is fitting into the sow herd well, and we expect good things from her. She will be bred in another month or so and officially become a sow. These hogs are well-known for being good mothers, and I think she will do just fine. She has already had an impact with her new family grouping; as an excellent forager, she has taught the big sows that there is plenty of food out there in that pasture. Because a pig doesn't want to see another pig eating when it is not, they all are out working over the turnips more often than they did previously. And one day, maybe after Petunia farrows and returns after being in another place for two months, she may come back and find that Big Lil has slipped into the number two spot.
Like any family, there sometimes are squabbles but they present a united front to the outside world. They alert each other to anything new or potentially dangerous. They learn from each other. And on these cold Missouri nights, they all dig into the nest in the sow palace that Pistachio has made, and they keep each other warm and cozy.
Autumn traditionally was the time of harvest, and that included hogs. It still is a tradition, especially in a hog-centric area like Missouri, to take the hogs to the butcher in the fall and winter months, and have fresh hams, bacon and sausage for the family celebrations. The loin chops above came from the hogs we brought to the farm in early May. Notice the dark pink of the meat, the marbling in the muscle. This is what raising heritage hogs out on pasture brings to the table. That, and a whole lot of flavor.
These chops were cut to a decadent 2" thickness, perfect for stuffing and grilling and feeding 2 people per chop. The meat, when done, isn't a pallid grayish white like the typical grocery store chop. It is pinkish-red from all the movement and exercise that the hog takes daily and at free will. Different muscles within the chop have different colors. The texture is fine grained, the meat is still juicy, and the fat is sweet.
Our hogs are not industrial widgets. The heritage breed hogs we have on the farm - currently English Large Blacks and Berkshires - were developed years ago with hardiness, foraging ability, fertility and flavor in mind. They love to move about, even run and play, out in the pastures. They grow a little slower than industrial hogs, but they are healthier and more resilient; they know how to utilize the pasture they are raised on, and they naturally will have darker meat that is marbled, juicy and fine flavored.
We take that wonderful hog and raise it out on pasture that has been seeded with legumes, cole crops, turnips, buckwheat and many other tasty plants, each appropriate to the season. The grazing areas are small, and the pigs spend anywhere from 1-6 weeks on a section, depending on the size of the animal and the condition of the grazing area. Then they are moved to the next section. We have six sections that the animals get rotated through, allowing enough time for the pasture to recover and for the parasite cycle to be broken. The hogs get lots of time out in the sunshine (though they prefer a misty day) and fresh air. They are fastidious in their toileting habits, so it is not smelly, and it is a real joy to see them running and playing out on the pasture, exercise that is good for their physical and mental health.
The hogs are also fed some concentrated food, but we have found that, foraging on pasture, the pigs will voluntarily eat less concentrate. The hogs are free fed on this ration (the buffet is open - all you care to eat!) up to 180 pounds, then they are fed 5 pounds per pig per day plus all the forage they care to eat. This slows down the growth a bit, and more fat is deposited in the muscle (marbling) versus on the fat or in the body cavity. We also feed the hogs some fermented feed, which helps them digest the forage more efficiently, and we add crimped oats to the ration to drop the protein percentage. We also fed a truck load of squash and pumpkins and over 100 pounds of acorns that were given to us. All of these things contribute to the quality of the meat.
This allows us to let the hogs stay and graze an extra two months, where they grow to a size of about 285 pounds, providing a better meat to bone ratio with better flavor and marbling. We are convinced that all the extra time, labor and expense is well worth it. We think the animals deserve no less, and that those who choose to eat the meat we provide deserve no less, either.
Feeding pastured animals can be a challenge in the winter. It pays to plan ahead - the turnip above, as large as two of my fists, was planted in late summer for this winter's foraging. Geography and weather play a large part. There seem to be equal parts of planning, planting, and prayer involved. Farmers have done this for centuries. Keep records, keep open to new ideas, keep changing as needed. That's what goes into the forages in our pastures all year long, but especially in the winter, where any fresh greens and extra calories are appreciated by the hogs.
The pictures you see on the homepage of all the lush, green pasture are our pastures in summer. Those are our pigs eating it. It was all anemic fescue and lots of weeds when we moved here last April. What changed? The pigs ate and fertilized. They wiped out huge patches of Johnson grass that strangled the southern end of the paddocks. They grazed intensively for 4-6 weeks, then got moved to the next strip, and I spread seeds behind them. The seeds for the winter were spread in the humid heat of the summer, when cold winds and frigid rains were barely imaginable.
I sowed the turnips. The oats didn't do as well, due to a very dry autumn, but they are slowly coming up now. I sowed a deer plot mix of seeds that the feed store up the street sells in bulk. It has oats, rye, daikon radishes, turnips, alfalfa, 3 kinds of clover, winter peas. I add extra peas and oats; when the hogs move, I am right behind them with the seed spreader, always a day before the rain, casting out future forage for them. . Beneath the browning grass are turnips and oats and peas emerging.
The deer plot mix of seeds is perfect for late fall and spring planting. Even the seeds planted now will slumber through our colder months of January and February and emerge and thrive once the longer, warmer days of March arrive, doing better than those seeded in March or April. This is the seed mix. In the background, the green ground cover is clover, which always comes back strong after grazing. It loves the cooler temperatures, and the hogs like to eat it. It is a good source of protein for them and it fixes nitrogen in the soil.
Right now the only hogs that we have are two sows and a gilt (a female that hasn't had a litter of piglets yet), and they are eating back a large stand of wild carrot as well as their forage mix. I just switched them from grazing strip number one to strip number two. It looks like they knocked back the pasture pretty hard, and they did, but not to the degree that it won't bounce back. They are enjoying the lush growth in strip number two, which looked pretty bare two months ago.
The bottom line is, yes, the hogs need some extra feed in the late fall and winter months, but they still have some quality pasture to enjoy. It is not only good for their health but also their mental well being. They like to move around and they like variety. One of the sows will have a litter of piglets in February, so all of this forage is helping them as they develop, too, and mama will show the little ones how to get out there and graze when they are a few weeks old. Like the pastures, the piglets will grow with the seasons, being equal parts on the land and of the land, and that's the way we like it here on this farm.
A seed that was planted years ago began to stir and come to life. Was it possible that I could be a farmer after all? I was determined to try. We dug up the back yard and planted a 900 square foot garden and planted vegetables and flowers - bread and roses, baby! I studied up on chickens, built a chicken ark and raised hens for eggs, made a few mistakes, had a fair bit of success, and then we raised up a batch of sixteen meat birds every year for our food. We had quite the little urban farm.
I made friends with farmers, volunteered to come out to their places to help out.. Then I was able to come out and farm-sit now and then, allowing my friends some welcome time away from the farm. It was a joyful work and a contribution to my apprenticeship. From there, we planned to go ahead and try to find a farm in the Missouri Ozarks where we could, in a modest and sustainable way, raise animals.
This past spring, we moved to a farm that we currently rent and bought a few English Large Black feeder pigs. They were about the size of a football, nothing but little trotters and big ears. My pig mentor, Nance, thought I was doing well enough with the pigs that I could graduate up to breeding my own pigs, and she sold me a nice pair of proven Berkshire sows. The first litter is due in February.
All of this is just an introduction, but the essence of Farm 2 Fork Pork is the animals and the land. They are the foundation of what we are all about. In future posts, they will be the focus of the story, and so saying, I step into the background so those critical players can stand in the spotlight.
w People ask me if I have always raised animals or if I grew up on a farm. The answer is no. My parents were one generation from the farm, back when it was an even more hardscrabble and potentially heartbreaking occupation than it is today.
When I was 6 years old, I told mom I was dropping out of first grade to be a farmer. She said, "No, you're not." and that attitude never changed, not even when I made an unexpected turn during registration at college and ended up in the Animal Science department..
I didn't become a farmer, not then and not for many years. Industrial farming practices were what was taught at college, and my first experience at a confinement hog farm was like a scene from Dante's Inferno, only with smell-o-rama. An agricultural work study in Germany showed me a different reality, though, one where animals still were pastured and more freely occupied their farms, and where the pork, beef, and chicken still had remarkable flavor. This was what I remembered and yearned for, but it wasn't a viable farming option back home in the USA.
This sad state of agricultural affairs remained in place for many more years. I took different paths through the world, none of them too fulfilling., and then things began to change.. Farmers markets struggled to life, offering an alternative option to farming, one that included raising animals in a more humane and thoughtful way, one that preserved the old breeds of animals that had almost disappeared, one that brought a new taste to the table, a new taste as old as my earliest memories. A long dormant seed wakened and stirred.
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.