The Farm Piggery

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July 20, 2020

By Jordan Green


These protocols should be considered when deciding to enter any birthing livestock enterprise, not just hogs.  

EDINBURG, Virginia: How certain enterprises develop on a farm is often entirely random rather than deliberately conceived. 

On my farm, undertaking a farrowing enterprise was initially born out of necessity. I needed a steady supply of pasture quality genetics and we couldn’t find it.  I had product demand but no piggies to work with.  Big problem.  Good problem.  I wasn’t about to throw in the towel over a supply issue, so in I went, headlong.  Fortunately, we utilized a rough cut of the following points and have built up a successful enterprise. You could say I backed into this. 

Here are some protocols to consider when deciding to operate a “birthing” enterprise vs. a buy in feeders enterprise (I say “birthing” since the principles apply to any livestock, not just hogs).   

First. Does the farm context fit? For a pasture/forest-based farrowing system, having marginal land is a plus. It’s not suited for grazing herbivores or accessing with poultry thus not in competition on a profitability per acre basis.  Even a modest stocking of one to two sows per acre is insanely more profitable than nothing or generational timbering. Marginal land has little competition aside from hunters. It’s cheaper to purchase or lease. No one is looking to steal your lease.   

Steep ground has the drawbacks of erosion and access difficulties; swampy ground will go to mud and I’m chagrined to see a beautiful bottom field get tilled up. The ideal is rolling ground with brush or junk tree canopy. A forest comprised of post timbering is fantastic. That’s normally a couple of decades following a harvest.   

A big consideration is capacity.  For adequate ground recovery a 50 percent plus canopy needs months off for every disturbance cycle so a decent amount of ground is needed for any kind of scale. We’ve found stability with a stocking rate of two sows per acre. Nuts and bolts here, this translates to a 100 sow enterprise operating on 50 plus acres of marginal logged over forest.   

Sows are grouped into “sets” of 10-14 head, fenced with temporary wire in about half acre paddocks.  They move every 7-10 days. This translates to any particular paddock being occupied by sows two to three times in a year for 7-10 days.  That’s 21-30 days of disturbance out of 365 days. Lots of rest. Pushing harder in our climate context of Virginia leads to degradation. This is probably the single most violated principle of pasture pork production: it is land extensive. But on the plus side, a lot of this kind of marginal land exists all over the country.  

Weather is a big issue. Piggies are susceptible to cold weather and pasture farrowing in sub-freezing weather does increase mortality even with shelters. Sub-zero farrowing is extremely risky. Any climate with sustained 10 degree F or below nights will impact survivability of piglets and should be factored into the decision. You may have to skip winter farrowing or have a heated facility. Both impact the bottom line. 

Second. Does the supply context fit? Efficient farrowing requires a certain scale. Newsflash here: it will likely cost you more to produce your own piglets than to buy them. Backyard farrowers undervalue their piglets and price unprofitably, but produce little. Patching together a network of small farrowers is a great way to start finishing hogs but only goes so far before you are driving a long way for a few pigs. I was happy buying piglets from one particularly high-quality hobby piggery but the problem was they only had eight sows. Elsewhere I was getting junk genetics and sick pigs. 

Quality and quantity drove the need to establish a farrowing enterprise and once operational, customers came knocking. Piglets were in demand from day one above our own needs and we quickly scaled the enterprise up to a semblance of efficiency.  In some places piggie supply is not a problem, either in quantity or quality. In such a place you will normally get a greater return on time and capital in a feeder/finish to retail pork enterprise. It makes zero sense to produce a product the market already adequately supplies.  

Third. Does the business/operational context fit? Having determined the farm context is suitable and the supply context is lacking, we arrive at what’s called “tactical posture” in shooting terms. Are you correctly positioned to take advantage of this opportunity? Three quick things to look at here are: 

1.) Assess infrastructure and gear. You will be moving stuff.  Water, feed, fencing gear, piglets, boars, sows, shelters, corrals. This is an intensive, hands on system.  I’m amazed at how many pieces are moving around here at times. The fencing I use for sows is highly temporary and portable. No concerns there when tackling new ground.  Transportation of everything else is addressed with a couple of John Deere Gators, a tractor, a couple of trailers and a tracked skidsteer. 

Water is likely the costliest and heaviest item to address from an infrastructure standpoint. Toting water manually will not scale and will not be profitable, plain and simple.  It has to be pushed through pipe with easy access on the hog range.  Our hog enterprise has almost 15,000 feet of waterline deployed and we could not operate without it.  The next most indispensable thing is a machine with forks. Heavy things need lifting, mechanically. 

2.) Identify the unfair market advantage. If no one else is farrowing, why? Are you jumping into something that’s already been discredited? Have an idea of costs. Starting a scaled farrowing enterprise is as costly as a cowcalf enterprise. The same metrics apply. Cost to keep a sow, cost to produce a piglet and so on. What sells and where? Will you value add that piglet all the way to retail cuts or beyond? Are other farms nearby who will buy piglets at a profitable price? 

I strongly advocate a retail segment of your farm even if that isn’t the primary goal since it gives that final outlet to avoid loss should a downturn happen. The piglet can move to finished retail product, even to hot sausage, egg and cheese muffins at the farmers’ market, snack sticks, etc. 

3.) Prioritize desire and consider time demands. In a big picture sense, does this enterprise make your clock tick? Do you get a thrill on discovery of 12 new piggies in the morning, or a thick stand of cover crops tilled in as a result of exemplary movement discipline? A farrowing enterprise can be managed with relatively low man hours per sow or piglet but you are on call 24/7.  Sows need checking once or twice a day. Piglets need monitoring.  Stuff happens. You will deal with losses and frustration. This is not a dump ‘em and check ‘em once a week enterprise. It’s every day.

Water is likely the costliest and heaviest item to address from an infrastructure standpoint.

Knowing the questions to answer and having a process to assess opportunities, regardless of species, safeguards you from hasty, emotionally driven decisions. It differentiates farms with long-term, profitable success from the here today, gone tomorrow producers. So, step into that marginal ground on the back forty, notepad and pen in hand and ponder, “to farrow, or not to farrow, that is the question.”  

■ Jordan and Laura Green and their children pasture farrow on leased land in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on J&L Green Farm.

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