Homestead Idols: Raising Woodlot Pigs
I swear sometimes I’m just a debunker of Homestead BS™. I despise the controversy that arises from it but if my purpose in sharing anything is to help folks make informed decisions about their choices when raising their own food we’ve got to cut through the nonsense. I’ve been known to get spicy from time to time on issues such as the abuse of essential oils, the fallacy of Dexter’s as a perfect family cow, militant ancient diets, or whether it’s a dumb idea to mimic perennial systems in an annual one. (I fail to see how it’s wise to bring nitrogen-binding, fungal-dominant ramial wood chips from the perennial woods into a bacterial-dominant annual crop garden and pretend it’s the way “God intended” crops to be grown. If He did, wouldn’t you find cabbage growing in the forest?)
I’ve been sitting on the idol of woodlot pigs for a while now. Quietly swallowing the absurdity of telling people there is only one, ideal way to raise pigs. What is suggested in such statements is that if they aren’t able to do so, taking control of that portion of their food supply by raising their own pork isn’t available to them without violating an ideological tenant of regenerative agriculture.
I’ve sat across the table from the “experts” and listened to them bloviate about how the only way to properly raise hogs is in a woodlot where farmers can mimic a pig’s natural habitat, behavior patterns, and produce the most succulent, superior-flavored meat.
Poppycock and rubbish. Bovine… or should I say porcine excrement.
Such absolutes discourage those who lack the ideal land arrangement and leave them wrestling with bringing ethics in line with self-sufficiency.
There is no one Right Way to homestead.
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If you are, in any way, able to remove your meat supply from the inhumane factory system to one that not only gives you more control over your family’s food supply but also one that is incrementally more humane, you’re better off. Period. Even if that means you can’t embrace someone else’s ideologies or wholly mimic the animal’s tendencies were they left to roam wild. It’s ridiculous to think that a pig is only ever able to indulge in its instinct to root under the canopy of a tree.
Besides, not one homestead I’ve seen has a forest with a density of fruit & nut trees that could reasonably support hogs. Certainly, you would need so much supplemental ration that it would offset any differences in the flavor profile of the finished meat product.
Frankly, this holds true for that pork raised by Ideal Woodlot Farmer as well.
Their pork tastes the same as mine.
Let me say that again: Confining your pigs under trees does not magically transform the flavor into some taste-bud dazzling experience.
Even if one or two of those trees happens to make an offering of a few pounds of nuts to the earth each autumn will it be enough to noticeably impact the savoriness of the meat? It’s The Emperor Has No Clothes On Syndrome. It’s a marketing schtick. That minuscule part of their diet isn’t significantly transforming the flavor.
Your blood, sweat, & tears is a preeminent factor in the fruit of any of your homestead endeavors. Whether in the garden, from the barnyard, or out foraging in the woods, those vital ingredients sweeten each bite produced with the knowledge, sacrifice, and effort it took to yield.
In reality, the flavor is going to be more influenced by breed, movement, and stress at butchering rather than the bit of nuts, roots, and grubs a pig will be able to forage. (The work of which foraging may actually create a calorie deficit for them at the end of the day.)
More likely than one specific addition of food source, a difference in taste above your market chop will be the product of the diversity of diet.
Scavenging hogs diversify their diet above a CAFO hog but so does your typical homestead hog fed scraps from the garden, raw & cultured dairy surplus from the family cow, and numerous other farm goods that would otherwise go to waste and can now be converted to bacon. Try coaxing the kids to take a pail of slop to this week’s paddock on the back 40 tonight. Maybe your children are more willing helpers than mine, but sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get them to walk it to the barn or sacrifice pig pasture.
Therein lies a major difference between the Ideological Woodlot Pig Farmer and your average homesteader who raises a couple of pigs in the barn or field. At the end of the day, efficiently putting pounds in the freezer is a primary objective for those not engaging in agriculture as a hobby or to create niche market products.
Feeding a family by effectually converting that waste into flesh is our goal.
We don’t starve our pigs by forcing them to forage. In return, ours finish twice as fast with a fraction of the labor and double the fat, an invaluable byproduct of raising hams here in the Midwest where your only sustainable fat sources are animal products.
The astronomer looks high, the geologist low. Who looks between on the surface of the earth? The farmer, I suppose, but too often he sees only grain, and of that only the mere bread-bushel-and-price side of it. - John Muir
While the principle of recognizing the created nature of the pig is laudable and should be encouraged, the whole notion of regeneration in regenerative agriculture is being thrown to the wayside as the pendulum swings from the mere bread-bushel-and-price side of farming to a wild hunter-gatherer side. (But without the hunting & gathering.)
And in the containment of the hog lies all the trouble.
Our homestead has 35 acres of woodland. Throughout are mature black walnut, hickory, beech, and oak. Sounds perfect for raising pigs, right?
Most of that land is in a glacial ravine carved out ages ago, declining to a creek bottom and studded along the way with boulders chipped off as the floe crept through. An honest man would concede that, had the land been ideal, it would long ago have been stripped of its timber and turned under a plow, extracting as much profit as possible.
Instead, because of its very imperfection, time and death have been allowed to work their restorative powers and create the delicate, beautiful understory that now exists. As we meet April I’m eagerly anticipating the unfurling of undergrowth. Trillium, trout lily, bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, ghost pipe, ferns, wood sorrel, Solomon’s seal, Dutchman’s breeches, mayapple, golden blossoms of ragwort, and the pastel blossoms of Dame’s Rocket. Each spring I gather wild violets, cleavers, chickweed, dandelion greens, & nettles from the woods for a nutritive tea blend. I cherish the slowing of time while gathering the plants in an otherwise bustling garden season.
We raise two hogs each year and probably should start raising a 3rd as our children’s appetites grow with their age. The sparse density of the nut-bearing trees, however, would mean a great deal of supplementary food & water systems need to be installed or trekked up and down the hillsides, greatly increasing the time to do chores and the cost of infrastructure… and therefore the pork.
Without those supplemental rations, quick rotations would be necessary to keep up with the demanding appetite of a hog, destroying even more of the woodland floor, faster. With supplemental rations, what’s the point again?
Those pigs would take longer, perhaps much longer to finish. I’ve observed nearly double the time from hogs out of the same litter. (We can speculate on how much fewer rations those pigs actually ate in the end.)
Managing woodlot pigs would mean additional erosion along the paths we walked, to say nothing of the destruction capable at the end of the snout, undoing hundreds of years of biological growth with the effortless nod of a head. Roots become exposed, soil washes away, and over time trees lose their grip upending in the wind. The tender woodland plants I look forward to visiting, which have taken decades to establish and propagate, are crushed under the hefty bulk of a cloven hoof. To say nothing of the unseen world in the soil. A fungal web system instantly destroyed and replaced by a bacterial system when turned over, allowing opportunistic invasive species to take quick and firm hold. (The same principles apply to any plow, whether it came off the assembly line of man or God’s plow, the pig.)
I’ve walked the forests of The Ideal Woodlot Pig Farmer. I’ve seen the diversity of the forest floor to my left. And the single species of vegetation blanketing last season’s pig paddock on my right.
My delightful diverse woodland would be full of Japanese stilt grass or garlic mustard in a year.
Balance in life is key. It is what we ought always to be striving for. Rarely, is the solution to problems going to be found on the farthest swing. And such is the case when raising pigs as well.
Our stewardship of the earth doesn’t end where our belly’s need for flesh begin. Our goals must be to intertwine our drive for self-sufficiency with a whole-earth management principle. Whatever in our sphere we put our hands to should be cultivated with thoughtful care for the long-term wellness of each and every acre.
The decision to convert each space for food production should be carefully considered. Is there a less impactful way to produce (perhaps more) food? Even if that means we won’t be praised and emulated for following a trend. Likewise, we should not simply aim to extract from the land as much as we can, rejoicing that our destruction was slower and without machines than our Big Ag counterparts.
I imagine most homesteaders’ land lacks the idealism ours seemingly has. Most are restrained by the time and infrastructure barriers to be removed before making the Ideal Woodlot Homestead Pig feasible.
There is good news for the majority who do not own woodlot farms & homesteads. There is actually a very compelling reason NOT to raise your pigs in the woods…
In a D-deprived population, raising pigs in the sun has been shown to significantly increase the quantity of Vitamin D in the meat. When given the choice between the false dichotomy of CAFO confinement bacon & bougie woodlot chops, the best answer may actually be neither!
While a woodlot pig may be able to root around to their heart’s content, snuff in the fresh air, move their limbs, frisking about with each other in all of that space, they are still sheltered by the canopy of leaves from the Vitamin D producing rays of the sun.
The glorious thing about animal flesh, especially for those of us in the northern climes where our ability to create Vitamin D in our own bodies is hampered by the distance from the sun in the winter and a frequent thick layer of cloud cover in the shoulder seasons, is they can store Vitamin D they created in their flesh and nourish us with it when we’re unable to harvest our own.
From a study entitled Sun Expose in Pigs Increases the Vitamin D Nutritional Quality of Pork:
Although swine are generally raised in confinement, they, like other agricultural animals including cattle and chickens, have the capacity to synthesize Vitamin D. Sun expose in pigs, therefore, has the potential to increase the Vitamin D content in pork.
The study demonstrated how “vitamin D3 is readily sequestered by adipose tissue, while 25(OH)D3 is distributed throughout the body and is taken up by skeletal muscle tissue.” In fact, the amount of vitamin D available was over double!
Does this mean you shouldn’t raise your pigs in the woods? God forbid. Who am I to say how you raise your pigs. That’s the point.
Listen to the experience of others, by all means, but your first teacher should be your land. The unique fingerprint your farm makes on this earth cannot have systems grafted on from another. Apply all advice, all pitches, and everyone else’s ideologies and weigh them in the balance. Test them if they appeal to you but have a teachable spirit and be ready to be fluid with your setup if something isn’t working in practice on your farm.
Be curious. Do comparisons, and take notes. How much did you feed a woodlot pig? A pig set up on pasture? The pig rooting for kernels of corn under their straw bedding in the barn? How long did each take to finish? Were the breeds different? How much was your final yield? Did one system yield more fat that can be used for lard?
Many are overwhelmed and looking for suggestions. If they were not it wouldn’t matter that the “experts” were talking into the wind. We’ve been raising pork for our family for nearly 15 years and if woods were the only place I had to raise pigs I would probably do the same as I’ve done with ours on pasture. We sacrifice two paddocks- 1.) This Year and 2.) Next Year. Divide each of them in half so the pigs can get moved to fresh ground partway through the year. Typically, our pigs stay in the first half-paddock longer than the second. They’re smaller and younger (obviously) so they won’t tear through the ground as quickly. For the last 3 or so months of their life, they move to the second half-paddock.
The following spring, we will disc & reseed the #1 plot, leaving it to rest for a year. Then repeat the cycle in the #2 paddock. Clearly, discing a woodlot plot isn’t going to happen so seeding with a cover crop to hold the soil may be a good idea. Perhaps a mix blended with tillage radishes to help break up any compaction?
I would suggest you consider making your system so that in fall your pigs can come out of the woods and into the sunshine while vitamin D is still available for them. Even if that means placing them in a confined space for a time.
Perhaps you’ll think your woodlot pig has the most superior flavor over any other piece of pork that has entered your parted lips and settled on your tongue but you can definitely be content knowing it was a happier animal never having lived in tight, dark quarters on a cement pad.
And you’ll have satisfaction in that it has a higher nutritional value too.
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