Over the past 7 years, as a local producer, I have struggled with the frustrations of trying to keep my foot in the door with the latest sustainable food production trends, and have had my fair share of failures and learning experiences. Admitting, pastured pork has been by far the most difficult project on the farm to try and achieve. The demand for organic, grassfed anything in this area is tremendous; and as a producer, I'm always invested in trying to please the customer first and foremost. Lessons learned, I have finally come to the realization that not all environments are created equal. Just because Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia (where there is 50 inches of precipitation annually) can raise pastured pork, does not guarantee the same results are procurable on my farm, Heritage Belle Farms, in Colorado (where there is 14 inches of precipitation annually).
Because I raise grassfed beef, I, like many of you, are well aware of the benefits of eating pastured pork, such as being naturally more tender and juicier than conventional pork, lower in calories and fat, and higher in Omega 3s, Conjugated Linoleic Acids (CLAs), Vitamin E and Beta Carotene. I'm on the bandwagon with all of you, and would love nothing more than to produce, sell and eat pork from local, organic, happy, pigs rooting and trotting around in a lush emerald green pasture. I'm sorry to burst your bubble folks, but if you truly wanted to support and eat locally, pastured pork would not be in your diet.
There is a reason why the Pikes Peak region doesn't and never has supported omnivorous feral pig populations. I only know of one producer in Southern Colorado who is truly producing pastured pork on a small scale. However in their situation, its only possible because the farm is a dairy (able to supplement their hogs with dairy products) that is geographically located in a different environment with access to irrigation, where they have the ability to plant and water crops (corn and legumes) for the dairy cattle and pigs. Remove the access to irrigation, and this farm wouldn't be able to grow fields of alfalfa and clover, which feed the dairy cattle, which in turn supplements the pigs. Point being, water is life. Where there is moisture, there is bacteria. And where the bacteria is, determines the appropriate type of livestock farmers should raise, i.e. the appropriate type of meat consumers supporting local should eat.
Pastured pork is in part possible due to planned grazing, getting the animals to the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons. Holistic Management teaches about the Brittleness Scale. "All terrestrial environments, regardless of total rainfall, fall somewhere along a continuum from non-brittle to very brittle. For simplicity, we can refer to this continuum as a 10-point scale, 1 being non-brittle and 10 being very brittle. Environments can be classified along this continuum according to how well humidity is distributed throughout the year, and how quickly dead vegetation breaks down (rapidly through biological decay, or slowly through chemical oxidation and weathering)." In an environment that tends toward being non-brittle, such as Polyface Farm in Virginia, there is more humidity, thus bacteria are able to thrive all over in the environment, doing their part to break down biomass, allowing vegetation to grow very well. However, in an environment that tends toward being brittle, such as Heritage Belle Farms, on the high plains of Colorado, humidity is low, and the necessary bacteria needed to break down biomass are predominantly found in the stomachs of ruminating animals.
Pigs being omnivorous, do not strictly eat grass like a cow would. They need a varied diet of both plant and animal proteins. Like humans, pigs only have a single chambered stomach, not a 4 chambered stomach like cattle, and are not very good at breaking down oxidizing plant matter, thus they are not well adapted for life on the prairies and grasslands. Bacteria need moist, warm environments to thrive. So based on the Brittleness Scale, the distribution of humidity, and where beneficial bacteria can be found in a given environment, different livestock are more appropriate to raise in different environments, and pastured pork is not realistic to sustainably raise in Colorado.
The following two maps are of the distribution of feral hogs and what was the distribution of the wild bison. I would argue that based on the Brittleness Scale, climate and geography, the map of bison distribution is where grassfed livestock can sustainably be raised, and that the map of the feral hog distribution are appropriate locations for sustainable pastured pork to be produced, since clearly the environments are already able to harbor wild pigs.
After putting much thought into it, there are 5 good reasons why pastured pigs have not done well on my farm, and why I will no longer not attempt to raise pastured pigs, but rather humanely raised, free-range pigs instead.
1. I was overly optimistic about my pasture quality. Pigs need high quality pasture in order for it to be anything other than supplement to grain. Think clover, or other legumes as a good percentage of the pasture. Pigs love to eat almost anything they have access to on pasture: grass, clover, plant roots, broad leaf plants, and even thistles. They do, however, do best when they have access to additional protein, specifically lysine, which they need in order to be truly healthy and happy. In modern CAFO’s (confined animal feeding operations), lysine comes from soybeans that are roasted, ground, and incorporated into their feed but for small homesteader pig operations the best source of cheap, clean, lysine is often outdated milk products. Outdated milk is an especially good alternative to soy-based feeds for farmers who want to avoid feeding GMO’s to their herd. That being said, I do not raise dairy animals (goats or cows) and do not have access to outdated dairy products. Certified non-GMO feed is available, but its incredibly expensive, and must be trucked in from Nebraska, which most of the time has previously been trucked from somewhere else in North America.
We currently feed our pigs a tasty specialty formulated mixture, we refer to as Premium Pig Slop, of salvaged canned goods (fruits, vegetables, and fish) and dry goods (beans, rice, pasta, cereal, breads, etc.) from a local food bank that would otherwise end up in the landfill. Naturally resistant to botulism, our pigs are doing their part to reduce the Colorado Springs community's waste. We never administer any unnecessary antibiotics, steroids, or growth hormones, nor do we do unnecessary procedures on the piglets such as cutting wolf teeth, docking tails or castrating. Though my pigs are not organic, they are what I would consider all-natural, humanely treated, free-range, recycling foragers.
With all the hype over the Paleo diet, only eating grassfed and "pastured" meat, and avoiding grains and gluten, its easy to forget that pigs still need lysine in their diet, either through dairy products or through legumes, such as soybeans found in a grain mixture. Feeding grain seems to be the most predominant form, probably because it is the easiest to obtain for producers. Joel Salatin openly admits that he feeds corn, and in every picture I found of Polyface Farm's pastured pigs, there is always a grain feeder. As consumers, please don't be so quick to judge producers who do supplement feed with grain because it might be their only option when raising pastured or free-range pigs. Pork producers in Colorado have it hard, especially those of us that are trying to raise natural, organic, or pastured pork. Even if we can't afford to feed organic, I guarantee we are still feeding something 10 times better than what was fed to the pork you bought at Walmart or even at a chain grocery store.
2. Looking back, I probably ran young pigs on pasture with too little of feed. The general rule is the younger the pig, the less the animal is able to utilize roughage from the pasture. I probably did not provide enough good feed supplementation to sows and their young.
3. I experimented and relied on alternative feeds as a main source of feed. In the past, I've attempted to feed my pigs everything you can think of, from stale bread to produce items, to distiller grains and everything in between. Pigs are pretty good at eating everything they are given, but it will usually show up in health and weight gain. Some alternative feeds are fine, but I should have done my research first, learned some nutritional facts about swine before attempting to launch out, and it would have saved me tons of time and pork in the end.
4. I didn't see the clues of pigs that were starting to decline in production. As a farmer, I need to know if an animal isn't doing well before it does. Staying on top of observations is critical. Holistic Management teaches us to plan, monitor, control and re-plan...something I clearly wasn't doing very well. I was reacting to situations when I should have been proactive and planed for the same.
5. Choosing the wrong pig for the pasture. With the term "heritage breed pig" being thrown around all over the internet many folks wrongly assume this is the holy grail of pastured pigs. It should be a head start in the right direction but it's simply not a guarantee that pigs will do well on grass. Many of the heritage breed pigs are being moved away from what made them great by breeding for different goals then the small farmer would have. If you see a certain heritage breed showing up at all the fairs and in show pig magazines you can bet the breeder of those pigs has a different set of goals in his breeding program than will fit into your small farm with much success. That doesn't mean there aren't lines within those breeds that are being developed for pasture and old time hog raising. Just don't assume that heritage breed automatically means good pasture hog. Another issue I had was breeding pigs with little or no experience in putting together a breeding program that would move me toward my goals, assuming I had goals and wasn't just winging it.
Because I try to be as conscious and sustainable as possible, and because of all these factors listed above, and the environment that my farm is located in, I have decided that pastured pigs are not the appropriate manner of pig husbandry for my operation. So NO, for the millionth time, my pork is not pastured! If you are truly concerned about supporting and eating local food production, I suggest you support farms/ranchers who raise livestock that are meant to thrive in this area, not who struggle to keep invasive husbandry methods alive. Support farmers/ranchers who plan their grazing and responsibly and ethically graze and raise 100% grassfed beef, veal, lamb and goat, as well as farms/ranchers who raise cage-free/free-range pork and poultry. For more information on the products that my farm, Heritage Belle Farms has for sale, please visit our website at www.HeritageBelleFarms.com
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Heritage Belle Farms
22755 East Garrett Road
Calhan, CO 80808
Heritage Belle Farms is our private residence, and is NOT a public farm. Please make arrangements to visit the farm or to make a purchase from the farm. Thank you