Setting up the gestating sow system

By Jim Van Der Pol, Kerkhoven, Minnesota — Hogs fit on grass farms: It is up to the grazier to decide how.

In our combination crop and livestock farm, the hogs are a better market than the elevator for the field crops. Hogs also provide a good balance in the cropping scheme through their ability to use anything from hay to grass to barley or rye, plus a healthy dose of crop residues. The cropping part of our farm, about 160 acres, is aimed at producing hog feed and bedding. The grass part of our farm, also about 160 acres, was until last year dedicated to sheep and hogs. This year the sheep (just a few, for our marketing business) will be bought in for the summer, and replacement dairy heifers have been added to the farm.

In both cases, there is a synergistic effect with multiple species. We do little species-specific grazing. The hogs were rotated with the sheep in the past, and will do so with cattle henceforth, on an annual basis to help nature clean up parasites. Our hope is that the cattle and hogs fit together ina way to maximize pasture production from year to year.

If a grazier is producing finished hogs, then annual pastures of high-carbohydrate forages are the ticket. Or perhaps working and composting of winter manure packs is better. We do some of each, and I will discuss finishing hogs in conjunction with alternative feedstuffs in a later article.

This article will deal with gestating sows. In the next, I’ll talk about pasture management of sows and piglets to weaning.

A hog-grazing operation can fit on annual pastures rotated with the cropping scheme, which has a nice parasite control aspect, or they can go on permanent pastures. For us, the sows fit on the permanent pastures because our land is heavy clay and poorly drained. The sows need that highly developed sod base to walk on. Our pastures are basically brome and quackgrass, with about 40-60% alfalfa and red clover. This is good hog pasture, and good footing.

Success with sows depends upon feeding the gestating sow right. Feeding only grass/legumes is just the ticket from a few weeks after breeding until six weeks before farrowing, provided she is in good condition and the pasture is prime.

For about half of her 114 days of gestation, plus a week of breeding, she needs a little grain in addition to the pasture. Our rule of thumb is about one and one-half lb./head/day, fed three times a week, which is about 20 or 25% of the conventional gestation grain/protein supplement diet. We feed just shelled corn. If she is to survive in our system, she must be able to gain her protein from pasture.

In our opinion, daily grain feeding for pastured sows is a waste of time. We generally feed the week’s ration in thirds on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The grazier has to determine how to feed grain. If your sow business will be year around, as ours is, and you have a feed center or “come and go” feeding stalls back at the barn, you will want to establish a return lane from whatever paddock layout you choose so that the sows can be fed a grain ration several times a week.

But if your barn feeding system is cheap or non-existent, you can just as easily establish a stocker-style layout where the sow herd lives in pasture at all time through the season. We use the stocker layout now, but as the wintertime production part of our business expands and we equip our sow barn for that work, we may want to establish walk-back lanes. (Wintertime production fits in with next month’s article on farrowing.)

Since we feed the grain on pasture, we use distance to get decent “boss sow” control. We take care to string a line of grain right in the grass for as much as five or six hundred feet. The dominant critter, if she is going to get more than her share, will have to run herself to death to do it.

We employ a stocker-style layout with division fences of polywire that we can drive over with our skid loader carrying the sow feeder. Our perimeter fences are all of four strands of high tensile wire, at one, two, three and four-and-a-half feet (bottom and top dead, middle two live). For subdivision, we have seven individual windup reels with two strands of polywire installed on each. We are able to get two runs of 600 feet on each reel. These two strands are strung out and hung upon fiberglass rod or plastic step-in posts.

This is something of a holdover from our former sheep grazing operation, but it works wonderfully for hogs — especially when there are piglets to train. For them we set one wire about six inches off the soil surface. The upper strand is generally set at about 18 inches for the sow, who will get a shock while slipping under it, and then another when running back through. Since hogs are very sensitive, a medium-size low impedance charger is plenty even for a large hog operation as long as you stay away from steel posts. The fence needs to carry just 3,000 volts to be really effective with hogs.

Stocking rate runs about nine to eleven sows per acre of good pasture for the growing season, though this gets a bit heavy for our western Minnesota land in September. This holds both for rotated gestating sows and set-stocked sows and litters, as the sows with litters are getting more grain. When we graze the hogs separately, we like to set up about four to six paddocks of one to 1.5 acres each. The entire herd of 50 to 70 sows is rotated about once a week as a group. The reason for this scheme is that we use the sows both to develop legumes in the sward for the current year and to prepare for overseeding legumes for the future. (More on overseeding in the farrowing article to come.) Since the sows eat the legumes by preference, we want to use them a little like a hay mower — not more often than once every month or six weeks. This is sometimes compromised to keep up with the grass, or we may need to clip the paddocks. This year, we will try to rotate the cattle right through hog paddocks in current use to deal with the grass.

Hogs are not like cattle, and they must be moved differently. We unhook the polywire reel at the high tensile division fence, walk it back to the first tread-in post, and wind the polywires around the post. The reel can then be laid on the ground, and the rest of the fence will look real. Give them a day to move themselves. Each one must decide for herself: Never rush a pig.

Since farrowing hogs must be set-stocked (more on that in a later article), you must have some sort of pasture water system unless you want to cart it to them regularly. We laid one-inch polypipe along two interior permanent fences. This year we will be burying 1.25-inch pipe for the first mile to make our pastures more user-friendly for the cattle in the winter, plus increase our water volume at the ends. We have a plastic-threaded tee every 75 feet or so with a brass hose bib screwed in. Our equipment is set up with garden hose fittings.

We water with a two-hole, float-style drinker bolted to a small wood platform or an old truck mud flap. It is wise to buy at least one drinker for each paddock in the grazing rotation, as they are harder to move than cattle watering equipment, and are cheap at $60 each. They will need to be staked down sometimes. Drinkers should always be installed close enough to the hot wire to encourage decent behavior. The hogs will let you know how close is necessary.

On warm days we use sprinklers for cooling and to increase grazing time during the daylight hours. We make them out of an 8002 crop sprayer nozzle drilled out round, and fastened to a post with duct tape (nothing too good for a hog, you know!). On a hot day this can be set next to the fence and connected to the pasture water line. It will spray a stream of water 20 feet into the paddock, diverting their attention from the drinker. On hot days it is also good to distance the drinker from the permanent fence. We tie polywire about 10 feet long to the hot wire and to a plastic post set off perpendicular to the fence. Lay the hose under the wire and set the drinker into the pasture at the end. It will make grade repair easier the next spring. Use a piece of soft (hot) wire to spiral down the plastic post to discourage them from playing with it.

Hogs also need shade, so we stake farrowing huts in the grazing paddocks. Two or three sows can get enough shade from every hut.

We ring the sows. We use a humane-style ring in the cartilage between the nostrils — similar to a brass bull ring. This is effective and does not create chronic soreness like the over-the-nose-lip style. We do not ring pigs, because they are off permanent pastures by the time they reach 50 pounds. Repairing hog bathtubs and drinker holes with the skid loader is a regular spring chore on our farm. It is not a big deal.

Try some good reading
The grazier who wants to add hogs needs to avoid much of the “pushing on the rope” knowledge that has powered the hog industry for the past 20 years. But there are two or three books worth reading. One is Swine Science, a text by M.E. Ensminger, distinguished professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. My edition is a 1970 republication of the 1952 original published by the Interstate Printers and Publishers, Inc., of Danville, Illinois. This book has been nearly as helpful to me as several older hog men in the area.

Also useful is an English book, Outdoor Pig Production, by Keith Thornton. It was published in 1988, by Farming Press Books, 4 Friars Courtyard, 30-32 Princes Street, Ipswich IP1 1RJ, United Kingdom. Thornton’s subject is the thriving British outdoor hog business, though he is not strong on the relationships between the animal and the grass.

And you might take a look at Dirk van Loon’s Small Scale Pig Raising, published in 1978 by Storey Books, Schoolhouse Road, Pownal, Vermont 05261. van Loon’s “homestead” approach results in much useful information about not only production, but also uses of the hog.

Jim Van Der Pol grazes and direct-markets pork, chickens, and beef from his farm near Kerkhoven, Minnesota.