Free-Ranging With Hardy Pig Breeds
Heritage Breeds Thrive on Outdoor Range
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Free-ranging allows pigs to satisfy their curious natures and engage in fulfilling activities. They can improve land fertility and diversity, assist farmers in their work, and provide tasty and nutritious food. These benefits require good management of well-adapted breeds that can thrive outdoors with the minimum of intervention.
Choosing the Right Breed
Before meat production was industrialized, pigs were hardy and adaptable foragers. Selection for larger, leaner, more prolific, and faster growing lines has reduced hogs’ natural ability to balance their diet and care for their young. Although all pigs retain the drive to perform natural behaviors, old breeds can implement them more effectively and remain self-sufficient to a much greater degree. With less emphasis on production performance, heritage breeds have been able to retain the hardy traits required for outdoor living and the flexibility to deal with changing conditions.
Heritage breeds are slower growing and produce fewer piglets per litter (four to 12). But this has its advantages. Sows are in a better position to provide and care for their whole litter, so piglets grow stronger and healthier. Their meat also acquires better flavor and texture through the long growth period.
Old breeds include some larger types, such as Hereford, Red Wattle, Mulefoot, Duroc, Berkshire, Gloucestershire Old Spots, Hampshire, Saddleback, and Large Black. Smaller breeds include Guinea Hog and Kunekune. The hardiest types, such as Ossabaw Island, Mulefoot, Guinea Hog, Choctaw, Tamworth, and Mangalitsa, are well able to provide for themselves on large ranges with minimum supervision. Think about the conditions your pigs will need to cope with and whether they are suited to those environments. Each breed has its own special adaptations: hairy coats shield them from cold and rain; hair and pigmented skin protect against sunburn; strong, sturdy legs allow foraging over rough terrain; lop ears protect eyes when rooting.
Native breeds, such as Guinea Hog and Ossabaw Island in the Southeast and Choctaw, South Central, excel at survival in their homelands. Red Wattle hogs cope well with a wide range of climates, including the heat of Texas. The Mulefoot is ideal in the Midwest and Mississippi, where its solid hoof is well adapted to damp conditions. Hereford work well in the upper Midwest and Great Plains states. All these breeds share the essential qualities of being good foragers and excellent mothers. Most are docile, although protective mothers can be aggressive. Some Choctaw and Ossabaw Island hogs have a more feral nature, needing experienced handlers.
Can Pigs Feed Themselves?
Pigs are foraging omnivores with a highly flexible diet. Roughly 10% of their natural diet would be soil bugs, worms, and small vertebrates, as they need 10 essential amino acids. Fast-growing piglets and weaners and lactating sows have higher protein needs. Unless they are very hardy old breeds with plenty of land, they will need supplemental feed. The rest of pigs’ diet is plant matter, including roots, young shoots, berries, green grass, leaves, and bark. Their hind-gut microflora enable them to extract protein and energy from these fibrous feeds. Inevitably, pigs have a love of sweet and starchy foods, which serves them well at range where they require higher energy intake. Traditionally, they favor acorn and beechnut masts, grain, and (in Hawaii) fern-tree trunks. These days, we might need to supplement fast-growing and prolific breeds with grain or commercial feed. Whey, pumpkins, and excess vegetables and milk also help to satisfy protein and energy needs. Conversely, small lard breeds like American Guinea Hogs and Kunekunes are prone to obesity and are better kept on a high-fiber forage diet.
Does Foraging Nurture or Destroy the Land?
For pigs to be self-sufficient and non-destructive, they need plenty of land. All breeds dig up soil and root around for grubs and roots, even those famed for being gentler on pasture, such as Kunekune. On the one hand, they are useful for preparing beds: they plow up turf, turn up stones, eat nettles, weeds, and roots; they loosen and aerate the soil and you can guide them to areas to weed and decompact by scattering seed. They can be trained to seek out slugs and snails. They can work stony ground unsuitable for a machine. On the other hand, they do not till the soil as finely as you would wish, even compacting soil where heavy sows trample, lie, and wallow.
You would not want them to use the same pastures as herbivores, because they would destroy turf, making the ground more uneven, and delaying recovery of vegetation. So where should they be free ranging? Woodlots and marginal lands are ideal, as are plots that will be converted to vegetable beds the following year, crop beds after harvest, and orchards. The secret is to rotate frequently before land and trees are stripped bare. If pigs denude the land, it will take a long time to recover, suffering erosion and water loss. Woodland takes even longer than pasture. You will need to monitor how quickly pigs are getting through the vegetation and move them on before 70% is damaged. The land will need at least 30 days to recover, but it is best not to return pigs for a year, to avoid reinfection by parasites. Managed carefully, pigs can actually help to restore biodiversity by clearing predominant weeds and scrub and opening soil for new species to colonize. But care must be taken not to overstock the land, allowing no more than one to five pigs per acre, depending on available sustainable forage.
Another useful job for pigs is clearing up windfalls and leftover crops after harvest, preventing the spread of mold and disease as well as supplementing their diet. Their manure can be used as fertilizer after six months in the ground or when composted, perfect timing for a clean-up visit to the vegetable garden in the fall.
Essential Fencing, Shelter, and Water
Initial outlay in sturdy fencing is essential. Pigs love to rub against posts and trees and their weight can easily break fencing. Woven wire on sturdy wooden posts works well with a nose-level hot wire and braced corner posts. Once you’ve trained piglets to avoid hot wire, you can use electric fencing to temporarily mark out additional foraging areas. Check regularly to ensure low wires do not short out. Shade and water are vital, as pigs easily overheat at temperatures over 73 degrees F, and pale skins are prone to sunburn. A woodland stream provides a natural solution: running water on a dirt surface allows a pig to form a wallow; through bathing, mud cools on the skin and provides a protective layer. Trees and portable wooden huts can offer shade. For best effect, place huts in areas pigs favor when resting. Providing straw bedding in winter allows hardy animals to overwinter on the land.
Pigs are happiest in female family groups, including last year’s offspring. However, sows seek solitude a day or two before farrowing. She may walk some miles to find the ideal, sheltered site away from the herd. She may choose to nest in thick vegetation, even if you provide her with the perfect barn. Once found, she digs a shallow and protects it with branches which she lines and overlays with grass and soft vegetation. In cold weather, she will build it thick and warm. Once complete, she starts to farrow. She remains passive during birth to avoid accidental trampling of young. So, it is important that she remains calm and undisturbed. She remains close to the nest for a couple of days, then starts to join the herd for the morning feed. After a week, piglets start to join her and gradually integrate with the flock. Good mothers are protective and sensitive to the cries of their young, lessening the chance of predation or crushing. However, if you need to bring them in to avoid predators, provide a large, private area with a separate dunging zone, and sloping bars beside the nest to allow piglets to escape crushing.
Allowing pigs to express these natural behaviors and consume a varied diet provides a happier, healthier life for you and them, and can play a role in holistic land management.
Cornell Cooperative Extension | Špinka, M., 2009. Behaviour of Pigs. The Ethology of Domestic Animals | Pork Information Gateway | Sepp Holzer
Originally published in Countryside November/December 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.