Permaculture Design for Pigs, the Farmer’s Friend

How Permaculture Pigs Can Work for You on the Land

Permaculture Design for Pigs, the Farmer’s Friend

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Permaculture is a holistic method of observing the ecosystem and farming in harmony with nature’s processes. It aims to protect the environment, while reducing labor and improving the quality of harvest. Its philosophy embraces various techniques and designs, including no-dig gardening, companion planting, and pasture rotation. The aim is a sustainable system tolerant of climate change. Pigs integrate well into the system. Here, we will look at a permaculture design for pigs that rotates cultivation with pasture.

Amy and James Russell have embraced the restoration of biodiversity on their homestead. The 50-acre farm in northwest France consists of a mixture of woodland and pastures. The Russells integrate vegetable, fruit, and perennial cultivation, while alternating crops with pig and poultry grazing. Pastures and woodlands are sustainably managed by rotating animals frequently through a string of small paddocks. They wanted to grow healthy, sustainable food, and read about the plight of livestock in industrial farming. As a result, they prioritize high welfare standards, natural methods, and the preservation of natural resources, including wildlife habitats. They sell their products on-site and at markets to customers seeking top quality organic products.

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Amy Russell at her mobile produce stall.

The Value of Heritage Pigs in Permaculture Design

The Russells find their pigs to be invaluable helpers for clearing the land of unwanted plants and leftover produce, and for preparing new growing beds. Traditional breed pigs live free range on a varied diet, producing unique and flavorsome products for which the couple have built up a loyal customer base.

Inspired by permaculture farming innovators, such as Sepp Holzer (an Austrian farmer in the Alps), the Russells have found that the natural behavior of pigs enables them to farm the land with less effort. Natural pig foraging behavior has beneficial effects to the land and ecosystem, while keeping the animals happy and healthy.

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The rooting action turns over the soil to allow sowing of crops.

Sepp Holzer keeps old breed hogs on his mountain farm who live outdoors all year round. He finds old breeds hardier and more in touch with their instincts, which make them useful workers and productive mothers.

Modern breeds have sadly lost the full expression of some of these survival traits. The pigs stay in family groups and are not overstocked. Holzer makes sure that each paddock provides all pigs need to be comfortable, healthy, and safe: shelter, water, wallow, and forage. They are regularly moved on so that the pasture is not overgrazed. In this way, they need minimal husbandry, avoid parasites and stress, and stay contented and healthy.

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Jobs for Hogs

Each paddock presents a new job to do. This may be digging up an overgrowth of weeds (feed can be scattered among the plants to encourage the pigs to concentrate on those patches). It could be turning over the earth to make way for a new crop; their digging loosens compacted soil and aerates it. Pigs can also help keep down grass and weeds in orchards, as they do not damage trees, and they consume windfalls, thus avoiding proliferation of mold. As omnivores, pigs eat bugs and grubs, so are useful for pest control. Once they are trained to eat snails (by mixing snails in feed), pigs will readily seek them out. In conservation areas, pigs can improve plant diversity by breaking up overgrown areas and allowing pioneer species to germinate.

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Duroc and Kunekune weaners cleaning orchard of windfalls and weeds.

After they leave each paddock, Holzer sows a mixture of crops, avoiding monocultures at all times. After these are harvested, some are left in the soil for the pigs to root up when they return. Jerusalem artichokes do very well in this system, as digging stimulates their spread, and pigs relish them.

Preparing a Crop Bed

The Russells have adopted this permaculture design for pigs. They regularly create new beds for mixed cultures of annuals, as previous beds become sites for cultivating perennial vegetables and fruit bushes.

They plan ahead for next year’s plot. In the spring they fence off the plot with three low wires of electric fencing, including any areas within the plot they do not want the pigs to dislodge (e.g., fruit canes, perennials). The pigs grub up grass, roots, and other plants, while they loosen the topsoil. They enjoy healthy, natural activity and a varied diet, while the soil benefits from their manure. All paddocks need a water source and shelter, and a wallow in the hotter months. You can choose the best site for their shelter by first observing where the pigs normally rest. Alternatively, place their hut where you plan to rot compost: although pigs keep their bed clean, they will trample bedding into the soil, forming an ideal base of organic matter.

Amy Russell shares her method of preparing beds with pigs.

When they have completed the bed, the pigs move onto a new plot and chickens move in to scratch and spread their dung, consuming parasite eggs and larvae. The Russells then plant a cover crop over summer, then mulch it over winter, for readiness the next spring.

Natural Motherhood Informs Permaculture Design for Pigs

For efficient living in a natural state, piglets need to learn foraging and survival skills from their mother. For farrowing, sows move to the woods, where they can build nests in natural comfort. Log cabins are available, but sows often choose a thicket and bring in grass and plant matter as bedding. The Russells’ hardy Berkshire and Mangalitsa sows have been marvelous mothers in this system. Sows raise their piglets in the woods, then the youngsters move on to work pastures and orchards as they mature.

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Sow and hidden piglets wallow in a rewilded ditch. The piglets are hidden in the long reeds.

Adapting to Difficult Times

Both breeds develop a tender, flavorful, marbled meat over time. Although output is not prolific, it is high quality. Despite the popularity of their pork, customers demanding leaner meat led to the purchase of a commercially bred Belgian boar of Piétran stock. Although an endearing fellow, he took time to adapt to outdoor life and needed considerable training to become self-reliant.

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Amy Russell maintains her client-base during the pandemic by selling from her outdoor stall.

Then the threat of African swine fever led to changes. New biosecurity requirements made breeding pigs financially unfeasible for a small producer. In response, the Russells now limit pig farming to buying and raising weaners to supply their customers. Duroc and Kunekune weaners are doing a great job of grazing the orchards and working the soil. While the family are maintaining their market, return on their investment will be slower. Fortunately, farm cottage rentals allow them to keep afloat during hard times. Farm stays include an educational nature/farm walk open to residents and customers, allowing safe and healthy outdoor activity in an era of social distancing.

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Originally published in Countryside March/April 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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