Agriculture

Pasture Raised vs. Barn Raised

If there’s one thing I’ve discovered since starting my blog, it’s that inspiration can sometimes be hard to find. I suppose I did kind of already know that, though, since inspiration was the hardest part for me when I used to paint. It would take me forever to come up with an idea, but once I did, everything just happened.

So after a bit of a lull here, I found some inspiration that came in the form of a quick conversation.

A few weeks ago I was at a wedding and ran into my friend’s aunt, who I haven’t seen in quite awhile. In the midst of the conversation and her asking what I had been up to, the conversation rolled right into William and I raising pigs.

“What do you feed your pigs?” she asked.

I told her that our pigs are fed a diet of mainly ground up corn and soybeans.

“Well why don’t you feed them grass?” she continued.

I’ll be honest, the question threw me off for a second, but I explained that pigs are a lot like humans: they can’t break down and digest the cellulose in grass.

“But corn and soybeans are bad,” she said.

Once again, I was slightly puzzled. I mean, I’m no stranger to this thought. With just a few clicks through the internet you can find hundreds, maybe thousands, of articles about how ‘corn and soybeans are bad.’ But to actually hear the words out loud in a serious conversation stopped me in my tracks. After a brief pause, I continued to explain that we can let our pigs out into a pasture, and they will most definitely root around and eat various plants that they find, but we need to supplement their diet with corn and soybeans so we can raise healthy, nourished pigs.

I was happy to see that she was very interested in what I had to say, rather than defensive. If there is anything I want you to take away from my blog, it’s that I want to have a conversation. I want to hear differing points of view, and learn from each other. We decided that we would end the conversation for the night, but promised to meet up for lunch sometime to discuss the topic further.

Since then, I have been wanting to write a little bit about raising pigs in a barn versus raising them on a pasture. This has become a hot topic in animal agriculture as food labels like Grass Fed, Grain Fed, Grain Finished, Pasture Raised, Cage Free, and Free Range have surfaced. (Whew! That was a mouthful!)

I can’t pretend to be an expert in this subject, as I am still very new to raising pigs, but I wanted to share a few thoughts to explain why we choose to raise our pigs the way we do.

First, I should mention that there are 3 ways most pigs are raised: 1) on large farms in confinement buildings, 2) on smaller farms in pens and barns, and 3) on a pasture or field. All three serve a different purpose, and ultimately it is up to the farmer to decide the best way to raise his or her pigs.

For the most part, William has small pens set up in our outbuildings and we choose to keep our pigs inside. However, we just moved our sows out back onto the field William recently harvested, where they will stay for the winter.

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Since there are so many options, how does a farmer decide the best way to raise his animals?

First and foremost, he needs to consider what pigs (and all living things, for that matter) need to live: food and water, shelter, and space.

Personally, I think raising pigs in a barn covers more of those bases than raising pigs on a pasture. It’s true the pigs are limited on space when kept inside, but in my opinion, the pros outweigh the cons in this situation.

Food: When our pigs are in separate pens in the barn, it is much easier for us to monitor their diets. Whether we feed them a certain amount once a day, or let them eat little by little from feeders that are always full, we can keep an eye on their eating habits, thus allowing us to notice changes that may indicate sickness or malnutrition. Also, by feeding only a few pigs at a time, we can help to ensure they don’t fight over their food. I have personally seen pigs that are too scared to eat because a more dominant pig fights them when they try to get close.

Water: Ok, I may be slightly biased on this one. I hate carrying water to the pigs! 5 Gallon buckets are heavy, and if the pigs splash around or tip their water pan (which they will) it can be very hard to make sure they have enough water at all times. When we keep pigs in the pasture, we can can run a hose out to a big water tank, eliminating the need for buckets, but we run into a different issue: ice. We live in Illinois. It’s not uncommon for January winds to bring -20 degree temperatures. We need to keep an eye on our water tank to make sure it doesn’t freeze in the winter. For these reasons, I lean towards barn raised, rather than pasture raised pigs. In our barn, nipple drinkers connected to a water line are set up in each of the pens. Pigs are very smart and very curious, so it doesn’t take them long to figure out that squeezing the nozzle releases water for them to drink. This is beneficial for the pigs because they have access to water 24/7, and beneficial to us as farmers because NO HEAVY SLOSHING BUCKETS! (Alright, maybe just beneficial to me. I’m weak, alright! It’s hard for me to carry those darn things!)

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Shelter: I don’t know that this one needs all that much explanation. Pigs need shelter from the elements. Once again, we live in Illinois. Today it’s rain, tomorrow it’s 100 degrees, the next day it could be snow. Like humans, pigs can get sunburned, and they can get too hot or too cold. In the barn we can provide them shade, and we can even set up heaters for those cold winter days. Though we provide the pigs with A-frame houses for shelter, and lots of extra corn stalk bedding for warmth, it is much harder to keep them safe and comfortable in the pasture.

There are many different things to consider when deciding whether to raise livestock inside a barn, or outside in a field. As I said before, it is ultimately up to the farmer to decide the best way to raise his or her animals. Regardless of the choice he or she makes though, you can rest assured knowing the farmer puts the needs of the animal first, and always makes the well being of the animals a priority.

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