Feed is the essential building block of any animal. Although we are raising our pigs on pasture we still provide a complete diet for them to ensure all of their needs are met. Fresh, clean water is provided at all times via heated watering troughs. Our pigs also have access to fresh green grass and clover in the summer and good quality hay in the winter.
Our Berks also enjoy daily variety in their diet provided by the addition of fresh eggs, milk, fruit and veggie scraps. We intend to add sprouted grains into their daily ration this year.
*We do not add any chemicals, antibiotics, animal by-products, growth promotants or hormones to our pig’s diets.
Pasture and Housing
Our pigs live outdoors year round. They have access to large paddocks during the winter. In the summer we expand our pasture area to allow them to forage and roam larger areas. Shelter is provided in the form of 3 sided calf shelters with deep straw bedding. The pigs fare just fine in the winter as long as they have enough straw to burrow into and a buddy to snuggle with. Our paddocks are large enough to allow for the pigs’ natural behaviours including rooting, running (yes, even our big mamas run around at times!), rolling, foraging, playing (baby pigs LOVE to play), laying in the sun, digging up a nice, mucky wallowing hole and defecating in a designated area (they are very tidy!). Wallowing (laying in a mucky hollow in the ground) is the pig’s way of regulating their body temperature. You may wonder why our pigs look so muddy in some of the pictures. We allow our pigs to lay in muddy wallows and to root (push up soil with their noses to eat the tender plant roots below). We allow a “pig to be a pig” so on our farm, a muddy pig is a blissful pig! We find that the pasture system also allows for our pigs to run around, roam and exercise quite a bit, improving fitness, leanness and muscling.
Our primary fenced paddock area (aka “The Pig Plex”) is comprised of hog panels reinforced with pipe at pig shoulder level. Pigs are strong, intelligent and destructive. We found they were able to pop the hog panels right off of the post without a stronger barrier at shoulder height. We have had success with grazing mature animals on pasture fenced with tight barbed wire but the little wee gaffers require mesh or they will be all over the countryside. We have had very limited success with electric fencing but others swear by it. The key is to be sure to train your pigs to the electric fence prior to releasing them or they will get a blast, bulldoze through the fence and refuse to cross it to return.
It was very important to me to not only provide for the pigs’ physical well being, but for their social and mental well being as well. We run a small breeding herd and they are all closely bonded to each other. I make every effort to ensure that everyone has a “buddy” that they live with year round.
Our sows are bred to farrow twice per year (early spring and late fall). They have the winter off. Breeding is done naturally (live cover) on pasture. Our boars are fairly docile and agreeable sorts of fellows so they run with the sows for most of the year. We observe their behaviour closely to record breeding dates but we do not intervene with the breeding process.
In my 4th year at the U of S I did a research project on farrowing behaviour in sows. That project left a real impression on me. Perhaps the biggest difference between our operation and a commercial hog situation are our farrowing practices. We do not employ farrowing crates on our farm. Prior to farrowing we move each sow to its own large paddock with a three-sided shelter bedded deeply with straw. Part of the natural farrowing process is for the sow to build a nest using substrate such as straw, branches, grass and leaves. This process is an important part of the farrowing process and even has an effect on the hormone levels of the sow. My project impressed upon me the importance of nest building on regulating the hormones of farrowing and the sow’s stress levels. For this reason I wanted to be sure my “girls” would have the chance to raise their babies in a natural fashion, including the crucial nest building component. Our sows farrow in their nests with no intervention. We check on the new family but do not disturb them during their first few days of life. As long as everyone is up and sucking we are happy to let them be.
Sows raise their families on pasture. It is a wonderful sight to see one of our big mamas sauntering around on pasture with a whole fleet of glossy piglets trailing her. It is a pleasure to see and hear a contented mama laying in the sun grunting softly as her piglets nurse in the sunshine.
We wean our piglets at 7-8 weeks, based on sow condition, which is later than the industry standard. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, we are not pushing our sows to produce a maximum # of piglets/year so there is no rush to rebreed her right away. This allows her to raise her piglets for the 7 weeks and still have a break to get back into condition. Secondly, I feel that allowing the piglets to stay on their mama longer means they have a head start and are better equipped to handle the stresses of weaning. By the time we wean our piglets at 7 weeks they are eating very well. To wean we remove the sow from the pen, allowing the piglets to remain in the place they’ve come to know as “home” thereby reducing the stress of the process. We are currently weaning 8-9 piglets/sow which is less than the industry standard but we are pretty happy with that considering the smaller litter size of the heritage breed Berkshire and our less intensive management.
Our piglets grow up and are finished outdoors. We finish our pigs between 225-250 pounds live weight. We have found that the carcasses tend to be too fatty if we finish any heavier. Our pigs are raised right through finishing with their litter mates and try to keep the stress of mixing larger groups to a minimum.
Stress and Handling
Maintaining a low stress lifestyle for our pigs is very important. We try to provide all of the essentials for “pig happiness” – good food, fresh air, clean water, sunshine, grass, cozy beds, companionship, mud for wallowing and fertile soil for rooting. We strive to handle our pigs in a gentle and respectful manner, refrain from chasing and stressing them, and using our handling facilities to aid in moving them from one location to another. We have developed a regular feeding routine to ensure that life is predictable. We spend a little time each day for ear scratches and back rubs. Quality of life and respect for all creatures is paramount on Ravenwood Ranch. When pigs are finished and transported to slaughter we take care to minimize stress and handle them slowly and gently. We transport them ourselves to a nearby government inspected slaughter house where they are processed quickly and humanely. I am there when they come into the world and I walk them right into the chute on their last day. I truly strive to provide them with an excellent life between those days.
Preventative Health Care
We maintain a very small, closed herd of breeding animals. In the beginning we vaccinated with Litterguard and Farrowsure B. Since we began raising Berkshires in 2007, we have not lost a single pig to infectious disease. Consequently, at this time we do not maintain a routine vaccination program within our herd. Please talk to your vet to determine the best vaccination program for your herd. We do reguarly deworm our hogs with Ivomec or Safeguard. These preventative health care measures ensure our pigs will have healthy, productive lives.
We do not vaccinate or treat our feeder piglets with any chemicals to ensure clean, residue free meat. This program was developed under the supervision of a veterinarian. We do not clip the piglets teeth or tails as we feel this is an unnecessary and stressful procedure, and have not noticed any problems thus far.
We are in the process with experimenting with leaving the boar piglets intact to determine if there is any off flavour to the meat. So far it appears that there are no ill-effects to meat quality as long as the animal is finished prior to sexual maturity. So far we have been happy with the results of removing castration from our protocol. Reduced stress, pain and increased growth rates are all positive news.
There is a biosecurity program in place on at Ravenwood Ranch to minimize the disease risk to our animals. If you are interested in coming out to view our animals please contact us to set up an appointment and learn more about our biosecurity requirements.
Please do not hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about our management system.