How we do this! What goes into our pasture & woodland-raised pork production and why.
Photo: Pigs are an important tool for restoring or at least mimicking productive and abundant ecosystems like the oak savanna.
WANT TO KNOW HOW WE RAISE OUR PIGS?
Read here for some of the details of what goes into it!
At Blue Dirt Farm we’ve been fortunate to produce great pork products from the beginning. The bar was initially set high, and although there are always some bumps or ups & downs, the trend towards better and more consistent results is a good one!
The most important aspects all need to work together to bring you a product you can have absolute confidence in and know your family will enjoy!
Much more goes into each of these than I can cover in a blog post but I’ll do my best so you can at least get a feel for it and begin to understand some of the whys and hows of producing top quality pork. We do our very best at Blue Dirt Farm to put it all together and do it in a way that benefits the land by building soil health, increasing water infiltration and holding capacity, and increasing functional biodiversity. When done right, this results in a beautiful and abundant landscape!
HOW WE MANAGE OUR HOGS
While every other part of the equation is important, I chose to put management at the top of the list because it’s one of the biggest considerations we face and I believe the best opportunity to set us apart in terms of product and positive impacts on the land.
It’s an ongoing process! How we manage today will likely look different in the future as technology changes and our understanding of the pig’s role on the land (hopefully!) becomes more clear. I say hopefully because nature is our teacher but she speaks in metaphor and often the lessons go against reductionist intuition.
I try to see things from the perspective of the pig and it’s role in the ecosystem. This requires a lot of observation, knowledge of succession and other patterns found in nature, and a willingness to accept feedback. The principles of soil health are another guide to follow:
- Keep the soil covered
- Not always the easiest to do with pigs! Frequent moves are key, sometimes seed and mulch too.
- Limit disturbance
- Plant diverse cover crops, keep invasive species in check, manage appropriately for the good of the pig and the land!
- Keep living roots
- Trees, perennial plants, and the principles above help to achieve this.
- Integrate Livestock
- Like pigs!!! But also other species as the system evolves.
Hopefully it’s becoming clear why movement is so critical to success in achieving great products and a healthy & abundant landscape! In nature, pigs fit the role of both predator and prey. As omnivores they can eat about anything! Knowing this role and as I learn what they like and don’t like getting to know the pig at a deeper level becomes a possibility. Pigs in the wild do not stay in a tight confined area like the pigs in modern industrial production. They have legs! They run, they wallow, and move themselves from place to place influenced by factors like forage availability and even predator pressure in some instances.
We strive to do our best to mimic these forces using the best technology we currently have available; portable electric fence. When the pig impact in one area becomes too great they are moved to the next space. On the day-to-day level there’s no rigid pattern to follow. To imitate the apparent randomness in nature we don’t follow a set rotation. We don’t always start or end in the same spaces or follow the same path. The size of the fenced in area changes as well.
There are however some more general patterns worth noting. When growth is the fastest (early to mid-summer) we move the pigs most frequently. When the weather is damp, especially in times of low evaporation in the early spring and late fall, we give them larger areas to lessen the acute impact (also during these times forage is less abundant so the pigs would naturally spread over more area to find food). Then there’s the special circumstance of acorn drop which occurs some years! During this time the pigs might have the run of large areas to gather one of their favorite foods. The general impact during this time is low since they’re not rooting much or taking much interest in any other forages for that matter. Also, if management was good leading up to acorn time, there should be plenty of high-carbon plant material blanketing and protecting the soil from the hooves of wandering pigs!
The keys to success with portable electric fence that we’ve found keeping the voltage high and making sure the pigs are happy where they’re at. This means clean water, plenty of food, enough space, and relatively comfortable conditions. If these criteria are met there will be little issues with escapes! Having a good perimeter fence and/or a buffer between the pigs and busy roads or neighbors is an important consideration too. Under most conditions a single strand of electric poly braid at 8,000 volts is sufficient to keeping pigs right where you want them to be!
Photo: Portable electric fence (on the reel) is integral to how we manage.
While there’s so much more to say here I’ll leave it at that for now! I will continue to learn about the pig’s role on the land and in the ecosystem so I can continue to improve the management here at Blue Dirt Farm. Hopefully a trip to La Dehesa in Spain, where Iberico pork has been produced under the oak savanna for hundreds of years, will happen in the next couple years and I’d really like to observe large groups of pigs in the wild either in an area where they’ve become invasive or better yet as a native species.
One last and important note here is that pigs seem to thrive in wooded or savanna areas and this is why we seldom describe our pork as “pastured pork”. Although this terminology seems to dominate in marketing, the message it portrays does a dis-service to the pig. Pigs have an awful time out on open pasture in hot weather. Even confinement barns would be more comfortable to them in some situations! At least they’d have some shade and cool concrete to lay down on! Blue Dirt Farm pork is Pasture & Woodland-Raised because we want the pigs to live as closely under our management as they would in a natural ecosystem as possible and practical. Our pigs almost always have access to the natural shelter trees and shrubs provide. The only exception may be briefly during times of the year that aren’t too hot or too cold and we try our best to pay attention to what the animals are telling us.
WHAT WE FEED OUR HOGS
First off, I’ll openly admit I don’t know a lot about the science of swine nutrition. Therefore, the exact ratios of ingredients and details around supplementation of certain minerals and the like is left mostly in the hands of our trusted partners. Although this will be changing soon! More on that at the end of this section. What I do insist on though is diversity in the feed ingredients and standards with those ingredients.
Natural forages of course play a big role at Blue Dirt Farm. The management described above helps ensure that a large part of the pig’s diet comes from what’s growing on the land. And over time, through planting of diverse perennial crops (trees and shrubs included!) we aim to increase this portion. Because pigs have a monogastric digestive system, unlike ruminants such as cows or sheep, they require more refined feed sources. Some farms may attempt to feed hogs exclusively off of forages but they are not well-suited to this! Also, for this reason, it’s rather difficult to scale up hog production the same way you could scale up something like a cattle herd. The laws of thermodynamics simply require energy sources that are more refined than the (mostly cellulose) plants that ruminants can thrive off of! Another reason the pork raised here is designated as Pasture & Woodland-Raised!
Photo: Early spring as the grass greens up! This is one of the few situations when our pigs are "pastured" vs. pasture & woodland-raised.
So what do we feed the pigs?
- Our feed is always non-GMO!
- It’s a diverse blend of grains, forages, and minerals
- Soy-free finish
- Organic (currently) or soon: nearly organic (and we think better!)
Our two current sources of feed mixes are Hy View Feeds in Southeastern MN and locally from our organic farmer Gary Yokiel. Hy View supplies the soy-free organic feed used in the last 3 months before pig harvest to ensure that any potential hormonal imbalances caused by soy consumption are brought back to normal levels. Is this really a thing? I’m no expert but soy is said to have some negative effects on the endocrine system so at least I feel better about the product. Another important consideration is matching up the breed to the feed. Our pig breed was developed using mostly barely as a feed source and no soy. Therefore, soy is completely removed for the final finishing and even before that it’s at a much lower level than is typical for hog production.
I’ve worked with Gary for feed since moving to the homestead and getting chickens! His feed is excellent! As mentioned, there is some soy since that’s one of his crops, but there’s a diversity of organic ingredients in his mixes including alfalfa, barely, oats, peas, corn, and various whole-food minimally-processed supplements. The alfalfa in the mix is one way he can keep the soy to a minimum which is extruded whole so it smells wonderful!
Here’s what’s coming next! : Starting this season we’ve begun growing our own feed mix! This is a way to better manage the supply, to keep nutrients on the farm, and to extend the positive impact of the way we raise hogs onto even more land. Now wait a minute, your probably thinking “how is raising grain in a field a positive impact?” Fair question! One of the reasons I say we think raising our own feed is even better than organic is that we are adding crop diversity to land that was previously only used for commodity corn and soy production. This low-diversity, high-input management greatly diminishes soil life over time and typically loses valuable soil carbon to the atmosphere. The same soil health principles outlined above definitely apply to crop land!
Our new regenerative cropping system has diversity at its core. The feed grains are being grown in a mix and while I can’t get into all the details without making this post even longer I will say that this supports a greater community of soil microbes and those microbes are bedrock of healthy functional soil. The feed grains break up the usually rotation and create even more opportunity for diversity and even integration of other livestock such as cattle. The mix we grow consists of barley, field pea, oats, and wheat. To this we select certified organic ingredients needed to bring this to a balanced supplemental ration that our pigs will thrive on.
What you can always count on us for is feeding only high-quality feed supplements and all ingredients will be organic certified eligible or grown here on our own farm. The grains and forages we grow are always non GMO and absolutely no herbicides or other pesticides will be sprayed on crops that will be harvested. Regenerative practices will be followed to the very best of our abilities!
If you ever have questions about the feed used here, or any other aspect covered in this post please get in contact. Transparency here is a cornerstone and one of the big things that sets us apart!
THE BEST BREED?
I was fortunate to have a chance meeting with the person who would become a trusted partner in this pasture & woodland-raised hog adventure many years ago! And it just so happened that this person had taken a big interest in a breed that was still very new to North America.
Mark Peterson has become a friend and early on mentored me in the basics of keeping pigs as well as marketing and processing. To this day I continue to learn from him and the piglets we purchase to grow and finish out at Blue Dirt Farm are nearly all born on his farm.
The very first Mangalitsa pigs were brought to the US in 2010 from Hungary via the Netherlands. After nearly going extinct in the 1990’s they’ve made a formidable comeback and for good reasons! Considered too fatty to some, this was the whole point of the breed and others like it. At the time it was developed in Europe, industrial seed oils were not common and hogs were an important source of fat. Unique to the Mangalitsa (or Mangalitza, or Mangalicia) is the exquisite quality of this fat. Creamy and light, also said to have a high omega 3 to omega 6 ratio making it a “healthy fat”. Even the fat cells of this breed look different under a microscope being more plump and consistent than normal.
Another great thing about the breed is they’re like what I often describe as “little wooly mammoths”! Their most distinctive feature is their thick wooly coat making them almost sheep-like in appearance! During warmer weather they do shed most of this coat and “slick down” which helps them keep cooler. Between the thick coat and a the typical thick layer of fat the Mangalitza is well-adapted to our Minnesota winters! They thrive with very little or even no built shelter but stay most comfortable and healthy with plenty of straw or other bedding material. At Blue Dirt Farm we give them access to an area that’s out of the wind, use lots of bedding, and make sure they can get under cover. An area where they can get some winter sun is great too!
Photo: "little wooly mammoths!"
So is the Mangalitza the “best breed”? Other than mentioning the fat I didn’t yet get into other qualities found in the products. I won’t say it’s the “best” breed but I will say that the flavor is amazing! Usually the meat is well-marbled however it’s been shown that sometimes the actual inter-muscular fat (marbling) isn’t visible. In these cases it’s definitely still there and is evident by the juiciness and flavor. The only potential shortcomings I see are the smaller cross sectional areas in the cuts of meat and the slow growth rate. All great things take time!
As a way to keep all the good qualities and somewhat mitigate the less desirable attributes we typically get Mangalitza piglets that have been crossed with Berkshire genetics. By having one parent from each breed (or sometimes one parent as a hybrid itself) we get the benefit of “hybrid vigor” in the pigs we raise for our customers. They grow slightly faster than a purebred Mangalitza would. Another change, also typically seen as an advantage, is a slightly higher meat to fat ratio in Mangalitza-Berkshire crosses. Who doesn’t like a little more meat right? Lastly the other tweak to our way of raising these pigs is that we tend to harvest them at a slightly smaller weight than what Mangalitza’s are traditionally finished out at. This too, slightly tips the meat to fat ratio closer to the meat side since otherwise, during those last months of growth, the hog would typically be adding more fat than muscle.
The last consideration I’ll mention is disease and parasite resistance. Many heritage breeds probably shine here but I can say with certainty that keeping our Mangalitza or Mangalitza-Berkshire hogs healthy on pasture has been a breeze! The management and diet certainly have a role to play too but we’ve seldom had any issues with pig illness (like only 2 or 3 problems!) after raising hundreds of pigs with no antibiotics, dewormers, or shots of any kind. However, please do know that we will do whatever we can to help a sick animal. If any medications were to be used, the animal would be marketed in a transparent way.
Overall, there are many great reasons to raise what’s been called the “Kobe beef of pork”!
PROCESSING: BRINGING HOME THE BACON!
This is where it all comes together and we definitely want to pay extra close attention here! Blue Dirt Farm has worked with several processors in the past and while most of them were good, we definitely observed strengths and weaknesses that varied among them. We want every customer to bring home beautifully packaged products that are cut or processed in a skillful, safe way that surpasses expectations. Furthermore, we want to get everything done the way you wanted without mistakes or anything forgotten. With products that require extra processing like ham or bacon, consistency is critical too!
Our current main processor does very well in all these regards and does a great job of paying attention to details. It’d be a shame to raise an animal for months only to have everything ruined by poor processing standard! Mistakes still do happen occasionally but my promise is to do my best to make it right when they do.
Another important side to this is again from the perspective of the pig. To me, processing begins weeks for that “one bad day”. I want to take extra special care during that last week some the pigs are in top condition. This means extra space, especially if it’s during wet muddy weather, so they can stay relatively clean and continue to get plenty of exercise. Another ingredient is paying extra-special attention to the feed and forage. Again, this can mean extra space so there’s more forage to selectively browse on, and sometimes extra supplements in addition to the regular feed mix. In the winter especially, we’ll provide silage, sprouted grains, or some other special “treats”!
Next, extra care is taken to make sure the sorting and loading process is easy and stress-free. And I mean for us and for the pigs! To do this we let them get used to the trailer and use their curiosity or food to get them into a smaller portable sorting pen. Usually the evening before the trip to the processor is when this step takes place. Once they’re confined to the trailer or sorting pen we make sure they have fresh clean water and some straw bedding when appropriate.
Care is taken during actual trip to the processor too! Other than driving gently we never take just one pig at a time since they are social animals. I believe this makes it less stressful to them. The unloading and eventual slaughter also need to be handled in a way that’s gentle and as stress-free to the animal as possible. It’s definitely not the fun part but we must still keep calm and behave in a way that honors the pig and sacrifice taking place. Even from a product quality point of view this is critical because of stress hormones and the negative effects they have on the products.
Thank you reader for staying with me through this section. I believe that as humans we thrive best off a diet of both animal and plant products but we should maintain a deep appreciation for this circle of life and the roles other life play in it. I hope you’ll remember this as you gather with family or friends to enjoy your delicious products from Blue Dirt Farm. We’re grateful too for the people working at our processor to help bring it all together for you!
For a greater sense of connection as individuals and a better ideas leading to a better world collectively, we need to seek greater understanding of nature's way.
I hope that by spending some time learning about what goes into pasture & woodland-raised pork you’ve gained a much deeper understanding than you would by simply skimming through a FAQ section or reading some marketing jargon. You are most likely a true supporter of regenerative agriculture and choose what you eat with great care and consideration!
Oh course, I don't have all the answers and will need to keep an open mind in order to advance. And the key, with anyone, is to start where you're at. Let's make this a dialog and keep on learning! All it takes is an increasing understanding of nature's ways to bring about better ideas that lead to:
- Greater wisdom in our ideas
- Better products
- Healthier bodies and minds
- Increased biodiversity around us
- More abundance in natural resources
- A beautiful landscape to call home!
Please get in contact anytime you have questions or if you’d like, arrange a visit to Blue Dirt Farm and see for yourself how everything I’ve described above actually comes together in detail through the actual practices.