September already?
by Pete on September 4th, 2013

It's hard to believe it is September already.  We have three chicken harvests under out belts with just two more to go!  The first group of pigs have already gone all the way home and our rabbit herd has grown leaps and bounds this season.  We've made huge progress cleaning up the new property in Sudbury where we moved to last August but much is still to be done.  In some ways I look forward to the fall where we can transition from growing and harvesting to infrastructure improvements and more land clearing to open up the space and make it more beautiful then ever.  We have big plans for the coming season including farm tours and more...

Pigs in sudan grass

As in years past, we grow a variety of crops for the pigs to enjoy during their time with us.  Forage is not only important for the health and well being of our pigs but the organic matter improves the fertility of our land and protects our soils.  The pigs relish munching on tender shoots and relaxing in the cool dewy grasses.  In the image below you can see a field of sudan grass the pigs are meandering through.  Sudan grass is a tropical and heat loving grass that thrives in warm soils and grows very quickly.  While it looks like corn, sudan grass does not put out an ear like corn, if allowed, it will put out a seed head and try to reproduce.  We often don't let it get that mature as it can then become more woody and less palatable as a forage.  Once most of the forage is consumed or trampled on,   the remains of the crop are tilled into the soil and we replant a new forage.  The length of time the pigs remain on a field depend on the number of pigs on a field, the density of the forage, the time of year and their rate of impact.  When it's time to move the pigs on, we just open up the electric fence to the next field and shift them over.  All our feeders and shelters are easily movable so this is quite easy.  Depending on the time of year the next crop could be more sudan grass, or a cooler loving forage such as rye or oats and peas. 

New SARE funded mobile cooling wagon

This season we were awarded a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant to study the effects a mobile cooling platform would have on our pasture raised pigs.  For the past several years we have been concerned about the negative impact pigs can have in woodlots.  During the hottest of the summer months the pigs spend much of their time relaxing in the cool shade of trees in our small woodlot or in the overgrown multi-flora rose on the field edges.  Over time these areas have degraded somewhat with large craters forming where the pigs have dug nice little comfy spots for them to relax in.  Manure can build up in these areas and then become a haven for pests and disease to proliferate.  The reason the pigs are holed up in these areas is because the open fields are just too hot during the summer. 

An idea was born...

What if we built a mobile cooling platform that shaded the pigs from the sun, provided an occasional mist of cool water to keep the whole area comfortable, and also incorporated a clean water source to drink from - all right  in the same spot.  This platform could be moved throughout the fields easily - so the pigs impact would be spread out, as would their manure.  At the same time, the pigs would be only a step away from the forage we are growing for them - thus increasing their intake of home grown feed. 

So we did our research and discovered that evaporative cooling is used widely in the conventional livestock industries, especially in swine production.  It has been proven to improve well being and comfort of pigs in confinement settings - so we thought it would do the same for our happy free-ranging hoggers!  We then wrote up our idea and submitted it to SARE.  Our grant was approved this spring and will go through the end of 2014.  We will be evaluating the cooling effects of the wagon on the pigs weight gain as well as monitoring other factors such as relative humidity and temperature below the wagon as compared to the forest where the pigs were kept in the past.    And of course we will be evaluating the impact on the land.  We are very excited about this opportunity and look forward to sharing our results as the grant continues into next season. 

The wagon below is still in it's development phase.  We have alot of refinements to make but as seen in the photo below - it is fully operational.  The two tanks provide potable drinking water as well as the reservoir for the cool misting shower.  Pipes run horizontally along the deck of the wagon with small misting heads poking down through the deck every few feet.  The red cooler on the left contains a car battery powered water pump and a timer.  A solar panel keeps the battery fully charged so the pump can operate continuously.   

Cup waterers provide a clean source of drinking water.  The pigs learn to press a small paddle with their nose - which then turns on the pump - and pumps water into the cup.  Pigs are naturally curious and intelligent - they love exploring with their snouts and learn to drink from the cups very quickly.

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