Organic Broadcaster

Pastured pigs being raised at Hoch Orchards. Photo submitted

Farmer shares challenges, costs, results, of pastured pig demonstration project

By Harry Hoch

At Hoch Orchard, we have been experimenting with animal rotations in our fruit plots for several years. We strive to create a perennial fruit system that mimics nature with animals feeding on plants and stimulating the biology in the soil. Our goal is to strengthen the soil, break fruit-pest life cycles, and produce high quality meat without taking land away from human food production.

In 2016, we received a grant to focus on this project from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program. Our project was more of a “proof of concept” than a research project that tests specific practices. We hoped to demonstrate the viability of adding animals to perennial fruit production, and believed this concept could be applied to any perennial system or even a mixed annual and perennial vegetable system.

Infrastructure
Although we had been rotating animals through our fruit plots prior to the grant project, we found many problems with our system that limited the scale of animal production on our farm. Our property is set up with a 10-foot woven wire deer fence enclosing about 60 acres of land. Just inside that deer fence is a high-tensile electric fence creating a ring pasture around the perimeter of the farm.

We used the ring pasture to move animals around the farm without having to go through the fruit plots. We used the pasture fence to power temporary ribbon or mesh fence when we put animals in the fruit plots.

The system’s drawback was the time required to set up the temporary fences. We also had a lot of trouble with animal escapes and fences failing.

For the grant, we laid out a good schedule and had a good crew in place to set up fencing. Our plan was:  Year 1 – Collect data on time required to rotate hogs using temporary fencing. Erect permanent fencing and track time needed. Year 2 – Finish fences and install gates. Track time needed for rotations using permanent fencing. Host a field day through MOSES, focused on livestock fencing. Year 3 – Install water lines, track rotations, have final field day, and create a report comparing temporary fencing with permanent fencing. Also report on the income per hog and the cost of raising a hog on pasture.

This all seemed simple and easily managed. We expected everything to be done by November or December of Year 3 (2018). However, as is often the case in life, things did not go as planned.

Fall of Year 1 went well. Our intern worked with the harvest crew after apples were picked and got almost all of the main runs of fence put up. We saved money on posts by nailing multi-species woven wire fence to the windbreaks that divide the fruit plots. Then things went downhill.

While our animal production intern did a great job her first year, she had some life challenges in Year 2, making the responsibility of animals difficult. Piece by piece, we moved her animal responsibilities to others. We did not have time to install the corners and gates, and had to use portable fencing to close off the paddocks and use as gates. Even still, the permanent woven wire fence along the windbreaks made it much easier to set up temporary paddocks.

We had big plans to finish the corners and hang gates after harvest. That’s when the weather became a roadblock. Harvest ran late and an early hard frost made fence work impossible.

Year 3 presented similar challenges. In March, our cider salesman moved away, leaving me to manage cider sales and animal production. I sold off most of the feeder pigs in the spring and did not order any poultry in order to streamline the animal project. We went into the summer with a manageable group of feeders and a small flock of sheep.

I moved the pigs a few times during the summer using electric mesh fence as gates and filler where fences were not finished. Moving animals only took a few minutes where the new fencing was in place.

In August, our part-time farmhand who had helped with fencing and animal chores announced he was leaving for a full-time warehouse job the first week of September. That left us short on experienced workers who could rotate the pigs through the fruit plots. So I set up a small run for the pigs just outside the animal shed. They could get outside to graze and root a little, but got all their nutrition from waste fruit dumped in the feed trough. We had a good crop of apples and lots of cider pumice and grade outs so the pigs got all the fruit they could eat.

In a typical year, we would move the pigs as fruit ripened. The raspberries finish in August, so we would flash graze through the patch to clean up the last over-ripe berries and take out some of the weeds. From there, they moved to the cherry trees and then on to the apricots. Apricot trees always drop a lot of fruit during harvest so the pigs have a lot of fruit to glean. Their powerful jaws crack through the pits and all. Then the pigs move to the plum block and finally to the summer apples.

In Year 3, October had record rainfall and the most challenging harvest of my entire career, with daily rounds of mud, rain-soaked workers, and stuck tractors. When we wrapped up harvest, it was far too wet to auger holes and build H braces to hang the gates.

When it finally did dry off, we put the entire crew on fencing and built one last run and hung two gates to make two completely fenced plots. As soon as we finished, the temperature dropped below average and stayed there. The wet ground froze like concrete so no more gate posts would go in the ground in 2018.

Project Results
The main lesson we learned form this project is that sometimes you can’t control things that impact a schedule. While we had a good project, we fell short on good luck. Ours is a cautionary tale for other farmers; it only takes a few bouts of bad luck or bad timing to really throw off a project. Fortunately, our project was intended to be a demonstration, not strict research. Even though we did not get all the data we had hoped to collect, we were able to demonstrate how our concept could work.

We have data for two years of pasturing hogs in our rotational system. We tracked the time to feed, water, and move the pigs, including time to set up and take down portable fencing, and chase loose pigs.

Year 1
310.75 hours to maintain pigs on pasture
46 total moves
31 pigs consisting of 4 sows and 27 feeders
240 days on pasture
10 hours of labor per pig over the season
.041 hours per pig per day

Year 2
255.7 hours to maintain pigs on pasture
33 total moves
54 pigs consisting of 6 sows and 48 feeders
205 days on pasture
4.73 hours of labor per pig over the season
.023 hours per pig per day

In 2018 (Year 3), we moved our one small group of pigs about five times. No time was spent catching loose pigs. Less than 10 hours was spent putting up temporary fencing to complete the perimeter of partially fenced blocks or to act as gates. Moving animals into paddocks was less than a half hour per move.

There is a huge savings of time when utilizing permanent fencing. After all the fences are complete with gates, we should be able to get the average time spent per animal down to under an hour each over the season—a tenfold reduction in hours.

Some of the permenant fencing install at Hoch Orchards as part of the project. Photo submitted

Fencing Costs, Recommendations
We already had a perimeter fence in place and nailed 8-42-12 woven wire to windbreak trees. This lowered fencing costs quite a bit. We spent $3,118.81 on materials and had 119.5 hours of labor to install 4,870 feet of fence,creating 12 paddocks averaging four acres each. We did not install gates and have been using portable energized mesh fence to close off the paddocks.

The amount we spent on fencing simply serves as an example of how much cheaper fencing can be when using existing materials such as our windbreak. The pricing research I did is worth sharing to help other farmers estimate the cost to add fencing for pastured livestock.

The prices here reflect the cost of materials when I started the project three years ago, although fence costs have not changed very much since then. The cost of a straight run of fence is not very high; it’s the corners and gates that increase the price considerably. A good rule of thumb if you are not planning to install the fence yourself is to double the materials cost. A professional will charge about as much for installation as materials.

Woven wire is $.45 per foot and the posts are $9 each. 1,000 feet of fence is $1,350 or $1.35 per foot. One corner requires three posts in the ground and two posts for the top of the H-brace. Hardware for corners is about $10. One corner adds $55.00.

A gate requires an H-brace on each side. That is another six posts, hardware, and about $150 for the gate (depending on size) and its hardware. One gate adds $214.

A site that is not square and requires many extra corners is going to be more expensive. In fact, sometimes it is cheaper to run a longer fence than putting in three corners to go around an obstacle. Farmer ingenuity can reduce costs. Using an oak tree as a corner, or running up to an existing barbwire or electric fence will save some money.

We used a moderately priced high-tensile woven wire designed for multiple species. I can’t emphasize enough the value of knotted woven wire over old fashioned low-tensile welded wire. High-tensile wire can be stretched tight like piano wire and still have some give. A tree falling on the fence or a tractor driver misjudging the width of the wagon can break posts and knock down long stretches of fence. Woven wire can be pulled back up when the broken posts are replaced. Old-style welded wire kinks and breaks and requires much more time to replace and repair.

The wire we used has 8 horizontal wires spaced closer near the ground and wider higher up. The vertical wires are one foot apart. The height is only 42 inches, but we figured we could add a single wire on top if we needed more height. That top wire could be hung with insulators and be energized.

One problem I found with the wire we chose is that small feeder pigs under about 50 pounds could hop up to the wider horizontal wire and squeeze through. We have found that pastured pigs that are getting most of their nutrition from the pasture are hungry most of the time. They have to eat a lot of high-fiber, low-calorie food to grow. They will pressure the fence a lot more than a grain-fed “pastured” hog. We should have spent a little more money and gone with either an 8-42-6 which has twice as many verticals and costs $.60 a foot, or a 13-48-12 which has horizontal wires much closer together and costs $.68 a foot.

Five-inch diameter seven-foot-long treated posts are a good strong option for making pasture fence. This size can be pounded in without shattering or can be augered in. This is a very common size that is often on sale at farm stores and lumber yards. Metal T-posts can also make good line posts. Their advantage is they are cheaper than wood; you can often find used ones at farm auctions for a low price. T-posts can be put in fairly quickly with just a post pounder.

T-posts have a few disadvantages. Installing the woven wire can be trickier when you are stretching it and attaching it to metal posts than wood posts. This style of fence should be anchored at one end then stretched with a clamp system and a tractor on the other end. Sliding the wire past a smooth round post works well, but sliding wire against a T-post can snag. The job will require a few more sets of hands. Attaching the wire to the T-post also requires a special clip or cutting thousands of pieces of malleable wire that can be twisted tight on the post. Attaching the wire to wooden posts just requires pounding a few simple U-nails.

Posts should be spaced with the type of livestock in mind. High-tensile woven wire fence can be stretched tight and will not break if cattle or other heavy animals lean on it or push into it. You can space your line posts as far apart as 24 feet for some grazing animals.

Hogs are a different story. A mid-size feeder pig or adult hog can get his snout under the wire and push it up enough to slip under. By spacing posts 10 feet apart, there is not enough slack for a pig to get under.
A literal interpretation of the National Organic Program rule is no use of treated posts in any new fence construction or the replacement of broken posts. A certifying agency may require a 24-inch buffer between treated posts and the organic livestock. I have been told I have to fence off my corner posts so the animals cannot contact the treated posts.

I have been using metal T-posts for line posts and cedar for the end posts and H-braces. In some cases, the certifying agency may allow treated posts for paddocks that are used for flash grazing. This is contrasted with fencing that is used for corrals or feedlots where the animals are near the posts for extended periods of time or in regular contact with the posts. A farm that is transitioning to organic production will most likely have the existing field fences grandfathered in, but cannot use treated wood to replace broken posts.

Always talk to your certifier before you install fencing with treated posts. If you do install new treated posts and don’t get caught right away, don’t expect to plead ignorance if you get caught years later by a stricter inspector. If you install treated posts after you have started your transition process you are out of compliance and could end up having to re-fence or abandon a pasture.

If you work out an agreement with your certifier to use treated posts in paddocks that are only flash grazed, be sure to get your agreement in writing. Some of the larger certification agencies have a lot of staff turnover. Just because one certification specialist told you that your posts are not a problem, doesn’t mean those same posts won’t be a problem for a new specialist, certifier, or executive at your certification agency.

 

Harry Hoch and his wife, Jackie, own Hoch Orchards and Gardens in La Crescent, Minn.

 

From the March | April 2019 Issue

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