By Kay Wolfe
It has recently been brought to my attention that some new owners think they can and should raise Large Black Hogs on grass/hay alone. While it’s true these are grazing pigs, swine nutrition is a bit more complicated than that. Let me explain.
Swine are mono or single stomach animals like humans as apposed to multi stomach animals like cows, goats, and sheep. Multi stomach animals have a rumen (one of the many stomachs) that is designed to ferment and break down the fibrous cell walls in forage in order to release the nutrients locked inside. Without a rumen, much of that fiber just passes right through, undigested.
Forage is an important part of a pigs diet though. Just as humans are encouraged to eat their fruits and vegetables, especially the green leafy ones, pigs should be allowed to graze on fresh greens. Fresh young growth is best for swine because it has not reached the fibrous stage that overgrown pastures contain. Large Blacks love grazing and crave fresh greens and the higher protein plants are their favorite. This would include the legumes (clover, lespedeza, alfalfa, beans, etc.) and things we might consider garden plants like the kale, rape, turnips, etc. Fresh grass is also a good choice but will not provide as much protein as some others just listed.
“Grass Fed Pork” like grass fed beef is higher in the omegas, the fat is different that commercial pork in that it has a higher proportion of good to bad fat. The carotene in the forage will cause it to have a more yellow appearance but that is just proof that it contains more vitamin A and other important nutrients. For more information on grass fed meat, check out the “Eat Wild” website for scientific studies. The best reason for me though is I prefer the taste of grass fed pork. That is something you just can’t buy at the local market.
But, as I mentioned before, grass alone is not going to meet the needs of a growing pig or a productive sow. So, how much grain is needed to raise a pig? That answer depends on many variables like age, climate, size, quality of the feed, and the particular animal. But, pigs need to be feed a good balanced nutrition at least once a day. I like to use the “feed until full” rule of thumb and then don’t have feed available until the next scheduled meal. That means you need to spend time with your pigs and watch them. How fast do they eat? How long does it take them to clean it up or do they walk away? Once you observe them for a few days you should know how much they need.
Pigs need a certain amount of protein to grow well. In the wild, pigs add in an occasional lizard or rat for protein. The old books on designing farm feeding programs often assume that left over whey protein from “your” dairy will supply most of the needed protein for pigs. Pigs always welcome left-overs, be it table scraps, extra boiled eggs from the chickens or nut orchard leavings. Trying to come up with a source of protein if you chose to design your own feed will be your biggest challenge. Most hobby farmers find it easier to buy swine feed ready-made.
Feed is the most expensive input in pork production so of course farmers are wise to try and reduce that cost as much as possible. One of the cheapest feeds is corn but corn is not a balanced feed. Corn is only a portion of the grain used in mixed feed and unless you know what you are doing (consult your local extension office for more information on swine nutrition and feed), you will not be mixing your feed correctly. If you want feed designed for swine, you will probably need to purchase feed designed for the particular stage of growth of your herd. One word of caution for purchased feed though. Make sure you read the fine print of the label for “medicated”. If it says medicated, request the store to obtain non-medicated feed for you. You nor your customers want to be eating meat that came from medicated feed.
A good test of your herd nutrition is your litter size. Litter size can be genetic and of course it is affected by the age of the gilt/sow but the most important variable I have seen is feed. Large Blacks are known for large litters so the genetics are there for large litters. If your mature sow (but not an old sow) is having litters of less than 8, I’d look to feed as the cause. Obesity is also a huge deterrent to fertility so those of you who love to feed all day long, maybe you want to cut back. Too much fat around an ovary will cause hormone problems and cysts. Both of which can ruin a great sow.
I know from experience that moldy corn can practically stop production without showing any visible signs of ill health in the sow. Once corn is ground into feed, you can’t see the mold and may not even know it is present. Purchased corn is of course Monsanto genetically altered corn that is raised on Round Up treated fields. A recent study in Europe has linked the use of Round Up to altered hormones and reduced fertility. I’m no scientist so can’t say but I do have some concerns in feeding corn. But I’m no corn farmer either so I have little choice but to use what‘s available. The best you can do is to try different feed suppliers and brands until you find what works on your farm.
Yes, Large Blacks are grazing pigs so get them out on pasture but don’t forget to feed them too. These pigs are not wild hogs so don’t expect them to make it on their own out on the back forty. Your pig will get the final word. If you are feeding and managing them properly, they will reward you with two large litters a year. If they are not, then it is time to re-evaluate your practices. Remember, we are here to help you every step of the way.