Hogs Thrive in Alternative Production System

Jane Sooby

Conventional hog production is moving more and more toward the model pioneered by the poultry industry. In this production system, farmers construct expensive, high-tech confinement facilities and raise hogs under contract with a corporate partner. The expected life of a confinement facility is about 10 years. Often by the time the farmer pays off construction costs, the facility is obsolete and the cycle begins all over again.

Because water is required to flush and handle the manure produced in confinement systems, large amounts of semi-liquid material need to be disposed of. The odor and possible water contamination associated with this system are causing alarm in the general public. The crowded conditions in which the animals live create major stresses on the hogs' health and well-being.

While proponents of industrialized hog production would like us to believe that this is an inevitable trend, sustainable farmers across the country are demonstrating alternative hog production methods that are clean, humane, and profitable.

Two central Nebraska farmers raise hogs differently from the industry norm of concentrated, large-scale production. Rod Nagorski keeps his hogs outdoors while Bryce Ritz runs a 112-sow farrow-to-finish operation in hoop structures. Both of these farmers from Comstock, Nebraska, use these alternatives for financial and hog health reasons.

Construction costs for total confinement hog structures are too expensive for most family-sized farms to enter large-scale hog production.

"Even if you get it paid for in 10-15 years," said Bryce, "by then the facility will be too old" and obsolete. "The farmer is at (financial) risk, has to build the facility, and never totally recoups his investment."

Rod concurs that high construction costs and interest rates are a major barrier to large-scale hog production. "You have so much money wrapped up in those buildings, you have to raise hogs the rest of your life to pay for it. You can't get out if you want to," he said.

Rod keeps 110 sows outdoors, providing a shed and hay bales for shelter in the winter. "These hogs will be mine a lot sooner than the banker's," he said. His main cost is feed. Sows and gilts are run on alfalfa in season and fed on corn and barley in colder weather. Some of his sows farrowed in weeds this year, producing "nice, big pigs." Rod plans to build A-frame structures to house the hogs. Because he doesn't rely only on his hog enterprise, he has the flexibility to run as many or as few hogs as he feels comfortable with. Besides hogs, Rod raises buffalo, cattle and chickens for meat and eggs.

Bryce raises his hogs in a hoop structure, a semi-circular frame covered with a canvas top. The main advantages of hoop structures are the low cost (around $6,000 for a 30' x 60' structure), and a better environment for the animals. Hogs are healthy and physically fit in his production system. Bryce concedes that in confinement systems, feed conversion in winter is better than in the hoop structure because the controlled environment keeps the hogs warmer and none of their energy is lost to warming. Fall and spring feed conversion rates and rates of gain, though, for Bryce's hogs compare favorably to hogs in confinement systems.

Bryce farrows his sows in a crate where they remain for a week to 10 days. Then the sow and piglets are moved to a free-stall pen where the sow can get up and move around, improving her condition and attitude. The piglets are weaned at about four and a half weeks, compared with 2 weeks in confinement production. They are kept in the pen until they are five weeks old, giving both the sow and Bryce a break.

Bryce maximizes the capacity of his building by running four groups of 28 sows each, cleaning the building between each group. But he feels that this is more than his farm can support. Running 56 sows, or two groups of 28, better fits the feed and bedding he can produce on his farm, and still generates enough compost to fertilize his crops.

By using the waste from his hog production to fertilize his crops, Bryce completes the nutrient cycles on his farm. Because the manure is in a dry, aerobic condition, the smell is less offensive than liquid manure.

Bryce and Rod are concerned about the health of pigs in confinement systems and the resulting quality of meat that comes out of them. "If you're running hogs in that environment," said Bryce, "there's no way to keep them without high levels of antibiotics and medication. It's not a healthy animal if it requires medication to keep it alive."

Bryce points out that scientists have introduced a "stress gene" into hog genetics that encourages leanness. This gene can produce porcine stress syndrome, a disease resulting from extreme stress that can cause hogs to die from the stress of just being moved from one place to another. Pigs suffering from this syndrome frequently produce pork that the food industry characterizes as "PSE" or pale, soft, and exudative. This meat is watery, unusually pale, and gives off fluid when cut. This low quality meat is almost useless in the meat industry.

Bryce is a member of a farmers' marketing group that cooperates to get a good bid for their meat and sends out a semi load once a week. He believes that small-scale farmers can get a better price for their product by working together.

These central Nebraska farmers are developing alternative models of hog production and marketing that reduce overhead costs, environmental waste, and hog health problems while producing high quality pork.

Bryce Ritz and Rod Nagorski demonstrated their hog production systems at a farm tour this August. The tour was co-sponsored by OCIA NE #1.

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society: Home       Features