Agroforestry: Pasturing pigs in orchards

by Tamara Scully

Why not use those fallen fruits from your orchard crops to provide feed for pastured pigs? And why not let those pastured pigs do the labor of “harvesting” their own meal, direct from the orchard?

Harry Hoch, of Hoch Orchard and Gardens in southeastern Minnesota has done just that. With 94 acres – 40 in a variety of tree fruit, grapes and brambles; 34 wooded acres; 15 acres of pasture; and five acres of annual crops – this diversified family farm grows, packs and processes fresh fruit, makes cider and hard cider, creates a variety of fruit vinegars, raises livestock for meat, and operates a large farm market.

Using the windfall from the fruit trees to feed the pastured pigs, cutting down on grain costs, seemed to be the next logical step. Hoch set out to determine whether or not this was a feasible enterprise not only for his own orchards, but for others.

Hoch addressed his experience in a “Nutshell Discussions” webinar for the Savannah Institute earlier this year. His project, which received funding from a Minnesota Department of Agriculture Demonstration Grant was meant to assess the cost of incorporating pigs into perennial fruit production, and help others determine if incorporating this type of agroforestry into their farms could be a successful enterprise.

Infrastructure

Hoch was already raising feeder pigs, purchasing piglets and raising to slaughter. A portable pig hauler, easily hooked up to a tractor, allowed them to move pigs anywhere throughout the property, including up into the orchards. Putting them in the orchards, to eat the windfalls, would provide a feed source for the pigs, and help with orchard cleanup. But once in the orchard, a commitment to pay astute attention to rotating the hogs to prevent damage, as well as additional fencing to create paddocks, was needed.

All of the productive land on the farm was already fenced with permanent deer fencing on the perimeter, and windbreaks separated the fruit plots. Adding high tensile energized fencing to the existing windbreaks created paddocks, most about four acres, scattered around 60 ridge top acres. Tree fruit orchards on the farm range from some old fashioned full-sized ones, to today’s high-density style, as well as dwarf and semi-dwarf free-standing trees.

The overall goal was to decrease the amount of portable fencing that would be needed to rotate the pigs through these orchards, incrementally adding permanent fencing for paddocks, including gates for ease of movement, and using portable fencing minimally to cut down on labor. The three-year project was to have included watering lines, too. However, not all of the paddocks and lines were able to be completed by the end of the third year. Assessing the costs and revenue from such a system would provide a baseline for other producers to utilize.

Pigs

The first year, four sows and 27 feeder pigs were pastured and moved throughout the orchard paddocks, using temporary fencing, requiring a daily average of .028 hours per pig/ per day. The second year, six sows and 48 feeder pigs were rotated through with permanent fencing in place. This decreased the needed labor to .023 hours per pig/per day on average.

Having less fencing to move each day requires less labor, and permanent fencing allows quicker movement of the pigs, preventing damage from rooting once the fallen fruits are consumed from the orchard floor.

While the decrease in time spent per pig/per day seems small, “it adds up quite a bit,” Hoch said. “You can’t just open a gate and call them out when you’re using portable fencing.”

All of the hogs were crossbred from heritage breeds, including Ossabaw Island, Mulefoot, and Mangalitsa among others. These were selected for their ability to thrive on pasture. Despite their slower growing tendencies, they “received very little supplemental grain,” Hoch said.

The pigs were fed apple pumice, waste colostrum from a nearby dairy, some grain, waste food from a commercial kitchen, and cider waste, in addition to the pasture foraging. They were then rotated through the apple and other fruit orchards after harvest, to eat the windfalls, clearing the orchard floor.

“The key is to move them carefully,” Hoch said. “Time their moves so that they’ll just eat the dropped fruit and before they start rooting.”

The pigs do very little damage to orchard trees, Hoch said. “They usually don’t damage the trees very much, but they will turn over the soil. In some blocks… post-harvest, I’ve let them completely turn over the soil for us.”

This allows him to disk the field, quicker than mowing, and the orchard is smooth. The pigs are rotated into strawberries, brambles, plums, apricots and all the other fruits post-harvest, as well as through the apples.

With brambles, the pigs will graze the fruit off the ground post-harvest, as well as any remaining in the bushes. The concern is that the pigs will eat the raspberry roots, and they need to be rotated before doing so.

The amount of fruit available, the size and quality of pasture in the fruit plot, and the ultimate goal of using the pigs on the orchard floor all are important when considering when to rotate the pigs. The size of the pigs matter, too. Pigs will eat the fallen fruit first, and they really like clover. They tend to eat legumes next, then forbs and grasses, before they start to root, Hoch said, based on his observations.

“We put the animals in mostly post-harvest,” but they are also used after hand-thinning fruits or during the natural June drop of apples, Hoch said.

Feasibility

Pigs are raised for one year, growing to 150 lb. slaughter weight, and processed for retail cuts and for the freezer trade. Retail cuts sold through the farmers’ market or from the on-farm store netted about $500 per pig, while custom slaughter pigs pre-sold by the whole or half pig netted $420/pig. The retail cuts required storage costs, labor and time to sell the meat, and did result in some unpopular and hard to sell cuts. The custom trade did not have those concerns, so the lower per pig profit was offset to some degree.

The goal of the project was to help other producers decide if they wanted to pasture animals in fruit orchards, and provide some guidance as to the costs and the expected income from doing so. Because each farm situation is unique, Hoch compiled his fencing costs, and then extrapolated those costs for situations where no fencing existed at all.

If done from scratch, a four-acre plot would require about $1700 in fencing materials, he said. Fifty acres of perimeter fencing, from scratch, would carry a price tag of roughly $5000.

His own project required 4,870 feet of inner fencing to create 12 permanent paddocks within the existing windbreak-divided orchards. This took 120 hours of labor, and cost just over $3000 in fencing materials.

There are some studies looking at how pests are reduced when pigs are pastured in orchards. The pigs can interrupt the life cycle of many pests. While Hoch has not studied this formally in his own orchard, “it’s one of many tools that we have to use in organic production.”

“I think there is potential to make this work,” Hoch said of pastured pigs in perennial fruit orchards. “The more fencing you put in, the less labor you have, the more quickly you can move the animals, and the less chance to having damage to your main crops.”

2019-10-18T15:33:48-05:00October 18, 2019|Eastern Edition|0 Comments

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