It is possible to create a humane, self-sustaining, and profitable hog farming system and to make organic pork more widely available.
NOTE: post initially appeared on RodalesOrganicLife.com on December 12, 2016
The Rodale Institute’s hog facility has one goal: Show farmers everywhere how to create a humane, self-sustaining, and profitable system.
When Ross Duffield enters the room, Petunia notices right away. The 500-pound heritage-breed hog rises languidly from feeding her eight-day-old piglets and ambles over to greet him. There’s little movement otherwise as Duffield ticks through roll call. Snoozing quietly is Isis, whom he describes as “high maintenance and sweet.” There’s Athena, an attentive and responsible mom. Miss Peggy down the way is laid-back and a superb grazer. “We really spend time with the animals,” Duffield says, scratching behind the ear of the farm’s boar, Houdini. “My philosophy is you get out of this what you put into it.”
The air is cool and sweet in Rodale Institute’s hog facility, a hoop-shaped building surrounded by organic pasture. It presents a vivid contrast to many conventional operations, where animals live in confinement cages, breathing noxious gases created by manure lagoons and seeing little daylight. When Duffield and another farmer, Lauren Cichocki, oversaw the creation of the facility in 2015, they had a clear goal: Show hog farmers everywhere how to create a humane, self-sustaining, and profitable system and make organic pork more widely available.
The result is a triumph of astute design and conscientious animal husbandry. When Duffield and Cichocki drew up the blueprints, they first thought about a hog’s natural preferences. Pigs love to forage, so the pair engineered a system to give the animals round-the-clock access to 8 acres of fields planted with oats, radishes, beets, small grains, and more. But not all 8 acres at once—a series of gates directs the hogs toward the field of Duffield’s choosing, so they don’t all head for the peas. (“They have a sweet tooth just like people,” Duffield says.) This built-in traffic control allows staff to manage the hogs’ diets and lower feed costs—the facility is saving more than 20 pounds of grain a day. Self-propagating crops like alfalfa also help lower the bottom line. “It costs money to buy and plant seed initially,” Duffield says, “but the crop spreads on its own. In 10 years it’ll be everywhere with no effort on our part.”
That means the costs of running such an operation could actually drop over time if the pasture is managed properly. But it’s not just about money—it’s also about showing that it’s possible to have a closed-loop system for raising hogs that nurtures and nourishes both the animals and the land. The hogs loosen the soil with their snouts and fertilize the fields with their manure, allowing workers to replant in healthy soil that doesn’t need to be tilled as often.
And good land makes for healthy pigs. Most conventionally raised pigs require iron supplements because they’re anemic, but Duffield has found that hogs grazing on organic crops on Rodale Institute’s land don’t need to receive the booster.
The deceptively simple-looking building is another key component to the facility’s success. It contains 11 stalls outfitted with doors that allow the animals to enter and exit as they wish. Conventional hogs are confined because they tend to crush their young when feeding, but heritage breeds are more self-sufficient. (Petunia scans the ground below before lying down to nurse.) The stalls allow Duffield and his crew to easily separate the pigs for treatment and care. This setup, which includes a supplementary, automatic overhead feeding system, also reduces labor; sometimes Duffield and his staff spend as little as 2 hours a day at the facility. “The pigs have very few health problems,” Duffield says. “They get a lot of sunshine, fresh air, clean bedding, clean water, and a lot of diversity in their diet.”
After working out the kinks and gathering data, Duffield hopes to upend the belief that raising free-range, organic hogs is prohibitively expensive. He expects to spend $200 less per pig on grain because of the reduced feed and labor costs. His operation is set up to raise about 100 hogs per year and can be scaled up to accommodate three times that number or scaled down to create a smaller outfit. That’s good news for shoppers and farmers—just imagine all the organic bacon.