As I spent my Christmas Eve stringing wire, untangling rope fencing, and stepping fence posts into the hardening winter ground, I forgot for a few moments that I don't consider myself a farmer. I forgot that I am a business woman and that I love my high-heel boots, lots of bling and sassy hair styles.
Instead, my mind was focused on knowing that as I worked on my little pigs' pasture, I was again acquiring new skills. With each experiment I undertake here on our little homestead, my repertoire grows. Each year, I discover new ways to feed my family, and families in our community. (Big shout out to Mother Earth News for this month's article on raising pastured pigs!)
Today's blog post will be about fencing. I trained the pigs to the fence by first fencing in a small area. Down the center of the paddock, I cordoned off a section with hog panels (about 1/3 of the paddock), and then strung the fencing around the bottom (about 6 inches off the ground).
I used a five-acre horse fencer, which gives LOTS of zap for this small of an area. I wondered why we had one that snaps (goes on and off) and was reminded that if it was a continuous flow of energy the pigs would become 'stuck' if they touched it. (Silly of me, but I really didn't know that.) I used a smooth 20 gauge wire and then strung white horse tape fence on top of it for visibility. (Something I gleaned from the Women in Agriculture networking day I attended the week earlier.)
Day one of having the fence on, I found that the pigs tested each side a few times, but eventually ignored it. (However, I will say that as time as gone on, I hear squeals regularly, so they ARE testing it.) I did find that the fence needed to be higher in some places - like in front of the gate where the ground is soft and just right for rooting around.
Many times I would go up to the shed to find that they had pushed the dirt up and over the fence, which shorted out the entire area. Not good.
I had considered the possibility that the pigs might break through the fencing at some point, so you'll notice that the 'hot' wire is actually inside of our fenced paddock area. I'm doing this for two reasons, 1. the paddock is already attached to the shed, and 2. while the pigs are training on the fence, I want them contained if they happen to break through the hot wire.
Once the pigs were trained on the small area, I had planned on putting them out into the woods. But after attending a Women in Agriculture symposium, I learned that it's best to finish the pigs on the acorns in our oak grove ('finish' refers to the last month or two before butchering). After seeing what an amazing job of plowing they were doing in the small paddock area, I decided to let them have the entire paddock for the winter. I reasoned that this will give me a prepared patch where I will plant our garden next year. (Plus side to that - it's already fenced in, which will keep it safe from chickens and ducks.)
You'll notice that even as I gave them the entire paddock, I kept the hog panels in place, and bent one to the side. This gives me a 'gate' - I also kept the electric fencing in place down the middle so that I can use a fencing handle to pull it back across if I want to - that way I can put them back into the smaller area if I need to.
They are very happy with their new area. Within seconds of being turned out, they were munching on weeds and grass. Last I looked, they were rooting under the chestnut trees - I'm sure they are finding some tasty treats there!
Now, my biggest concern was this: will generic white pigs eat hay on their own? (These are berkshire crosses, not heritage pigs bred to be out on pasture.) Once the snow flies, there won't be much in the way of grass out there. Will they eat hay? Will they have to be taught? Will I end up having to buy feed? Remember, my goal is pastured pigs that are fed a diet that is primarily dairy and hay. Stay tuned for that episode, coming next week.
Portuguese Kale Soup is a fond memory for me. As a child, my mother would start this soup early in the day and finish cooking it on the woodstove. We would walk into the door after school, smell this soup and run for bowls.
I have made many versions of this soup over the years, but have come to the conclusion that simple is better. And this recipe doesn't get much more economical or simple.
The only ingredient you may be challenged to find is the Portuguese sausages: linguica and chourico. I buy mine from a store in Fall River, MA called Michaels Provision Company. Lucky for me, Micheals also ships their meat.
If you can't find linguica or chourico, you can use plain ground pork, and add 2 tbsp of smoke paprika to your soup. This will give you the flavor/color.
Portuguese Kale Soup
1 cup dried dark red kidney beans
1 cup dried navy beans
3 quarts homemade stock or water
1/2 pound linguicia
1/2 pound chourico
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
4 cups fresh, chopped kale (or frozen)
2 cups fresh potatoes (Cut as you wish. I like mine quartered, skin on.)
2 cups fresh carrots (Optional. My mom hate carrots in this soup.)
1 cup tomato juice
The night before, rinse the beans, and add to slow cooker with the stock. Turn to high and go to bed. (For me, I usually am doing this at 10pm, back to it at 8am.)
In the morning, cut up the sausage and cook in a frying pan for a few minutes. (If you are using regular pork sausage, cook completely and drain before adding to slowcooker)
Add cooked sausage, kale, tomato juice, potatoes, garlic powder and salt. If I forgot anything, add that too. Cook on high.
In about four hours your soup will be ready! If you need to leave it for the day, cook it on low.
When you are ready to serve the soup, crumble some kale in the bottom of the bowl (I keep frozen kale on hand just for this!) and pour the hot soup on top. While you are waiting for the soup to cool down, the kale is steamed. Stir and enjoy!
"...dairy is a virtually perfect complement to pasture/hay and it is often freely available. Dairy provides the lysine, a key amino-acid, and calories that boosts their diet such that the pigs will grow about as fast on pasture/hay + dairy as they do on an expensive grain fed diet. The dairy gives a delicious sweet flavor to the fat and meat ..." Walter Jeffries, Sugar Mountain Farm
Max sneaking a taste
My interest in raising pastured and forage-based pork began the day I found Walter Jeffries' blog. Back then it was a lot less structured and professional than it is now. I now consider him the expert in pastured pork. I don't think I'm alone, since they are shipping their meat all over the country and have standing orders from restaurants all over VT and neighboring states.
What fascinated me was the concept that pigs can be raised like cattle - out on pasture - and still have a fantastic taste. We've all had that 'way to gamey' grass-fed beef. If you've ever had strong-tasting pork, and I have, you'll understand why this concept thrilled me.
The secret behind sweet-tasting pork, according to Jeffries, is the dairy component of the diet. The dairy balances the pasture and hay, and gives the meat the tender, sweet flavor of pork instead of that bland, no flavor option we're offered in the grocery store.
Warm whey-soaked feed
So, when I discovered piglets for sale on Craigslist I was thrilled. And of course, because I am only 7 degrees removed from Kevin Bacon, I found out that I had a connection through a fellow woman in agriculture.
Enter pigs. (Missed it? Read the blog post, Picking up Little Pigs)
Grateful for my penchant to talk to anyone, I spoke with a local cheesemaker, who was more than happy to supply me with as much whey (organic, grass-fed, thank you very much!) as I would like for the paltry sum of .03 per gallon. You read that correctly. Yes, that's super cheap. Just covers his time to fill the buckets for me, really.
lots of hay for these porkers
I am also blessed to have a mill not five miles from the house. They have a locally sourced custom feed mix that I will using to provide extra calories. Raising pigs in winter means that they need extra calories to grow, AND to stay warm. We'll be going easy on corn (a major ingredient in factory farmed and confined pork operations) and soy, focusing on whole grains (soaked in warm whey), grass hay, alfalfa hay, and of course, whey. They will be getting scraps from the kitchen as well as it's available, and any veggies I can get cheap or free.
We'll wrap up this nutrient-dense experiment with an oak-grove finishing - the pigs will be turned out into our 2 acres of oak groves in the early spring to finish out on acorns. Why acorns, you ask?
Interestingly, even though acorn-finished hogs are fattier than confinement-raised hogs, their meat is healthier. Studies of Spanish pata negra pork have found that the fat they produce is largely unsaturated, often to the point of being liquid at room temperature, and that it is extremely high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that is also known to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol. In fact, the pigs are sometimes called “olive trees on four hooves” because the health benefits are similar to olive oil! (Source: Mast Tree Network)
My hope is that at the conclusion of this little 'experiment', I will have discovered a way to raise nutrient-dense pork that is economical. I'm sure I'll be learning a lot, and provide you with some laughs along the way.
I am finding myself focusing more on our local economy. There is something incredibly satisfying about feeding my family food I've either raised, grown or found locally. And who knows, maybe next year it will be YOUR family I'm feeding. Or, in a perfect world, maybe I'll be someone's 'Walter' and you'll be doing your own experiment in raising your own meat!
Stay tuned for the next blog post: Fence-training Pigs