I banged on a while ago about the pig ration we’ve developed over the last several years. We changed that up recently, and the results have been excellent!
The drivers for this were twofold:
1. We had a few pigs look a bit patchy and get itchy. My first thought was that they’d picked up mites. We were on the new place, and it’s possible that it came with its own mite load (that’s not uncommon). As it turns out, it was related to diet. We had the vet out as part of our Herd Health Management Program, and they did some blood tests for us. What they found was a lack of a couple of things, but mostly zinc.
We’ve had advice before about giving the piglets iron etc. This was always based on experience from intensive farms where the pigs never get to be outside and forage and eat the copious amounts of dirt that must make its way into them. We’ve found that letting the pigs live naturally removed the need for many of the supplements they’d receive otherwise. This zinc thing is our first exception to that.
On a related note, it never occurred to me that what we were seeing in just a few of them could be related to their diet. For one, it was only a small percentage and they all get the same feed. For another, I’d never have thought that itchy patches were diet related. Live and learn…
2. We had a few pigs that weren’t growing the way we’d like. They were healthy and happy, but weren’t in the condition we wanted. We do grow our pigs relatively slowly, but these were beyond slow grown and on their way to glacial. 🙂
In the past, we could just wait until the pigs were the size/condition we wanted. Some do take longer than others, the same way that people grow at different rates. We were used to just leaving them a bit longer. However, that becomes problematic when you have a market demand to meet. We ended up taking a couple of pigs that I wasn’t entirely happy with, and the resulting product wasn’t to our normal standard. We have a lot of customer who like lean pork, so that wasn’t a huge issue. The bacon wasn’t the greatest though, and it was probably that more than anything that really made me tackle the problem.
We had long talks to the vet about this, who in turn spoke to a nutritionist he knows. We’d had our own problems with nutritionists (I’ve also banged on about that 😀 ) who simply could not fathom the fact that we didn’t want to grow our pigs as fast as possible, or that we didn’t want to feed them GMO/imported products/fish meal etc. The vet that the nutritionist spoke to was pretty much of the same ilk, and apparently became quite indignant when the vet explained how we do things. Seriously, they act like we’re neglectful parents forcing our children to eat nothing but dust bunnies!
At the same time, we were lucky enough to speak to yet another nutritionist who actually proved helpful. She had no experience with free-ranged pigs, heritage breed pigs, or the feeding of brewers mash to pigs. What she did have was a willingness to hear us out and do some research. It took a little while and lots of conversations and emails, but she was so, so, so helpful.
That nutritionist gave us a heap of feed options based on what we have available and what we could get locally. While I didn’t actually follow any of those rations exactly ( 😀 ), it gave me a basis to work up rations that worked well for us. We’ve since been able to experiment with those rations and are super happy with where we ended up.
A few things we learned along the way are:
· Canola meal is currently used in most commercial pig feeds as a protein supplement. Canola sourced outside of South Australia almost certainly contains GMO. The S.A. stuff comes with a GMO-free certificate, but not the stuff from the other states.
· We could actually get meat/bone meal locally. My concerns with this were the fact that it’s highly processed, potentially taints the taste of the meat, and has to be imported. The local source removed one of those three concerns at least.
I actually really like the idea of using waste meat/bone/offal as a source of protein for pigs and the like. It just seems an effective use of a by-product that would be wasted otherwise. My concerns over the carbon footprint and potential taste change still stand though.
· Fish meal is almost entirely imported, potentially from overseas. The nutritionist found an Aussie source, but couldn’t guarantee how long it would last. I’d not even experiment with fish meal though, as my research and advice from UK customers is that it almost certainly taints the taste of the meat.
The one big bit of advice we kept getting was to mill the feed. Our research, including speaking to multiple other breeders, was that soaking the grain was as good as milling. We were also told that you don’t need to soak or mill the peas, as it’s the one grain that pigs can process without intervention.
We had bought an ancient mill a year or so earlier, but it needed work and we had a thousand other jobs that needed doing. We didn’t think we needed the mill, so we prioritised it down our long to-do list. However, based on the advice (nagging) of our vet, we got the old beast of a mill working.
The mill is probably 60 or 70 years old. It’s a relatively simple machine that runs off of our tractor’s power take off (PTO). It has a friction clutch behind a universal joint, uses four belts on a big drive for power, just uses a heap of scary-looking metal teeth for the actual crushing, and then an attached cyclone to blow out the dusty stuff. That might sound like a lot of words, but the mechanics of the mill are really not at all complex. The fact that it’s mechanically simple makes maintenance a heap easier, and means we could get it up and running without a huge amount of fuss or expense.
So, the changes we ended up making were:
· Mill the feed. This is a hammer mill rather than a true mixer mill, but I’m able to feed in both the peas and cereal grain, and they’re nicely combined when they come out.
· Tried meat meal. We bought some as an experiment. We didn’t see a lot of difference in pigs who had it and those that didn’t though, so we’ve discontinued its use. I really am worried about the carbon footprint of the meat/fish meals, and it changes the pig poop so they start to smell like their poor intensively farmed brethren.
· Experiment with the ration. We landed on 70 to 75% cereal and 25 to 30% peas/lupins/beans. This is a bit of a moving target, as our milling method is still me manually adding these things into the hopper. However, over an entire batch that lasts a couple of weeks, those ratios would be about right.
· Tried a mill pack. Mill packs are basically a multi-vitamin for pigs. They’re designed to be added to a tonne of feed at the rate of 1.7%, and therefore come in 17kg bags. This was to combat the zinc deficiency, and it worked well. The problem is the lack of mixer mill I mentioned earlier. Without the ability to mix it into their feed at the correct rate, we have to do it on a feed-by-feed basis. That’s not huge problem, but it means we use a bit more than absolutely required.
A rule-of-thumb is that a pig should eat about 3% of its live weight a day. We split our pigs based on age/size, having breeder paddocks with the adults pigs, farrowing paddocks with the mums and little tackers, weaner paddocks for the weaners, and grower paddocks for the porkers and baconers. That means that, using my well-honed excel skills, I’m able to maintain a spreadsheet of what pigs are where, an estimate of what they weigh, and the resultant feed they should be getting. We use that as a guide and the minimum we should be feeding out, and then adjust based on the condition of the pigs.
The brewers mash is still a big part of what we feed. It would be MUCH easier for us to not use it. Getting it is slightly painful, and involves a lot of more-than-slightly painful shovelling of heavy, wet material. However, it is the ONLY way to sustainably grow pigs. Feeding them grain grown for human consumption is absolutely NOT sustainable.
The mash has the other advantage of letting us fine-tune the condition of the heritage breeds. We have a few saddleback sows that struggled with their litters due to being too fat. We’re able to feed them mostly mash, with just enough milled grain to make it really palatable. At the same time, the few white sows we still have need a much more nutritious feed, and so get at least 50% milled feed, and more if we think they’re losing condition.
The grain we mill is mostly screenings (seconds), including some amazing lupin screenings that we were able to get from our friendly share farmer. The rest is what we’ve grown on our property, and we’re in the process of trying to trade as much as that as possible for screenings from elsewhere.
The results have been outstanding. We can feed the pigs the same volume/weight we’ve always fed them, but they process this new ration so much more effectively. They’re not any more full than they were before, and they’re still grown slowly, but they put on condition beautifully.
I also think that the pigs prefer the milled feed to the soaked grain. We used to move them around by waving a bit of bread in front of their face. Seriously, they’d normally follow me anywhere for a few slices of bread. Now, if they get a bit stubborn and baulk at the bread, I’ll get a half-bucket of milled feed out. You sometimes have to run to keep ahead of them if you’re moving them with the milled feed. J
Don’t take my word for it though. This video shows you just how enthusiastic they are about their new ration. 😀
That was another wall of words about how we feed our pigs. I’d like to apologise to anybody who got this far and is now cursing me and my verbosity. 🙂 However, I think it’s important that we properly and accurately document things like this. Everybody should know what is eaten by the animals they in-turn eat. Even if a consumer doesn’t care at all how stock animals are treated, they should care about what those stock animals eat as that then indirectly becomes part of their diet. I’m also keen to record this stuff so it might benefit other people like us. We’re working most of this stuff out through trial-and-error, often heavy on the error. I’d like to help avoid that for those coming after us.