Husbandry – Nutrition

Pigs are true omnivores, meaning they eat, quite literally, anything. You’d think that would make them pretty easy to feed, and to some degree that is true. However, proper nutrition for pigs, especially in a commercial context, is really quite complex.  The factors that we’ve found that complicate things are:

  • The efficiency and sustainability of meat production. This is a huge one, and is a problem for all kinds of meat production, not just pigs.  This could go into the “Things that bother Neil” category below, but it really is bigger than that.
  • The legalities of what you can’t feed to pigs.
  • Specific dietary needs, especially around amino acids.
  • Things that bother Neil:
    • The presence of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).
    • The carbon footprint of the food.
    • Sourcing only Australian grown or manufactured feed.
    • A desire to give the pigs a diet that is clean, and as close to their natural diet as possible.

I’ll expand on each of these points below.



Several years ago the UN released a report called “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production” which led them to urge people to adopt a more meat-free and dairy-free diet to help prevent world hunger, fuel-poverty, and climate change.  One of that report’s two major findings was that agriculture and food consumption are “one of the most important drivers of environmental pressures, especially habitat change, climate change, fish depletion, water use and toxic emissions”.  The remit of that report is clearly much broader than what I want to talk about here, but it does call out clearly my concerns when it comes to what I feed my own pigs.  This includes the fact that over 50% of the world’s crops are used to feed animals rather than people, and that much of what we grow to feed those animals, in particular corn and soy, is biologically inappropriate as the livestock’s digestive/nutritional systems aren’t designed to eat those plants.

A more recent synopsis of this problem can be found in the article, “Is Meat Sustainable?”, which states that 70% of the grain grown in the US is fed to cattle.  It does the sums when it comes to food productivity: it takes 20,000 kcal (kilocalories) for a cow to produce 2,000 kcal of useable energy.  Basically, the logical argument is that the grain being fed to the cows would be used much more efficiently if fed directly to people.  Exactly the same premise applies to feeding pigs and every other sort of livestock.  Growing the increasing amounts of grain for our increasing meat demand is inefficient, and ultimately not sustainable.

All of this was a big problem for me.  I wanted to grow pigs on a much larger scale, but at the same time I didn’t want to contribute to what I knew is a very serious problem.  I didn’t want to be buying tonnes and tonnes of grain that I knew would be better feeding people directly.

We got around this problem in a couple of ways.  Firstly, almost all of the grains we buy to feed the pigs are seconds, or what they call “screenings”.  They are the smaller, lower quality grains that have been judged not suitable for people.  They are perfectly fine, and are actually often higher in protein and so great as pig feed.

The second way we addressed this problem is by using spent brewers mash.  We were lucky enough to be able to build a relationship with Pirate Life Brewing, and have taken every single kilogram of their mash since they started brewing.  This mash is crushed and soaked malted barley, and perfect as a stock food. It’s high in fibre and protein, though low in carbohydrates (that’s left behind in the beer).  The low carbohydrate content means you have to limit the amount you include in the pig’s ration, normally to 50%, but we’ve actually found that it has some added benefits.

The Atherton Farms are on a few menus now. It's always exciting. :)

The Atherton Farms are on a few menus now. It’s always exciting. 🙂

One of the problems we had with our heritage breed pigs, particularly the Large Blacks, is the fat content.  This is a problem we’ve heard of from other pig growers, both intensive and extensive.  A local small intensive piggery experimented with Large Blacks, and told me that they were the fattiest pigs they’d ever seen. They were feeding the Large Blacks the same ration and amounts as their white pigs, and their solution to the fat problem was to restrict the quantity fed to those pigs.  They fed them the same kind of food, but in much, much smaller quantities.  The result was less fatty pigs, but they were always hungry.

Putting the pigs on a starvation diet does not fit with our ethos at all.  Our solution is to use the brewers mash to modify the nutritional profile as required.  If we have pigs that need to be slimmed down, we increase the amount of mash in their ration, letting them eat their fill but not get fat. Conversely, if we need to fatten some pigs up, we’ll reduce the brewers mash in their ration and increase the whole grain/legume portion accordingly.  The mash allows us to really fine-tune the energy content of the pig’s diets but not compromise on their comfort at all.

Pigs love the mash, especially when they've been introduced to it at a young age.

Pigs love the mash, especially when they’ve been introduced to it at a young age.

Photogenic pig is photogenic!

Photogenic pig is photogenic!

Another benefit of us taking the brewers mash is that it’s a waste product that would go to landfill otherwise.  We can’t currently use all of the mash that the brewery produces, but we take it all and share it with another couple of local farmers.  Some weeks we might get 10 or more tonnes of brewers mash, and that’s 10 or more tonnes that is saved from landfill.

Basically, every tonne of mash we feed our pigs is a tonne of grain that is not being grown for livestock consumption, and is a tonne less that goes to landfill.  It’s an environmental twofer, and it makes me very, very happy. Combine that with the fact that we only feed the pigs screenings, and I believe that our pork production is entirely sustainable.

We like the mash for the heritage breeds as it allows us to fine-tune their caloric intake...

We like the mash for the heritage breeds as it allows us to fine-tune their caloric intake…

... but sometimes they like it more because it's warm and comfy.

… but sometimes they like it more because it’s warm and comfy.



We’re part of a Herd Health Management Program with our local veterinary college.  Their head pig vet has told me stories about how back in the day, and not actually that long ago, piggeries would have contracts with abattoirs for all of the meat waste.  The piggeries were viable because they were able to feed their pigs a super high protein diet of offal.

I’ve had the same stories from my retired farmer neighbour, John.  He has an ancient wheelbarrow that has “meat works” stencilled on it.  He’s told me about that wheelbarrow being full of blood and guts, and wheeling it down to the pigs.

This is called “swill feeding”, and gross as it is, on the surface it actually sounds like a fairly efficient use of waste. The problem is the risk of disease, particularly things like BSE (mad cow disease), and Foot-and-Mouth Disease.  Probably the best known example of this is the BSE epidemic in the UK over the late 1980s and through most of the 1990s.  180,000 cattle were infected, and nearly four and a half million killed during the eradication program.  The cause was that the cattle were fed infected bovine remains in the form of meat and bone meal.  By mid-2014 the human variant of the disease had killed 177 people in the UK, and 52 people outside of the UK.

In Australia, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, predicts that even a small Foot-and-Mouth Disease outbreak in Australia, controlled in 3 months, could cost around $7.1 billion, and a large 12 month outbreak could cost $16 billion.

With the impacts to the UK beef industry and with the loss of human life, and with similar potential losses in Australia, there’s no surprise that swill feeding is strictly illegal in Australia, as described by Australian Pork and the Australian Veterinary Association.  That ban is something that all pig growers, both big and small, need to be aware of.  Even families raising a couple of pigs for themselves have to be careful that their kitchen scraps haven’t come into contact with meat or meat products.  That’s actually harder than you’d think.



The big gotcha’ with pigs seems to be with amino acids. At least that’s the one that bit us early on.  We had one litter of pigs years ago that just seemed scrawny. They got plenty of feed, and they had good appetites, but they just never bulked out.  On the flip-side of that, we had other litters that went from strength-to-strength on exactly the same diet.  I think the secret there, weirdly enough, was in their bedding.

We’d change the pig’s bedding every couple of months. Actually, “change” is the wrong word, as it implies we took out spent bedding and gave them new bedding.  With pigs it’s more a case of replacing the last lot of bedding because they ate it all. 🙂

The bedding we always used was pea straw. We’d get the big round bales, and fill up the areas in and around their shelters.  Pea straw is full of peas still.  You don’t realise just how many peas are left behind until you handle the straw. The pigs loved that, and for days and days after you’d hear them crunching their way through every pea they could find.

I didn’t make the link back then, but I’d guarantee that there was a correlation between the scrawny litter and the end of their bedding cycle.  As it turns out, peas, and all of the other legumes, are high in the amino acid lysine.  Lysine is called a “limiting amino acid”, and is necessary for the production of muscle protein.  Basically, pigs can eat protein all day long but will only synthesise protein to the level of the lysine in their diet, hence the “limiting” part of the title.

Lysine is the most likely amino acid to be lacking in a pig’s diet, but there are others too.  These are commonly added to pig rations in a commercial context, often in synthetic forms.  My very strong preference is to find natural sources of the required amino acids, and we’ve done that with legumes.  For the most part, that’s in the form of field or stock peas.  They can be expensive, and not always easy to find depending on the time of year, but they are a permanent fixture in the diet of our pigs.

Piglets LOVE their peas!

Piglets LOVE their peas!



There are a number of things that I want to avoid in my pig’s diets because of the way my ideologies lay.  To me, these are essential parts of the ethicality of what we do.

The Presence of GMO

There are a huge number of studies that point to problems with pigs who are fed diets containing GMO.  These can be things like general listlessness and lack of contentment, through to spontaneous abortions, deformities in new-borns, and an increase in aggressiveness.

The use of GMO in general is a hot debate topic, and can be really quite emotive.  There are pros and cons, and I can see both sides. However, I won’t feed anything to my pigs containing GMO.  There are too many unknowns, and too much evidence to show that it can adversely impact the animals.

The Carbon Footprint of the Food

This is fairly self-evident when you consider our standpoint on most things environmental, but it’s worth mentioning.  I find it mind-boggling that people will ship parts of their pig’s rations from overseas or interstate when there are locally grown or produced options.  Not only that, a lot of pig feed is highly processed, and that also takes a significant amount of energy, thereby increasing the carbon footprint of the ration.

We combat this by always sourcing locally grown feed.  The furthest we travel for our feed is 25km to the place I get our peas.  We’ve actually been able to buy wheat and barley grown in the paddock next door to our pigs, and most of it comes from within a few kilometres of our home.  With the exception of our weaner feed, we also avoid processed feed.

Sourcing Australian Grown/Manufactured Feed

This is partly linked to reducing the carbon footprint of the pig feed, but is mostly because I want to support Australian farmers.  It’s exactly the same choice people often make when buying their groceries; I just make it on a larger scale with purchases measuring tonnes. 🙂

Giving the Pigs a Clean/Natural Diet

It goes without saying, but intensive pig farms stink.  They seriously, seriously stink.  We’ve bought a few pigs from local intensive farms as breeders, and they stink for days.  Their poop is black and sticky and putrid, and a direct consequence of the food they eat.  That food is completely nutritionally balanced, but is highly processed, containing meat and fish meals for protein, and synthetics for things like amino acids.

I also want to avoid the various protein meals as they can have a huge impact on the flavour of the pork.  Fishy tasting pork and pork products from pigs that eat a lot of fish meal is a huge problem, and who the hell wants to eat fishy-tasting pork?!

A large part of our pig raising ethos involves allowing them to exhibit their natural behaviours – digging, wallowing, natural matings etc.  That should logically extend to their diet.  Of course, there’s really no such thing as a natural pig diet in Australia, as we don’t have native pigs.  We have introduced/wild pigs that do quite well, but I suspect they eat a lot of things that we can’t feed our animals (e.g. carrion).  We also don’t have the kinds of environments in which pigs thrive overseas, environments that give the animals access to foods like nuts.  What we do have, however, is the ability to feed our animals natural and clean foods.

Little growers eating their fill.

Little growers eating their fill.


We’ve spoken to a professional nutritionist about our pig rations.  We ran into a few barriers though.  Firstly, we had a lot of trouble convincing them that our aim wasn’t to grow the pigs as quickly as we could.  We’ve had trouble convincing a lot of the professionals we’ve spoken to about that, so we’re kind of used to it.

Secondly, it was initially difficult to factor in the brewers mash, as it’s not exactly your normal piggy fare.  However, with some research, the nutritionist was able to work it out. At least we got that tick of approval, which was nice.

Thirdly, it was difficult to find rations specific to the heritage breeds.  The focus was always maximum energy for fastest growth in the commercial white breeds.  The heritage breeds, who grow more slowly anyway and who can run to fat quite easily, have completely different nutritional needs.  For some reason, it was hard to separate those facts when it came to the different rations.

We did end up with a couple of recommended rations.  There were still problems though:

  • They contained soy meal, with no guarantee that there was no GMO content.  Soy meal is apparently almost ubiquitous in commercial pig feeds, as it’s a cheap source of protein.
  • They contained meat and fish meal, and I don’t want to use either. There’s just too large a risk of it hurting the taste of the pork.
  • The amino acids came almost entirely from synthetics.
  • Some of the ingredients, and some that would be required in significant amounts, were sourced from overseas. After explaining what I wanted around that, we were able to source some of it from within Australia, but not from within the state, and there was no guarantee that the source would last.
  • It would have ended up being the kind of highly processed food that makes intensive farmed pigs stink so much.
  • The carbon footprint would’ve been much, much higher than our current approach.

The result of all of that is we have a couple of different rations, both of which are the result of lots and lots and lots of research and practice.  It’s really a number of rations, but it’s made up of two rations, one of which we vary as required.  That’s confusing, isn’t it? 🙂  Here’s what we do:

  • Ration 1 – Weaners (birth to several weeks old).  For this we buy a commercial feed.  We make sure it’s all Aussie made and doesn’t contain the nasties described above.

Piglets don’t need much, if any, supplementary feeding for the first week or so of their lives.  I put out some feed after several days, just so they can have a nibble and get a taste.  They don’t really start hoeing in until the second week though.

We only use this feed on its own for a week or so, and then start to phase in a version of our other ration.  I’ll crack the peas and grains, and start mixing that with the commercial feed.  Over a week or two we then phase to just the non-commercial ration.

We don’t introduce brewers mash until after they’re weaned.

  • Ration 2.  This is made up of:
    • Brewers mash.
    • Soaked cereal grains.  Grains have to be soaked or cracked for the pigs to absorb the maximum nutrition.  About 50% of whole grains are passed through undigested, where the pigs are able to absorb around 90% of cracked or soaked grains.
    • Peas/lupins/beans.

We use variations of this ration for growers, lactating sows, dry sows, and the boars.  We change the quantities as required – growers and lactating sows get as much as they can eat, while others have a more limited, maintenance diet.

We also change the mix according to the pig – those with higher energy needs (e.g. growers, nursing or pregnant mums) get a higher percentage of peas or grain, while those with lower energy needs (e.g. heritage pigs, dry sows) will get more mash and less peas/grain.

That’s a lot of words, much of which is me putting constraints on what we could do, and effectively making our lives much harder. 🙂 It would be much easier for us if we just bought in the commercial feed and didn’t worry about that wall of words above.  However, I firmly believe that all aspects of our pig husbandry are tied to the ethicality of what we’re doing, and the nutrition is an integral part of that.  People don’t just buy a great quality product from us when they buy our meat – they’re also paying for the provenance of the animals.  They’re paying for the peace-of-mind of knowing that I’ve fed the pigs the best quality diet, that it’s as clean and natural as possible, and that we’ve put in this level of thought and research.