Pastured pigs are wonderful in the summer, but many years ago we tried numerous ways to leave them exposed to outside in the winter and finally abandoned that idea.
The pigs enjoy being outside on most winter days, but the soil sure doesn't. During the growing season, which here is about 9 months, the soil bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa actively decompose things and keep the soil working. Pore spaces in the soil enjoy continuous root penetration, keeping them open and aerated.
But in the winter, everything hibernates. Light pig tillage that stimulates aeration, germination, and hydration in the summer destroys soil structure in the winter. What's great in the summer is devastating in the winter. A time for everything, as Ecclesiastes suggests.
Over years of experimentation, we found that any soil exposed to the pigs during the winter turned into brick. The fluffing and aerating enjoyed in the summer turned to compaction and tilth destruction in the winter. To eliminate soil damage, therefore, the pigs come inside during the 3 winter months: December, January, and February.
Furthermore, during this dormant period, the manure and urine runs through the soil and leaches into the groundwater because the microbes that would normally intercept and metabolize it in the growing season are sleeping. Because the soil is not actively doing its growth and decomposition cycle, it can't convert these nutrients into biomass in the winter.
Like all things weather related, this is not a hard and fast calendar protocol. We moved some of the smallest pigs into hoop houses this week. We have several hoop houses for the pigs and, like the laying hens I discussed yesterday, they live on a carbonaceous diaper primarily made of wood chips. Deep bedding, or deep litter, up to 24 inches deep.
Because they are extremely social and group oriented, we do not mix and match groups when we bring them in. One of the big preparation chores, then, is to create the correct-sized areas for each group. Some are bigger than others. Using T-posts and hog panel, we create customized playpens sized to match the pig grouping.
Of course, laying 18-24 inches of wood chips on 12,000 square feet of area takes a lot of chips. Let's see, that would be at least 20,000 cubic feet, or roughly 750 cubic yards. That's about 7 tractor trailer loads of chips. The reason for the chips is to absorb urine and manure and give the pigs something to turn over and play in during the winter. Pigs can be notoriously stinky, whether indoors or outdoors. The key to outdoors is to keep them moving and give them paddocks big enough to handle their manure load.
Inside, the key is enough carbon to absorb all of these nutrients. The biggest preparation component, then, of winterizing the pigs is acquiring all those chips. I'll talk about that in tomorrow's post. We dump them on the floor and push them around a bit with the front end loader. Then we put in the T-posts and hog panels. Then the waterer and self-feeder go in. Then we're ready to bring in pigs.
Pigs located away from what we call Polyface Central (rental properties) ride home in a trailer. The ones in pig pastures here at Polyface Central usually just walk to the hoop houses from whatever pasture they may be in at the time--sometimes nearly a mile away. But pigs have a rapid gait--much faster than cows--enabling them to cover a lot of ground in a hurry.
Words can hardly do justice to the dancing and snorting the pigs enjoy when they first enter these winter quarters. The fresh deep chips give them stuff to gnaw on, lots of soft material to root in, and what is especially enjoyable for them, plenty of fluffy carbon to build a nest. Yes, a nest. Pigs build massive nests and sleep in a big jumble in the saucered-out nest. It's one of the most endearing parts of pigs in the winter. We also feed them junky hay. They eat half and poop on the other half. The hay keeps their manure a much better consistency, gives them something to rip into and tear apart, often working in pairs, and adds to their carbonaceous diaper.
Welcome to winter, pigs.
Did you know pigs built nests?