It’s that time of year again. Spring signifies new life, which is easily observed here on the farm. Recently, I visited fellow Niman Ranch Farmers Paul and Andrea Brown, who farm with their children right here in Iowa. They raise pigs for Niman Ranch – just part of their entire operation. They rotate the pig’s pasture from year to year, incorporating livestock with their crop production to enrich the soil.
I often get asked what we use to take the place of farrowing crates. I like to say we take our lead from nature. Animals are already given the tools to reproduce and care for their own. Farrowing in the pasture begins in the spring. I know my dad’s goal was to have everything set up for the sows in the field by April 1. Historically, hog farmers utilized A- frame houses as shelters for pigs raised on pasture.
Today, at Niman Ranch we continue to use them, along with similar structures called huts which are made out of galvanized steel to last longer. Moving the huts from one pasture to another takes time and hard work. On our farm we used our Bobcat skid-loader to lift each hut onto a trailer and then transfer them to the next pasture where they were unloaded. We always had at least one hut per sow along with some larger communal huts placed in the field. This allows the pigs the freedom to roam about the pasture while providing shelter from the elements when they want it.
We pitch straw into each hut to provide bedding for the soon to arrive piglets. Pitching straw not only gets the job done but provides one heck of a work out. Sows have a natural nesting instinct. Even though we pitch straw into each hut, most sows will add to it with mouthfuls of grass and other vegetation, arranging it until it’s just so.
It’s amazing when I think about all of the family farmers who have joined our network here at Niman Ranch in the past couple of years. If you ask many of them, they will tell you that they continue to enjoy raising hogs the way their grandparents did, outdoors on pasture or in deeply bedded pens. Working outside like this is part of the joy we find in farming. We take great pride in caring for our animals and are grateful that we are able to continue to do it this way.