On my fourth night of watch, I witnessed thirteen piglets emerge into the world. I had been waiting patiently with our sow Hermione, lying next to her inflated body in the hay, sometimes dozing off to the rhythmic cadence of her labored breathing. Nighttime in mid October can be somewhat chilly in northeast Vermont but I was quite comfortable next to her radiating warmth. Around midnight I was startled by some grunting, noticed some swelling and discharge and suspected the piglets were on their way. No sooner had I thought this when I saw the first of the piglets drop to the hay below. Had I blinked, I might have missed it. Almost instantly the little guy stood up, coughed, and scrambled his way towards his mom’s teat. I’m not a parent but witnessing the birth of an animal that I was soon to care for felt like a miracle nonetheless.
As part of my senior project at Sterling College, I spent the next month formulating a feed plan for two growing pigs, researching potential health issues to watch for, plotting out a spot of pasture for them to dwell on, and building a small hovel for them to overwinter in. On November 16th, at thirty days old, castrated and with needle teeth clipped, the piglets were ready to be weaned. I picked out two of the larger, more interesting piglets in the litter, purchased them from the school, and outside they went. We started them on a steady diet of grain and food scraps from a local daycare. In addition they were able to forage on pasture for the first month or two. As the winter snow began to appear I would often travel down to the farm to check on my pigs, fearful they would freeze to death. My fears were completely unfounded. Each time I checked on my hogs they were burrowed next to each other in the hay, nestled warm and cozy inside their shelter. When I went to feed them they would bound towards me, sometimes through two feet of snow, seemingly smiling and without a care in the world. It also didn’t hurt that they’re a heritage breed, a three-way cross of Tamworth, Large Black, and Gloucestershire Old Spot, ideal for dealing with the elements and foraging their own food. By Christmas I was pretty sure my hogs were gonna be just fine outside.
Over the next few months I watched with wonder as my outside hogs grew a shaggy winter coat far thicker than that of their littermates inside the barn. Being outside, they also had the added advantage of having contact with soil to avoid iron deficiencies, direct sunlight to avoid vitamin D deficiencies, plenty of fresh air, additional feed from forage, and required only occasional mucking as they seemed to spend most of their time rooting around outside. I monitored their average daily gain at first with a bathroom scale and then with weight tapes when they reached around 90 pounds. Their growth progress was on par with, if not better than, their inside littermates. Still, I knew that if these were summer hogs, they would have much more forage available to them and would likely grow quicker. After consulting faculty and doing a little research, I devised a garden project to get my hogs some green grass prior to spring.
It is surprisingly quick and easy to grow grass indoors during winter. I filled three trays with about one inch of Vermont Compost Fort Vee, densely seeded one tray each with oats, buckwheat, and cereal rye, placed them under full spectrum fluorescent lights in our transplant room, and kept them good and watered. In thirteen days time I had three trays exploding with thick, lush green grass that looked like it had sprouted in early June. Because the trays were seeded so densely the grass conveniently peeled out of them as intact mats. The mats were then thrown out onto the snow much to the surprise and pleasure of my hogs. The flats were then re-seeded to be fed out at a later date. I kept this schedule going of feeding three flats a week for the last two months of their lives. Although the amount of dry matter they received from the grass is mostly negligible, the grass does deliver vegetative nutrients, variety, and happiness. As far as I’m concerned, happy pigs are tasty pigs. The hogs were finished on acorns that I collected in Maine, a centuries-old tradition handed down from the Mediterranean region of Europe.
The only time my pigs were not strictly on pasture after weaning was five days in April when they were penned inside the school’s hoop house. Prior to the pigs’ arrival, the hoop house was home to chickens, turkeys, and rabbits for seven months. The school’s compost manager, John Smolinsky, requested to have my pigs turned loose in the hoop house to follow the Nordell model of using hogs to turn up and loosen the bed pack while foraging for buried grain and bugs. It is quite warm in the hoop house and they seemed to be just as happy and busy in the bed pack as they were on pasture.
Throughout their lives my pigs were parasite free, were not given growth hormones or antibiotics, were not confined in a feed lot, and more than 40% of their food came from sources other than grain. As much as I was attached to them I was also looking forward to eating them. My senior project culminated on April 20th with a pig roast served to the Sterling community. I am comforted by the fact that I know my pigs enjoyed a high quality of life and proud to have seen that my food was produced using ethical, healthy, and environmentally conscious management practices from start to finish.
I will soon graduate Sterling College confident that I can again raise pigs on my own in a similar manner. •
Matthew Anderson is a graduating senior. His major is Sustainable Agriculture.