June 4th, 2017
We spent a lovely afternoon at Bluebird Farm for the June CRAFT farm tour learning about farrowing (aka, mama sows giving birth to) piglets, and year-round hog production with William Lyons, Marie Williamson, and their farm crew. Marie and William have been farming in Morganton since 2009. They started farming on Marie’s family’s land but quickly expanded, leasing 15 acres nearby of an old nursery that belongs to a family friend. From the start, they raised animals and vegetables, but added to and expanded their enterprises as their knowledge and experience grew. Now they double crop 3 acres of vegetables each year and graze chickens (for meat and eggs), sheep, and pigs on 4-5 acres.
In 2014, they decided to start farrowing. Farrowing is the fancy name for when a sow (female pig) gives birth to piglets, and William and Marie had their first litter of piglets. It had been a part of their longer term farm plan all along, but they knew farrowing had a lot of details to consider. It is really easy to not have enough piglets, so they waited 5 years before venturing into it. Before then, they were raising pigs on pasture for meat and buying piglets from other farms. But, they were noticing that the health and quality of the piglets they were finding was inconsistent and hard to judge. Oftentimes, older piglets can look smaller and younger if they have not been well taken care of. This spurred on their decision to farrow for themselves.
Initially, they bred their sows with artificial insemination, but eventually shifted to a boar. William explained that their boar is purebred Duroc while the sows are a mix of breeds including Old Spot, Duroc, Large Black, Hampshire, and others. The boar and the sows are kept together in an old nursery barn, that William and Marie leased and outfitted for livestock until the sows are confirmed pregnant. Marie explained, that a sow goes into heat every 21 days. Then, they are moved out to the field for their gestation which is 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days long. Eight days before she’s due they return the pregnant sow to another section of the nursery barn that is set up with huts for the sow to farrow. The huts are designed to help keep the sow from accidentally crushing her piglets when she lies down. Sows that have given birth within a week of each other can be kept in together in the same space. Then, you don’t have issues with older piglets bullying younger ones as they’re trying to nurse. William said each sow gives birth to 9-14 piglets, and ideally, they will be able to wean 8+ piglets from each litter. The piglets are castrated within the first 7-10 days and weaned at 5-6 weeks old, whereas the industry standard is to wean at 3 weeks.
Marie and William set up a 6-month breeding cycle so they are farrowing in the spring and fall. They will breed a sow for the first time when she’s 1 year old, and hope to keep their sows healthy and in production for 6 years before they are “retired.” In the winter, all the pigs are brought into the nursery greenhouses and kept on deep mulch bedding, but the pregnant sows and any that may be giving birth have their own space separate from the meat pigs.
Even though the pigs are on pasture the majority of the year at Bluebird Farm, pigs are not the best at digesting grasses, they are more interested in the higher protein roots, hence their inclination for rooting. So, 20-30% of their ideal diet is grazed, but the rest must be supplemented. The meat pigs and weaned piglets are both fed Certified Organic feed at Bluebird, but they have not been able to make the numbers work as of yet to feed the sows and boar organic feed. All of the pigs do get a special treat each day of spent brewer’s grain or beer mash from Catawba Brewing. The sows are rationed to 3-5 lbs of feed and brewers grain per day because you only want them to gain about 1 lb/day while pregnant. Piglets, once they’re weaned will eat 5 lbs/day for 10 piglets. Marie said they mix the dry grain with water and apple cider vinegar to help their stomachs transition off of nursing. While the meat pigs have free choice during the day to eat as much as they want, on average a pig will eat 600lbs of feed a year. Which means they bring in 15+ tons of Certified Organic feed for the 50 meat pigs they raise per year.
Fencing is an important piece of infrastructure to consider with any livestock. William and Marie employ a semi-permanent fence made of a single electric wire and t-posts for the meat pigs and pregnant sows in the field. In some areas, they will put up non-electrified netting as a visual barrier behind the single wire. They set up this semi-permanent fence around the edges of a field, and then divide the field into multiple paddocks so they can rotate the herd every 10 days to 2 weeks, depending on the weather, with temporary fencing. An advantage of raising their own piglets, Marie explained, is that they can train them on electric fences when and how they want. After the piglets have been weaned they stay in the nursery greenhouse for a few more days where they are introduced to electric fences. Metal hog panels with 2x6 inch panels in the lower portion are lined up behind the electric wire, so there is no reward if they get past the electric. Finally, Marie said, the next key pieces after electric fencing and training to keep pigs in the fence is making sure they are happy – have plenty of food, water, shade and a place to wallow.
We are incredibly grateful to William and Marie for sharing their time and knowledge with us. Looking forward to the next time. See you there!
Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2017! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director at 828.338.9465 or email@example.com
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director.She grew up in Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, and has made her home in Western North Carolina. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC – Chapel Hill in Anthropology and Geography in 2006, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University in May 2011. Gaining as much experience as she could she worked with several other regional nonprofits in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. When she isn’t visiting farms all around this end of the state as Farmer Programs coordinator you can usually find her digging in her garden or adventuring alongside her husband Walker, the farm manager at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.