June 4th, 2017
We spent a lovely afternoon at Bluebird Farm for the June CRAFT farm tour learning about farrowing 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 and quickly expanded by leasing 15 acres nearby of an old nursery that belongs to a family friend. They raised animals and vegetables from the start, but added to and expanded their enterprises as their knowledge and experience grew. Now they double crop three acres of vegetables each year and graze chickens (for meat and eggs), sheep, and pigs on approximately five acres.
In 2014, they decided to start farrowing. Farrowing is the fancy name for when a sow (female pig) gives birth to piglets. Farrowing had been a part of their long-term farm plan all along, but they first needed to consider many details. For example, it’s really easy to not have enough piglets, so they waited five years before venturing into it. For the first five years, they raised pigs on pasture for meat and bought piglets from other farms. However, they started noticing that the health and quality of the purchased piglets was inconsistent and hard to judge. Often, older piglets can look smaller and younger if they have not been well cared for. This spurred 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 their sows are a mix of breeds including Old Spot, Duroc, Large Black, Hampshire. 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 become pregnant. Marie explained that a sow goes into heat every 21 days. Then they are moved out to the field for their gestation—three months, three weeks, and three days long. Eight days before she’s due, they return the pregnant sow to another section of the nursery barn 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. This way you don’t have issues with older piglets bullying younger ones as they’re trying to nurse. William said each sow gives birth to a litter of 9–14 piglets, and ideally they wean more than 8 piglets from each litter. The piglets are castrated within the first 7–10 days and weaned at 5–6 weeks old (the industry standard is to wean at three weeks).
Marie and William set up a six-month breeding cycle so they are farrowing in the spring and fall. They breed a sow for the first time when she’s one year old and hope to keep her healthy and in production for 6 years before “retirement.” 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, pigs are not the best at digesting grasses. They are more interested in the higher protein roots, hence their inclination for rooting. Therefore, 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, but they have yet to make the numbers work 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 get a ration of three to five pounds of feed and brewers grain per day because they should only gain about one pound per day while pregnant. Once they’re weaned, 10 piglets will eat five pounds per day. 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 600 pounds of feed a year. This means they bring in more than 15 tons of Certified Organic feed for the 50 meat pigs they raise every 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. First they set up this semi-permanent fence around the edges of a field, and then, using temporary fencing, they divide the field into multiple paddocks to rotate the herd every 10 days to 2 weeks, depending on the weather. 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; there is no reward if they get past the electric. Finally, Marie said, the final key pieces are making sure they are happy which means 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, 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. She also brings experience 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. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a beekeeper, dancer, baker and avid adventurer.