Let’s just say it how it is: pastured hog and poultry rearing have a big problem. Both are dependent on expensive inputs of annual feed crops, and are not yet living up to their full regenerative potential.
A sort of grazing renaissance has taken place over the past several decades, during which countless farmers and homesteaders have started to rediscover the true roots of the animals on their farms. Cattle, sheep and goats have been shifted back onto pastures where they belong, and pigs and poultry have followed suit, all grateful to be on fresh grass, under blue skies, and able to be much more like the animals they were meant to be.
However, there is a major difference between cattle, sheep and goats on the one hand, and hogs, chickens and turkeys on the other. Cattle, sheep and goats are ruminants, and as ruminants are equipped with the superpower of turning otherwise inedible, indigestible plant stuff into all the food they need, thanks to their multiple stomachs and complex digestion. Hogs and poultry, meanwhile, are monogastrics like humans, having only one stomach, and are built to thrive on diets high in rich, easily digestible foods, like insects, fruits, nuts and seeds. This means they cannot thrive on the same diet that cattle do, and the bulk of their rations has been met by grains.
These grains do not come cheap. In a research piece from North Carolina, the cost of feed for a hog raised on organic feed was a whopping $356, or 63% of the cost of finishing an animal in that system. This is likely to be true whether the farm simply buys their feed or grows their own, given the cost of seed, tractors, combines, diesel, labor, etc. Either way, the cost of feed is a huge factor for those raising hogs or poultry.
In order to address those costs, we first need to understand the animals that we’re dealing with. Unlike cattle or sheep, which thrive in wide open meadows, both hogs and poultry are fundamentally woodland creatures. Chickens were domesticated from jungle fowl. Turkeys thrive in forests and on forest edges. And wild boar roamed the woods of Eurasia long before being domesticated into the pink bacon makers we love today. None of these animals were primarily home on wide open grasslands. The woods is where these animals historically felt most comfortable, most secure, least heat stressed, and had feed raining down from the sky.
At the risk of overstating my point, let me say it very clearly: hogs and poultry do not belong on open pastures. It is simply not where they were meant to be. They belong in silvopastures. They belong in thoughtfully crafted, high-yielding tree crops systems that drop the feed they need while providing shade, cover and windbreak. The animals will thank you for it, and your bank account will reflect the improvements as trees drop free food year after year for generations to come. Mulberries, apples, pears, persimmons, chestnuts, acorns, walnuts, hazelnuts and more, all falling from the sky and harvested by the animals themselves. A well designed system would flow seamlessly from one season to the next, offering high-quality tree crops starting in early summer and lasting through early winter. Will tree crops completely replace annual feed? They could, in theory. Wild boar and jungle birds never had mixed feed rations to turn to, and they did plenty fine, even without carefully crafted silvopasture systems with top-yielding trees. Realistically, most farms will continue to use grain where it fits, and use tree crops to dramatically cut back on feed costs, especially for those who can raise their animals seasonally when the most feed is available. Going forward I will write several pieces highlighting various tree crops that can best be used for hog and poultry feed, starting with mulberries.
Pastured livestock production has come a long way, and the great news is this: there’s a ton of growth potential still out there. By learning to thoughtfully integrate trees in our livestock systems we can dramatically cut down on feed costs, boost animal welfare, and regenerate whole ecosystems into abundant landscapes that reliably address the needs of our livestock, farm families, and the customers and communities we serve.