When you think of what pigs eat, most people envision long troughs full of slop. From my early childhood memories of one of my favorite books, “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, Wilbur was fed buckets of slop (often depicted pictorially in a rather gross manner) and his pen attracted a rat named Templeton, who also sorted through the slop. I never imagined that pigs ate grass, or hay. Most of the time we see pigs in muddy pens, being fed in a trough, after all. Or we see them in confinement farms, indoors in artificial environments.
The truth is that pigs love to graze pasture and eat the leaves off low-hanging tree branches. They eat various types of hay, and just about any type of fresh produce. After a good soaking rain, they’ll root for grubs and bugs, or eat the starchy roots of various plants. In a forest environment, they do the same- constantly seeking out nuts and insects.
At Corva Bella, our goal is to have happy, healthy and eventually, delicious pigs. We feed a widely varied diet to achieve all of these goals. We are set up for rotational grazing in both open pasture, silvopasture, and wooded pastures. Our gardens produce a variety of fresh vegetables and greens all year round, and we grow trays of barley fodder in the greenhouse when temperatures are cold, and outdoors when temperatures are stable. The pigs also love eggs, moderate amounts of yogurt and spent milk, and whey.
Last Fall into Winter, the pigs enjoyed large amounts of apples, melons, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, along with box after box of acorns, beech and hickory nuts we gathered on our property and from neighbors. We also ferment a 16% locally milled grower feed with added milk to create a mash with increased nutrition and healthy probiotics.
The Kunekune and Meishan pigs are unique heritage breeds in that they evolved very close to people. The Kunekune pigs with the Maori tribes of New Zealand, and the Meishan pigs in close quarters with the Chinese of the Taihu Lakes region of China. Pigs are excellent foragers and are very adaptable to their environment. Part of our goal as a permaculture-based sustainable small farm is to create an environment in which everything we plant and grow has a purpose towards sustaining our animals, our selves, and our emerging market farm/CSA offerings.
Spring is just around the corner and we’re already planning what the pigs are going to be eating into the Fall and Winter. This Summer, the pigs will be primarily pasturing, eating produce and hay, and the hopefully, banana leaves. We are planting numerous banana trees in a carefully chosen area and hope that this food source holds true in it’s claimed production. Our climate doesn’t produce fruiting bananas, but the leaves should be plentiful. We planted 25 apple and pear trees last year and will be planting more this year in hopes of one day having plentiful fall apples for the pigs. In the meantime, we’ll visit local orchards to pick up their fallen apples and help clean their orchard floor, while providing a food our pigs love!
Did you know pigs love sunflowers, and will eat the entire head? I learned this last year when I watched a sow stand on her back legs to reach and pull down a sunflower that had dipped into her paddock. Sunflowers are easy to grow and grow very well in our region. We’re planning to devote an entire area of the garden to a large sunflower crop this year. We’ll harvest the heads and be able to store them well into the winter to feed the pigs.
Regular potatoes shouldn’t be fed to pigs, but sweet potatoes are a type of yam and are in a different class altogether. Best of all, both the expansive vines and the tubers themselves are a wonderful food for pigs. We’ve got ten hugelkultur beds we’re currently filling with compost, and last year’s sweet potatoes will be creating this year’s sweet potato slips. Growing in compost, they should reach a sensational size and be an easily stored food source for the pigs throughout the winter.
We’re going to be actively seeking out farmers of pumpkins and watermelons in hopes of trading pastured pork for trailer loads of damaged or leftover produce, but in the meantime will also be growing our own here. Manure compost and old straw/hay are things we have in plentiful amounts and these favorite pig foods grow exceptionally well and even volunteer in our compost areas. Last year a single compost area, without any help from us… grew around 50 melons and watermelons! The pigs also eat the vines.
A varied and healthy diet is important for the health or our breeding stock and growing piglets and junior breeders, but it’s also infinitely important for our meat herd. Why? Because fat holds flavor, and our well-marbled heritage lard breeds are known for their wonderfully textured and delicious fat. What they eat matters. Acorn-finishing is an age-old process, well known in Europe and believed to have been practiced in Ancient Rome. Producers of pastured pork all have their special finishing methods they use to impart the most marbled meat and flavorful fat in their pork.
At Corva Bella, we spend a lot of time ensuring our pigs are receiving the best nutrition from a wide variety of sources. We hope to one day be able to afford to add a Non-GMO feed to our process, in lieu of the locally milled 16% grower we are currently using. This is important to us and is one of our near-future farm goals!