Changes 2017: Pigs

Here is the second installment in my series outlining the changes planned for Wrong Direction Farm in 2017.  I’ll use the Sergio Leone’s time tested rubric to review the plans for pigs this year.

The Good

There’s no doubt about it:  pigs are my favorite farm animal.  I like cattle as a group, but I like pigs individually and collectively.  I keep getting better at understanding both the animal management and the meat sales part of the business.  This isn’t a brag, just an acknowledgement that the years of hard knocks are starting to pay off with a much more practiced eye for pigs and pasture.

I’ve been able to keep the target price locked for five years running, so I’m glad to be able to maintain stability for our customers.  Pork sales have been improving.  I’ve been having some trouble marketing pork chops as premium products and customer demand seems to gravitate more toward traditionally low-end cuts (butt roasts and sausage) so our supply/demand ratio causes our “cheap cuts” to be overpriced and our “prime cuts” to be underpriced.

This year I plan on raising the average carcass weight.  The pigs have been averaging 175 lbs (skin off, head off, organs removed) hanging weight, but I’d like to push that into the 220s consistently.

The last “good” to mention has been the addition of salami.  We added Fuet last year and we have a batch of Soppressata in the works.  Coordinating with the salami shop has been challenging and meeting their new minimum batch size (1000 lbs) is a stretch, but the consistently positive customer feedback make this a great product category.  I’d like to work next on a formulation for a no-nitrate pepperoni, but that’s been a little more elusive compared to some of the other salami recipes they can produce.

The Bad

The glaring bad thing is that I’ve spread myself too thin (that will be a repeated theme in this series) and I don’t have time to do everything well.  Pig breeding and farrowing didn’t get the attention it deserved.  I was too slow to notice that my boar had become infertile and too distracted to switch gears once I discovered it.  Likewise I’ve been bringing along a few sows with poor maternal instincts and not making the right culling decisions, consequently I’ve accepted small litter sizes for too long.

My plan for 2017 is to stop breeding pigs.  I sent most of the older sows to the butcher in December (see previous reference to the big batch of soppressata) and the remaining two will go next week.  This has been a tough decision.  I really like sows and I like piglets.  I like the idea of the farm being self sufficient for its breeding stock.  I don’t like the idea of having to come up with big wads of cash every time I need to buy a batch of piglets, especially since I was able to maintain the sows quite economically with whey supplementing their pasture diets.

On the other hand, I must reset my focus on doing the things I know I can do well to put the farm on a more stable foundation.  I am hopeful that in the future I’ll be able to get back into the pig breeding work.  In the meantime, I am glad to have several family farmers I know I can work with confidently to buy their weaned piglets.  Although this is a loss of independence, it is a gain of interdependence.   It helps my outlook to realize that I can support other farmers to achieve their goals as I work to achieve mine.

A group of young pigs that came to us from our friends at Cairncrest Farm.  A younger litter arrives this weekend from Stubborn Girl Farm.

The Ugly

This year I haven’t been happy with my bedding management for the winter hoophouses, so they were getting pretty mucky when we had our big January thaw.  Last weekend I loaded 20 cubic yards of wood chips into the hoophouse and that fixed the situation immediately.  I want to be more on punctual with this in the future.  One thing that makes it easy to procrastinate on adding wood chips has been the cost.  Each 20 yard load is $320, delivered.  I have not had much success getting landscapers to consistently dump wood chips, but another resolution for this year is to track down some more landscapers and get on their list.

Pigs are high and dry again and they all seem pretty pleased with the situation.  This is the group 200+ pounders.

7 thoughts on “Changes 2017: Pigs”

  1. I’ve been thinking about the bedding situation a lot because I’m not happy with my own pig’s muckiness. I’ve been pouring chips into their hoop, but I need more wood chips. The local tree trimmer guy near me wants $25 for 8 or so yards. I can also make my own… from smaller branches, but I think the real gravy train as far chips go will come from renting a big chipper. I found place in Albany that has a chipper capable of eating an 18″ diameter tree. They also have 12″ models, which would be more my speed, since I would have a hard time getting an 18″ diameter bole into the mouth of the machine. If I cut and stage a bunch of trunks and chunks then rent the chipper I should be able to make a metric crap ton (this is an official unit for measuring pig bedding) of chips for less than $300 out of pocket.

    1. I don’t have extensive experience, but I’ve spent enough time pushing brush into several different tree service companies’ chippers (12″ class machines) to realize that it takes a long time to chip a truckload. Even if I could run whole trees or tops, it takes time to fell them, skid them out, limb them down, and stack the material into efficient piles. Then I’d need to have a grapple on hand to load them through the chipper if I were to be working with logs near the chipper’s capacity. In order to have decent throughput I’d probably need to have a feller buncher and some sort of skidding equipment (maybe not a real skidder but at least a heavy skidding winch on a tractor). Right now I’m using 80 or more yards of chips each year, so I can’t figure out how I would find the time to create enough volume on my own. (I’m not saying that it can’t be done economically; I just don’t think I could do it without cheap labor or lots of heavy equipment, neither of which I have.)

      1. Fair enough. Yeah, my vision does not include feeding small branches and other twiggy things into the maw of the chipper. The small stuff takes up too much room to effectively stage for a rental machine. My idea is to stockpile branches and trunks in the 4″-12″ diameter range stacked in a pile the tractor forks can easily get into/under. Then I could bring loads of material to the chipper and feed it quickly enough to make the rental worth the cost of a day with a big machine. Obviously the creation of the stockpile will be an ongoing thing. And having two or three able-bodied people ready to feed the machine when it’s roaring to go would make for more efficient work.

        I’ve kept track of my time with my PTO powered chipper and it takes me +/- 45 minutes/yard with the smaller tops of trees going from standing tree to chips in the box. So yeah, unless the chip production is secondary to some other process (firewood, logging for lumber, clearing land for more pasture, etc) it is pretty marginal as straight up bedding source.

  2. Thanks for this very thought reply, Dave. So I went to the city supermarket/mall and asked if they would buy some pigs. Turns out, they only buy from piggeries that buy feeds from them! The supermarket/mall is the exclusive distributor of Purina products here. I know someone who used to raise pigs under this type of set-up and she gave up because the supermarket buys cheaply too! Talk about killing small farmers indeed.

    For now, we’re selling piglets in and around the village – it’s timing as well: more people will buy if there’s more money going around (for example when people are getting money from relatives overseas (usually before Christmas), when they are getting money from an informal micro-lending or rotating savings scheme, etc). I realise also that I need to sell on credit otherwise it’s hard to sell anything; someone is asking for 2 installments in payment, while the other is paying in 3 installments. Essentially, the sale of piglets is very dependent on the small local economy. Not a bad thing, I thought, if it helps people in the village. Our piglets also get a reputation now of being fast growers and will eat anything, not just expensive commercial feeds.

    Those are very novel marketing advise! I never would’ve thought of those! I really need to sit and put on my marketer’s hat and focus.

  3. Good analysis and decisions Dave. I like what you say about gaining interdependence. I read somewhere once that moving into the country meant being an important social (and economic) part of the community, as distinct from city life where anonymity and ‘independence’ are what’s sought.

    WDF look pretty good at dealing with the marketing too – have read positive remarks by your customers on your FB page! I wish I could try that salami! I guess as you let go of breeding (for now) there would be more time to devote to marketing and promoting the meat products wider.

    How old are your 175 pounders when they go to market?

    We’re seriously considering letting a sow and boar (or perhaps 2 sows) go to butcher, so I can focus on one boar and one sow and the breeding. We’re not commercial and only on a backyard scale, but even then it gets hard trying to sell 11 piglets (from 2 sows), even if a number of people nearby have given up pig breeding. Our buyers are households that keep a pig for fiesta or other special event. Here’s where I wish I had more time to focus on the marketing part too, although just on an informal level, to get the city supermarket livestock purchaser to buy our piglets.

    I tried making sausages, ham and bacon a few times. But apart from the resorts and hotels on Panglao Island (who already have their suppliers offshore) the general population don’t seem interested here. Local taste is more towards very sweet cured meats that are full of fat and extenders, and therefore tend to be quite cheap. Impossible to compete with that, unless I could change local taste (quite a feat).

    Overall, Trevor and I need to discuss plans for the 2017 too, and get back to what we originally intended – raise pigs to feed ourselves.

    I love pigs too. I was crying last night just thinking of getting rid of the sow Number 1 (yes, that’s her name!)

    1. 175 pound hanging weight is about 250-260 pounds live weight (118 kg). Getting a whole group of pigs to reach that target simultaneously is always tricky. On rare occasions we’ve had six month old pigs hit that weight and some runts can take eleven or twelve months. We’ve seen this spread on our own pigs and on pigs that have come from several farmers who boasted about their “pasture genetics”. Tightening up the group would be helpful from a lot of perspectives, but right now we always have staggered butcher dates to deal with the early and late pigs. Some of variation in growth comes from weather, some comes from genetics, some comes from what we’re feeding. Depending on the season I may feed less supplemental grain to encourage the pigs to forage more. At those times, there is often the biggest disparity as some pigs keep growing and some pigs seem to stand still.
      As for the marketing, we realized early on that we’d have to do our own marketing if we wanted to be successful. Most of the wholesale opportunities squeeze the farmer to death, so our only chance is to bring the food right to our customers. If we can build up a customer base that understands the value of carefully produced foods, and we can build a relationship directly with those customers so they know us as people they trust, then they’ll be willing to pay us the premium we need to produce this for them. We aren’t there yet, but each year we get a bit closer.
      As far as changing the local tastes goes, that’s a big challenge. I can only suggest that the internet may be your friend, if you can use Facebook to reach out to a broader group of people than you see on a daily basis. You might be able to look for people who are interested in alternative eating. Around here it helps to ask people at gyms/fitness centers, people with medical conditions who are looking for nutritional alternatives (all the “a’s”: autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma, autism). We have made contacts with some doctors. They eat our products and they recommend them to their patients when they consult with them about changing their diets to focus on wholesome foods. We check in with the doctors and the reality is that 99% of people don’t follow their advice, but every now and then someone gives us a call. I’m not sure if any of these suggestions would work for you, but they have been successful for us and for a few other people we know.
      All the best! Dave

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