Natural Farming: Does it really work?

When we started breeding and raising pigs in a backyard setting, we decided to keep everything small-scale and as close to nature as our resources could allow. Ideally, this means pasture-raised pigs. However, we don’t have the luxury of the space. So we kept only a few pigs and provided spacious accommodation for them, roughly about 20-25sqm for 1 boar or 1 sow or 5 growers.

We built pens for our pigs that are large, well ventilated and get plenty of sunshine. The pens have grass, bushes and soil flooring, not concrete. Apparently, pigs love rooting and digging the soil, thus, the conventional pigpen designs with concrete flooring would be against our principles.

The natural principle also means giving pigs plenty of green forage, fruits, roughage and other organic materials to eat. Again, our limited resources make it impossible to give even a few pigs 100% natural diet. So we supplement with commercially-produced pig feeds in pelleted form.

To imitate the pig’s preferred natural habitat of the forest, we introduced plenty of organic material (mostly dry coconut leaves) which absorbs moisture and urine and at the same time provides soft bedding for the pigs. When a pig gives birth (or farrows), we provide plenty of dry banana leaves for nesting. Every now and then, we put wood shavings and rice hull into the pens to keep the flooring dry and provide entertainment for the pigs. Ashes and burnt pieces of wood from cooking are also collected and placed into the pens after we learned that ashes were good for piglets.

Perhaps due to the “lucky” combination of these conditions, our pigpens did not emit irritating odors. The only time we had an odor problem was when the roof of the pen started rotting and rain flooded the area. It seems that a large majority of irritating odor problems associated with pigs take place when the water content of beddings are over 30% and in the case of concreted floorings, when water, urine and manure are mixed, no matter the amount or proportion. This is why concreted floor pens need to be cleaned and washed with large amounts of water several times a day. Our pigpens never need cleaning.

We have had 4 farrows with no incidence of disease amongst the piglets. This is surprising for many who see the piglets amidst soil, rotting vegetation, manure, urine and mud, all widely perceived as unhygienic conditions. While we have had no problems after 2 years, we do think about the possibility of build-up of pathogenic bacteria in the pigpens after a longer period of time. This is why we are currently taking measures to rotate the pigs in different pens so as to enable the vacated pens to fallow and completely turn into compost before seeds of cover crops are sown over the area.

After 2 years, we seem to have established a system of pig-keeping based on farming philosophies more widely known as Natural Farming (pioneered by the Japanese Fukuoka Masanobu) and Korean Natural Farming (KNF, promoted by the Korean Han Kyu Cho). These are broad farming philosophies and principles that have numerous applications.

Although our own principles and practices are fairly successful so far, we are now experimenting with KNF, particularly, the role of the diversity of indigenous microorganisms and beneficial microorganisms in keeping healthy pigs in a healthy natural environment. We are particularly curious how the more focused and directed approach of microorganism production and harvesting would be most useful.

As part of our experiments, we have a smaller pen, about 2sqm under the house, where a 10-week old piglet is kept. The piglet is fed a high-density diet (crude protein of about 16%) and a small amount of fruits and forage materials such as trichanthera (madre de agua), banana leaves, ipil-ipil, papaya, etc. Odor events in this pigpen are more frequent and were greatly minimized by spraying the area with lactic acid bacteria solution (known in KNF as LABS, made by fermenting rice washing with milk) and fermented plant juice solution (known in KNF as FPJ, made by fermenting shoots and leaves of vigorously growing leafy vegetables and brown sugar). These are also added to the piglet’s drinking water. Occasionally, wood shavings are thrown over the manure then sprayed with the solutions mentioned above. Given the small space for this piglet, the results of using fermented solutions have been impressive. We are yet to successfully produce indigenous microorganisms (known in KNF as IMO) and introduce that to our pigpens and surrounding gardens together with FPJ and LABS.

While NF and KNF systems seem to work quite well for us, we will be regularly sharing results of our experiments in the near future. We do have a number of failures which we will share here as well. In the meantime, here is an article explaining some of the principles and methods of KNF for those who are interested. Good luck!

 

A Better Pig Accommodation

Two months ago, I finally got one of the pigpens rebuilt. It is Sow Number 3’s pen. I wanted better accommodation for her when she farrows around the last week of August. The old pigpen has a leaky nipa roof and the fences and door serve as aperitif for Number 3. Several times Number 3 escaped from her old pen and terrorized the village. ūüėČ

The old pigpen with the new pigpen being built around it.

I came up with the design of the new pigpen based on observations and interactions with Number 3, studying pigpen housing standards and designs on the Internet and discussing the design plans with Trevor and the carpenters Kelly and Jessie.

The real test of the new design will be when Number 3 farrows. We will put the metal barrier and light for the piglet creep space into the pen soon. The pigpen has a total area of about 25 square meters, a comfortable space for one pig. My ideal is a large pasturing area, but we don’t have that much space. This is the best we can do!

The new pigpen allows more air and sunshine with a higher roof. It is certainly more durable than the old pen which was built using bamboo and wood. Such a pen is fine if we were keeping a pig for fattening, but a sow is a strong and powerful animal weighing up to 150 kilograms.

There will be two more large pens to be re-designed and built (for Sow Auntie Brownie and Pinky Boar) and two smaller pens for fattening a pig or two. The old pens are still usable but they are falling part and require much maintenance. I am hoping construction will be push through in September. The new farrowing unit will include an escape hatch for piglets (so they can enjoy the garden while they are up to 3 weeks old and give their mother a chance to relax).

Later, Trevor and I will look into developing the gardens (and possibly a pond or rain garden) around the pigpens so the area will be cooler, more productive and provide forage for the pigs.

Our foreman Kelly and the finished pigpen!
Lots of space for Number 3!
The feeding trough can be filled up from the outside of the pen.

 

First Farrowing for 2017

This is our first farrowing for 2017, also Auntie Brownie’s first parity. She is probably considered a late bloomer (at 2 years of age). The boar is a year younger, Brownie Boar (born and raised here as well). We decided on selective in-breeding, pigs are aunt/nephew relations. I was quite nervous about this but genetics of both pigs are very good so it was worth the try.

Auntie Brownie gave birth to 11 piglets. A 12th piglet Рthe last Рwas born dead. We decided on a no-intervention policy during farrowing. She started nest building at around midnight then farrowed at 8AM until 9AM.  I watched her farrow from a distance.

On the fourth day after farrowing, we had to go to the city for our weekly shopping and left the sow and piglets to a caretaker – with bad results. When we returned in the afternoon, the sow was stressed and kept crushing her piglets. The next day, one piglet died of crushing. Another piglet was found dead after 2 days apparently from crushing as well. The caretaker had stressed the sow by going into the pen and making a lot of noise and fuss. Because of this experience, we decided not to leave the sow and piglets to other people even for just a second – at least until the piglets are strong enough not to be crushed – about 4 weeks old.

The piglets escaped into the garden before they were 7 days old. This allowed the mother to relax. We will incorporate such an escape hatch for piglets when we re-design and re-build the pigpens. By foraging in the garden, the piglets get exercise and try exploring and eating a range of vegetation. This helps make them stronger and wean them naturally.

As usual, we did not mutilate the piglets – we did not cut their tail or their teeth. However, buyers demand that the male piglets be castrated. We will keep one uncastrated male piglet for ourselves. We have proven that there is no boar taint in intact male pigs not beyond 6 months of age.

Two Farrowings in December 2016

We had two farrowings in December 2016. Sow Number 1 (second parity) and gilt Number 3 (first parity). Number 3 gave birth to 4 piglets on the evening of December 25. Number 1 gave birth to 11 piglets on the evening of December 30.

Both Number 3 and Number 1 were serviced through artificial insemination by Ogie from Corella. It costs PhP1,500 per AI. Number 3 was inseminated with a Large White boar while Number 1 was inseminated with a mixed Pietrain boar.

Number 3 had only 4 piglets so they were exceptionally large, she had a bit of a hard time delivering them (roughly 30 minutes between each piglet). She successfully reared all of her 4 piglets without supervision, no crushing incidents. The piglets – 3 males and 1 female – were sold at weaning age of 6 weeks for PhP2,500 each. The males were castrated by Bebe at PhP50 each.We prefer not to castrate the piglets but buyers insist on buying only castrated male piglets. Because of this, we have opted to keep 1 or 2 males from a litter to keep for ourselves, un-castrated.

Sow Number 1 showing all her teats!

Number 1 crushed 4 of her 11 piglets. She also had enormous troubles farrowing, perhaps a kind of sow hysteria. We kept the piglets away from her throughout farrowing until she was able to relax and lie down to allow the piglets to suckle. The piglets were sold at weaning age of 6 weeks for PhP2,500 each (actually, buyers keep asking for discounts so we sold the piglets for PhP2,400 each and the runt sold for PhP2,000).

Overall, we consider the 2 farrowings a success, with a total of 11 piglets raised with no problems. Their tails and teeth were not cut, they were not injected with any vitamins, supplements or antibiotics. For iron supplement, which can be critical in some cases, I use instant iron drops instead of injections. We decide on much less intervention during farrowing next time.

Bootleg’s Piglets

So here are Bootleg’s piglets, Pinky and Brownie. They were born June 18, 2016. They are getting quite big now. They escaped from their pen this afternoon and spent some time rooting in the garden. These piglets remind me a lot of Bootleg. Since these are going to be breeding boars, it is important that I let them get used to me. They may not be as friendly as Bootleg, since I raised Bootleg by hand since birth, but I am hoping that these piglets will have Bootleg’s gentle temperament. At the moment, Pinky is more affectionate than Brownie. Brownie tends to be more nervous and gets startled easily, but he is getting better. ūüôā

More about Bootleg:

Good-bye, Bootleg

So, Bootleg finally did it, he finally decided to say good-bye. His tumour had a small eruption two days ago, then he fell ill yesterday and died this morning. It all happened very quickly. I feel sad but also in a way happy that he spent 16 months with us, making such a difference in our lives. The gilt Brownie was with him, which I think is very important, so he never felt alone.

Bootleg is buried next to his mother, Miss Piggy, who died July 19, 2015.¬†Bootleg has two piglets here, Brownie and Pinky, so in away, Bootleg is still with us. ūüôā

PS. The background music in the video is from our neighbour’s loud sound sytem, playing “Words” by the Bee Gees

“This world has lost its glory¬†
let’s start a brand
new story now, my love
Right now, there’ll be no other time¬†
and I can show you how, my love…”

Umbilical Hernia in Pigs

Our first encounter with umbilical hernia was with Bootleg, now a 16-month old boar. It was at the age of two and a half months that I noticed something was wrong: Bootleg’s prepuce was getting considerably large. After some research online, I confirmed that Bootleg had umbilical hernia.

Bootleg at 3 weeks old. Umbilical hernia not readily apparent.
Bootleg at 3 weeks old. Umbilical hernia not readily apparent.

 

Generally, decisions are made on a farm as to whether to cull or keep an animal with hernia. If it is the latter, a policy of treatment is developed. I have no previous experience in these matters but I decided to keep Bootleg and find a way to repair his hernia.

Bootleg at 6 weeks old. It is still hard to tell if that is just the prepuce or hernia.
Bootleg at 6 weeks old. It is still hard to tell if that is just the prepuce or hernia.

Surely, I noticed that Bootleg’s¬†hernia became bigger after some vigorous playing and landing on his side. I came to understand better that an umbilical hernia is a tear in the abdominal muscles, where for some reason or other (genetic or environmental or both) the muscles in that area are weak. Stress and other such activities may cause the tear to become bigger.

At 9 weeks it is clear that Bootleg has umbilical hernia.
At 9 weeks it is clear that Bootleg has umbilical hernia.

I rang up the Office of the Provincial Veterinarian looking for someone who can repair umbilical hernia. I was advised that hernia is generally untreated in slaughter pigs. However, because I insisted, I was brought into contact with a veterinarian who could perform the hernia repair surgery.

Umbilical hernia repair surgery on site.
Umbilical hernia repair surgery on site. The two tumours are visible on the prepuce.

The surgery was performed on site. I administered all post-operative treatment with care. Bootleg was kept in a fairly large pig pen that had a soft dry bedding. I monitored his food and drink and for the next two months, fed him small amounts at frequent intervals. In the first two weeks, the hernia appeared to become larger. This should cause no alarm because this is actually swelling after the surgery. In three to four weeks, the hernia was considerably smaller.

Bootleg a day after surgery.
Bootleg a day after surgery.

During the surgery, the veterinarian noticed the presence of two tumours about the size of quail eggs. His prognosis was not good. He did not remove the tumours worrying that they may be cancerous and could spread if cut.

Bootleg 3 weeks after surgery. The swelling has subsided.
Bootleg 3 weeks after surgery. The swelling has subsided.

So, while Bootleg’s hernia did not continue to grow in size, it was the tumours that became bigger. As he matured, hormonal changes in his body triggered the growth of the tumours, both located in the prepuce.

Bootleg, a boar nine months old. Tumour at the tip of prepuce is getting bigger.
Bootleg, a boar nine months old. Tumour at the tip of prepuce is getting bigger.

At the age of nine months, Bootleg successfully mated with one of our gilts, Number One. Because of the size of Bootleg’s hernia and tumours, I had to assist him in mating. The result are eight beautiful healthy piglets. I continue to monitor these piglets for signs of hernia. So far, only one piglet, Pinky, appears to have umbilical hernia. It is something that I noticed upon birth – the umbilical cord of this particular piglet showed a light colour flesh protruding where the umbilical cord is attached to the abdomen. This makes me wonder if in this case, umbilical hernia is genetic. Or perhaps while in the womb, Pinky’s umbilical cord got tangled with another pig and got pulled, tearing and weakening the abdominal muscles. Certainly a possibility.

Bootleg at 15 months. His hernia has not grown perhaps it is the tumours that are growing. At times the tumours get a bit smaller.
Bootleg at 15 months. His hernia has not grown perhaps it is the tumours that are growing. At times the tumours get a bit smaller.

Bootleg continues to be a very active and happy boar. I would not consider him to be of the best of health but he is considerably happy despite his conditions. The tumours in his prepuce are quite enormous now and mating is impossible. I cannot assist in mating anymore because the weight of the boar as well as the weight of the tumours is just too much for me.

While Bootleg is no longer useful as a breeding boar, he serves the critical purpose of a teaser boar. He stays with two gilts and one sow and through him we are able to know if the pigs are in standing heat. If there is standing heat, we call Ogie to administer artificial insemination. Through Bootleg, we are also able to have boar exposure for the gilts and the sow, enabling oestrus.

Blackie at 6 weeks, the umbilical hernia is already obvious.
Blackie at 6 weeks, the umbilical hernia is already obvious.

A second experience with umbilical hernia was with a female pig called Blackie. I bought Blackie from a neighbour and noticed at the age of 5 weeks that Blackie may have umbilical hernia. You can determine this by palpating or feeling the belly of the pig with the palm of your hand. If you feel that there is a lump there and that when you press with the tip of your finger, you can feel that there is a small hole, then that is most likely umbilical hernia. I find that it is easier to determine this in female pigs than in male pigs.

Blackie at 8 weeks. We tried binding to keep the hernia from getting bigger. Not successful.
Blackie at 8 weeks. We tried binding to keep the hernia from getting bigger. Not successful.

This time, we opted not to have hernia repair surgery. Since Blackie is female and there is not the prepuce that will get in the way, we decided to stop Blackie’s hernia from growing by using a binder. We devised a wide variety of binders – from duct tape to corsets. All of that failed. All binders quickly wore out. In fact, I feel that the process¬†of lifting and restraining Blackie has caused more harm. The stress would have cause the hernia to tear even larger.

Blackie at 3 months. Binding has not helped and the hernia continues to grow as she grows.
Blackie at 3 months. Binding has not helped and the hernia continues to grow as she grows.

We decided to separate Blackie from the other pigs so as not to cause an accident that could damage her hernia. If that happened, we would have to deal with treating wounds which could become infected. Not wanting Blackie to be completely isolated, we kept her in a fenced area inside Bootleg’s pen. This was what we called The Hernia Ward.

Blackie and Bootleg together. We continued to separate the pigs to prevent damaging the hernia.
Blackie and Bootleg together. We continued to separate the pigs to prevent damaging the hernia.

It was an excellent decision. As Blackie matured, she encouraged Bootleg to mature as well. This sort of exposure enabled Bootleg to become the unrelenting but gentle boar that he is today.

Blackie’s hernia continued to grow, at least, it didn’t grow so much that it touched the ground. Again, that would be disastrous since friction against the ground could cause wounds and infections. Although her hernia was huge, Blackie didn’t seem to mind it too much. She wormed her way through small gaps in the fence and through holes dug in the ground, to be with Bootleg.

Pinky at 3 weeks old.
Pinky at 3 weeks old.

Our third hernia case is the male piglet, Pinky. Pinky is now three months old and his hernia is considerably smaller than Bootleg’s or Blackie’s hernia at two months old. Perhaps this is because of good management after previous experiences. I¬†don’t feed our pigs large amounts of food and instead try to provide forage material such as coconuts, fruits and vegetable trimmings, cut forage crops, banana leaves, etc. This is beneficial for Pinky so he does not gorge and his guts will not fall out of and get trapped in the hernia hole. Pinky also gets plenty of exercise so as to strengthen his abdominal muscles. Pinky stays with his brother Brownie, which is important since pigs are social animals and become depressed if they are isolated.

Pinky at 5 weeks.
Pinky at 5 weeks.

With these experiences, I think that it is best for us to adopt a no-intervention policy with regard to umbilical hernia in pigs. But this is not mere no-intervention; this should be accompanied by a conscientious feeding program and the provision of a healthy environment and social life for the pigs.

So yes, there’s life after hernia. ūüôā

Piglets, Finally!

Number 1 farrowed June 18 and her piglets are weaned and ready to go. These are all Bootleg’s piglets too. We’re keeping Pinky and Brownie 3, both male piglets, and the rest can go. Folks here are starting to buy piglets for fattening for Baclayon town fiesta in December. If you’re interested in buying our piglets, please come and visit us. Piglets in our village sell for PhP2,500 each.

Here’s a video of the piglets with Number 1, taken when the piglets were about 6 days old. This is Number 1’s first litter and she has proven to be a wonderful caring mother!

Here’s a video of the piglets enjoying the garden. They are about 3-4 weeks old here, learning to root and forage for the first time.

Their father, Bootleg is half-duroc, and the mother, Number 1, is a mix of Landrace and Large White. There’s probably some Pietrain or Philippine Native Pig mixed in there too. Our attempts at cross-breeding and keeping pigs in natural environment has been quite successful. These pigs are strong and hardy, able to enjoy the outdoors. They are never mutilated (no castrating, ear notching, or tail docking, etc). They are also never¬†injected with antibiotics or supplements. I’ll post more about our pig breeding experiences later.

We hope to have piglets more next time! ūüôā