It’s such a surprise to see pigs outside. Cows and horses dot the countryside but chickens and pigs are usually tucked indoors, heavily guarded by biosecurity and tightly managed for maximum production.
Jeffrey Linton believes in taking the principles of conventional pig care and disease-control from inside to the outdoors with his herd of pastured pigs marketed as Linton Pastured Pork near Walton.
Drivers who have discovered where he pastures the pigs have left their tracks in the grass where they’ve stopped to admire the crossbred animals.
The sows are a little more hidden, finding dusty patches to wallow and cooler spots under trees to suckle their litters.
It’s a farm photographer’s dream to have little piglets in natural light burrowing their little snouts in the dirt and butting against their lazy mothers for an afternoon suckle.
It’s easy to see why Jeff is very passionate about his growing business. He is breaking ground into an market that is looked at with some skepticism by the established pork industry but with keen interest by small stakeholders in a millennial generation looking for animal-friendly, niche-market opportunities.
“It’s a lot of work. A lot of work,” admits Linton from the front porch of the new home he shares with wife Kerisa. The pigs are housed in various fields of marginal lands that are odd-sized or hard to crop. Linton has to fence the pigs in, build small shelters, deliver water and feed and watch ... always watch.
Watching him admire his pigs reveals at least part of the reason why he’s creating a market for pastured pork. He’s delighted with his animals too.
“I’m an animal guy through and through,” says Jeff, 34, son of pork producer David Linton, who raises pigs commercially with his own atypical practice of loose sow housing and finishing pigs on straw.
“We are of the same mindset, though on a different wavelength,” jokes Jeff, who works on his father’s farm as well.
Both men enjoy pigs.
“They are intelligent and curious. I love the way they move and the fact that they are so complicated.”
Cows, he says, tend to be predictable. Pigs are anything but.
Yet, the huge sows he has on pasture are contained to the field by nothing more than one shock wire staked about a foot off the ground.
Having grown up taking care of pigs, Jeff says he knows them inside and out. He can tell when they are content and when they are stressed, a gift he was born with that puts him in good stead when raising animals outside.
“I grew up a pig farmer’s son and read books about farmers raising pigs outside in the 1960s and I felt like that could be a new reality,” says Jeff. “Like, it’s a new way of doing things the old way.”
The difference is you can’t just toss pigs outside and expect them to thrive. It takes a lot of management and manual labour, as well as establishing markets for a pastured pork product.
“Plus, it has to be profitable,” says Jeff. With 50 sows and his wife’s off-farm income, they do make a living.
Jeff began his pastured pork business in 2010 with six sows. Raising pigs outside requires inborn animal husbandry skills to understand an animal that is sneakily clever yet can still be contained by one line of shock fence.
If you don’t have land, or enough land, good neighbours with grass knolls to rent are essential. So is knowing how to manage the fields because pigs root, pillage and wallow and can make quite a mess when left in a spot too long.
Jeff considers soil type, time of year and rotation needs as he moves pigs and reseeds the section where the pigs have unearthed dark soil to cool themselves down.
Housing is tricky because 500- pound sows like to rub their itchy bodies on wooden structures, quickly dismantling homemade shelters. Jeff is currently working with a Mennonite to design his own metal quonset huts to shelter sows, growers and finishing pigs outside.
They also drink lots of water. Jeff has installed drinkers and portable 1,000-litre water totes in a system powered by gravity and solar power.
In prime growing season, a productive pasture can reduce feeding costs by 50 per cent. Pigs, being monogastric animal with one stomach, cannot thrive on grass alone. They don’t have multiple stomachs to digests plants fully so they require a grain supplement as part of their diet. Jeff works closely with Grand Valley Fortifiers for his feed supply.
Genetically, Jeff is still experimenting with the right combination of breeds to develop a pasture pig that is both productive, exceptional at mothering and profitable.
He started with Duroc sows because they are well-muscled and well-marbled but their temperaments shifted unfavourably once they lived outside.
“The Duroc sows became territorial and aggressive outside,” he says.
Linton crossed the Durocs with Landrace but found the meat quality suffered.
Then he added Hampshire, Large Black and Berkshire genetics to the herd and crossed some of these offspring back to Duroc.
“The pure heritage breeds do better on pasture but their pork isn’t the prettiest. It’s a little dense, lighter in colour and less marbled,” says Jeff.
He is trying to develop his own genetic line for the perfect pastured pig.
Jeff did introduce two little Kune Kunes which are noted for their pasturing abilities. These are pets, though. Friendly little critters with hairy faces, they have a comical look and are significantly smaller than the other pigs.
Jeff likes to have two to 2.2 litters per sow per year with a goal of each sow raising 20 piglets per year. The sows give birth and raise the piglets outside so he loses one or two when the sow lays on them.
Small grocers carry Linton Pastured Pork products. Jeff doesn’t have the time or inclination to sell at farmer’s markets. He has a refrigerated van to deliver the pork to stores across the province. He’d like to get into a larger chain like Farm Boy but that would also require him to double in size to have enough product. He’s not ready for that yet. It would require full-time help. More land. More of everything.
“I like to grow slowly, in time, with confidence in the markets I do have,” he says.
Linton is often invited to agricultural events to speak about raising pigs on pasture. This year, he was one of the pasture pork panellists at Grey-Bruce Farmers’ Week’s Ecological Day. See sidebar with this story to read what they’ve learned about raising pastured pigs. ◊