For the Love of Pigs: Farmer Brings Home the Bacon with Pastured Pork
As a child, Jeff Linton had a strong affinity for animals, especially pigs, this attraction resultant of growing up on his family's farrow-to-finish operation in southwest Ontario.
Linton's father, known to many as a free thinker, was among the first Canadian producers to transition the family farm, originally managed conventionally, to "loose housing" for gestating sows a little over 25 years ago.
This open mindset carried through to Linton, who upon graduating from University of Guelph - Ridgetown Campus set out to experience every type of pig operation he could - from conventional to pastured management styles. Three months on an outdoors hog operation in Scotland convinced him a pastured approach was the right choice for him.
"When I came back I knew that's (raising pastured pigs) what I wanted to do," says Linton. "I knew that was what kept me closest with the animals, one on one treating the animals the way I thought they should be in their natural environment."
Forging own path
Upon returning home, Linton started Linton Pasture Pork and set about building his own outdoors hog operation using the knowledge he had gained from his Scottish experience. This management style has its advantages for Linton. In his region of Ontario, there are many large-scale row crop farms and land is very, very expensive at upwards of $15k per acre.
"I use land that can't really be used for regular agriculture," says Linton. "Pigs can pretty much adapt to anything and you can work with the animal in dealing with those areas that are unproductive for most people."
Southern Ontario is surrounded by lakes, making land in the region very fertile. While this is also true in Linton's particular region, land is hillier making it more ideal for pastured pigs.
"So the benefits of raising pigs this way," continues Linton, "are I can be a small farmer and I can still live and strive in this area. It might be harder sometimes but that's the benefit I guess, I can still be around while using land that other people can't."
Keep genetics diverse
The swine at Linton Pasture Pork are what Linton likes to describe as "Heinz 57."
"Most of my sows are either Berkshire-Landrace-Yorkshire or Yorkshire-Landrace crosses," says Linton. "I'm also going to get into Hereford-Landrace, and then I breed them with a Hampshire boar. That's four different breeds."
This composite mix allows Linton to take advantage of the positive traits of each breed while maximizing the hybrid vigor, also known as outbreeding enhancement. He has found Yorkshire-Landrace sows have better mothering abilities. Crossing with a Hampshire boar produces pigs which maintain good muscle tone and produce quality hams.
Managing pigs on pasture
Linton's pigs are raised farrow-to-finish outdoors using a four-site production system. Gestation sows, farrowing sows, weaner pigs, and finishing pigs are each kept in different pastures. As they progress through each life stage, his pigs rotate through each group which individually rotate through a short series of pastures throughout the year.
Water in each pasture is provided via custom-made cement troughs filled with water from 500 liter totes using gravity flow and solar pumps. To make moving easier, totes are placed on wagons.
Pasture rotations occur on a variable basis ranging from as often as once a year to as much as three or four times a year. The trick to getting the right pasture size each time, Linton explains is there isn't one - it's a trial and error basis.
"If you think, 'Well this is enough space,' do an acre more than what you actually think no matter what," says Linton, "because pigs need space and fencing can be really easy as long as pigs are content choosing the lay of things and have enough space."
For fencing, Linton says the basics will do - a reel, some posts, turbo wire, and a solar charger. However, he prefers high-tensile wire and wood posts best due to the semi-permanent nature of his pastures.
"Most everything comes from Gallagher and my dealer is probably the reason why I am so successful at this," says Linton. "I have the ideas and vision, but he tells me which products will work best for me. They always have what I need and the solar products allow me to be able to put pigs anywhere and everywhere."
A diet of variety
While all of Linton's pigs have access to concentrate feed, they also graze on the native plants, grasses, and roots growing throughout their pastures. They especially like white clover, he says. Linton adjusts the amount of concentrate and mineral available to hogs based on the quality of the forage in each pasture.
"I find that pigs do graze," Linton explains. "A pig will compensate and get what it needs out of the grasses and soil before it relies on alternative concentrate feed as long as you give them a chance and let it happen. If sows have a choice of munching away on clovers and grasses all day they are completely content."
"I find that they root a lot more when the grass isn't growing as much," Linton notes. "When the grass is really growing they don't really root at all, you can keep them there for a really long time."
"You've got to make sure they don't rip it up too much or destroy trees or anything," says Linton. "So once the pigs stop dealing with one pasture, then you move them to the next one."
Gestating sows are managed in large groups of up to 20 sows and enjoy a varied diet of forage, apples, and black walnuts in their pasture. When sows are close to farrowing Linton moves them into the farrowing group pasture.
As their due date approaches, sows move to the farrowing pastures where they give birth in custom-built "farrowing huts" which Linton constructs out of plywood and two-by-fours using a design acquired from his time working overseas. The hut doorway, he describes, is placed about a foot off the ground to prevent piglets from getting outside too soon. At about five days old, they will be able to start going in and out on their own. Hooks placed on either side of the hut into the frame allow the structures to be easily moved from one pasture to the next.
Other groups, such as his weaner and finishing pigs, live in wooded lots divided into parcels which contain young saplings, weeds, and any number of native grasses and forbs. After each rotation, Linton reseeds his pastures and wooded lots with clovers and grasses to ensure high quality pasture is available the next time the pigs come back.
During Canada's cold winters, Linton brings his pigs inside, but points out, they still have the choice to go outside if they like. They wait out the season in large open pens lined with deep straw bedding. Hay and concentrate feed are provided and he makes peat moss available to replicate soil.
Linton markets his meat both direct as quarter and half carcasses to local customers and also sell whole carcasses to several major buyers in the city.
"They just love the pork because they know what they are getting," Linton comments about his customers. "The way I do things keeps my product consistent."
Reflecting on experience
For anyone thinking of starting their own pastured pork enterprise, Linton shares this advice, "Work with somebody, work with pigs for a very long time and get familiar with all their behaviors. You have to get experience and develop good husbandry skills before you get into it. This is only accomplished through experience and learning over time."
As was his case, the biggest challenge for anyone getting started, says Linton, will be finding land. He also notes having a good understanding of marketing and business principles is helpful and something he initially struggled with. Despite these trials, Linton believes he has still been successful.
"Even with all the doubters I had, knowing I could achieve something, that I had the ideas, and wanted it so bad, that I got to this point feels so good," says Linton.
In the end, Linton says the ultimate reason why he does what he does is his passion for the animals.
"It's the beauty of seeing pigs on pasture and seeing them run around as piglets," says Linton. "You sit there and see everything about them and just know that you are doing something better and different than what their alternative lives would be."