When we moved into our new house, we were blessed with prosperous blueberry bushes. Ripening around the beginning of July and still quite pickable into September, they nearly satisfied my need for a garden. Nearly. With no time to create a garden space for the 2016 growing season, I was content with the bountiful harvest of blueberries, but I vowed to have a roaring vegetable garden in 2017.
I decided for ease of distance to the house and ease of protecting the garden from deer (and more often in our neck of the woods, elk) I would create a blocky U-shaped garden around the preexisting blueberry patch that needed a new fence anyway. However, the area around the blueberries was densely planted with lawn grass, we didn’t have a tiller, and I wasn’t about to hand dig hundreds of square feet. Who could shoulder this heavy burden?
Pigs are natural rototillers, they root up soil in search of tasty morsels hiding just beneath the surface. This includes roots of plants, like dandelions. I could harness the energy of a couple of pigs to tear up my garden for me, fertilizing it as they went. Then not only would I have a clean slate to work with, but I’d also have pork!
And this is how we decided to get pigs.
My next step was to determine how to get the pigs to the area I wanted and how to house them. At first I was completely set on developing a moveable electric fence set up, but as I moved forward I saw that I could have a much bigger number of issues with electrical fencing than with just using hog panels or the like. I don’t have any experience with electric fencing, our ground is quite rocky in some areas (an issue for grounding rods necessary to complete the circuit of an electric fence), and the thought of how to connect our fence to electricity was haunting my dreams.
Hubby and I decided the best bet would be a large moveable pig tractor that we could hook up to a riding mover and tow to a new section of lawn each day or so. The pig tractor would have to be heavy enough to keep them from rooting up panels and escaping, but also within the towing limits of one of our many riding mowers. Because I wanted to encourage the pigs to destroy the lawn, I wanted to make the pen a bit smaller than I would have normally liked. We decided on 10 x 10 feet for the pen, giving each pig about 50 square feet to live in (still totally adequate by most standards).
To build our tractor we had planned to buy hog panels and use them, but my parents offered free used fencing and boards if we wanted them, so we decided to patch together a pen from reclaimed materials from their farm. It was not beautiful, and it had flaws, but it worked.
I did some research on breeds and found a few local listings for piglets that would be weaned when we were ready. I settled on two Large Black x Berkshire piglets. I really enjoy the idea of heritage breeds and wanted to try something that I hadn’t seen before. One thing I was a little nervous about was that Large Black pigs are known for being “grazers” and being more gentle on the land than other breeds. I was hoping their Berkshire ancestry and the smaller pen size would help them want to get their snouts dirty.
They were born in May and weaned a bit later than the normal 8 weeks, which was totally fine by us because we procrastinated getting the pen together until literally the day we brought them home. This meant less feed we’d have to buy and they would be off to a great start gaining weight. I brought them home in August and we forecasted an early December harvest.
I brought the pigs home in a large dog crate, and it took us a long time to get them out. When they finally did leave the crate, they galloped around with little happy squeals, eating grass and attempting to root, then passed out from our long drive.
It took them a little while to properly annihilate the grass where we placed them. About a week for their first patch. Then it became quicker as they got bigger with just a few days needed between patches.
Then one day, one of our pigs mysteriously dropped dead. She had been a totally healthy pig, no signs of illness the day prior. The best we could figure was that with the wild swings of temperatures, she had gotten pneumonia. It looked like she went peacefully, when I found her I thought she was just sleeping. Her sister went totally ballistic when we took her body out of the pen. It was traumatic for all of us.
The next day, the sister pig had still not totally calmed down yet. Right around morning feeding, she spooked and pushed right through the closed pen gate. She took off running across our property with me in close pursuit. She eerily stopped to sniff at the place we had buried the dead pig, then bolted again. To add more stress, this was all about 10 minutes before we had to leave to go to work. She ran onto the highway, then got honked at by a log truck before she did a 180 and ran right back towards me before diverting and running into the blackberry thicket. Our neighbor helped keep an eye on her location while we tried to lure her out with food. My husband, in his work suit, was ready to tackle her when she came out, but she was a speedy little porker and blazed right by all of us and out of sight.
I finally gave up, knowing we had an hour commute to work that we were already late for. The best we could do was leave her food and water in the pen and hope she went back. We worried all day that she would cause a car wreck. When we finally got home, hubby ran inside to change into pig wrangling clothes. I heard a rustle in the blueberry bushes and to my utter disbelief, the pig was in the blueberry patch happily grunting in the shade. I slowly approached and she got excited and squealed for food. We slowly moved the dog crate to the gate for the blueberry patch, threw some food in, and closed the door behind her. And that’s how we caught the pig.
It’s a funny story, now that it’s over. We ratchet strapped the pen shut and never opened that gate again, opting to crawl over the fence instead. Just to be safe…
By losing one of our pigs, we did lose 1/2 of our tilling power and it again took about a week to till one patch. But then the rains came. It’s amazing what a few inches of rain can do. In just a couple of days, our sole pig was up to her chest in mud begging to get moved to higher ground. It was a miserable business, very dirty and slippery, but she was quite delighted to start working on a new patch of grass when it was all over.
We had considered having the pig till up a pasture to sow with good sheep forage for later on, but after a few months of our pig working on the garden site, we decided not to create a pasture after all. Hubs couldn’t stand to look at pig wallows and mud all over our front yard until pasture grass came in. We’ll figure out something different for that project in the spring.
The garden space turned out excellent. The pig was easily able to till down 6+ inches when we had dry weather and over 12 inches when it was wet. She virtually all of the plants and other organic things she found on her way down. She also unearthed a few treasures like shards of glass, a baseball, and an antique spoon. It was really nice to see our leftovers actually get eaten too.
I tried to find out how we could get her to a butcher place. The plan was to borrow my parents’ horse trailer, but a lack of time and bad weather made the hour drive to the butcher a no-go. I also looked into a mobile slaughter company, but alas, they did not service our location. So, out of options and with some trepidation, we decided to slaughter and butcher our own pig.
I have experience butchering chickens and rabbits, but no animal as large as a pig. Reading online and reviewing my copy of The Ultimate Guide to Home Butchering helped calm some of our fears. We enlisted the help of my eager-to-learn brother-in-law and embarked on our journey.
Everything went better than expect and we added a lot of beautiful pork to our freezer. I highly advise getting a good set of really sharp butcher knives, gambrel, and vacuum packer, as these made the job easier. We didn’t realize it at the time, but getting pigs that would be ready for butchering in the winter was a huge plus when we decided to butcher at home. Most sources recommend hanging the carcass for at least overnight in a fridge to let it chill properly. We do not have a fridge that big, but the outside temperatures were exactly fridge-like, so it worked out perfectly.
We really enjoyed having a pig, learning how to take care of it, and feeling the pride of filling our freezer with all of our own efforts. After it all, we decided that we do not want to do another pig project for a while, at least not while we’re both working full-time. We also voted that for our next pigs, we will build a permanent pen that won’t break on us. While the reclaimed materials were nice cost-wise, the pen really took a beating from getting dragged around and from the pig herself.
All in all, I think we succeeded quite well on the mission to till a garden space and the pork was a huge bonus!