Farmer Matt Alford on the Benefits and Challenges of Raising Pigs in the Forest
Matt Alford of Elkhorn Farm is raising his Gloucestershire Old Spot X Large Black pigs in the forest in the Willamette Valley. Established in 2014, Matt is still fairly new to pig farming, but he’s being resourceful and working hard to set up a new kind of system that will not only give the pigs plenty of room and a great lifestyle but also have a positive impact on the forest ecosystem. It’s clear that Matt has done his research and is very thoughtful with how he’s approaching this project. We asked him some questions about his set up, what his goals are and how he thinks having the pigs in the forest is going to be successful.
How did you come up with the idea to raise the pigs in the forest?
Here at Elkhorn Farm, we’re committed to providing the best possible experience for our pigs and a key component of that includes the freedom to live outdoors and have the pigs be able to express their natural rooting and foraging activity. To put this in context, roughly 97% of the farmed pigs in the United States are raised indoors. Of the remaining 3% that get to go outside, most are raised in feedlot conditions where there are so many pigs confined in a small space that the ground they live on is either bare dirt or covered with a man-made surface such as concrete. One anecdote from the man who comes out to our farm and performs mobile slaughter is that the majority of the pigs he harvests in this area are raised in feedlot conditions and Elkhorn’s “always outside” setup is a rare anomaly. In the wild, pigs forage in the forest, so I wanted to make that part of their normal activity on our farm.
What’s the motivation behind this method?
In visiting feedlot-type setups, one thing I notice is that the pigs crave fresh green forage. They’ll work and work to get their head through a fence just to reach a few blades of grass. So I wanted to give my pigs the freedom to live like they would in the wild where they roam, root, and forage for their food. Obviously, putting pigs on pasture is great for this, but forest grazing is also part of their natural activities and I started reading everything I could about it. The Stockman Grass Farmer newspaper has published several articles on farmers (including Joel Salatin) who rotate their pigs through wooded areas and of course, we have tons of woodlots in western Oregon. I started digging around the internet to see what sort of information was available about silviculture (combining wooded areas with pasture), scheduled a site visit from the NRCS, and found that the majority of the silviculture happens in the southeastern United States because the climate is more favorable to growing grass in areas with lower light. From the outset, I wanted to see if I could provide a great experience for the pigs while simultaneously using their foraging behavior to improve the forest habitat.
Do you think it will affect the quality of the pork in any way?
I definitely think the free range foraging aspect of our operation helps improve the flavor of the pork. For one thing, the pigs get a lot of exercise. As a pig farmer, you’re always after that perfect balance of pork vs fat. You want the fat to marble throughout the meat but you also don’t want too much overall fat. Pigs grow quickly and if all they do is walk five feet to the feeder and then back to their hut to take a nap, there’s almost zero exercise involved. Just like humans, healthy pigs need exercise. The other aspect is the dirt and goodies they consume while rooting. Pigs pick up nutrients from the soil and consume forbs, shrubs, and other plants as they graze along. That diversity is healthy and improves the quality of the pork.
Can you explain your setup? Both current and what your ultimate goals are as far as size, number of pigs and infrastructure.
I currently run 35 pigs on a 21 acre parcel that’s mostly reprod douglas fir. I use temporary electric net fencing and solar power to set up paddocks and move the pigs to new ground no less than once/month. I build temporary shelters out of pallets and plywood so they can sleep out of the rain. The whole setup is temporary and mobile.
Ultimately, I have this vision where I replicate this setup on a permanent basis on 100 acres with 200 hogs. I use a rule of thumb of 4 hogs/acre, so in theory, 100 acres could support up to 400 hogs. However, in order to keep parasites from getting out of hand, you really need to let your land rest. 200 hogs on 100 acres would allow half the farm to be without hogs for a year at a time. I use rotational grazing and the setup I have today is very labor intensive. If I had one large contiguous piece of land with one shelter in the middle, it would be much more efficient.
Have you found an example of another farmer doing something like this? Anyone you can call for advice or commiserate with?
I haven’t found anyone else doing this around here so I look for tidbits of information in publications and on the internet. What I’d really like is if a graduate student at Oregon State would take an interest in my farm and help me run some soil improvement experiments. One piece of data that’s sorely lacking is how much rooting is too much and what’s the most beneficial soil treatment after rooting? We know that leaving soil bare degrades the soil quality and manure improves the quality. We also know that pigs left in one area too long can damage tree roots. Somewhere in the middle is a progression that helps the forest. Maybe it’s pigs followed by chickens, then lime and woodchips and mycorrhizal inoculation? I’m still trying to figure that out. I haven’t had time to approach OSU about this yet, but it’s on my list.
What has been your greatest challenge in the project so far?
Logistics and labor are the two biggest challenges. My current setup is on a piece of property that was logged and replanted in the mid-90’s and then left alone for 20 years to repopulate with blackberry vines and 10-foot-high poison oak. There’s no electric service, no well, no outbuildings, and no permanent fence. I had to build a road just so I could drive in and out. My daily routine involves driving in feed and water with an ATV. The operation is currently very time consuming and I’m working on some improvements to make it more efficient. Add in the relentless El Nino rain this winter and it’s been quite a challenge.
How will you gauge the success of this set up?
Welfare of my pigs is first and foremost the most important thing. I’m out among the pigs every day and able to get a sense of their well being. It’s clear that they enjoy the woods and the large paddocks. You can always tell when pigs and goats are satisfied with their setup because they choose to stay inside the fence. It’s when they start getting out that you know you have a problem in their living area. If they don’t crave what’s on the other side of the fence, then there’s no reason for them to try and escape.
Another measure is habitat improvement. Over time I want to see increases in the organic material in the soil and increased plant diversity in the areas where the pigs have foraged. That also needs to translate into improvement in the health of the tree stand. I’m trying to make the whole system better from the soil up and do my part to help the farming community progress away from our current mindset of monoculture cropping.
Finally, the real measure of success will be market acceptance. It’s a lot cheaper to pack a bunch of hogs into a barn or onto a feedlot. My operation takes more work, hence my pork is more expensive. It’s ultimately up to our local chefs and eaters to decide whether this is worth spending money on. Clearly, my current customers are onboard with it, but it will take a massive awakening among the general population in order for this to become a mainstream model. And I really hope it comes to that, where our local eaters demand practices that are great for the animals and the land and are willing to pay for it. We’re doing our part by taking the first step and making this ethically-raised, sustainable pork available in the market and our sign is out: Eaters Wanted!
Read our Seeder profile on Elkhorn Farm and contact Matt if you’re interested in purchasing his pork!