Cartwright-Area Farmer Direct Markets Free-Range, Grass-Fed Hogs

“We didn’t want a barn, so we thought that we’ll try to do it similar to the way we do the calves.”

– WAYNE MCDONALD

What if you could train beef cows to have twins every spring and eat Canada thistle?

The McDonalds’ system for raising Berkshire hogs on pasture comes pretty close to that ideal – except, of course, the end product is pork, not beef.

“Our experience was with cattle and sheep, so when we decided to try the pigs, that was the way we wanted to raise them,” said Wayne, who farms with his father Jim near Cartwright.

“We didn’t want a barn, so we thought that we’ll try to do it similar to the way we do the calves.”

With an average of six piglets per sow per year, each free-range sow produces roughly 1,200-1,500 pounds of pork on the hoof.

The animals run in three of 30 rotationally grazed paddocks on their 1,100-acre farm, alongside a flock of 500 Clun Forest ewes and 60 head of Galloway-cross cattle.

The fence is six strands of high-tensile wire, with four electrified, so they were able to add hogs to their operation without making any changes. Unlike wild boars, Berkshires are docile and escapes are not a problem.

The boars are kept separate from the 35 sows except for a breeding period in early spring to ensure farrowing occurs in mid-June when the grass is at its most productive stage.

The piglets are not weaned and are allowed to run with the sows until they reach a market weight of 240 lbs., typically within 10 months.

To supplement their diet of grass, weeds, roots and leaves, they get a pound of grain each day.

“They like legumes and believe it or not, they really like thistles,” said McDonald.

In winter, straw bales are piled up in an area sheltered by bush and the thrifty, hairy, slow-gaining pigs burrow inside to stay warm.

The farm has been in the family since 1906. After taking a holistic management course in 1992, Jim McDonald began developing the operation’s existing production model, partly based on the philosophy of avoiding investments in anything that can “rust, rot, or depreciate.”

“NUTRIENT TRANSFER”

With no haying equipment on the farm, the McDonalds buy 900 large round straw bales at about $12 each, delivered every year, along with 100 hay bales and canola pellets. They winter their animals in a new area each year to maximize the benefit from manure.

Buying in hay and straw is critical to the success of the low-cost production system. Constantly building up the fertility of the pastures allows the McDonalds to get their animals out on grass earlier in spring, graze later into the fall and repair weak spots in the pasture with fresh organic matter.

“It’s a massive nutrient transfer in,” Wayne McDonald said. “We started buying hay in 1995, and we’ve got places that it’s been nearly 15 years since we’ve fed hay on there and it’s still producing grass that’s super lush. Compare that to putting on nitrogen fertilizer – 60 days later and it’s done.”

At six piglets a year, each sow produces nearly double in terms of meat on the hoof as a cow does producing only one calf. McDonald estimates simply selling through the auction mart would generate slightly less income per sow as would a beef cow, but the real secret to the farm’s profitability is direct marketing, he said.

The McDonalds sell a side of grass-fed beef for $850, and half a hog for $250. Higher productivity in terms of litter size means the farm can earn about 50 per cent more per sow each year compared to a cow.

However, the market for their Berkshire pork is still in the development stages, he said, unlike their beef, which sold out this year.

MCDONALDFARM.CA

The McDonalds direct market their meat on their own website and in conjunction with other members of the Clearwaterbased Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative.

Built with help from Wayne’s brother-in-law, who is a professional web designer, the McDonalds’ website is flashy and attractive, and it fully supports point-and-click e-commerce.

This is a major plus for the farm’s clientele, mainly urban residents in Winnipeg, Brandon and Portage la Prairie. They appreciate the convenience of being able to type in their credit card numbers, select the products they want, then wait two to four weeks for delivery.

Belonging to the Harvest Moon group helps, too, because members work together to arrange deliveries, saving time and expense.

Internet sales are the way of the future for farmers, he added, because most of their city customers are computer savvy. They are comfortable using credit cards online and already make a good portion of their purchases over the Internet, such as books, music and a wide variety of consumer goods.

“A lot of people in the city, that’s how they pay for everything,” he said. “It’s all paid for by credit card nowadays. They didn’t want to be writing cheques. More than a few people don’t even have chequing accounts.”

The production model, with its freedom, fresh air, sunlight and varied nutrition for the animals, also appeals to urban consumers who are concerned about their own health as well as animal welfare.

Their multi-species, rotational grazing model, with bought-in hay and direct marketing represents the family’s efforts to correct the problems they faced in trying to make a living on the farm, he said.

“When I was a kid, we just kicked the cows out on pasture in the spring and you didn’t see them again until the fall because you were busy seeding and looking after crops,” said McDonald. [email protected]

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