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The value of pasture systems in pig production

Dr. Arnold Kanengoni, ARC-Animal Nutrition and Animal Products Institute Introduction
One of the main challenges facing the pork industry is to turn the basic pig keeper operations in the rural areas into profitable commercial units. This is hampered by the high initial capital costs and the subsequent high maintenance and feed costs required to run profitable pig units.Production costs on pig farms are dominated by high feed costs for conventional feedstuffs. The small-scale pig farmers are always looking for cheaper, alternative sources of quality feeds for their pigs.
The erroneous perception that since pigs can consume literally anything, therefore one can profitably raise pigs on swill and other leftovers has been the motivation behind most farmers taking up pig production.
Needless to say that it has been a cause of many a heartache and financial woes once they realise that it is not so. In addition, South Africa has put in place legislation prohibiting the use of some alternative feedstuffs for health and safety reasons.
There is no doubt however, that there is a role for alternative feedstuffs in pig production as has been shown by a number of developing countries, among them Cuba and Vietnam.
Before promoting the use of alternative feedstuffs, there is a need to develop feed evaluation systems and the necessary regulations backed by research to regulate the feeding systems. It is imperative that cheap and convenient alternative feed resources are found which can alleviate feed flow problems under small-scale farming. One that readily comes to mind is pasture.
Pasture
Pasture used to be an absolute essential for a successful swine operation before the advent of the confinement system. Raising pigs in confinement became a reality because of vastly improved rations and means of disease and parasite control. In recent years, there has been a growing trend of farmers in Europe and USA, opting for pasturing pigs for welfare reasons and also to supply niche markets.
Alternative markets
Pig farmers need to look for alternative or niche markets different to the established ones in order to increase the per capita consumption of pork. The market is seeking high quality and value added products containing omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, Vitamin E and other nutrients. Pastured and free-range healthy animals may contain higher levels of omega-3’s, which are high in demand, especially in the health conscious sub-population. Consumers are furthermore willing to pay more for “natural” products, which include pigs raised freely roaming in paddocks on forage.
A pig’s physical make-up does not lend itself to using great quantities of pasture or roughage like ruminants such as sheep and cattle.
Regardless, research has shown that it is still possible to use large amounts of forage with the breeding herd. Good forage can provide quality protein and certain vitamins and can greatly reduce the total feed requirements.
Research reports on feed savings for pigs on pasture vary considerably, depending on type of pasture, age of pigs, and management systems.
Data indicate this will amount to three to ten percent of the grain and as much as one-third of the protein needed for growing and finishing pigs.
Pastures make a good pig sanitation and disease control programme possible.
after pigs have grazed pasture for one season, the pasture may be used for cattle or may be harvested hay for two years before using it for pigs again. Pasture systems also do not require large capital input costs to make them affordable.
Unfortunately there has been little research done to support and promote pasture production systems for pigs in South Africa, even though there is much potential in them.
Advantages of pasture in pig production

  • Lower feed costs on good pasture.
  • Provides exercise and nutrients needed by breeding sows.
  • Lower capital investment per production unit.
  • Good use of land not suitable for cropping.
  • Better isolation and disease control.
  • Decreases waste management problems.
  • Decreased cannibalism.
  • Improved carcass quality.

Disadvantages of pasture system

  • More labour required for handling, feeding and watering.
  • Possibly greater problems with internal parasites.
  • More labour in farrowing.
  • Possible decrease of crop land.
  • May require slightly longer for pigs to reach market.
  • Lack of environmental control in extreme weather.


Research

At the moment no concerted efforts have been made to determine the viability of keeping pigs on pasture. The ARC is embarking on an investigation of the potential of using a pasture system in raising pigs.
Three breeds will be evaluated, namely an exotic breed, a cross between the exotic and the indigenous Kolbroek and the purebred Kolbroek. These pigs will be subjected to different levels of feed supplementation plus pasture and their growth performances and carcass qualities will be evaluated.  The outcome from these trials will be communicated to the pork industry.  It is hoped that results of this study will provide more insight into the possibilities of making the pork industry more competitive.
Hopefully it will also enable more role players to enter into the industry competitively at a reasonable capital cost investment.

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