Photo journal of a pig tractor garden
Pigs are amazing biological ploughs – their snout is exceptionally strong and designed for excavating the earth in search of tasty morsels buried underground, especially tubers and roots, and also fungi and insects. In Permaculture there is frequent reference to use of pigs as tractoring animals and I’ve always been intrigued as to how effective they would be.
This is the story of Polly and Pudge, two lucky pigs living at Djanbung Gardens…
In 2006 I was gifted a pair of 4-month-old piglets for Djanbung Gardens, supposedly miniature, though now fully grown are about half the size of commercial or large pig breeds. The pigs, named Polly and Pudge, were initially kept in a mobile pen (made from 6 old metal bed bases) to get to know them and their behavioural patterns to inform the design of an appropriate system to integrate them into the scheme of the gardens.
The mobile pen & lessons learnt
I soon discovered that within a day or 2 of being put on a fresh spot they would have the entire area turned over and within another day or two had seriously compacted the earth. With the combination of our heavy clay soils and high rainfall, the issue of compaction was exacerbated and their pen would become a quagmire after rain. Okay, you might think, ‘happy as a pig in mud’, however muddy conditions are conducive to parasites and problems with footrot.
Moving the pen every few days, together with their sleeping house and water, was a lot of work and I soon realised that it wouldn’t take long and every bit of the 5 acre property would be ploughed up if we had to keep moving them. There were also issues with providing shade and shelter from rain with the mobile system. Pigs sunburn easily and in their natural habitat are forest foragers and scavengers. It became obvious that they needed a permanent pen to keep them happy and healthy: dry during wet weather, summer shade, winter sunshine, in a healthy microclimate, and that tractoring would be an occasional seasonal activity.
Another issue with the original mobile pen was that it wasn’t easy to collect their manure for composting. This was another key reason the pigs were here – to generate manure for compost-the poultry alone dont produce enough. Contrary to popular belief, pigs are very clean animals and always do their toilet in one spot, usually the corner that’s furthest away from where they eat, sleep and have their drinking water. In the mobile pen they’d trample their manure into the soil making it almost impossible to collect.
The permanent pig sty
The good thing about having Polly and Pudge in the mobile pen initially was that it gave me an opportunity to observe their behaviour and identify potential problems to inform the design for permanent housing.
The permanent pen has a cement floor which drains towards their toilet corner – the corner furthest from their sleeping house and feeding area. In this corner there’s also a pipe to drain away their urine into a bucket, which gets diluted and spread around fruit trees. Having a draining cement floor is easy to maintain a hygienic environment and it’s convenient for collecting their manure which we shovel into a large compost bin just over the fence – when the bin’s full we’ve enough manure to make a compost heap. We sprikle a thin layer of sawdust over the toilet area each day which gets cleaned up with the manure and eventualy contributes some carbon to the compost heap. You can see their toilet spot in the back right of the photo on the right.
A cute little cave-like stone house was built for sleeping in where they have thick straw bedding – they also eat some of the straw so it serves two purposes. Adjoining the cemented pen is a another small rooting yard we call the piggy “play pen”, where we keep a deep litter of weeds and leaves for them to root around.
The play pen originally had a large black mulberry tree to give them shade in summer and warming sun in winter. However the pigs soon stripped and ate the bark off the base of the tree and large roots, and ate all the small roots so within a year the mulberry tree was dead.
Training a pig
I trained Polly and Pudge to sit for treats, usually old bread or bits of fruit or vegies they particularly relish, and this has become my way of managing them when I take them out of the pen for foraging or for a run.
I take them for runs in the orchard and up to the food forest where they eagerly gobble up any fallen fruit and at times steal fruit off the lower branches of the citrus trees. They absolutely love oranges and mandarins—you should see them take a whole orange in their mouth and crush it with a look of sheer bliss as the juice squirts everywhere.
To manage Polly and Pudge and encourage them to or from specific areas for foraging and get them back home I need a bag of treats and call them every so often “Polly, Pudgy, treat, treat, come on, sit, sit, good piggies sit for treats” so they come to me, sit and look so very proud as they take their treat. The way to a pig is definitely through their stomach.
The photo below (taken by Tracy Lewis) shows the pigs coming to me for a treat during a walk around the farm – actually they don’t walk, they love to run and cavort around and can move incredibly fast. Without the sit-for-treats routine I’d have no way of controlling them.
Food for hungry mouths
We have around 30 citrus trees on the property (20 different varieties) and until the pigs arrived had no productive way to deal with damaged and windfall fruit as poultry don’t like them. There’s other surpluses and fodder plants that the pigs
In addition to damaged produce and crop residues, there’s plenty of food for the pigs growing on the property — much of it well established before they came into the system: Queensland arrowroot (Canna edulis), mulberry leaves, tree and shrub legumes, plus all the edible weeds and in winter bamboo leaves provide their main green feed is bamboo leaves. Then there’s all the yummy food scraps from the kitchens.
The Queensland arrowroot grows in drains that receive rain run-off from the animal systems, functioning as a nutrient sink and fodder bank. It grows prolifically during the summer wet season and for 8 months of the year, arrowroot provides around 50% of the pigs green feed. They also love the arrowroot tubers which are valuable carbohydrate food and reserve feed for the winter months.
We value the pigs as manure producers, turning a lot of biomass we otherwise couldn’t use into great manure for making compost.
Pigs are incredibly strong and impossible to control through physical strength and if they smell something good to eat nothing will stop them. When they were still half-grown I had them foraging fallen fruit under a cherry guava hedge in the vegie garden, but they smelled some pumpkins in the garden nearby and raced off in a feeding frenzy, wrecking havoc and destruction as they went gallivanting through the gardens snatching bites of delicious vegies here and there and rooting things up. I realised that to get them into areas for tractoring within the vegie garden would be a high-risk venture and they’d need specially designed areas to tractor for us.
I’d seen pig pens in New Zealand using old roofing iron for fencing so in spring 2009 we created our first pig tractor garden in an grassed area that had been reserved for future main crops, well away from the intensive vegie garden. We collected sheets of old roofing iron from the local tip, got some metal star pickets and twitching wire and built a fence around the first pig tractor garden. When the fence was completed it was time to take the piggies to work, so I led them from their home to work with their morning feed bucket – they love feeding time and will follow their food bucket anywhere. I used their evening feed bucket to lead them back home to their pen at the end of the day’s work.
Photo (left): Polly and Pudge check out their new ‘workplace’ and RIGHT: the same yard the following day.
The pig tractor area is in part of the original permanent pasture and compacted from almost a century of grazing before the covered with well established pasture grasses: kikuyu, couch, paspalum, summer grass etc. They had a great time digging up the soil and after a five days had completely demolished all vegetation and tilled the soil. To establish the garden we used the Gundaroo tiller to loosen the compacted soil below the pigs tractoring, then shaped the beds, mulched them and planted cassava, sweet potato, potato, pumpkin and gourds.
Above photo early October 2009 the garden mulched and planted, then right, 8 months later ready for harvest.
The following autumn we harvested a wheelbarrow-load of delicious pumpkins and gourds for crafting, then through late winter to early spring a good crop of cassava roots and a few sweet potatoes. Then it was spring planting time and the piggies were taken back to work.
We were astounded at the number and size of sweet potatoes they dug up and promptly demolished – we had only found a dismally small portion of the crop and they soon found what we’d missed. At the end of the day Polly and Pudge could barely walk they were so incredibly fat and full – they’d had a wonderful day doing what pigs do best: pigging out on food.
Above left: after the final harvest the pigs are brought back to work, next photo shows the garden completely tractored the following day.
Below: after tractoring, the raised beds are shaped prior to mulching and planting the new seasons crops.
We’ve now created a second pig tractor garden yard and plan to create more so we can rotate summer and winter crops with green manure fallows in between. The initial bed is now in its third production year and the pigs are getting the hang of effective tractoring and only required a day to completely excavate the area ready for replanting this season. The new yard they turned over the pasture in just 2 days.
The potential to use pigs as biological ploughs is seriously underutilised, especially for small farmers and in countries with severe resource constraints like Cuba, where pigs provide an important traditional protein food, and farm machinery and tools are hard to come by. I’d like to experiment with building a tractor pen using bamboo, a material readily available in poor tropical countries, though it would need to be reconstructed every few years as the bamboo degrades from exposure to the elements.
For Djanbung Gardens, where we have no machinery for tillage, it makes the prospect of growing main crops of staple vegetables and tubers feasible with minimum work. The biggest job for us is the harvest, and the pigs can also help with that, especially digging up sweet potatoes.
With a few more pig tractor gardens the rotation system can evolve to include more annual summer and winter legumes and some small grain crops for poultry feed (sorghum in summer, wheat & barley in winter). The pig tractor beds make our dream of food security and self-reliance all the more viable and realistic.
There’s an assumption that pigs will fertilise an area as they tractor but the reality doesn’t support this theory. The pigs choose a particular corner of the garden area for all their deposits, they dont spread it around. They are in the garden for about 8 hours and in their permanent yard overnight which reduces field deposits, then they’re only at work in the garden area for a day, two at most, so very little manure is left behind -certainly not enough to contribute to fertilisation for a crop.
There are valid health concerns regarding using uncomposted manures for vegetable cropping, so I remove their small deposit of pig turds before shaping the beds and planting. For soil nutrients the initial garden has had small amounts of composted poultry manure, a little lime and natural gypsum added to the soil, and several applications of compost tea. This year we’ve also sown cow peas for nitrogen and spread a little biochar prior to planting.
We will continue to monitor the yields and overall performance of these fascinating experiments over time to develop a production system that doesn’t require imported ingredients to sustain good yields that can be replicated by others.
The other great aspect of pig tractoring is that the animals are having a wonderful time doing things that pigs love to do and can live a happy life contributing to an integrated system.
Article and photos by Robyn Francis (apart from achnowledged photo by Tracy Lewis)