Thursday, November 20, 2014

A house is not a home...

A chair is still a chair
Even when there's no one sittin' there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there's no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight

- Luther Vandross

And apparently, if you're a pig, a house is not a home unless it has a floor!

But let me elaborate...

While pigs are incredibly hardy animals, most types are essentially bald. As a consequence, they need shelter from the elements in the wintertime, at least here in Maryland. 

And one of the big pig controversies in pastured hog housing is whether to put a floor in your shelters or not. Very controversial stuff here on the farm!

Young gilts snuggle in for a nap
The floor-less crowd favors a dirt floor and 'deep bedding' of straw. The idea is as the straw is soiled through the winter, the straw starts to compost and actually heats up, thereby helping the pigs to stay warm. The pigs can snuggle down into their 'heated' bedding and make a nest where surface temperatures can approach 70 degrees, even in the coldest of weather.

Mama sow and her fresh piglets
Of the contrary opinion, other farmers say you need to put a floor in to the keep the hogs dry and that dryness is the most important quality of any shelter meant for pigs.

For those of you not in the farming business, this debate might seem incredibly dull and unimportant, but for farmers, these are the things of daily discussion and heated debate.

A few years back, we were fortunate enough to hire our neighbor to build us some custom hog shelters. Our requirements were:

1. It had to be tough as nails - pigs are the excavators and wrecking balls of the livestock world. They love to tear things apart. 

There are stories of farmers looking to remove a stump putting this behavior to good use - they would dig a hole under the stump and fill it with corn and other treats that the pigs love. Let the pigs loose and a few days later, the stump is out free of charge!  

2. It had to be tall enough for me to stand up in the shelter.

One of the beauties of the Gloucester Old Spot (GOS) breeds is their wonderful temperament. We commonly climb into the shelters and assist with delivers. Its very nice having some room to work and someplace for us to sit or kneel without being too close.

One of our farmtek shelters. They tend to not be nearly sturdy enough for the pigs and we have modified them to pig-proof them. This is a fairly typical setup when we're farrowing.

3. Good ventilation.

Pigs get overheated in the summer months and can sometimes have trouble with ammonia build-up in the winter, especially if you're using a floorless shelter system. For both reasons, we wanted excellent ventilation.

4. Room to work. 

Our pigs co-habitate and help keep each other warm in winter. We sometimes lock sows into a shelter for a few days after farrowing. We set up creep feeding areas for young piglets in shelters to keep the food dry.

Mama sow transferring straw from one shelter to another for a nest prior to farrowing.
For all these reasons and more, we wanted something of a decent size. In the end, we settled on 8 x 8 feet.
Nick helps a sow after farrowing.

5. Mobile.

From a sanitation perspective, we always move our shelters periodically through the year. This allows the natural processes of wind, rain and sunlight to sanitize the area where the shelter was parked.

Skids can be very useful in this regard but do have some disadvantages. One of the biggest for us was the fact that the higher the clearance from the ground, the more problems we could anticipate allowing our very young piglets free access in and out of the shelter. They're so small, their little legs just can't get them up easily to climb into a structure with a high entryway.

6. Affordable. 

Don't really need to say much about this. Most hog shelters tend to be on the high side as far as costs go, because they typically have to be very well made with heavy materials, which tend to be more expensive.

one of our farmtek shelters in winter - note how we create a wind block in the doorway.

7. Local.

We like to support our local economy whenever possible. This means buying from local craftspeople, hiring local contractors and buying local materials whenever possible. This puts our money back into and builds up our local economy.

Kind of a ragtag collection of our various shelters in winter.

We were fortunate to able to buy our custom shelters from our neighbor, a master metalsmith, who built them to our specifications. Nice rear flip-down window for summer ventilation, galvanized sides with pressure treated plywood on the interior, and enough height to standup inside.

What has our experience been without floors?

WAY TOO WET for our liking and not nearly enough 'composting' to compensate for the wet cold of the floorless shelter.

In fact, after one especially wet, cold, rainy March day we watched in horror as water was literally sheeting into the shelter and flooding it. Because the pigs like to root and dig, they had lowered the grade of the ground in the shelters below the outside grade!

 We had had enough! Our shelters were going to get floors.

So we set about building floors and then bringing them in and placing the metal shelters on top. A few screws and we were set.

Our pigs were now high and dry, and they seemed to be very happy with that! 

Future modifications on horizon for us? 

1. Some sort of lip that will help hold straw in the shelter. they tend to drag it out with them when they leave the shelter.

2. Some sort of door that partially closes the entrance during the worst of winter to help hold in the heat.

3. Insulate the underside of the metal roof - it tends to heat up in the summer and helps to make the shelters too hot.