Free range pig production
A free range piggery is a piggery whose pig herd is rotated on pastures or cropland for all or most of their production life (e.g. sows are mated and farrow in paddocks, piglets are weaned and grown out in paddocks, or finished in shelters). Free range pigs are typically kept in distinct groups based on age, sex, size, and stage of pregnancy. They receive the majority of their nutritional needs from prepared feed, with pasture or forage as supplementary feed. "Free range" implies that animals are not confined in enclosures - they may be fed in a shed, but have free access to paddocks. Pigmeat products may be niche marketed as free range.
Under Queensland's Environmental Protection Act 1994, free range pig farming holds the same legal status as any other pig farming method. Pig farming can only be carried out in Queensland on land where a development approval is in place to authorise the activity. The operator of a pig farm must also hold a registration certificate (details about operating approvals and registration can be found under the 'Piggery approvals and registrations' heading, page 5). In other states, check with your local and state authorities.
Free range herds generally have lower set-up costs, slightly less productivity and higher operating costs than intensive enterprises (e.g. sows will eat more to compensate for the uncontrolled temperatures, there is greater potential for feed wastage and a larger proportion of labour input is required).
Pigs suitable for free range
Source breeding stock that have fast growth with good feed conversion and whose progeny will suit your market (e.g. some markets do not like pork with dark hairs in the skin). Crossbred pigs with some pigmentation (not totally white) are better suited for free range pig production, as they are reportedly less susceptible to sunburn and tend to be more hardy and robust than purebred pigs (i.e. larger litter size and higher survival rate). Pigs with a quiet temperament are easier to handle and manage. As for any pig farming, you should consider the advantages of purchasing pigs that are free of some diseases.
A suitable cross-breed that meets the above requirements is the Large White - Landrace with about 25% Duroc/Hampshire. This cross-breed (through its pure bred components) offers sound growth and reproductive traits that have been improved through selected breeding. The Duroc and Hampshire bloodlines provide some pigmentation.
Site selection and management
Areas with low rainfall (suggested less that 750 mm per year), or moderate rainfall throughout the year, and no excessive heat in summer are preferable for free range pig farming as concentrated rainfall patterns, extremes of humidity and/or air temperature, particularly prolonged extremes, are likely to cause stress in pigs. While wallows may offer relief and, to a degree, protection against heat, they are an environmental hazard (see "Stocking density and rotation") and may also risk pig health. Wallows should, therefore, be avoided.
Land requirement and landform
The amount of land required to operate a free range piggery will depend on climate, soil type, land topography, pasture cover and other factors such as the pigs' age at weaning and at sale. Don't forget to factor in the need for on-site vegetative buffer zones and adequate separation distances when determining lot size/choosing a site. A general guide is around 500 sq m per sow from farrowing to weaning and around 50 sq m per growing pig (up to 30 kg). This excludes areas for laneways, roads, yards, etc.
Site free range piggeries on relatively flat land with a grading that will minimise water logging and with soils that encourage strong vegetative growth. Avoid land that is contaminated with poisonous plants and parasites that may affect pig health, and avoid soil types that are prone to erosion as this can be a problem in free range pig farms.. Without the protection of vegetative ground cover, exposed soil is prone to erosion, particularly in wetter climates and on steeper slopes.
Surface and ground water
Surface water, such as dams and streams, may be at risk of contamination by runoff from free range pig farms, or from the movement of pigs themselves. Finer soil particles that wash into ditches and/or watercourses along with dung and urine will add nitrogen, phosphorus and possibly pesticides to the water, causing environmental damage. You can minimise or prevent these impacts by bearing in mind the rainfall and flood records for the area and creating a landform and drainage system to protect watercourses:
- Site paddocks across slopes and site tracks and gateways so they do not channel water into watercourses or beyond the site's boundaries.
- Use vegetative buffers between free range areas and surface water bodies or their catchments.
- Install holding structures (e.g. holding ponds, bunded capture barriers, diversion banks) to divert or contain surface water runoff where creeks or watercourses may be at risk of contamination.
- Install physical barriers to prevent pigs from making contact with water bodies and riparian zones.
In environmentally sensitive areas, you may need to demonstrate that a drainage system will be installed in order for your application to be assessed in your favour during the development application process.
Ground water resources may be contaminated by deep percolation of nutrients and pathogens. This is likely to occur in wallows, where bulk manure is not distributed evenly over paddocks or where the nature of the soil profiles allows fast movement of nutrients deposited on the surface. To prevent ground water contamination:
- Do not allow wallows to be formed (fence off areas where wallows are starting to occur).
- Contain manure stockpiles (if any) in controlled areas with impermeable barriers to protect the soil.
Land with sandy/loamy soils, land located very close to waterways or land containing shallow ground water may be unsuitable for the establishment of free range piggeries.
Stored water bodies with high concentrations of nutrients/contaminants (e.g. run-off holding ponds) may require managed irrigation over suitable land areas where the nutrients can be sustainably utilised.
Separation distance and community amenity
All piggeries should be sited at an adequate separation distance to avoid unreasonable interference with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property, both on and off the site. Specifically, odour and dust from the operation must not impact upon neighbouring properties/communities. A well-established and maintained vegetative buffer zone can improve visual amenity, odour dispersion and reduce dust and noise.
Also site piggeries at an adequate separation distance from other piggeries and from roads on which pigs are transported to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
Uncontrolled fly populations in free range piggeries may also lead to community amenity issues. Increased fly populations can result from inadequate waste management practices that allow flies to breed. Minimise fly numbers by ensuring that manure is not left to accumulate, that spoilt feed around feed troughs is cleaned up and carcasses are disposed of properly.
Manure must also be kept at a manageable level and not allowed to accumulate excessively for community health reasons. A variety of pathogens may be blown from uncontained pig manure and effluent located on free range piggeries, potentially causing problems for neighbouring premises. The transfer of pathogens may be reduced through general cleanliness of the free range piggery and appropriate buffers (e.g. vegetative buffer zone).
Stocking density and rotation
The stocking density of free range piggeries varies depending on the capacity of the land to sustainably accommodate the herd. Issues such as soil type, ground cover, slope and climate must be taken into consideration. Without careful management, free range pig farming may lead to nutrient overloading and long term damage to the soil.
Overloading occurs when the rate of nutrients added to the soil through manure and spilt feed exceeds the rate of nutrient export through harvesting of crops, volatilisation, leaching, etc. Plan your stock rotation as part of a whole farm program and minimise overloading by incorporating cropping and/or pasture programs to remove the excess nutrients added to the soil by pig production and to encourage land restoration (e.g. plant and harvest at least one crop between rotational groups).
Free range pigs will cause soil exposure through rooting activity and the constant trampling of hooves. To prevent soil erosion in those areas, spell paddocks before ground cover is reduced to less than 40% and do not restock until sufficient ground cover returns. The constant trampling of hooves, however, will also cause soil compaction, which may hinder the establishment of crops. To reduce compaction, consider using a deep litter shelter, or similar, to house pigs during wet weather, when soil is most vulnerable to compaction. Methods for repairing soil compaction include deep ripping and adding gypsum prior to planting.
Facilities and layout
Plan the layout of free range piggeries so that the groups of pigs can be rotated (younger pigs on 'cleaner' ground) through different paddocks easily and with minimum stress to both pigs and operators (e.g. paddocks surrounding a central handling area and connected by practical laneways, such as in a circular wheel pattern with hub, or a r ectangular pattern with central lane).
A stock handling facility (i.e. with a concrete floor and a crush) may be required for vaccinations, veterinary treatments, weighing, etc, as well as spare paddocks for sick pigs. Boar service paddocks may also be required.
Shade and shelter
At all times, free range pigs must have access to dry, clean, shady shelter (e.g. huts) to protect them from rain, wind, heat and cold. The space allowances of shelters must comply with the Model code of practice for the welfare of animals: pigs. Providing extra space and, in particular, more than one shelter for a group of pigs will assist to minimise bullying. In cooler climates, extra bedding will help pigs handle the cooler conditions, while in warmer climates, well-ventilated shade is essential, particularly for pregnant sows. Metal roofs can be painted white to reflect heat and low volume sprinkler systems may help cool pigs. Also consider the location of shelter belts of trees to protect pigs from cool winds in winter and the sun in summer.
Regularly shifting the position of shelters will assist in reducing localised denuding of vegetation and achieve a more uniform distribution of nutrients.
Fencing and protection
The fences of pig paddocks are typically electric, however, mesh, barbed or plain wire fences, or a combination of electric and wire fences are also suitable for confining pigs. Fences need to be adequate so that pigs cannot jump over, dig under or crawl between the wires. Some free range piggeries use temporary fencing and shift these to fresh land instead of rotating the paddocks. Whatever the type of fencing you use, train the pigs when they are young or when first purchased to respect the fences that border their paddock (e.g. by using an electric fence in front of a 'solid' fence in a small training paddock).
A quality permanent fence is recommended at the outer boundary to stop pigs escaping the property altogether and to prevent stray and feral animals (e.g. feral pigs, dingos and dogs) entering. Feral pigs may introduce diseases to your free range pig herd and the wild boars may mate with your free range sows, leading to lower productivity. Dingos, feral dogs and wandering domestic dogs, which are often attracted to free range piggeries by the squealing of pigs and the scent of carcasses, may attack and harass free range pigs, thereby increasing pig stress and pig losses. The erection of a permanent, pig/dingo/dog proof fence, effective disposal of carcasses and, if necessary, eradication programs, should minimise these problems.
Where the risk of fire is high, you should also establish firebreaks around your free range piggery.
Feed, feeding and water
All classes of pigs need to be fed formulated, balanced diets that meet their respective nutritional needs. During cold weather, pigs may require extra feed. Pasture alone does not provide sufficient nutritional benefit for pigs (generally only 0.2 to 0.3 kg per Standard Pig Unit (SPU) per day), particularly for young weaners that require a diet high in nutrients.
Swill feeding is illegal in Australia because of the serious risk of introducing a devastating exotic disease (e.g. Foot and Mouth Disease). Swill feeding includes using food (or food scraps) containing or possibly having contacted animal matter (e.g. from restaurants, hospitals and domestic households) as feed for pigs, poultry or ruminants.
Vermin, such as rats and mice, can be attracted to a piggery that has ample feed supplies. All feed storages must be vermin proof and, where feed is provided ad lib (e.g. for young growers), use feeders that are designed to prevent vermin from accessing the feed (i.e. with flaps around the rim of troughs). An eradication program may also be necessary to control the vermin in and around the piggery.
Adequate feeding space and watering points are essential to reduce bullying, avoid stress and ensure that younger or more timid pigs are not deprived of food or water. Free range pigs may be fed either on the ground or in troughs (to minimise feed wastage) in a designated area of the paddock on a prepared pad (earth or concrete). If pigs are not feed on a prepared pad, regularly changing the feeding area will assist in reducing localised denuding and achieve a more uniform distribution of nutrients. Large pellets are less wasteful than meal.
Drinking water of adequate quality and sufficient volume must be provided for the pigs at all times. This water can be sourced from appropriately licensed sources, such as bores, dams, water courses, or reticulated supplies. Water that has been heated by the sun to a high temperature (e.g. though exposed polypipes) is not suitable for pigs to drink. If a pig doesn't drink enough water, their feed intake and, thus production, will be reduced.
Breeding free range pigs
It is imperative that the breeding stock of free range piggeries are protected from the sun. Sunburnt sows will not stand to a boar. In addition, heat stress may cause pregnant sows to abort and boars to be less fertile (heat stress can occur even if the pigs are not sunburnt).
Gilts should weigh at least 125 kg liveweight and be about 30 - 35 weeks of age at the time of their first mating.
Sows can be grouped by stage of pregnancy to allow better management (e.g. be fed the most suitable diet, checked for returns to heat). Sows that are young (e.g. a group of sows pregnant with their first litter) or in poor condition can be separated from the main group(s) so their feed intake can be adjusted and closely monitored.
Boars may be kept separate to sows or a few boars may be put with a group of sows in paddock of around 0.5 ha. However, hand mating (fully supervised) is preferable to running boars with sows in order to achieve quality matings, spread boar workload and accurately predict farrowing times. Hand mating may occur in a mating area adjacent to the sow paddock. Alternately, artificial insemination may be used.
Pregnant sows are moved to gestation paddocks where they may be combined in larger groups (e.g. up to 10 sows per group), although it is recommended that, sows are not mixed with into a new group within the first 28 days after mating (to reduce possible embryo loss due to mixing stress). A boar can be put with such groups to catch sows returning to oestrus at six weeks post-mating. A boar may also reduce fighting amongst sows.
Approximately seven days before pregnant sows are due to farrow, move them to clean, warm and draught-free farrowing accommodation that has ventilation for sows in hot weather (i.e. shutters high in the walls of the farrowing huts) and sufficient bedding to keep piglets warm. To avoid overlaying of piglets and, hence, reduce piglet mortality, guard rails are recommended on the walls of farrowing huts (225 mm above the floor and 300 mm from the walls).
As for any piggery, source breeding stock from high health status herds.
All breeding stock should be vaccinated against leptospirosis, parvovirus and erysipelas. In addition, a regular and effective control programme for worms and mange should be in place for all stock.
Managers and staff of free range piggeries
In general, most management practices of free range piggeries are similar to those of fully housed piggeries, however, managers of free range piggeries should have expertise in both pig and pasture management. Staff of free range piggeries also need to be prepared to work in all weather conditions.
Piggery approvals and registrations
Under environmental and biosecurity legislation in Queensland, free range pig farming holds the same legal status as all other methods of pig farming:
- Pig farming is identified under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 as an environmentally relevant activity (ERA), as it has the potential to cause environmental harm. Pig farming can only be carried out on land where a development approval is in place to authorise the activity, therefore, all new piggeries, or those considering expansion, will need to obtain approvals under the Integrated planning Act 1997 and the Environmental Protection Act 1994 before any development takes place. The DPI&F note Starting or expanding a piggery? You'll need to obtain the appropriate approvals (www.dpi.qld.gov.au/environment/13774.html) outlines steps to obtaining approvals. If you are unsure what approvals you need, seek advice from DPI&F. The right advice could save you time and $$'s.
- The operator of a pig farm must hold a registration certificate under the Environmental Protection Act 1994. To apply for a registration certificate, refer to the DPI&F note Starting or expanding a piggery? You'll need to obtain the appropriate approvals (www.dpi.qld.gov.au/environment/13774.html) and complete the form attached to that DPI&F note.
- Any person that keeps one or more pigs must, in accordance with the Stock Act 1915, register with DPI&F. Contact your local DPI&F Stock Inspector to register with DPI&F.
Adapted from an article on the QLD Dept Agriculture website. Thanks to Ian Barugh, Massey University, New Zealand for providing information towards this note.
Thanks to Geoff Terry, Tasmania, for the photos of his property (first two in this note), which were taken by DPI&F at a field day in the early 1990s.
Information contained in this publication is provided as general advice only. For application to specific circumstances, professional advice should be sought. The Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries has taken all reasonable steps to ensure the information in this publication is accurate at the time of publication. Readers should ensure that they make appropriate inquiries to determine whether new information is available on the particular subject matter.