July 2007
Featured Articles
Researchers at Auburn University are conducting a study to determine the effects of raising swine in three different types of grow-finish systems. Although the pigs raised in the pastures show a little less weight at finishing, they seem to be happier and “get to express their pigginess.”

Swine Research Offers Promise For Small Farms

By Kellie Henderson

Researchers at Auburn University said they hope their swine study will help small farmers breathe new life into rural America by illustrating just how effective small operations with little start-up cost can be.

Doctors Daryl Kuhlers and Nada K. Nadarajah are conducting their third trial in their study on the effects of raising swine in three different types of grow-finish systems. They said the pigs so far show only marginal differences in size and rate of gain, with the pigs raised in a traditional swine barn showing only two-tenths of a pound more gain per day than the two groups raised on pasture. But the researchers said they are looking for more than finishing weights on these pigs.

Doctors Nada K. Nadarajah (left) and Daryl Kuhlers are making sure the pigs have plenty of water. They see the results of this study as a possible way to help keep small-town America alive.  
“What we see is the difference in the attitudes and personalities of these pigs. In a traditional swine barn system, the pigs are more sedentary and inexpressive. The pasture pigs are happier, and we have found no differences so far in the health of the swine from one group to another,” said Nadarajah.

“In the pasture groups, we see pigs that behave like 10-year-old boys. They run up to the fence when they see people coming, they love playing in the mud and they’re constantly running after and bumping into one another. In the pasture, they get to express their pigginess,” jokes Kuhlers.

Jokes aside, the researchers say they see the results of this kind of applied work as a possible way to help keep small-town America alive.

“People are not likely to receive a warm welcome from the bank when they ask for a large loan to begin a swine operation. Industrial swine barns are expensive to build, with feeders and automatic water, not to mention the manure removal and lagoons that accompany that type of farm. And should the owner decide to get out of the swine business, the barns aren’t really useful for anything else,” Kuhlers said.

“But a rural landowner could start a small swine operation on pasture for very little up-front cost, and if they don’t enjoy their pigs, they can move on to goats or cattle, for example, without having to lose out on the investment a swine barn would require. This type of farm could easily open up opportunities for ‘Mom and Pop ventures’ in grow-finish operations and local processing facilities among rural populations,” Nadarajah said.

And Kuhlers said this type of small farming follows the recent trend toward local production and consumption of food.

“Today’s consumers want to know the story of their food. Small niche and sustainable farms make it possible for people to ask specific questions about what they’re feeding their families. And if more people had small meat production farms, small-town processors could be profitable again, which means more local jobs. Small towns are dying across this country and small-scale farming is a way to help revive small towns in America,” said Kuhlers.

In July, Nadarajah will travel to San Antonio to present their data thus far at the American Society of Animal Sciences Annual Meeting, and he said he hopes to get as much exposure for their project as they can.

  Tiffany Meyers, student worker, helps with the care of the pigs. It’s easy to see how much she enjoys working with them.
“Research is such an abstract term in many people’s minds. By seeing what we’ve been doing, we hope people will see its meaningful work. We want people to be proud of what’s going on at Auburn,” Nadarajah said.

Nadarajah adds that obtaining research funding is always a challenge, citing the fact that only he, Kuhlers and student worker, Tiffany Meyers, have been caring for their research subjects.

“It’s getting so hot I think I’m going to start coming to check on their water over the weekends,” said Meyers as she refills the pasture pigs’ water and soaks their shaded area.

Meyers plans to start Veterinary School at Auburn in the fall and it’s easy to see how much she enjoys working with the pigs.

“This is my buddy here,” she said, pointing to a pig planted in the center of a cooling puddle of mud. “If he weren’t so muddy, I’d rub his belly where he likes.”

In the two pasture groups of swine, one group is being rotated every two weeks among four smaller pastures, while the other pasture pigs are kept in one larger pen. The researchers say the two groups seem to perform equally well.

“The rotational group gives each section of pasture six weeks to recover, and this system distributes the manure more evenly throughout the four sections of pasture,” said Kuhlers.

Pigs raised in a traditional swine barn showed only two-tenths of a pound more gain per day than the groups raised on pasture.  
“Which is another unique aspect of the pasture pigs,” adds Nadarajah. “You don’t find the same kind of manure smell when the pigs are given more room to roam.”

In addition to their plans to weigh this third-trial group, Nadarajah said they hope to compare the quality of the meat produced by the different confinement systems.

“We would like to know if there is any difference in the meat with regards to flavor, tenderness and marbling for example,” said Nadarajah.

“People have looked at the quality of free-range poultry and grass-fed beef, but that kind of information isn’t available on pasture-raised pork. That’s something we want to explore,” said Kuhlers.

Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.