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Pigs and Pasture Development: Realeyes Homestead in Traverse City

Levi Meeuwenberg is a professional free runner and farmer. He homesteads with his partner in Traverse City, Michigan. Here he talks about using pigs in pasture development.

GLPP: Tell us a little about your project and the history of the land.

Run Levi, Run Levi, RunLM: Sure, Realeyes Homestead is a 10 acre parcel within an old 30acre family farm that’s been out of production for a few decades. My great grandparents and grandparents ran a pretty diverse farmstead in the early 20th century including large scale corn and bean crops, vegetable garden, pigs, cows, chickens, rabbits. My grandpa tells me stories about being the milkman. He would milk the cows in the morning, then go deliver it to families in the area. Before that, it was land inhabited by the Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans who were gradually forced out of the area.

It’s about a 20 minute bike ride from downtown Traverse City, Michigan. It’s bordered by a public biking trail that leads straight into town on the west, small inland Cedar Lake on the east side, private owned Cedar forest land to the south, and Cedar-Birch lowlands in conservation to the North.

We’re in Zone 5b and just east of Lake Michigan, which causes a TON of lake effect snow, but also the temperature buffering effect that large water bodies provide.

The soil is very sandy, very acid, and very poor in nutrients. This, plus overgrazing has created a disturbed landscape mostly dominated by spotted knapweed and sheep sorrel. There is a pretty big patch of blue spruce trees in the middle that were planted as Christmas trees years ago. There are also a few patches of woodies starting to take hold; white oak, blackberry brambles, and some shrubs.

GLPP: You’re raising pigs, how does your system work?

LM: Well, I’m still figuring out the best way to plug the pigs into the system. Right now it seems like their main functions are income, food for the family, food waste recycling, and pasture restoration.

At first, we put the pigs in a movable pen and they would dig up and disturb the land until it was mostly bare dirt. They also were fertilizing it at the same time their their piggie-doo. (That is the technical term, by the way) After they dig it up, we move them and cover crop into the prepared site. After the plot was sufficiently dug up and doodied (about one week) we would move the pen to the next spot over. Their water, shelter, and toys were all mobile.

Future Fertilizer for Pasture DevelopmentBecause the pasture is so degraded, the pigs get almost none of their food needs from it right now. They rely on imported feed, expired organic produce from a local food-coop. We help cycle the nutrients from their waste stream and the imported resource goes right into the soil as fertility, so it gets used twice at least. Eventually we might get up to 50% of their feed from the pasture, and hopefully the other 50% from the polyculture of tree crops.

We started by making a pen out of four 16ft cattle panels hooked together at the corners with carabiners. They could push it around a little bit but they never escaped. I’ve heard a cool idea of some people using a similar setup with a grass grazing animal like sheep, who can move the pen but it’s difficult, so they only move it once they’ve eaten most of the grass in the pen. A self-moving sheep tractor!

Anyway, once the pigs got bigger, they needed a larger space so we used two 100ft elecro-net fences to enclose about 2500sq ft. and a 5k solar-electric fence charger. This was more laborious to move, but didn’t have to be moved as often. Also, it’s not 100% secure. The pigs did escape a couple times, although they always came to the house hoping to be invited in for dinner.

GLPP: What is the mix you use for cover cropping behind the pigs?

LM: We weren’t sure what would grow in such poor soil, so we used the shotgun approach at first, and threw just about everything at it to see what would stick; sunflower, amaranth, oats, peas, radish, squash, pumpkins, wheat, alfalfa, clovers, native wildflowers, buckwheat, sweet allysum, hairy vetch, beets, lettuce, carrots, etc. After broadcasting the seeds, we dig them in a little bit with a high wheel cultivator, then do a light mulching with spoiled hay from a local farm.

The majority of the seed was what we could find for cheap at the local feed/seed shop. We would also sometimes dig mini-swales or pock-marks to test different earth-forms to see what seemed to have an effect. And the more dense the seeding, the better it seemed.

GLPP: What have you observed from those experiments?

LM: Well, first of all, a lot of stuff grew in! It was very lush, and there was no spotted knapweed that reemerged. The first tests were next to the forest, so we might be seeing some of the beneficial edge-effect that the forest has on the pasture. What mostly grew was the oats, daikon radish, and buckwheat. Our free-range chickens would spend much of their days eating the seeds from these annuals. I tried to feed the daikon radish to the pigs, but they would only eat the green tops, not the root. They were probably spoiled as youngsters, from all the old organic produce from the co-op.

Pasture development would really help this land.

Pasture before treatment during earthworks construction. These earthworks weren’t very effective.

Not many perennials took hold. My theory is that these are slower to establish generally and so were quickly shaded out by the fast growing annuals. Plus the soil is very dry, with low fertility which isn’t very hospitable as perennials come a little later in succession than annuals, which are like the emergency repair crew of the soil.

The mini earthworks didn’t seem to have a huge difference, although the plants tended to grow better in depressions, pits, holes, or swales. This is probably because the sandy soil drains very quickly, so the pits helped capture and soak water in, feeding the plants without drowning them.

GLPP: Anything you’re going to change for this season?

LM: This year we’re planning on building a permanent perimeter fence around the pig paddocks (5 acres) out of free used pallets, and 48inch woven wire and T-posts. Then we’ll use electric ribbon-tape (which is much easier to handle than the net fencing) to enclose smaller plots within each paddock and move the pigs weekly (seven pigs, in quarter acre plots).

The system in action

The system in action: Pigs in the electric fence, free range chickens in the developed pasture and some of the degraded pasture in the foreground for comparison. Photo courtesy Levi Meeuwenberg.

We’ll also do soil amendments (lime, mineral nutrients) before the pigs hit the spot, then cover crop after they come through and till everything up. Instead of wasting tons of seed for cover cropping we’ll probably stick to mostly rye, wheat, and oats in the spring and buckwheat after the first frost in the fall. Instead of digging the seeds in with the high wheel cultivator, we’ll use some home-made cultipacker to just press them into the dirt, and maybe skip the haying mulch.

We’ll continue this pattern for a few years to build the soil fertility and organic matter, then after one final major tilling by the pigs, seed in our ideal pasture mix of perennial species. This will be hayed once or twice the first season to make sure light can get down to the ground and they will grow in more thickly. Once the pasture is established, we’ll run the pigs on a quicker rotation so that they just mow down growth without killing the plants. Also, by this time our major tree species like apples, persimmon, chestnut, oak etc will begin producing providing additional feed for the pigs.

We still are figuring out the best earthworks, and tree planting pattern to implement.

GLPP: From your results, what will you keep the same?

LM: We’ll still use the pigs to provide our disturbance regime, fertilizer, income, and bacon. And we’ll keep trying new things and experimenting, learning from the land and local experts, who both continue to help guide this whole process. Permaculture!

To learn more about Realeyes Homestead visit the webpage, find them on Facebook, follow them on Pinterest and Twitter.

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