PED virus has been a concern for many in the conventional US pig industry. Not so much for Benji Anderson, owner of remotely located Anderson Farms in Georgia. He is proud of his pigs
roaming in the fields. His customers are local ‘green’ restaurants.
By Vincent ter Beek
Grunting, a large black and white sow is coming to greet her visitors. She is robust, with thick legs, round full teats – and has what looks like some sand and feed on her back. "Hi pig!" yells Benji Anderson, 31. "This is Queen Elizabeth. She must be around five or six years old. She'll be having a litter in a couple of days."
In a hut just behind her lies her temporal 'neighbour', called Penny – she's of about the same age and has just given birth to a litter of five piglets. Anderson adds, "Not too many, I know. In the other pen there are sows with 12 liveborn piglets per litter. We used a young boar this time – perhaps that's why." Penny prefers to stay close to her hut – and why come out? The straw is comfortable, the piglets are still young and above all, temperatures are just above freezing.
Queen Elizabeth and Penny are two of nine sows at this small outdoor pork production farm in Madison County, about 25 miles north of Athens, GA, United States. Helped by a favourable climate in this southern state, some four years ago, Anderson decided to get his hands on a 48 acre (19 ha) farmland to keep his hogs outdoors, all year long. Anderson says, "We don't get a lot of snow over here, if it is two or three days a year, it is much. And besides, the pigs can deal with the cold pretty well."
For a moment, forget about conversion rates, daily gain or phase feeding. For Benji Anderson, numbers are not the only thing to consider – ask him about each individual pig and he points to its grandmother and offspring. He is not the only one who has taken a different approach when growing pigs. With consumers in the US becoming increasingly conscious of issues like the environment, animal welfare or both, concepts like organic, outdoor or locally produced have gradually acquired a small yet consistent market share, especially in larger cities.
Claiming they like to 'know their farmers', it is restaurants in nearby university town Athens and the Atlanta metropolis which happily use Anderson's pork. He personally brings his pigs to the slaughterhouse, picks them up a couple of days later, stores the cuts in large freezers on-farm and even delivers the desired cuts, see also the box Local, fair, care.
His pork has slightly more fat – for that he uses crossbreeds of Berkshire, Duroc and some have a touch of Tamworth too, aiming for optimal tenderness. He receives $3 per pound of dressed meat (€4.89/ kg), where conventional pig farmers usually have to make do with prices which are substantially lower. It is just sufficient to keep him going.
Anderson decided to go for outdoor pork, about four years ago, on personal grounds. He says, "Don't get me wrong, I'm not an activist – hats off to these people working on conventional farms. I've done it too – and it just wasn't appealing to me." Anderson says he does not like working in an environment with the smell of faeces adding, "And I don't want the animals to lie in their own filth either. When I keep my pigs outdoors, I'm happy to be there."
Being a part-time carpenter, he admits to be still finetuning the right overall management formula for his farm. Until about one-and-half years ago, he had about 20 sows and sold all pigs through a contractor and an auction.
When this contact ended, finding clients became harder – hence he scaled down to the current nine and was fortunate enough to establish contacts with interested local restaurants, amongst others by presenting himself well on the Web. He brings about 100 pigs per year to the slaughterhouse and he hopes to build on this, being in a process to acquire a loan for further expansion. One other development is the recent addition of a herd of goats – also for their meat.
The pigs are divided into four pastures – two are occupied by lactating sows with some huts, one is for several gestating sows and a boar; the grow-finishers share a large pasture. Rotating is crucial as the pigs usually root in the grounds, which subsequently needs some time to recover.
Pelleted feed is being trucked in from a local feed company, whereas ground water is pumped up from below, after which it is divided to the different zones.
The young piglets are weaned at about six weeks – and this usually happens in phases. The piglets are taken away when they are ready for it. They then go to a grow-finisher section in a pen on another side of the hill. Anderson says, "After weaning, the piglets only want one thing – they want to get back to their mother. So when we put them so far away, they will not hear each other."
The grow-finisher area is a wide undulating field flanked with grass, herbs, and even trees. In total, about 60 larger finishers and smaller growers all share the same area and same troughs – and the animals run around in a cloud of dust when Benji Anderson appears. Only the just-weaned pigs are kept apart in a round fenced area. Anderson says: "They will stay here for about a week. Then they are strong and large enough to go in between the other pigs without being trampled. Besides, the very young ones sometimes tend to run off initially." He notes that the just-weaned piglets and the larger finishers usually appear to like each other. There is mutual interest from both sides of the fence.
The piglets hardly ever suffer from a strong weaning dip, Anderson says. "Since they are weaned at six weeks, their digestive system can deal with the feed. They have started to become interested in their mother's feed as from day 10 or so – and will also eat from her feed. Since we feed one type of feed on the whole farm, they will know and do well on that." The pigs also eat what they find in the field – grass, oats, acorn, hickory nuts, roots and even snakes.
The feeding trough in the grow-finisher area is round, and comes with flaps, which the pigs themselves can push open with their snouts, and eat as much as they like. The flaps are to guard off the feed against rodents – but also from the rain, birds and deer.
Anderson's farm is not 'organic' as getting the certification process requires a long procedure. He does aim to keep his pigs free from antimicrobials. He would, however, not hesitate to use these if the need arises. He says, "Of course, I'm not going to let a sick animal suffer or die if I can help it." If an animal receives antibiotics, it is sold at auction.
Keeping his herd closed, Anderson has succeeded to keep infectious diseases out of his population, he says. "I've just got enough animals to prevent inbreeding."
He does not particularly fear Porcine Epidemic Diarrhoea (PED) virus hitting his farm either. Anderson states, "The farm is very remote. All farms that you may see in the surroundings are 99.9% poultry farms. So whatever disease you may think of – it is not likely to get here. Besides, our pigs usually get a lot of sun. This helps, I'm told, as sunlight acts as a disinfectant."
Back to the lactating sows. In a different hutted pasture, a couple of more are housed, at the end of their lactation phase. Some piglets have already been weaned; others will be soon.
The sows have a large wallow at their disposal – in summer, that is – during this winter visit it is an empty crater. Anderson points to a striped young male piglet of about five weeks. "You see that one? He is going to be a new boar soon." He will then most probably go next door, sharing the pasture with the gestating sows. This is where the current boar is roaming as well. Anderson grins and says, "His name is King Richard."
Source: Pig Progress magazine 30.2 (2014)
Anderson Farms, Madison County, GA
Farm type: Outdoor farrow-to-finish farm
Size: 9 sows, 100 finishers
Slaughterweight: Between 250-300 lbs (113-136 kg)
Slaughterhouse: Oak Valley Meat, Toccoa, GA
Feed: Ground mix of corn, soybean meal, minerals
‘Local, fair, care’
One of Anderson's customers is Heirloom Café & Fresh Market, a one-off restaurant based in Athens which is full of unique culinary facilities. The restaurant opened in July 2011 and its philosophy revolves around key words like 'local', 'fair price' and 'care'. The restaurant opted for outdoor pork – and did not choose 'organic' as this is a label which comes with substantially extra accreditation costs. Describing its philosophy, the restaurant states: "The majority of our farmers do not receive government subsidies to produce their animals or vegetables, so their end product is more expensive, but we believe that the care with which they produce their vegetables and raise their animals outweighs the cheap price of the mass marketed conventional vegetables or the factory farmed meat that most stores and restaurants are selling." Benji Anderson also sells to Farm Burger in the Atlanta metropolitan area – a four-branch burger bar selling only 'green' beef and pork – including a Pork Burger.