SWOOPE, Va. – Perennial innovator Joel
Salatin has added yet another enterprise to his family's Polyface
Farm: hogs that turn his compost. "Piggery composting make
windrow composting obsolete," says Salatin.
| Joe Salatin
designed this cattle feeder to rise as wood chip
bedding and manure accumulate.
Eight pigs help keep nutrients cycling efficiently on the
550-acre farm by rooting in compost piles of cattle manure,
wood chips and hay in early spring." Pigs love it. If
you hide some fermented grain in a pile, they'll completely
invert and aerate it by the time they're through. So you handle
a pile once, instead of two or more times with mechanical
turning methods," says Salatin, who started using porcine
processors in '93.
"The beauty of this is the pigs are doing almost all
the work," he notes. "And the result is an excellent
Salatin's inspiration came in '92 when he saw a picture of
a pig on a pile of horse-manure bedding. "Something clicked,
and I went and tried it with two pigs last year. It worked
so well and we got such good money for great-tasting pork
that we added more hogs this year and built a second pen,"
Natural nutrients, by design
The Salatins' 50-cow beef herd generates more than 2,500 pounds
of nutrient-rich droppings daily. From early April through
late December, the cattle fertilize pastures directly",
with some help from a flock of cowpie-crazed chickens. (See
"Profit by Appointment Only," The New Farm, Sept./Oct.
In winter, the bovines munch homegrown hay in an open-sided
shed from V-shaped rising feeder gates that Joel designed.
With added bedding, the feeders help prevent muddy loafing
areas, minimize nutrient loss and virtually eliminate scrape-and-haul
"Deep bedding provides a clean, fresh place for the
cows to lounge. It has hygienic and economic benefits beyond
labor savings. We find that they consume 10 to 15 percent
less hay to maintain body condition than they would require
in a mud yard," says Salatin.
buried grain, eight pigs penned on the bedding piles
helped make 70 tons of compost this year.
He fashioned the feeders so he could raise them as the manure
packs build up. Hooked to four barn poles spaced 15 feet apart,
each 45-foot feeder accommodates up to 23 cattle at a time.
Four angle-iron struts at a 20-degree angle below horizontal
serve as upper arms that tip a feeder forward and help position
cows so they waste less feed. Quarter-inch chains–one
per pole–support each feeder near the bottom of the
The top and bottom of the feeders include a 3-inch-diameter
metal pipe with a 3-inch-wide flat bar welded beside it. That
provides lateral buttressing and allows lag-screw fastening
of the 2x4 wooden "V" slots for feeding. To keep
eager cattle from bending in the pipes by pressing too hard
against a feeder, Salatin wired a wooden stump to serve as
a bow truss behind the pipes.
"The chains hold most of the feeder's weight but don't
have to hold it against the cows pushing and pulling. That's
borne by the struts on the top along with the bow truss,"
Metal brackets on the posts secure the top struts and bottom
chains and allow Salatin to raise the feeder 4 feet above
ground level. He lifts an entire feeder using a front-end
loader. He usually moves the feeder up a notch at a time–about
7 inches–as the bedding piles up!
Sweeten the pot
Salatin adds absorbent wood chips from tree trimmings to the
bedding, every two to three days with a manure spreader. He
also adds some straw and old hay about every four days. The
mixture saves 75 percent of the excrement's value, he estimates.
"The high-carbon bedding acts as a stable 'nutrient sponge'
that eliminates leaching, vaporization and odor, while giving
the cows a comfortable lounging area." (See "Chip
Tips," p. 55.)
After feeding hay for 90 to 100 days, Salatin turns the herd
onto pasture, pens the two bedding areas and brings on the
pigs. "Prepping the piggery is winter work. Then the
pigs do the composting during our busy spring season,"
For a ready source of superb bedding material,
Joel Salatin makes green wood chips from his managed
woodland, using an industrial-grade wood chipper.
With his 2-ton dumptruck with 1.5-cubic-yard bed,
4-wheel-drive pickup truck, lowboy trailer and
front-end loader, he also hauls in material from
local horse stables, the city leaf dump and municipal
"After Christmas, I go in and park at the
municipal chipper and they blow all the Christmas
tree chips right into the truck, says Salatin.
He also pays a tree-trimming crew from nearby
Staunton $10 per truckload to dump at the farm,
and purchases rain-damaged hay and straw.
Green chips eure quickly when piled in the barn
and soon reach a point where they'll absorb 150
percent of their weight in moisture. "You
want good water-retentive ability, so they capture
urine well, and tie up nutrients," he explains.
By not turning the stockpile, you encourage anaerobic
growth of some molds and fungal threads on buried
wood chips, which in turn make natural "probiotic"
antibodies that help prevent mastitis and scours,
he says. Spread beneath cattle feeders in winter
with some hay and straw, the enriched-chip bedding
starts composting nicely on its own, Salatin has
found. Composting then kills many pathogens and
weed seeds, while stabilizing soluble nutrients.
The chips also work well in poultry houses, rabbitries
For health and safety reasons, be sure your storage
area is well-ventilated and that you use a dust
mask when handling particulate material such as
wood chips, Salatin cautions. Woodchip piles can
generate a high internal temperature, especially
during summer months. So check your stockpile
regularly to be sure it's not getting too hot.
To minimize fire hazard, some forest specialists
suggest limiting pile height to 2 feet or less,
especially in dry months.
"There's plenty of carbonaceous material
available. You just need to be creative about
finding it rather than letting it go to waste,"
During winter as the bedding accumulates, Salatin "seeds"
it with 100 pounds of barley, rye, oats or corn every few
days so eight pigs will have plenty of buried treasure to
dig for. A pair of hogs will turn 75 cubic yards of enriched
bedding in eight weeks looking for 1,000 pounds of grain,
he's found. Even though he figures the pigs won't find at
least 100 pounds of the grain, Salatin says he's supplying
less grain than the industry norm of about 10 pounds per day.
"With fermented grain, I only need to supply about 9
pounds per pig per day."
The grain heats up and gets soft and tasty. "The pigs
will dig four feet to get the grain–so low that all
you'll see are their tails at times." The pigs gain anywhere
from 10 to 12 pounds per week, depending on their starting
Last year he learned not to put corn at the bottom of the
pile but to start with a small grain, such as barley or rye.
"The extra husk protects the inner kernel. It's 'first
in, last out' for the grain. So you'd lose some corn if it's
on the bottom," he says.
Buckets gravity feed nipple waterers in each pen. But because
all the grain is fermented, the pigs need very little water.
"If they were eating dry grain they would triple their
water consumption," says Salatin, who occasionally adds
some fresh hay, grass and garden clippings to the pens.
'The best breed for rooting is Tamworth, a long-snouted minor
breed, says Salatin. "But they're expensive. My neighbor
helped us pick up some common pigs at a sale auction barn."
The pigs were about 5 months old, weighing about 170 pounds
each. "We de-ringed them so they could root."
If using more than a pair of pigs, you need to beware cave-ins
and "free-loading" once rooting holes reach depths
of 30 inches or more, he cautions. "Pigs will go down
a couple feet or so just great on their own. But then one
might start doing all the work while the rest are content
to freeload off existing holes and take the dribbles."
The surface pigs then cause cave-ins. "I had to dig back
down to the mother lode a number of times this year when too
much compost got between the pigs and the goodies."
If your bedding pile is less than about 3 feet high, you
probably won't have a problem regardless of pig numbers, he
figures. Next year, Salatin will put a temporary gate across
the middle of each pen and put just two pigs per side to minimize
After their pen work, pigs either go on pasture or right to
slaughter, depending on their size and the cattle schedule.
"They're already sold. It's up to me to decide when to
have them dressed," says Salatin.
He feeds shelled corn free-choice while the pigs are on pasture.
"But they only eat 5 pounds of corn per day. They prefer
the pasture–you ought to see them eat that grass."
Salatin spreads the piggery-compost–about 70 tons worth
in '94–on pasture that has been grazed once and just
hayed. The finely textured, pig-turned compost has a fresh,
earthy smell you wouldn't associate with conventional hog
production. 'We feed the soil when the grass wants to regrow.
That helps boost pasture growth during slump periods,"
From cattle manure, tree trimmings and crop residue to rich
pastures, healthy livestock and wholesome meat products, "piggery
composting helps everything just fall into place."