By Andrew French
Appropriate shelter and access to clean water are critical aspects of survival for humans and animals alike. Shelter is where an animal feels the absence of stress. Every animal needs a certain level of safety and security to go about the business of living: freedom from stress allows them to comfortably eat, drink, procreate, sleep, as well as raise the next generation in safety.
We humans have become experts at creating extensively complex and secure shelters for ourselves that cater to our every physical whim. In confinement-type farming situations a similar mentality prevails; the designers of these systems try to minimize the physical stresses in order to maximize growth with minimal space.
Factory farming has been very successful at creating animal warehouses that meet the minimum needs of the animal without addressing the other aspects of holistic animal health. Like employees in a corporate system, animals have become cogs in a well-oiled machine that pumps out meat by the ton. As referenced in the animated short film The Meatrix, it is time to take the red pill and understand that this paradigm is not the future of farming.
In fact it arises out of the industrial revolution, the workplace transformed from a system of hands-on work and craft to one of faceless laborers and machines.
As we move forward into the future of pig farming, we should be embracing the complex natural world to help us find solutions to our problems instead of forcing nature to adhere to a rigid role in which we are the dominators, utilizing technology.
As permaculture pig farmers, we need to take back the reins of pork production from huge multinational confinement operations. We need to work together to grow our operations and knowledge base — utilizing the natural world and our smarts to grow our pigs on pasture and grow our customer base as well. The challenges are many, but the rewards are wonderful. Sharing our experiences and knowledge is the opposite of the typical factory farm’s modus operandi — let’s grow the deep goodness of raising happy, healthy pigs and make a huge change on this planet — turning misery into beauty. That said, here are a few ideas to help get you started sheltering and watering your pigs.
When you first get your pigs, sometimes you will not have had enough time to get everything ready for them, and you will have to create a temporary shelter. If you have barns or outbuildings it is easy enough to box in an area with plywood to keep them contained. Temporary structures can take a plethora of shapes. We have used hog panels with a tarp stretched over them as a temporary shelter. This keeps some rain and sun off the pigs but does little else, and certainly in windy country a tarp will slowly (or quickly) be ripped to tatters. But in a pinch, a simple awning made of a tarp, hog panels and some T-posts can be erected to keep some weather off of a pig. We have also used this setup for calves.
A pig can and will utilize almost anything for a shelter. Creativity in shelter solutions abounds in the homesteading realm. On a larger scale within a farm context, there are endless ways to shelter your pigs.
My first attempt at creating a pig shelter for two to three pigs was simple; after reading everything I could on blogs and websites I figured that building a simple A-frame that I could drag by myself would make the most sense.
It seemed like a simple idea; utilizing cheap two-by-fours as the skeleton with some metal siding we had laying around as the roof. I decided to keep both ends open to facilitate the pigs getting in and out. I also didn’t want to cut any lumber if I didn’t have to, so I made it about 8 feet long, with 45-degree angles, using 6-foot long two-by-fours as rafters. I did have to cut some lumber, but not much.
DIY A-Frame Pig Shelter
six, 8-foot 2 x 4s
two, 6-foot 2 x 4s
two, 8-feet long by 3-feet wide metal roofing panels
box of 2½-inch all-purpose screws
- Take three of the 8-foot long 2 x 4s and mark 4 feet. Find the middle of that mark, and bisect the mark at a 45-degree angle. Cut these 2 x 4s with a saw. You’re almost done!
- Take the uncut ends and overlap and join them with three to four screws.
- Put them all up on their sides and lay an 8-foot 2 x 4s on the corner and attach with three or four screws.
- Attach the two 8-foot long 2 x 4s on the bottom of the of each side.
- Add the two 6-foot 2 x 4s on the bottom of both openings.
- Add one metal panel, overlap one rib over the top and screw in down the sides. Repeat with the other panel on the other side.
If you bought all new materials, about $50. If you scrounge around, probably just a couple bucks for screws.
This simple A-frame worked pretty well for a couple of pigs — they were able to utilize it as a shelter in bad weather, and it had enough ventilation to minimize condensation on the underside of the roofing from their body heat in the colder months. Overall, though, after a couple seasons of use, they will end up destroying it just by rubbing on it and pushing it around.
I constructed one of these shelters and then another, this time with a 10-foot long ridge beam, which created two handles on either side which I thought would help assist two people hauling it around. It worked okay, but is somewhat awkward to handle.
In any case, if you are raising more than three pigs, this shelter will not be an ideal solution. You could make a series of them, like chicken tractors, and that would be fine if you had the time and energy to move them. One thing I found out after a year or so is that the pigs will dig the bottom boards into the ground, which is good for stability but makes it hard to move the shelter. Pigs will create a hardpan around the shelter and turn the soil into cement, making it difficult to move the shelter to another location.
As we began raising more pigs I knew I would need to create a better design. Essentially a pig farmer has to ultimately choose between a mobile or permanent shelter concept, and your means, needs and situation will help guide you to the appropriate design.
The A-frame hut is very analogous to the Port-A-Hut pig shelters that are available in most areas that have pigs. These Port-A-Huts are much more rigid and strong as a shelter than my simple A-frame, and will last for many years as they are made out of galvanized metal. Three to four pigs will be very comfortable in a standard 6 x 11-foot hut, and they can be used for everything from farrowing to finishing. It is an attractive design and very durable build, but I personally have not used them as they are out of my price range.
A 6 x 11-foot Port-A-Hut is not easily moved by hand by one person and requires at least another set of hands or an ATV or small tractor to move about easily if you farm on your own. If I had unlimited funds, I would have probably started out with a Port-A-Hut and most likely would still be using it now. Frugality is often the mother of invention.
The next form of temporary pig structure is the constructed mobile pen. With this design, we basically create an entire pen constructed of treated beams as skids as well as boards or metal for the framework that we can haul around with a tractor.
These can quickly become very heavy and be expensive unless you have a surplus of building materials, but if you have four or more pigs this could be a great solution. Flatter land would be helpful if you are pursuing this idea, as something this heavy on my undulating piece of property would most likely get stuck relatively quickly, or at least the tractor would. As a modular self-contained design, it is a great solution.
If building a mobile pen is something that sounds attractive to you — go for it. There is no one perfect way to do anything, so I suggest scanning the internet for ideas and designing something that will fit your needs, land base and tractor availability.
The basic idea is to line up 10-foot or longer treated beams as the skids and foundation — build a lean-to on one side and attach a stabilizing beam across the other. Triangular bracing on the corners will help with stability.
Then permanently affix hog panels around the structure. You now have a very strong, movable pen with shade and shelter and a small paddock to graze. Essentially it is a large version of a mobile rabbit pen.
If we move from temporary to permanent shelters, in the middle we find hoop houses. Now, on a hoop house used to house pigs we must construct a pony wall to keep them from destroying the plastic and scampering off into the sunset. A pony wall simply means a short wall — most of the time, non-structural.
We used plywood bolted with quarter-inch hex head bolts to the hoop house’s metal hoops. With a hoop house and pony wall combination, we have a wonderful shelter to house and farrow pigs in the colder months. Unlike any other shelter, we can gather solar heat in a hoop house to warm the pigs in the winter. This is the setup I have eventually settled on to house my sows and farrowing operation. We have a 30 x 60-foot hoop house we erected when we needed shelter for our duck flock, and it also helped us start our plants for our vegetable CSA. What we didn’t know is that we would eventually be ending our CSA program and focusing our attention on our animals. A hoop house is not the best shelter for ducks because of predator pressure, and we lost a handful of our ducks before we built our duck barn out of wood and metal.
Pigs, on the other hand, are not bothered by many predators, and so therefore a hoop house works well for them. In the hot months of summer they will need shade to stay cool enough to feel comfortable, and you can make that with tarps or shadecloth on the inside or outside of your hoop house.
Shade in the summer is as important as ample bedding and warmth in the winter for pigs. My plan is to take shade cloth and stretch it from one side’s set of hoops over to the other side, essentially creating a horizontal shade net inside the hoop house. As they are also going to be on pasture, the pigs will utilize other shelters that I will be constructing.
A hoop house on skids that can be dragged would also work for weather protection in some areas, especially in a paddock system utilizing movable electric fencing. Some thought should go into protecting the hoop house skids from pig activity, such as rooting and rubbing, so that the structure maintains its stability and structural integrity.
Earth Bermed Shelters
In certain areas in my paddocks I am going to construct shelters inspired by Sepp Holzer’s earth bermed pig shelters, a very robust and useful design that he has shared detailed information about in his books. Holzer lives on a mountain, and he utilizes a backhoe to scoop into an east-facing hillside to create an area bermed on three sides, ideally with the opening facing the south to some degree. He then takes logs and installs them upright along the side berms. He notches the tops of these logs and places horizontal logs on them as beams, pinning them together with metal rods. He roofs this structure with more log rafters (he has an abundance of logs as a resource), and then covers all this with plastic, soil and plants. He also sometimes creates these shelters’ walls out of stone, with the help of a backhoe.
Creating an earth bermed shelter makes a lot of sense for a hog. It provides them with a thermally comfortable space most of the year, and they have a very safe area in which they can retreat to sleep and relax. Pigs are clean animals in that they designate a place to defecate and urinate outside of their home area so they will keep their shelter clean if allowed enough space out of doors. These types of earthen shelters are similar to root cellars and could also be used to store preserves, produce, or cider, making them a multi-purpose option.
Air exchange is accomplished with the use of piping that extends from the floor down the hillside, creating a convection current that constantly regenerates fresh air inside the structure.
Another thing to consider is that pigs, in the right weather, need very little shelter at all. For instance, I have constructed a shelter for a few of our pigs, using two-by-fours mounted between three large spruce trees as posts, and added a few rafters using some old metal siding on top at a slope to shed rain. This shelter is more than sufficient for warm days.
In the winter I use spare pieces of plywood to erect a barrier on the north and east sides to provide protection from wind. That, along with plenty of straw, will give the pigs a comfortable existence in weather below zero. Pigs grow a thick layer of fat to protect themselves from the harshest of cold and mass their bodies together to create warmth. The main thing to watch out for is the combination of wet and cold, as this can lead to hypothermia, poor health or even death.
Water, Water Everywhere
Water is the other main focus of this article. All water sources freeze overnight in our neck of the woods for about six months of the year, so there has almost always been a time when I have had to bring buckets of water to our pigs, wherever they may be.
Five-gallon buckets and flexible multi-gallon black rubber troughs are the old standby in the winter. The rubber troughs can be turned over and ice knocked out with a swift kick to the bottom. Plastic has a tendency to shatter at some point.
Most farmers use nipple waterers and a pressurized waterline to keep their hogs hydrated in the warmer months. I found a great design online for a portable, durable dual nipple waterer. Thanks to Amber Reed for this great design. The beauty of this is that it is nearly indestructible, and yet succeeds at creating a watering point for the pigs, as well as being portable enough to use in successive paddocks. Using electric wire such as we do will minimize the infrastructure, such as wall or rigid panels that would be needed to attach pig watering nipples to otherwise.
Another concept that I have seen used is to create a slatted floor base, on which watering devices are placed, minimizing the creation of wallow aspects that follow most pig watering situations. A particularly good example comes from Smith Meadows. This farmer brings the waterline over the hot wire into a system consisting of an 85-gallon poly tank with a float, which regulates the water as the pigs drink. This is placed on a pressure-treated slatted base that is infilled with gravel to minimize wallow potential.
This is not something that we will pursue on our farm, as our pigs will be on a minimally accessible 45-60 degree slope, not ideal for gravel moving or tractors in general. We’re not too concerned about the wallow potential as, on this particular parcel, we consider any wallow-type pocket ponds good for the retention of moisture on the slope.
Can we water our pigs by creating earthworks and ponds? The potential is there, although it seems that utilizing a basic water pump to transfer the water to the various pig pastures would make more sense than giving the pigs access to the ponds most of the time. On the other hand, pigs can seal a pond with their wallowing and soil compaction behaviors, so there may be an appropriate time to allow them access to water features according to your situation.
The cheapest way to store water is in or on the ground, as hourly costs of earthworks run cheaper than most poly or steel tanks. As with all endeavors based on moving large amounts of earth around, due diligence and careful planning will result in a more productive system. I have heard of earthworks that have failed due to poor planning and faulty understanding of the soil mechanics of the property. With proper care and attention, as well as heeding the wisdom of those who have gone before you, water storage in earthworks is a great and underutilized possibility.
Pig farmers are an ingenious bunch. If you think you have a new idea, it has probably been done in some way before by a like-minded thrifty farmer. I’m constantly surprised at the success that small-scale farmers have with an incredible variety of setups for their hogs. What works for you and your pigs is what matters most.
This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.
Andrew French is a livestock farmer and permaculture designer based in western Wisconsin working on developing a viable model of regenerative pig farming from farrow to finish using a whole-systems design approach. He also offers online permaculture coaching services.