The proverbial stinky pigsty is probably one of the most accepted norms in farming. Few things are as repulsive as concentrated hog manure. When I promote pig raising, almost one hundred percent of the time, people ask, “But how do you handle the smell?”
One of my favorite things to do with folks who visit our farm is to take them to the pigs for a close encounter of a different kind. These pigs don’t stink. You can walk in their pen with them, pet them, let them snoodle on your shoes, and the whole experience will leave you with aromatic pleasure.
How can this be? I’m not making this up. As long-time readers know, our farm offers a 24/7/365 open door policy for anyone to visit anytime to see anything anywhere unannounced. With that level of transparency, I’d better not be making this up. The one time when we have a slight hog odor is right at the end of winter when they’ve been cooped up in a hoop house for three months, and we’re pushing the limit of our carbonaceous diaper.
Otherwise, they are virtually odor free. You could literally eat lunch with the pigs… if you keep moving so they don’t have you for lunch. Few animals are as utilitarian as pigs. Being omnivores, they eat a wider variety of things than goats. Hog fat rendered through lard is both the most nutritious and healthiest of all cooking fats, contrary to popular dietetics. And who doesn’t enjoy pepperoni and the wide assortment of charcuterie that come from pork? Throughout history, pork, more than any other meat, offered long-term refrigeration-free storage options due to curing magic.
In short, the hog is one of the most beneficial animals to raise, but it is definitely one of the most problematic due to odors. If you’ve always wanted to raise some pigs but feared for your nasal future, fear no more. Here are the principles for raising odor-free hogs.
The biggest odor nuance in livestock is diet. Just like humans, you can tell a lot about an animal based on the consistency and odor of its manure. Anyone who has cleaned a diaper knows that consistency and smell offer insight into digestive completion and overall health. The pig, like all animals, is no different. The single most dramatic way to influence manure odor is through forage and roughage.
On our farm, as we worked on the odor issue over the years, we learned that some hay in the hogs’ diet greatly reduced obnoxious manure odor. A grain-only or concentrate-only diet yielded a runnier manure too. But a bit of hay firmed it up and tamped down the odor. The same is true with poultry. Pastured poultry manure doesn’t smell at all like chicken manure in a confinement industrial house.
Fortunately, pigs aren’t that picky about feedstuffs and are glad to chew on hay you wouldn’t feed to any other animal. No matter how careful you make hay, you’ll always have some that gets rained on a couple of times or gets made too wet and molds. If you don’t make hay, you can always find someone with a botched batch ready to practically give it away just to get rid of it. That’s your pigs’ gold mine.
“If you don’t make hay, you can always find someone with a botched batch ready to practically give it away just to get rid of it. That’s your pigs’ gold mine.”
For about three months in the winter, we have the pigs sheltered in hoop houses or sheds, where the risk of odor is greatest. During that time, each morning we throw in generous amounts of junkie hay. The pigs love tearing it up, rooting around in it, eating some, and pooping on the rest. This material is half food and half bedding.
Since pigs pick a toilet spot, we like to throw this hay on that area to help soak up the urine and manure. Once they stomp it all into their toilet area, they won’t eat any more, but until they do, they’ll chew on it and play with it. This procedure has the additional benefit of giving the pigs some play time and work to do. Perhaps play and work reduce stress enough to have an effect on manure odor too. I know when I’m stressed, my bowels get in an uproar, and my stools don’t smell like the good stuff.
Don’t be grossed out about this, folks. Life revolves around poop. Get used to it. At our house, nearly every conversation past ten minutes—even around the dinner table—goes to poop because it’s such a foundational element of life. It’s the ultimate indicator of decomposition (sacrifice) that finds new meaning in fertility (life). Of all the smells I enjoy, probably the pinnacle is good compost; it’s rich and ready to launch new life.
Obviously, in a rotated pasture situation, the hay is unnecessary because the pigs get forage from their grazing. And pigs do love forage. That salad gives them fiber, vitamins, and minerals unavailable in concentrated grain rations. But just like indoors, outdoor pigs find a favorite toilet spot and use it every day. In order to keep the manure from building up there, move the pigs to another paddock.
We try to never leave pigs in a paddock for more than 12 days. Not only does their extended presence damage the soil they stir and step on, but it also increases the amount of accumulated manure in their toilet area. Even if you only have two pigs, rather than giving them a quarter acre for a month, give them 200 square-yards every few days. This spreads out their manure and keeps it from building up to odiferous levels.
The new spot also offers them new vegetation (salad) to enjoy. And don’t worry if it gets old, tall, or brown. They’ll find leaves, seeds, and stems to chew on, all of which aid their digestion. Pigs respond extremely well to electric fence, making this kind of caretaking easy and cheap. When we started with pigs, I built a 12 ft. X 20 ft. Tenderloin Taxi and moved it every day. Using locust poles as a rectangular base, I attached uprights and hog panel, put in four pigs, and moved them daily. Their effect on that 240-square-foot area in 24 hours was remarkable, but it didn’t smell because they could never accumulate enough manure in one spot to generate odors.
Their effect on that 240-square-foot area in 24 hours was remarkable, but it didn’t smell because they could never accumulate enough manure in one spot to generate odors.
The final element in the no-odor equation is deep bedding. I’ve written about this before in these columns, but I’ll reiterate it here. You can absolutely raise two hogs in a backyard without noxious odors if and only if you use copious amounts of carbon. Added routinely. The carbon can be anything brown, from sawdust to ground-up corn cobs. As long as it’s absorptive and has a carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio above 40:1, you’ll get along fine.
Excellent quality hay has a C:N ratio of about 35:1; that’s a bit too low. All woody material, from leaves to pine needles to wood chips, fit the bill nicely. Depth matters. The deeper the bedding, the better it works. That means if you have extremely limited space and you want to raise a couple of hogs, you need a pen with sidewalls that can handle perhaps three feet of bedding depth. If it’s just one hog panel high, the pigs will fall out over the top once they stand three feet deep.
You have to plan your pen to accommodate this bedding depth. And you have to put together a supply chain. You may call your local sawmill or landscape service—perhaps a neighbor has junk hay, or maybe you know someone with corn fodder. If you don’t have a dependable source for carbon, don’t get the pigs. Wait until you know you can soak up all that odious material before bringing in the porkers. Otherwise, you’ll be a month in, and your family will hate you. Don’t do that.
Stockpile your carbon next to the pig pen. Every day or two, fork some onto the toilet area. Toss in some moldy hay. Let all that material build up; don’t turn it or churn it. Let the sponge build and enjoy the process. After the pigs go to the butcher, you can let the bedding sit for a couple of months to break down. Ideally, you’d turn it and inject oxygen to speed the process, but time can be your friend. Our favorite procedure is to push the material into piles. That disturbance injects oxygen to launch the aerobic composting process. Obviously, we try to mix the dry bedding with the toilet area to get that nitrogenous urine embedded throughout the pile. After a month or so, it’s ready to spread.
If growing out a hog takes six months (assume you purchased a two-month-old weaner piggie) and on average requires at least one cubic foot per day of carbon, you’ll need 180 cubic feet of carbon for your absorption diaper. A pickup bed is about 8 ft. X 6 ft. X 18 inches which is 72 cubic feet. You’ll need more than two pickup loads of carbon PER HOG. I’m not trying to scare you, but I am trying to drive home the point of the recipe: you can have odor-free hogs, but you have to get your carbon in order.
With roughage and either movement or carbon, you can raise odor-free hogs that will be every visitor’s most delightful animal encounter. And if you have extra pork, they’ll be excited to buy some. Anyone who has ever driven near an industrial commercial hog factory knows about odors. You can offer a delightful aromatic and nutritious alternative. //
Joel Salatin co-owns, with his family, Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. Four generations of his family currently live and work on the farm, and his farm services more than 5,000 families, 50 restaurants, 10 retail outlets, and a farmers’ market with salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, pastured poultry, and forestry products. When he’s not on the road speaking, he’s at home on the farm, keeping the callouses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails, mentoring young people, inspiring visitors, and promoting local, regenerative food and farming systems. Salatin has published 15 books, and he is the editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, granddaddy catalyst for the grass farming movement. He passionately defends small farms, local food systems, and the right to opt out of the conventional food paradigm.
Photos by Millpond Photography.