If you want to save money on feed, protect and nurture soil, and increase the health and welfare of your pig herd, here are seven must-have species to include in your permaculture design.
Let your pigs act like pigs
Pigs, when given the opportunity, are forest dwellers. There is a long history of hogs and their herders being granted rights to commonly held woods. This was done primarily for the fattening of hogs prior to slaughter, in times when local sources of fat were highly valued. Beyond the necessities of peasant nutrition, if pigs are given the choice, they will actively seek out tree cover for shade and shelter, and forest floors for fruits, nuts, grubs, and roots. While there are many environmental and ecological considerations to make when introducing pigs to established forests and woodlots, we can provide the same benefits to our herd by purposely planting guilds of beneficial trees for both human and hog.
Planning your pig orchard is highly dependent upon the unique shape and flow of your land. As with any permanent changes to the landscape of your farm or homestead, the first step is to make observations of your site. Is it at risk for erosion or flooding? Are there clear, accessible pathways for resources and vehicles to move freely when needed? Will your livestock and seedling trees be exposed to harsh elements? While the following list of tree crops is certainly one aspect of designing your perennial pig paradise, there are many other considerations to make prior to implementing your design. My advise is to give it a full four seasons of observation before you begin.
Mulberries for fruit and fodder
Mulberry is our number one livestock tree here at Fox Holler Farmstead. No matter your climate, there is likely a variety of mulberry that will thrive in your location. Mulberries are dioecious, meaning that there are non-fruiting males, and fruiting females. Both have value in our system.
In terms of food, fruiting mulberries offer an obvious benefit in the form of rich, sweet, abundant berries that tend to drop when ripe. I have watched pigs and chickens both congregate under mulberry trees, stained purple as they lay in wait for the sweet payload to rain down. There are many selected cultivars of mulberries, that produce heavily or consistently or both. The finest specimen we’ve found that works in our climate is Illinois Everbearing. There are others which may be even better, such as Hicks Everbearing, but they can’t make it here in Zone 5. Of course, ordering special nursery stock of these trees can be expensive. If your land is like ours, and full of seedling mulberries everywhere, transplanting some of your trees is a cheap alternative, and we’ve had excellent luck. Mulberries ripen in early summer here in the Midwest, but everbearing types can drop fruit consistently throughout summertime.
Of course, if you transplant wild seedlings, some amount of these will be non-fruiting males. Not to worry. Not only can you graft fruiting scionwood onto these trees, they are equally valuable in our fodder system. Mulberry leaves are the primary source of food for silkworm production, and that’s for a reason: the leaves are especially high in protein, and many leaves can be produced through coppicing and pollarding. Mulberry leaves, stripped fresh off the tree or allowed to drop in autumn are always popular with our pigs, goats and cows. They can even be dried and shredded to supplement poultry feed!
While mulberry leaves alone do not have as many complete amino acids as soybeans, they will when fed in combination with our next tree.
Hazelnuts for fat and protein
Hazelnuts, whether in their tall, commercial form or their shrubbier wild type, are quick to establish, hardy, and abundant, bearing nuts in as few as four years. They do well both in open plantings as well as in the understory, between other, taller trees. We have also used hazel to grow windbreaks along the northern edge of our pastures to provide our livestock with natural shelter.
Hazelnuts are rich in protein and oils, and their relatively thin shells make them easy for pigs to consumer. Most hazelnuts remain on the tree until they’re plucked free, so hand harvesting clusters may be the best practice if your pigs are particularly large and destructive. Our kunekune pigs are delicate enough to be allowed to self-harvest established hazels, but your mileage my vary with this practice.
Hazelnuts themselves are relatively easy to propagate from seed, and there are many nurseries and breeding programs out there doing excellent work selecting and improving hybrid hazelnuts for heavy production. In our area, hazels typically ripen in September and October.
Tulip Poplars for early season snacks, shade and honey
The tulip poplar is quick growing shade tree that can tolerate wet and flooded soils. One important thing to offer your pig herd is shade in the summertime, and cool mud to bathe in. While the food value of dropped blossoms and seeds appears to be unknown at this time, we do know that pigs enjoy eating them nonetheless. The blossoms drop early in the season when most other tree species have little to offer in terms of food.
While tulip poplars may not be as useful of a feed source to pigs as our other featured trees, they are very important to pollinators and are great for beekeepers. If you are establishing your pig food forest from scratch, including a few tulip poplars can guarantee you and your swine a shady place to kick back and enjoy the butterflies and hummingbirds. These quick growing shade trees will have to suffice while our next species gradually but consistently works towards becoming the apex tree of our pig orchard.
An oak for every paddock
No matter where you live, there is an appropriate oak that is happy to exist in your soil and climate type. And oaks have long been a mainstay in traditional methods of raising pigs. In dehesa agriculture systems, pigs are routinely run beneath the far-reaching boughs of cork oaks to fatten on acorns. Cork is also harvested in this system, as well as lamb and some grain crops. While we can’t raise cork oaks here in Northeast Missouri, we have plentiful pin oaks as well as a few burr oaks. Do some research and observation of your area when picking out what type of oaks to raise.
Several years ago we planted out a few chestnut leaf oaks from Oikos nursery. They are supposed to be quick growing and heavy producers of acorns. While they haven’t dropped mast yet, I am thus far impressed with how tall they’ve gotten, in spite of some accidental cow damage. Oaks are great because no matter your climate or soil conditions, there are likely a few varieties that will work well in your system. You can space your oaks widely for a sprawling shade tree form, or more tightly for producing quality saw logs.
Asian Pear and Harbin Pear Rootstock for sugar, cider, and treats
In our setting, Asian pears do really well with organic management, and produce consistently year after year. The fact that they ripen on the tree means that you can pick all you want for human consumption and allow your pigs to clean up the rest once they drop. Here in Northeast Missouri, tapping sugar bush gives us an inconsistent yield from year to year, but Asian Pears are very rich in sugar and can be processed down into a sweet syrup of their own if you have the time and inclination.
One common rootstock for Asian pear is the Harbin Pear (Pyrus ussuriensis) which if allowed to mature ungrafted will grow large and produce and abundant quantity of small, hard pears, that can still be quite sweet. These are a great, low cost way to include pears in your pig orchard, produce your own pear cider, and practice your grafting.
If you are designing your orchard to produce fruit month by month or even week by week, Asian pears offer a lot of options. Coordinate your paddock rotations to be just behind peak harvest in each group of trees so that humans can harvest the best unblemished fruits and the pigs can access the rest afterward.
Willows for nesting, shelter, and biochar
This next tree may sound like a bit of a stretch, but I have been surprised at how well our hogs have utilized willows out on pasture. We have been cultivating various types of willows for a while now, initially as a quick growing source of polewood. I began noticing that our sows would regularly carry off the cut branches for nest-building prior to farrowing. The quick growth habit of willows means you can establish shade and windblock immediately on your pasture, and the regenerating nature of these trees can be used to create biochar, both for inclusion in your herd’s diet, and in bedding. Incorporating char can help regulate digestion, keep bedding clean and ammonia free, and aid in retaining fertility in your compost. As an added bonus, our pigs love to nibble the emerging sprouts of coppiced willows, and the tannin content in the leaves can help with parasites.
Chestnuts for abundant, perennial carbs
I’ve mentioned in the past that pigs are, in a way, organic batteries. They store the food energy value of surplus foodstuffs and forages which are inedible to humans, and reserve them in their body for later use. One of the most useful energy storage characteristics of a pasture fed hog is in its lard. Lard is one of the easiest to obtain and efficient to produce local fats in temperate regions, and nothing develops quality pork fat quite like carbohydrate-heavy chestnuts.
While chestnuts do take a while to establish, they aren’t nearly as slow growing as walnuts or pecans. Here in North America, chestnut blight has taken a toll on native trees, but there is alot of work being done with asian hybrids that can handle disease, our climate, and produce prodigious amounts of nutrition, similar to that of a potato, but less work over time. Chestnuts drop in autumn, enclosed in a spiny husk. While your hogs may take a while to figure out the prickly packaging, they do have all day to think about accessing the sweet kernels inside. Similar to pears, chestnuts can be planted in ripening succession for sharing the harvest, and their broad canopies at maturity can provide excellent shade for summertime lazing and grazing.
Picking the right trees for your pigs
While I’ve offered some suggestions here, perhaps not all of these trees are suitable for your location. Feel free to use this as a starting point in your design. Perhaps observing how your pigs interact with existing trees can offer some ideas.
When choosing your tree species, we want to provide a broad range of nutrition, foods that drop to the ground, a broad range of ripening dates, and varied forms for shelter needs. Beyond that the sky’s the limit on how you can creatively integrate trees into your pig pasture. Feel free to share any trees that have complimented your pastured herd.