How to Choose the Best Pastured Pork
January 19, 2022
Welcome to our guide to choosing the best pastured pork!
If you’re here, chances are you already have a strong appreciation for the ecological, animal welfare, and product quality benefits of pork that comes from pigs raised on pastures. That’s fantastic! But not all pastured pork is created equal, and we’re here to help you find the best local pastured pork producer in your area.
Let’s begin with a sobering statistic: 98.3% of pigs in the United States are raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms.1 These pigs are raised completely indoors, confined to limit their movement, and fed a diet of corn and soy to fatten them up as “efficiently” as possible.
But it wasn’t always this way. Historically, pigs have served many functions on traditional diversified farms such as upcycling food waste, clearing pastures in preparation for crop planting, and fertilizing, just to name a few. In serving these functions, they are able to express all their natural instincts and lead low-stress lives. They do wonders for the farm ecosystem while also contributing to the economic sustainability of the farm.
With this historical context in mind, how can we go about finding the most ecologically regenerative, high-welfare, and high-quality pork? Here are nine key considerations that should get you rooting in the right direction.
Pastured Pork Ecological Considerations
While pigs can be a boon to the farm ecosystem, they can just as easily destroy pastures by removing soil cover, creating car-sized holes where they drink and wallow, and depositing more nutrients than the ground can absorb. In addition to a loss of topsoil and diminished production capacity of the pastures, all of this can also lead to nutrient run-off, polluting local groundwater and streams. As with most things, the devil is in the details and proper management is key.
Here is a list of ecological questions to ask the next time you’re considering a pastured pork purchase:
1. What practices are employed to prevent nutrient runoff and soil erosion?
This open-ended question will allow the farmer to demonstrate how they’ve thought through these ecological conservation issues as they apply to their site. With respect to nutrient runoff, expect a good answer to include vegetative buffers between production areas and streams, as well as some discussion of the site’s topographical features that can help to prevent surface water contamination. For soil erosion, a good response will likely include discussion about the size of paddocks, stocking density, and frequency of rotation. They may also discuss how the seasonality of the operation affects these factors.
2. How long are pastures allowed to rest each year to recover from animal impact?
A central component of regenerative agriculture is the time when land is allowed to rest and regenerate after animal impact. Pastures should be resting and free of animal impact for most of the year, with animal impact happening in short bursts. Otherwise, erosion will occur and the ecological capacity of the land will be diminished over time. If pigs are kept in the same place continually (a worst-case scenario,) toxic levels of nutrients will accumulate and soil pathogens will develop that can lead to sick animals that require antibiotic treatment.
3. What percentage of soil cover is maintained?
The answer to this question is best ascertained by a visit to the farm. Global Animal Partnership — an animal welfare labelling group that has codified extensive production standards — requires a minimum of 25% vegetative cover to be retained in order for pigs to obtain their Step 4 “Pasture Raised” label.2 Their Step 5 "Animal Centered" label requires a minimum of 50% vegetative cover, which not only reduces the likelihood of ecological damage to the pastures, but also results in improved welfare outcomes as pigs have more forage to keep them active and mentally stimulated. If a paddock is completely denuded of vegetation (0% cover,) you can be sure that the pigs are not being rotated enough to prevent damage from over-impaction. In this case, it is also likely that more nutrients are being applied to the pasture in the form of manure than can be readily absorbed. The main takeaway here is when pigs are left in the same paddock for too long, they will cause more harm than good to the soil and surrounding ecosystem.
During winter months (in latitudes that experience notable seasonal shifts in weather patterns, such as the Pacific Northwest,) soil cover should be maintained as close to 100% as possible. Leaving soil exposed violates the first principle of soil health — Soil Armor — as outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.3 Any uncovered soil during this time of year will lead directly to problems of soil erosion and nutrient runoff. If a producer is keeping pigs this time of year, they will ideally be kept inside shelters on deep carbonaceous bedding (such as straw or wood chips) during these months to keep them from destroying pastures and to capture the nutrients from their manure. The manure can be composted and later applied to pastures and/or crops during the growing season when the nutrients can be readily used by the plants, rather than leeching into subsoil or running off into streams.
Pastured Pork Animal Welfare Considerations
Once you’ve established that the farm is employing good agricultural practices that truly regenerate and enhance the farm ecology without polluting the surrounding environment, it’s time to take a closer look at the welfare of the animals within the production system.
Here is a list of animal welfare questions to consider:
4. What are the farrowing conditions?
When a sow is getting ready to give birth to a litter of piglets, she will want to find an isolated place to do so away from other pigs. She will have a strong maternal "nest-building" instinct, and will want to gather grass and other bedding materials to construct a farrowing nest. An ideal farrowing setup will allow her to express these natural instincts while also providing her and her piglets protection from wind, rain, and extreme temperatures.
Farrowing or gestation crates, which became a mainstay of industrial production in the 1960s, are the cause of numerous animal welfare concerns. The crates do not allow the sow to express her natural nest-building instincts, they physically restrict her movement such that she cannot even turn around, and they prevent genetically programmed mother-young interactions.4 For these reasons, farrowing crates are forbidden at all levels of the Global Animal Partnership 5-step welfare labelling program, and they have no place in a high-welfare production environment.
5. What shelter and/or protection from the elements is provided?
While just letting pigs live outside on pasture without any shelter may seem like a natural way of raising pigs, it's important to remember that these are domesticated animals that require protection from the elements for optimal welfare. Pigs do not sweat, and as such require shade and external moisture, such as a muddy wallow or sprinkler, to stay cool on hot days. Most breeds also have little fur, so protection from precipitation, winds, and cool temperatures is also needed, especially during the cooler months.
Research is currently being conducted by the Rodale Institute that seeks to combine the labor efficient shelter design of industrial agriculture with a pasture production model, thus gaining the benefits of both systems.5 Global Animal Partnership cites a minimum of 9 square feet of sheltered and dry bedding area per large pig to obtain their Step 4 "Pasture Raised" label. In practice, this need will vary based upon climate, season, and the amount of natural cover in the pastures, such as cover provided by trees and shrubs.
Bottom line: Some form of shelter is necessary for pigs to maintain thermal comfort, and this requirement will change based upon climate and season.
6. How are the animals treated at end-of-life?
In most operations, pigs that have reached slaughter size are then transported to a regional slaughter facility. This last-day change of environment can cause stress for the animals, especially if the slaughter facility is located multiple hours from the farm.
Less common, and a requirement of Global Animal Partnership's Step 5+ "Entire Life on Farm" label, is that the pigs spend their entire life on the farm right up to their last moment, when they are slaughtered utilizing a mobile processing service or on farm slaughter facility. While on-farm slaughter is the ideal situation, currently only a tiny fraction of pigs — even pastured pigs — avoid the ride to the slaughter facility due to consolidation in the meat-packing industry that has left many communities without a local butcher shop. And in some states, on-farm slaughter isn't legally permitted.
Pastured Pork Product Quality Considerations
Having established that the farm is acting as a good environmental steward and is putting the welfare of animals at the center of their operation, there are several questions relating to product quality that you’ll want to ask:
7. What are the pigs fed?
Nearly all pigs in the U.S. are fattened on a ration of corn and soy. If you are seeking a pork product with a distinctive flavor, alternative rations based on peas, wheat, and/or barley are growing in popularity among pastured pork farmers. You may also want to consider whether or not the feed is organic, non-GMO, or produced locally. In addition to a lower carbon footprint, feeds produced locally can also be easier to trace to their source than feeds comprised of commodity crops. This traceability makes it possible to understand whether or not those farmers are utilizing sustainable cropping practices such as minimal tillage, crop rotation, and the integration of cover crops.
A further consideration is the composition of the pasture the pigs are grazing. If pigs are incorporated into cropping systems and allowed to graze crop residue, cover crops, or forage crops planted specifically for them to graze, they're likely to consume more nutrient-dense forage which will result in a superior pork product compared to pigs kept solely on grass pasture.
8. What are the pigs finished on?
In addition to their standard ration, you’ll also want to understand if the pigs are finished on a special ration. The classic example of finishing pigs on a special feed is acorn-finishing, which imparts a nutty flavor to the meat. Other finishing rations that can impart unique flavors include various fruits such as apples and pears, or leftovers from vegetable crop production such as pumpkins or other squash cultivars.
Systems that utilize seasonal finishing typically time the flow of their operation in conjunction with the seasons. Finishing a fall batch of pigs on fall crops that are readily available on the farm, and then slaughtering before the pastures go dormant, makes sense from ecological, animal welfare, and product quality standpoints.
9. Which breeds are used?
Lastly, heritage breeds, such as Berkshire, Mangalitsa, Tamworth, Duroc, and Gloucestershire Old Spot are all reputed to have superior flavor quality. This makes intuitive sense when we consider that these animals have been selectively bred for characteristics other than efficient pork production. They are one step closer to their wild cousins, and this difference will be reflected in the final product.
We purchase pastured pork because, when done properly, it is ecologically regenerative, provides for high animal welfare outcomes, and the end product is more delicious and nutritious than pork produced industrially. To ensure that your next pastured pork purchase meets these criteria, the best thing you can do is visit the farm and see for yourself. Bring this list of questions and don't be shy about asking the farmer. If the farmer is deeply passionate about their operation and its broader impacts, they’ll be happy to answer your questions and show you all the ins and outs of their operation.
If the farm doesn't offer farm tours, find one that does. As the old adage goes: "Inspect what you expect." Then you can rest easy knowing you and your family are enjoying the absolute best pastured pork around!
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- Sentience Institute
- Global Animal Partnership: Pig Standards
- USDA: Soil Health Principles
- Rodale Institute: Pastured Pork
About the Author
Grant Jones grew up on the Olympic Peninsula and studied English Literature & Philosophy at the University of Washington. After living in Seattle for 12 years, he left the city in search of a better tree to people ratio, and found it on the family farm in Shelton. Today, Grant farms full-time and envisions a Western Washington region where humans forge positive and sustainable relationships with our region's unique environment, preserving and enhancing it for future generations.