Free-range pigs: lessons learnt on the way to commercial success

Start small and grow with the results. This is the principle followed by young pig farmer Jason Buys of Ocean View Piggery in the Western Cape. Jeandré van der Walt visited him to learn more about his free-range pig operation and how he plans to grow his farming business.

Free-range pigs: lessons learnt on the way to commercial success
Buys started out small with only three Duroc gilts, and gradually expanded his pig farming operation as he began to understand and master the challenges of free-range pig farming. Today, he has 12 breeding sows and one boar. Photo: Jeandré van der Walt
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Jason Buys, who farms pigs on 10ha of the farm Elandsvlei near Arniston in the Western Cape, started out with three Duroc gilts almost three years ago.

“I don’t have much of a farming background, but from a young age I dreamt of becoming a pig farmer. When the opportunity presented itself in 2018, my passion for farming and animals led me to start Ocean View Piggery,” explains Buys.

He rented land on Elandsvlei from Danie Terblanche, who also rents land on the farm, and bought his first gilts with a loan from his father-in-law.

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“I started small, so that I could determine the possible challenges along the way, and slowly kept the ball rolling,” says Buys.

He began by borrowing a boar from a friend. Later, he bought three additional gilts, seven weaner pigs and a Large White boar, and began crossbreeding the Large White and the Durocs.

Today, this 26-year-old’s operation comprises 12 breeding sows and one boar, and he slaughters at least 10 pigs every two weeks at the local abattoir.

Natural existence
Buys admits that he has had a bit of a “trial-and-error” journey. He recalls that, in the beginning, he used drinking troughs traditionally meant for sheep as water points for the pigs.

Jason Buys, owner of Ocean View Piggery, has had a fondness for pigs since he was a child.

“It didn’t work at all. The pigs climbed inside the troughs and dirtied the water, while others broke the troughs. But because I started so small, the financial implications of this decision weren’t too bad.” Since then, he has acquired water nipples, which are far more efficient.

“From the word go, I knew I wanted my pigs to have as natural an existence as possible. I’d like my operation to be 100% free range, and I’m systematically working towards that goal.”

At Ocean View Piggery, the sows are not placed in farrowing pens, but allowed to do free-range farrowing.

“The sows have incredible mothering abilities. Before giving birth, they start building nests from grass, twigs and any other material to provide secure areas for their litters,” says Buys.

In addition, he does not cut the piglets’ teeth, dock their tails or castrate the males.
Unusually, he does not inject the piglets with iron. Piglets, he explains, are born with low iron reserves and normally need iron injections three days after birth. But his pigs obtain the iron they need by digging and rooting in Elandsvlei’s iron-rich soils.

He is also trying to move away from using antibiotics, and administers them only when absolutely necessary.

He uses an organic product called Falkus Effective Microorganisms (EM) to deworm his pigs, which he administers through the drinking water. EM also helps maintain the general well-being of the animals.

Keeping costs low
Buys says feed represents his biggest input cost, but he has managed to reduce his feeding costs significantly by looking for nutrient-dense food available in his surroundings.

Initially, he bought commercial feed, but it contained stimulants that were not in accordance with his free-range farming style. So he started formulating his own feed mix by closely studying the nutritional needs of pigs, as well as what grew in his immediate area. In his case, it was barley and wheat.

“Danie Terblanche, who is also my mentor, started holding back some barley, which I then mixed with canola oilcake, bran and animal feed lime and salt,” he explains.

The mixture is adjusted according to the nutritional demands of his pigs throughout their various life stages. He started mixing his own feed in 2019 when he bought a hammer mill with a R120 000 grant from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development.

Last October, Buys began giving acorns to his pigs ad lib. He gets these free of charge from a local farmer, and they help to keep his feed costs as low as possible. In addition, since his animals are free- range, a large percentage of their nutrition is also derived from natural resources. He emphasises that he does not give them any waste food.

Market access
A sow’s gestation lasts three months, three weeks and three days, and sows average two litters a year of about 12 piglets each. The piglets are weaned at 35 days and slaughtered at about five months.

Buys explains that free-range pigs have a slower growth rate than conventionally housed pigs as they are more active.

“For me, this is an advantage, because the fat layer on the meat is not as thick. This is what makes my product unique and what my clients are looking for.”

Initially, he started selling to friends and family, and as the word spread, he grew his customer base. Currently, his main market is for whole and half-carcasses, which he sells privately or at the local butchery in Bredasdorp. He also sells pigs for roasting on the spit.

He slaughters about 10 pigs every second week at an abattoir in Napier, about 40km from his farm. He also sells live weaners.

Future plans
Buys’s dream is to eventually become a commercial farmer on his own land. However, he realises that this will not happen overnight.

“It’s important to understand the challenges of farming. If someone were to give me a
large piece of land right now, I don’t believe that I’d farm as efficiently as I’d like to. That’s why I’ve equipped myself with good mentors to guide me. In doing so, I’m systematically empowering myself so that I can run my own farm in five to 10 years.”

He says he also does not want to limit himself to pigs. “Currently, I’m involved in the sheep branch of Elandsvlei and would like to explore the possibility of farming other animals in the future, too.”

He has already started dabbling in free-range chickens and currently has 12 Boschveld chickens.

Tricks of the trade
Buys advises aspiring farmers to do as much research as possible before starting with pigs.

“Initially, I read a lot about how to raise pigs and even watched YouTube videos. I also bought a stack of agriculture magazines from the local library and worked through them to understand the broader aspects of the sector.”

He stresses the importance of investing in good-quality animals. “Don’t waste your money by buying second-grade animals. Also, do market research before buying any, as it doesn’t help to have no market for your animals.”

He adds that would-be pig farmers should ensure that abattoirs in their area can slaughter pigs, as many are halal and therefore not allowed do so.

Mentors can play an important role in the success of emerging farmers, he says.

“I’m fortunate to know Hennie Loubser, a free-range pig farmer from the Free State, who regularly provides me with guidance.

I also have other mentors for other aspects.

“Farm in a manner that will work for you, and put your own flavour into your operation.”

Phone Jason Buys on 078 746 6931, or email him at [email protected].

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