Before mechanized farm equipment, there were pigs. And if there is one thing pigs are good at, it’s digging. That’s why some homesteaders would set them loose on farmland to do the tilling work.
In fact, some still do.
Pigs use their exceptional sense of smell and thick snouts to seek out and dig — or root — up grubs, roots or nuts under the soil to eat. On hot days they will dig up a patch of top soil so they can lay down in the cool dirt below.
“Swine are really good for turning up soil on a farm,” said Dr. Colt Knight, livestock specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “In older days before people had heavy equipment folks would fence off an area for the garden and have pigs turn up the soil.”
It’s a behavior that is perfectly natural. If you’re raising pigs for meat or keeping a few as pets on your homestead, you can channel that digging drive to turn over soil in a new garden patch, clear brush for pasture land or help remove trees.
Pigs are incredibly efficient at digging, according to Knight, who uses pigs on his own land to turn soil. In his case, his pig is able to turn over half of a quarter-acre patch of ground in a single day.
Using those powerful snouts to root into the soil, a pig can overturn more than a foot of dirt at a time, Knight said.
“Pigs are almost like a tiller,” Knight said. “Depending on the ambition of the pig, how tough the soil is and if there are tasty things under it to eat, they can go pretty fast.”
While the pigs are happy to lend a snout in turning over garden soil, Knight said they can’t live entirely on what they are rooting out, so you do need to keep feeding them and providing good water.
Pigs can also help clear woodlots you may want for a building site or pastureland. While the pigs won’t eat the trees, Knight said, they do expose the trees’ roots as they dig which, in turn, leads to the death of the trees.
As a bonus, all that digging brings rocks to the surface which you can then remove before any planting or building. Along the way, the pigs are also depositing manure that can then be worked into the freshly turned soil as fertilizer for your garden.
However, while pig manure is an excellent organic fertilizer, it’s important not to immediately plant an edible crop into pig-turned soil.
“It is not recommended to plant human food crops directly into turned fields by pigs because of the potential zoonotic pathogens in hog manure,” said Dr. Mark Hutchinson, a professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “You should wait at least a year and I would suggest planting a cover crop during that time.”
Zoonotic pathogens are any diseases caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites that have jumped from non-human animals to humans. Pig manure can carry E.coli, salmonella, parasitic worms and other bacteria. Allowing the manure to compost for a year on the turned soil greatly reduces the risk, according to Hutchinson.
Pig manure is also considered a hot fertilizer if used before it is fully composted. That’s because the nutrients in the manure are so dense they actually can burn the roots or lower leaves of growing plants. This is another reason to wait a year before planting anything other than a cover crop in that soil.
Knight said the best way to use a pig to turn over soil or clear a patch of land is to fence in the area and simply turn the pigs out into it. They will take it from there.
As efficient and hard working as pigs are, Knight did say their work is not exactly precise.
“Don’t think you are going to turn them loose and they will turn your soil over in a uniform manner like a tiller,” he said. “They like to dig holes and I have seen three foot deep holes six feet in diameter dug by pigs.”
Despite that, Knight believes for the right farm, the pig is the right animal for the job.
“Sure, the results are not as clean as using mechanized equipment,” he said. “But if you are a small-scale homesteader you can definitely use pigs to move some ground.”