Home & Harvest 2023: Nettle Valley Farm practices barn-pasture hybrid pig farming

Foraging in the verdant pasture in rural Spring Grove, Minn., are plump, happy pigs pleasantly spoiled and watched over by farmers Dayna Burtness and Nick Nguyen. They enjoy the pasture filled with extra nutrition from the growing plants. The electric fence is moveable, and allows Burtness to set a different, fresh pasture area every so often to sustain the quality of the land and the health of the animals. This is part of the wagon wheel approach to pasturing pigs. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Kate Klimesh)

Nestled outside of Spring Grove, Minn., is Nettle Valley Farm, a pastured livestock farm operated by Dayna Burtness and Nick Nguyen. The duo is raising pastured pigs with a focus of ensuring the animals can remain active and happy the duration of their long summer at the farm. Dayna hosted a Practical Farmers of Iowa Field Day Sept. 9 at Nettle Valley and shared years of trial-and-error experiences and best practices with farmers looking to expand their operations – or quite possibly try the ag life for the first time.

What set the field day apart from most was the explanation of the “Wagon Wheel” – or barn-pasture hybrid model for pasturing pigs – allowing them a more-varied diet and greater physical environment, which can help them be as happy and healthy as possible. Dayna manages the day-to-day operations on the farm with support from farm apprentice Azzam, while Nick supports the farm as he can outside of his full-time job. 

The philosophy of Nettle Valley is to try to leave it better than you found it, which includes their three-acre homestead, the 67-acre valley pasture they purchased through an FSA loan and rented pastureland in between. While Dayna confirmed that raising pigs was profitable for the couple, averaging between $20 and $30 an hour, she reported she appreciated the income from Nick’s full-time position off the farm, which allowed them to have health insurance and ability to afford things like a new 20 kW solar panel installation which provides the power they need for the farm operation – including their electric fences and solar-powered cameras which let them monitor the homestead and animals 24/7. 

“Pigs know how to be pigs, and so we don’t try to keep them on any specific schedule. Once the pasture is opened they are free to do what they need to do: eat, sleep, roam, snuggle,” noted Dayna, “but they do tend to come and go from the barn as a group, so it’s easy to spot an animal that isn’t acting right and may need medical attention in the hospital pen.” A chute runs along the back of the pigs’ barn which can divert into the hospital pen for treatment and recovery with the help of area vets.

With the “wagon wheel” model, the barn becomes the center, with stretches of pasture divided into sections using flexible white electric fence netting. They get “pig grade” fruit and vegetables from Featherstone Farms of Rushford, Minn., and locals Seed Savers Orchard and Convergence Ciderworks. “We’re not going for maximum efficiency here – we’re going for maximum flavor. Pasturing the animals does burn calories, but all that exercise means very tasty pork and intramuscular fat,” Dayna noted.

Pigs can be surprisingly picky, so Dayna noted she plants many of their favorite foods, including sunflowers and other pollinator-friendly plants, cowpeas and buckwheat. All are planted in the warm season annual pasture for bonus nutrition and also help smother out Canadian Thistle. What was learned quickly is there’s more thought and planning that goes into each decision than meets the eye. Nothing is singularly beneficial but has multiple positives from each action; for the animals, the crops grown, the land and the future of the farm. Definitely leaving it better than they found it.

When a pasture paddock begins to look more rooted up, or when the forage vegetation gets sparse and the dirt feels more compact, it’s time to move to a different section of pasture and give the pasture time to recover before the pigs come back to it. This happens usually every week while it’s been dry, and with moderate moisture, more often. They then move the fence and section off a fresh piece of pasture, seeded with mixes that include perennial deer plot mixes as well as warm season annual mixes from Albert Lea Seed.

“Albert Lea Seed has been a great resource for technical assistance and very reliable seed products. We really won’t be able to tell how much the drought has affected how much additional feed they’ve gotten until the end of year.”

While pasturing is a great way to add in extra nutrients and ensure happy pigs, Dayna noted pigs are omnivores, and can’t just live off the pasture alone. Each pig consumes around 5-10 pounds of organic, corn and soy-free, feed mix each day with an automatic waterer always available in the barn, along with shade for warm days. Having the pasture open to the barn at all times allows the pigs to ramble to and fro, and ensure their needs are met without having to move the shade, feed and watering system within pasture sections.

Nettle Valley Farm is a finish-only farm with no farrowing, so Dayna buys young pigs at an average weight of 60 pounds from a farrowing farmer in June – with 83 on the farm this past summer alone. It’s Dayna’s mission to make sure the pigs get to roughly 280-320 pounds in time for harvest season, which is mid-September to early November.  

After learning what works and doesn’t over the past eight years, Dayna suggested the large fly sticky traps to minimize flying pests, concrete bays in the barn, using automatic waterers, and abolishing permanent wallows to aid with sanitation in rearing the pigs from petite to porker. 

Following the sale of the pastured pigs to over 100 pork customers this fall, Dayna will spend the winter analyzing new enterprises such as growing seed for a new local seed company start-up or expanding her herd of brush goats. Whatever the future holds for Nettle Valley Farms, Dayna and Nick will be working and learning all along the way to leave the land and farm better than they found it. 

For more information, visit NettleValleyFarm.com.

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