Couple Specializes in Free-Range Pigs

3/29/2014 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Virginia Correspondent

FLOYD, Va. — A couple here in Floyd County, Va., felt they were ahead of the “buy local” trend when they moved from Lancaster, Pa., to a farm here in the Blue Ridge Mountains 17 years ago to produce free-range animals.

Larry and Debby Bright had dabbled in raising free-range animals for a few years before making the move to Floyd County, but not on the scale they are producing animals now.

On the first day of spring, Larry Bright took time out of his schedule to talk about his farm and how he and his wife sell their animals via word of mouth. He told his story as he drove in his four-wheel-drive pickup, the only way to reach the farm after winter storms.

After discussing his approach to farming, he drove the truck up a steep, muddy hillside to where some of his 20 sows and their recently farrowed pigs were enjoying life in an open sun-drenched lot. Bright’s Tamworth sows give birth twice a year with meat from the two litters processed in legally approved plants.

“People like locally produced foods,” Larry Bright said of his success in growing free-range animals. “They feel more comfortable knowing the farmer who raised them.”

In addition to the swine, the Brights raise cattle, broilers, and for Thanksgiving, turkeys. They practice intensive rotational grazing for all their animals and supplement their diet with grains and minerals.

The sows began farrowing in early March. Larry Bright said the sows farrowed a litter on the coldest night that they had ever done so this season. The temperature dipped to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but the babies survived and did well.

He said he moves the sows to a fresh lot two weeks before their due date. Farrowing huts are scattered around the lots, each facing south to take advantage of the sun’s warmth. Some of the metal huts are commercially produced, while others Larry Bright makes using wood, following a design developed by the USDA.

Larry Bright said he breaks a square bale of hay in each of the huts and lets the sows do their thing. He said a sow that is about to give birth selects a hut and will begin making her nest in the hay in the afternoon. He said he has to watch carefully to see that these soon-to-be mothers do not steal hay from other huts.

The next morning, he said he usually finds a litter of pigs in the hut. He noted that the huts he constructs, per the design, have roll bars on the sides that help prevent the little pigs from being crushed by the sows.

“Good sows face out and the pigs are deposited in the back of the hut,” Larry Bright said. This helps protect them from the cold and weather.

Fresh water is pumped to watering troughs in the lots using hoses. An electric wire across the troughs keeps the sows from getting into the fresh water and fouling it. The lots themselves are surrounded by electric fencing that is placed near the ground to keep sows from going either over or under the fence.

The piglets are weaned at 6 weeks old. He said the piglets begin eating the corn-soybean feed he gives the sows early in life and are on grain when their mothers are moved to another lot. The piglets are then moved to a fresh lot two weeks later and finished there. They are harvested at 280 pounds.

The spring pigs are mature by September, but the winter ones take about six weeks longer to reach optimum weight, he said.

Larry Bright said he raises his own replacement gilts, but buys his boars somewhere else. He has used both registered and purebred males. He is currently looking for a new Tamworth boar as he replaces them every two years. His last two came from Alabama. Before that he purchased some in Indiana and Ohio.

Both Larry and Debby seem to find their farming a satisfactory way to live and also enjoy hobbies — Debbie Bright likes horseback riding, Larry Bright likes to rabbit hunt with his beagles. A donkey, a companion to the horse, seems to think she rules the roast as she greets visitors with a robust, HEEHAW!

When Larry Bright, a building contractor, decided to retire from that occupation, he began looking for a farm 20 miles from any interstate highway. They were successful. With the jenny being the only loud noise around, he seems to have found his peace in the Blue Ridge.

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