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Nurturing a new venture: CALS animal scientist assists in sustainable swine operation start-up

Stratford Oaks Farm, nestled in the Alleghany County mountains, has been home to the Irwin family for five generations. They raise Angus cattle on more than 100 acres of rolling hills and pristine streams that provide ample opportunity for happy grazing.

Like many North Carolina farmers today, Bobby and Suzanne Irwin, the current proprietors of Stratford Oaks, are interested in diversifying their operation. While their farm also is home to a handful of burros, pygmy goats and a mustang named Bella, the Irwins have just launched a new commercial venture: swine.

Having limited experience with pigs, the farmers turned to the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Silvana Pietrosemoli, who has been with them every step of the way.

Pietrosemoli, a research associate in the Department of Animal Science, works with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) Alternative Swine Unit. Originally from Venezuela, she joined the College in late 2008 and works primarily in alternative animal production.

Pietrosemoli spent her first few years at N.C. State as part of a CEFS team working on a U.S. Department of Agriculture-grant-funded project to develop and test conservation practices in outdoor hog production. Passionate about her research and actively involved in field studies throughout the state over the years, she recently applied for a grant from Southern SARE to implement sustainable pastured pork systems on five North Carolina farms, including Stratford Oaks.

“People have been raising pigs on pasture for years but didn’t realize they were hurting the environment, so our goal is to make it more sustainable and reduce the environmental impact,” Pietrosemoli said. “That’s why we are placing so much emphasis on establishing an adequate stocking density and rotational management. It enables farmers to better maintain the ground cover, reduce nutrient runoff and improve the distribution of manure, while keeping the animals happy and healthy.”

Her work has taken her all over the state, and lately she’s been spending a lot of time with the Irwins in Sparta.

“We started working with Silvana in 2010, when she helped develop a program for outdoor pig production at another farm I used to manage,” said Bobby Irwin. “She did everything. She tested the soil, monitored trees to see if the pigs had damaged them and approved the design of the building and exterior fencing. I had never raised a pig before, and Silvana was a great help.”

So when Suzanne Irwin decided to apply for a “Direct to Farmer” grant from Blue Ridge Seeds of Change, a subsidiary of Heifer International, Pietrosemoli was one of the first people she called.

“In planning for the Seeds of Change grant to have a project for sustainable rotational grazing for pigs, I knew that the project could be a success because of Silvana’s knowledge based on the research she has done at N.C. State,” Suzanne Irwin said. “For farmers in our state, N.C. State provides valuable consultation where we can seek professional assistance. We also have received great support for this project from Aaron Ray Tompkins, our Alleghany County Extension agent.”

Bobby Irwin added, “North Carolina is the second-largest pork producing state in the country, so it’s natural that we’d look to N.C. State for help.”

Suzanne Irwin won a $3,000 Seeds of Change grant – one of only two given in Alleghany County – to establish a pastured pork production system on five acres of land. The grant covered the purchase of the pigs, a water box and electric fencing supplies.

Pietrosemoli (right) is assisting Suzanne Irwin with best practices in managing the farm’s pigs.

In April, the Irwins traveled to Oakboro to pick up 15 two-month-old pigs from Shawn and Jenny Hatley of the Naked Pig Meat Co., who already had committed to buying back the pigs after the Irwins raised them. The process, which will result in 300-pound pigs, takes about 220 days.

“One of our biggest goals for this grant is to implement the best management practices that Silvana is teaching us to achieve minimal environmental impact and produce high quality pork,” Suzanne Irwin said.

To that end, Pietrosemoli is helping the Irwins outline rotational paddocks and map electric fencing that will create a sustainable, rotational grazing system for their pigs. She also has provided guidance on a rational feeding program for the herd.

Community involvement also is an important part of the project, Suzanne Irwin said, so that the next generation of farmers can learn alternative production procedures and discover the potential for their own farms. So she invited local agricultural education students to the farm for a tour and program delivered by Pietrosemoli.

“When I mentioned my desire to invite high school FFA students to learn about this project, Silvana was most encouraging,” Suzanne Irwin said.

The project at Stratford Oaks Farm also is being recorded for broadcast on Alleghany County Community Television, which reaches about five mountain counties.

With the loss of only one pig (due to the stress of travel), the other 14 are happy, healthy and growing more quickly than expected. Master escape artists, the pigs gave the Irwins a good scare on the morning after their arrival.

“We thought we had done this super job of putting up fencing in the barn,” Suzanne Irwin said. “But the morning after they arrived, I go out, and there isn’t a pig to be seen. So we called a neighbor and the vet, and Bobby went down the road in the truck looking for them.”

After those fruitless searches, Bobby Irwin investigated inside the barn more thoroughly and discovered that the entire herd had rooted its way through two enclosures in one barn all the way to another barn, where he discovered the pigs sleeping behind a pile of lumber.

“After that, no pig could escape,” Suzanne Irwin said with a laugh. “We spent hours making sure that this enclosure, with electric fence, would work. And, like Hansel and Gretel, we used a grain trail to lure them back to their barn.”

Despite some challenges and newbie mistakes along the way, the experience of raising pigs already has been very rewarding, the Irwins said, in large part because of their work with Pietrosemoli.

“Without Silvana’s professional consultation, we would not have entered into this endeavor,” Suzanne Irwin said. “Her knowledge and her genuine concern for us and the pigs have already helped make this project a success.”

– Suzanne Stanard