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Integrating hogs in a cover-vegetable rotation for healthy soils and humans

What is the project about?

ISFS is in the midst of an exciting production research project entitled “Integrating hogs in a cover-vegetable rotation for healthy soils & humans “This effort began in the spring of 2018 and we are several years into the study. The main thrust of this project is to determine the potential benefits for small scale farmers from integration of hog and vegetable production.  Most market crop farmers routinely put part of their total growing acreage into cover crops for a season, as part of their crop rotation plan. A common management practice is to sow, grow and turn under the cover crop in these "resting" fields up to 3 times per year (spring, summer and fall). This practice is aimed at adding soil organic matter (SOM), enhancing fertility and controlling weeds and diseases. However, the practice of tilling these cover crops back into the soil to terminate growth also negatively impacts soil structure and biological activity while contributing to soil compaction, generating greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the potential for soil erosion. These effects are exacerbated in clay textured soils such as those present in the Fraser Delta in British Columbia. Additionally, this management method requires machinery and implements not necessarily available to smaller scale and start up market crop farmers, many of whom we at ISFS work to support.

Years of informal experimentation on our teaching and research farm, as well as from numerous exchanges with farmers actively practicing Integrated Crop Livestock Systems farming (ICLS) has convinced us of the merits of using hogs as part of a sustainable crop rotation, nutrient cycling and land management system for market crop farming. When managed well, an integrated hog and crop system can reduce labour and revitalize neglected and diminished fields rapidly, getting them into a productive state while eliminating the need for expensive machinery, hence making this a particularly viable option for new entrant and smaller scale farmers. This, through the integration of hog grazing to terminate cover crops, this research seeks to find regenerative ways to manage cover crops and on-farm fertility while reducing reliance on the extensive use of tractor tillage has important environmental and climate change ramifications, small scale farm start-up and ongoing economic implications.

Project Objectives

This research, being conducted at the Tsawwassen First Nation Farm School, located on Tsawwassen First Nation land, has several objectives. 

  • To investigate the impacts of integrating hog strip grazing in a market vegetable –cover crop rotation system on soil quality, the nutrient life cycle from soil to plants, subsequent vegetable harvest and the economics of such integration
  • To compare cover cropping system managed with hogs to a system managed with tractor tillage.
  • To use Randomized Complete Block Design to set up the experimental field using pigs in a strip grazing system and a tractor tillage system to seed and then manage cover crops.
  • To use standard agronomic practices to manage cover crops and their impacts on soil, cover crop development, hog growth and crop nutrition will be analyzed and compared.

This research lies at the interface between applied scientific investigation and technical knowledge generation. It is also novel as it attempts to bridge segregated domains of agriculture, environmental health and climate change, indigenous food sovereignty, soil science, food systems, and human health and nutrition under one holistic approach.

Research Team

Lead Research Team

Leah Sandler, PhD - Organic Agriculture Research Associate

Leah comes to B.C. with a history of work and study experiences in a variety of different farming systems. For several years after university she worked on a research agricultural station in Missouri doing field research on over 70 trials covering various crop production systems as well as fertilizer management, integrated crop and pest management and irrigation and water drainage management. Following that, she worked on several small scale organic vegetable farms throughout the US Midwest before she moved to Ghana to do agricultural development and extension in the Eastern region. She completed her PhD at Purdue University in botany with a focus in agroecology, conducting research in organic hemp production both agronomically as an alternative crop and from a social sciences perspective looking at farmer adoption rates and techniques. In her most recent position before arriving in B.C., she worked as an education director and research associate at a non-profit working in sustainable agriculture conducting field research and operating in an extension role, working with farmers across the state of Wisconsin. Leah joins the ISFS team in order to continue to build B.C.’s sustainable agriculture extension system and conduct production agriculture research.

Micheal Robinson, Research Associate

Originally from Vancouver Island, Micheal’s passion for agriculture led him to Vancouver and KPU’s Sustainable Agriculture program. After the program, Micheal spent time managing an organic livestock operation on Vancouver Island. Micheal was involved with the Tsawwassen Farm School as Farm Manager from 2017 to 2019. Currently, Micheal is taking on the role as a research technician for the Institute's Hog Grazing and Pasture Rotation project, bringing his expertise and skills from his farm school work. He will continue to build BC's sustainable agriculture extension system and conduct production agriculture research.

Dr. Kent Mullinix, ISFS Director, Principal Investigator

Research Affiliates

Dr. Sean Smuckler, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia
Corine Singfield, Former Masters student and lead researcher

Industry Partners and Collaborators

  1. Nautsa’mawt Tribal Council: Grant recipient partner
  2. University of British Columbia
  3. West Coast Seed


This project is funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Granting program: Canadian Agricultural Partnership, AgriScience Program: Projects Component

Research Updates

December 2019

The first season of field research has come to a close. Following intensive soil sampling in the spring a cover crop was established and the hogs were moved into their grazing plots. They moved through without issue and the incorporation of cover crop into the grazing units worked flawlessly. After the first rotation the summer cover crop was established, and hogs began working their way back through the plots. In September, the fall cover crop was spread in the tilled plots and in the grazing plots following behind the hogs as they moved through the plots for a second time.


September 26, 2019 -  The hogs finished their final rotation and were removed from the research plots.


We have a successful cover crop stant of fall rye and vetch moving into winter, that is currently overwintering. It has served as good forage for the migrating geese moving through the area. Soil sampling will commence on all plots in the spring when water content of the soil has reduced. Field edges were left marked to facilitate vegetable trials next year. 


In our research vegetable field (the hog field in 2018), poor germination and a weed infestation led to minimal chances for useful sampling. Due to uneven treatments being applied, we wrote off attempting a second crop. Corn and carrots were harvested for sale by the TFN Farm School after the plots were deemed not useful for data collection. The fields were returned to cover crop after the experiment ended. 

August 2020

This summer is the second year of grazing hogs at the TFN Farm School. This spring we seeded a pasture into summer spring cover (peas, clover and oats) and the pigs are now happliy in their research plots. We move them to the next plot approximately every week. Pigs are moved when most of the cover crop had been uprooted and laid on the ground but before hogs could begin cratering. Best management practices are to move hogs when no more than 20% round was visible or devoid of cover. This usually corresponded with 5-12 days depending on cover crop growth stage, weather and soil moistures.


July 27, 2020 - We mowed and tilled those plots that are receiving the conventional tillage treatment and planted the summer cover. 


The field that was in pasture last year (for pigs and tillage treatment) was planted in corn and winter squash this spring, following rigorous soil sampling from all plots for physical attributes included aggregate stability, bulk density, penetration resistance, volumetric water content and texture; chemical attributes included nitrate and ammonium and electrical conductivity, and; biological attributes included active carbon and soil respiration. The corn is now in growth stage v8 and is about 4.5 ft tall.

December 2020

The second season of field research has come to a close. In September, the fall cover crop was spread in the tilled plots and in the grazing plots following behind the hogs as they moved through the plots for a second time. Once the hogs had been moved through all the grazing plots, they were taken off of the research fields and returned to the main herd. The movable houses and barrel waters were removed with the electri fencing, however, all posts remained in the ground to ensure accurate sampling for next season's vegetable crops. We have a successful cover crop stand moving into winter, that is currently overwintering. It has served as good forage for the migrating geese moving though the area. Soil sampling will commence on all plots in the spring, when water content of the soil has reduced. 


August 31, 2020 - Broadcase fall cover crop of fall rye and vetch into tilllage plots


September 24, 2020 - Hogs removed from research field after reaching final grazing plot. 


In our research vegetable field (2019's hog field), sweet corn was harvested every few days, ears reached maturity, from September 5th to September 29th. For research purposes, representative samples were harvested on September 25th: stand count, ear number and weight were taken. Differences across plots were observed and data is being analyzed to determine if statistical differences exist among treatments. Yields ranged from 9 to 18 kg m/6 row. We has a very successful butternut squash stand. Butternut squash were harvested on September 30th and entire plots were weighed, separating marketable yield from unmarketable yield. We had a yield of 6,500 lbs of squash, with differences across plots. Yields are being analyzed to determine if statistical differences exist among treatments. 



Hogs vs Machine - Advancing BC's Farming and Food Sector, KPU's Instute for Sustainable Food Systems (Video created by the KPU Office of Research Services)

Small Scale Meat Producers Association's webinar recording on our research project 

Moving hogs to a new rotational grazing plot (coming soon!)

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