A mountain lioness and her cubs found the pigs I was raising in the woods this summer. Ironically, the first attack happened a few hours after I began reading The Beast in the Garden. The first victim was a feeder pig that weighed about as much as me. And then I lost a few more, due in large part to a make-shift dog pen that proved woefully inadequate at containing them. It's not that the cat was getting in–it's that the pigs were busting out, and getting eaten.
Pigs are strong. Most anyone who has kept has a story about their breaking out of impossible places. I once had a pig escape her farrowing shed just by plowing straight through the side of it, popping out the nails that held in the siding. Get a few of them together and you’ve got hundreds of pounds of mass bearing down on each square foot of infrastructure.
So I needed something tough. And besides the capacity to contain legion behemoths, other factors affecting my strategy were 1) I needed to be able to build it myself and in one day, because I didn’t have a lot of help at the time and I knew I'd lose another pig that night if not adequately protected; and 2) it needed to be modular, so that I could move it to the next pasture (also by myself).
Some small livestock farmers are devising clever shelters built on skids that can be moved from pasture to pasture. This is great for rotational pasture systems; like a chicken tractor, towable shelters allow for easy distribution of manure, mitigate the broad dead zone of compacted soil that typically surround shelters at all sides, and ensure the animals have shelter no matter what paddock they're in. But this just wasn't practical for the hilly, forested terrain where my pigs spent part of the year.
My solution? Livestock panels! For all my enthusiasm about it, my hack is not that special: I made a pen out of livestock panels… and then I put a roof on it (because I was trying to keep out cougars, after all). This isn't too unique from a permanent pen, yet I hope to show you how it can be used in a rotational context. For those whose minds don’t yet immediately think of livestock panels as the solution for many a farming quandary, I’ve got you (exhaustively) covered.
Livestock panels are sometimes called feedlot panels. How ironic, because they can be the best friend of those aiming to use their animals for restorative ends. There are a few different types out there; 16’ long seems standard, but they range in height, spacing, and gauge.
This is what I bought. I bought mine from a local farm supply store, so they cost a little bit extra, but it goes without saying that if you can swing the extra few bucks per panel it’s worth investing in a relationship with a local independent dealer.
The advantage to this panel is 1) the height – go as tall as you can, because you’re going to want to walk around inside on occasion; and 2) the gauge and spacing—this wire is thicker than cattle panels, and the 4” spacing means it’s practically unbendable and scary things can’t stick their whole arms inside and grab your goats and pigs by the leg. Equally as important: the small openings prevent goats from getting their heads.
It’s conceivable that you could go for the less expensive cattle panels, which have graduated spacing (the bottom two openings are 4” tall, followed by 6”) but these have half the vertical wire count as those designed for smaller livestock, meaning they aren’t as sturdy and therefore more prone to bending up and out at the nose of a few determined pigs. However, they are a lot lighter, and you’ll save some money by using these for the roof of the cage.
To make an 8’x16’ cage you’ll need the following:
- 5 livestock panels
- six 6’ tall T-posts, driver (+ earplugs), puller
- two 10’ long T-posts
- bolt cutters
- nylon baling twine or something similar.
I was transporting these panels in the bed of my Toyota pickup truck, so I had them cut in half (to 8’) at the feed store to fit. Even if you can get them to your farm in one piece, consider halving them to make them easier to maneuver. Ease of removal is pretty critical for pasture-based anything.
I picked a spot in the pasture with relatively flat ground and started by driving in two T-posts at 8’ apart. Make sure they aren’t too far apart or you’ll be trying to patch gaps with twine, and that won’t hold against pigs. That’s why it’s important to have a puller around while you’re setting up—it’s worth taking the time to withdraw a post that’s in wrong than to try to make it work, have pigs get loose, and lose a $500 investment to a predator.
Key here is to only drive the posts in about 6". The pigs will be bumping around at the base of the cage, so half a foot of depth is sufficient. If you drive them much deeper you'll find that they are a huge pain in the ass to withdraw later, especially once the soil is a bit compacted around them (though it should be less compacted than it would be around a permanent shelter).
With the two posts in, I went ahead and affixed the first 8’ panel, which would be my non-opening end of this rectangular cage. I made sure the bottom edge of the panel was as flush with the ground as possible, and tied it tight to the T-post beginning at the bottom such that pig noses couldn’t lift the panel up and burrow under.
I repeated this for the sides. Only instead of making the pen its longest possible 16’, I overlapped the two panels on each side a bit. This reduced the square footage but reinforced the sides, because they flexed into one another. In hindsight, this might not have been necessary—I think really tight lashing with twine would have been sufficient, but it means you can collapse the length of the pen if necessary, which can be helpful if you’re fitting it in between stands of trees.
Before I attached the end panel that would function as my door, I vaulted the roof pieces atop. These were supported by what I had around: two 10’ long T-posts, placed width-wise. Essentially, these were the rafters. But you could also use planks, conduit, pipes, branches, whatever. Just make sure any gaps are wrapped tight with twine!
For the opening “gate,” I only tied the top seam of the end panel about 1/3rd of the way so that it had a flex point. And on the side that I wanted to open for pigs to enter/exit, I tied a piece of twine at the base that I would lash as I did the others each night and tie off with a slip knot. Make it something that you can quickly tie and untie, though, because it’s tough to work under the pressure of bratty pigs. Keep a rock or a bungee around to keep the gate open as wide as possible during the day because pigs will scratch themselves against the sharp wire without even realizing it if they don’t have enough clearance.
Pigs will destroy the soil integrity in their pen in a matter of days, but tossing in half a bale of straw will mitigate the damage and allow them to goof off and hunker down. Keep their water away from the door but accessible, so you can fill it up through the side. And if you ever have to enter the cage while the pigs are in there, take a stick.
For rainy weather, get yourself some tarps and toss some objects on top of the roof to promote drainage off the sides. Be mindful of how water accumulates in the pen for the sake of your animals’ comfort. Pigs will likely root up the soil around the perimeter, creating a rain-proof bank of sorts, but good tarp-fastening and a slightly sloped site will be sufficient for rain-ruers of the caprine variety. And I’d recommend lifting the overhang of the tarps atop the cage during the day, because pigs love playing tug of war with tarps and their teeth will swiftly ruin a good investment.
One added advantage of tarps is that they obscure the presence of looming predators. Based on the cat tracks I observed I believe the mountain lions harassing my pigs totally gave up on them after a few days of their being out of reach, but it may be worth buffering your pigs from the psychological distress of a prowling predator in the mean time.
When it comes moving time, cut your twine and save it to re-use, stack your panels, pull your posts, and repeat at the next spot. Having a truck to move the material is only necessary if you’re traveling more than 100 yards. And if you have everything on hand, it shouldn’t take you more than 2 hours to set this up once you have the material in your next pasture—not a bad tradeoff of time for any pasture-based operation if it means safe livestock and portable, reusable materials.