SPRING GROVE, Minn. — Dayna Burtness didn’t grow up on a farm. But her family members are sixth-generation farmers; her roots are sunk deep in this area of southeastern Minnesota.
To make her farming dream come true, she’s built a profitable pastured-pig business with some help from her husband, Nick Nguyen.
Burtness thinks her lack of farming background is an advantage, she said, because it leaves her open to new ideas.
“A pig knows how to be a pig better than I do,” she said.
She was growing and selling vegetables in the Twin Cities metro area, learning about regenerative agriculture, when a bout of Lyme disease made her realize that market gardening was hard on her body. So she decided to diversify to meat animals. Moving to her family’s home territory in southeastern Minnesota, she invested in a piece of pasture and woodland that wasn’t suited for row crops.
The first winter she bought three feeder pigs on a whim – and found she liked the rhythm of chores and the personality of the pigs. Currently she raises 50 feeder pigs in the summer and markets them as pastured fed pork at a premium price.
Burtness sources her pork locally at 50 to 80 pounds, preferring the heavier animals because she said, “Less can go wrong.” With smaller-sized animals she’s discovered their guts are not developed enough for a smooth transition to pasture.
Her feeder-pig purchases have been from different farms and different breeds. She hasn’t picked a favorite breed, she said, but excludes pink pigs. They’re unsuitable for pasturing because of their skittishness and light coloring.
Once the pigs arrive at her Nettle Valley Farm, Burtness begins the process of training the animals to respect an electric fence. She puts them in pens made of panels with electric netting inside the perimeter. The pigs run forward and receive a little nip. After a couple of days the animals have learned not to push the net.
It’s very important to keep a good relationship with her neighbors, she said, by keeping the pigs confined. The netting is energized by a car battery. Although she knows farmers who use solar chargers, she’s not confident they produce enough joules to contain pigs.
She also trains the porkers to climb on a trailer to facilitate moving them from one area of the farm to another. She uses surplus eggs from her hens, climbs in the trailer with the eggs and then calls the pigs. She does this for several days until they learn to load themselves.
“Pigs are smart and curious and like to learn new things,” she said.
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This past summer her 50 pigs grazed 11 acres of pasture consisting of open land, a walnut and pine plantation, and oak woods. They rotate every four to seven days through the paddocks.
The first plant of choice is dandelions. They also like young tender giant ragweed and burdock.
“I’d rather the animal deal with it than me,” Burtness said of the weeds.
Pasture is supplemented with a grain mix she’s able to source locally, consisting of peas, barley, wheat, vitamins, minerals and apple cider. She’s adamant about not using corn, beans or fish meal in her feed. Toward fall she brings the pigs in from pasture. Then she feeds a diverse mix of unusable vegetables from a market-garden farm, nuts from her farm and apples. She said the combination creates an aromatic clean meat. Her goal is to produce a better-quality fat that’s firm and has better flavor than confinement hogs.
At harvest time she takes 10 pigs per week to a locker for processing. Customers buy a pig as a half or whole by hanging weight. All her animals are sold by early fall before processing begins. There’s a good demand for good-quality humane-raised meat, she said. One of her ardent customers lives in San Diego, splitting a hog with her mother. She takes home a suitcase-full every time she travels to Minnesota.
Burtness said she likes direct marketing.
“I like people,” she said. “It’s about making friends. I get to hear the customer’s stories. It’s just more fun; I feel connected.”
She spends a lot of time on social media posting on Facebook, Instagram and her webpage besides depending on word of mouth for sales.
Of her customers, 20% are other farmers. Half of her customers live in the Twin Cities metro area; most repeat their purchase. Pricing for the finished hogs is set by using cost of production, time, other-farmer prices and what Burtness believes people can afford.
Planning for the future of her operation, she said she’d like to rent more open land and do strip grazing close to her buildings. She’s open to the idea of having her own sows and doing pasture farrowing. She alsowould like to explore the idea of marketing with other farmers.
“I like that it’s my farm and I’m independent,” she said. “I don’t want to be the biggest. We are not going for efficiency. I think efficiency has dragged agriculture in a negative direction.”