Christine Hernandez is the Livestock Specialist at Heifer Ranch, a 1,200-acre production and farmer-training facility located one hour west of Little Rock, Arkansas. The Ranch serves as a living representation of regenerative farming. Heifer USA works to support small-scale and family farmers in the United States by actively investing in building infrastructure needed by these farmers so the healthy, nutritious food they produce can earn them a dignified living and keep them on their land.
Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative and Cypress Valley Meat Company, our processing and distribution center, have a long-standing partnership with Heifer USA and collectively work to connect farmers to markets and to integrate them into a short, direct-to-consumer supply chain.
Christine Hernandez focuses her management on the increasing production needs of the pastured poultry program and the forested pork enterprise. Christine’s main goal is to raise healthy, happy, and thriving livestock as well as to properly train the team members on sustainable and regenerative livestock management so they can leave Heifer Ranch with knowledge and hands-on experience to work on another farm or even start their own.
Q: How do you keep hogs happy and healthy when temperatures drop while still keeping them 100% pasture-raised?
In the wintertime (or during periods of low-temperatures) temporary shelters called “Port-A-Huts” allow for optional cover for the hogs on pasture. The dimensions of the shelters follow Grass Roots Livestock Standards, and the hogs always have access into and out of the huts. Fresh hay is placed inside and around the outside pastures as well一some hogs prefer to remain outdoors completely and will bed down in the exterior hay. Oftentimes, you’ll see them bedding down together in what we call a pig pile. This allows them to remain very warm and comfortable even in below zero temperatures. They generate so much collective body heat, you can see the steam rising off of them! One of the best aspects of raising forested pork is the added shelter the trees provide to the hogs. They can bed down year-round underneath the forest canopy for extra protection from the elements.
We hear from a few folks concerned about how we raise our hogs during the colder months一but it’s a common misconception that this is a difficult time for them. They require much more precise care during the hotter summer months, since they don’t have sweat glands and can have difficulty regulating their internal temperature. Farmers provide wallows (puddles of fresh water and mud) to cool down during the day. Hogs are routinely hosed off to cool them down further, and the trees provide plenty of shade. Our farmers are well-equipped to make sure our animals are happy and healthy no matter the season!
Q: What is your main line of defense against natural predators, and what do you do to ensure the animals don’t get injured or lost out on pasture and in the forest?
The first line of defense for all of our animals are the guardian dogs. We place two with the sheep and four with the chickens. Typically, they’re defending against local predators (like coyotes) and exterminating pests such as racoons and opossums that could injure the poultry. The hogs don’t face much in the way of natural predators or pests— they’re very intimidating in size and often snort loudly, almost imitating a bark! They’re not afraid to run right up to you, and most local wildlife would be more keen on getting away rather than closer to these guys.
Hogs are herd animals and want to remain in groups as often as possible. Rarely does a hog stray off from the herd or get around the fence, but when they do they always do their best to get back as soon as possible, due to their instinct to remain with the herd.
Similar behavior is seen in all of our livestock species. The chickens group closely together under prairie schooners out in pasture and rarely stray from their flock Out of all the animals sheep probably have the highest natural instinct to remain in a herd; and, while they are consistently monitored, very little action has to be taken to keep them from wandering off.
Q: Are the animals ever picky eaters? Do they have a favorite foraged treat?
The hogs are avid foragers with a nose for anything growing out of the ground. They’re big fans of the fresh leafy greens that grow around the pastures and edge of the forest and always devour those first as soon as they’re moved to fresh paddocks. These paddocks are smaller sections of larger pastures that are fenced out within the pasture. Our sheep have been known to love buttercup, curly dock, and vetch. Come springtime you’ll see them munching on all the lovely flowering plants out in the fields! They also graze heavily on weed populations (like ragweed) that would otherwise be very difficult to eradicate. Along the same vein, turkeys are the only livestock we’ve found that can eradicate Goat Weed/Wooly Croton, and they definitely enjoy doing so. Raising our livestock using this rotational grazing allows us to maintain our farmlands without the use of heavy pesticides or herbicides while using regenerative agriculture practices that leaves the land better than we found it
Q: How do you treat a sick hog/animal without the use of antibiotics?
We try to pick up on the signs of illness in our animals before the animal isolates itself. Through careful observation and noticing the slightest abnormal animal behaviors, we can usually spot unusual behavior before the animal shows obvious signs of illness. Once we identify potential sickness in an animal, we remove them (along with 1-2 other animals from their herd for comfort) and place them in an isolated location of the farm, usually in an open air barn. Here they receive a special water ration with enhanced electrolytes and constant monitoring from our farmers. In the majority of cases they make a full recovery very quickly and can return to their herd. In the event an animal is too sick to treat without the use of conventional medicine or antibiotics, we proceed with conventional treatment and that animal is tagged separately and not sold for consumption.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
As a farmer, you know you’ve done your job right when the animals come running up to greet you at the fence as soon as you walk down. Raising social, friendly livestock with the utmost respect for the animals and the land they occupy is the brightest future we can create for the US meat and agriculture industries. Knowing that on the ranch we’ve raised thousands of healthy, happy animals that got to live a full and enriched life (and were processed in the most humane way possible) and that we are a direct proponent of enacting change in the way we look at the future of farming in America by leading by example is a reward in itself.