Skip to comments.Makin’ Better Bacon--Raise your own pigs for better meat ... and porcine ‘tiller power.’
Posted on 04/12/2004 8:14:09 PM PDT by SJackson
Raise your own pigs for better meat ... and porcine tiller power.
By Megan Phelps
If you want to produce your own delicious, chemical-free meat, look no further than the homestead hog. Pigs can be raised on pasture as grazing animals; they thrive on a varied diet that also can include table food and garden scraps, extra milk or whey, and whatever other edibles are available. Pigs natural rooting instincts can be tapped to help with a variety of farm chores, too, as many delighted homesteaders have discovered. Any way you look at it, raising pigs is an interesting way to opt out of the inhumane industrial meat production system.
Joel Salatin, an innovative farmer and author of the books You Can Farm and Family Friendly Farming, finishes more than 200 hogs a year on his diversified Polyface Farm at Swoope, Va.
Some farmers keep sows and breed them each year for a crop of piglets, but Salatin buys feeder or weaner pigs from such folks. He purchases the animals when they are 2 to 3 months old, feeds them until they reach market weight and sells them for meat.
The varied diet pigs enjoy at Polyface produces pork Salatin describes as superior in taste to the conventional product. Our pork is very firm, he says. It actually weighs more per cubic foot than industrial pork. It is also rose-colored not white. Pork should be a nice rose color, not an anemic white.
And on Polyface Farm, feeder pigs earn their keep. We use the pigs two different ways, Salatin says. One way is to do our composting. Frequently in winter, he brings his cattle indoors, which creates a large quantity of straw bedding and cow manure that must be prepared for composting in the spring. As he applies fresh bedding material, he adds some shelled corn. Then, rather than use an expensive, fossil-fuel burning tractor to turn the materials, Salatin moves his pigs into the barn.
They go right for the corn, Salatin says, Thats their paycheck. As they root for the grain, the pigs churn up the packed manure and straw, mixing it together and breaking it into smaller pieces. After several weeks, all the bedding in the barn has been thoroughly mixed.
The pigs also are used to till some fields before planting and to clear land for pasture. Salatin maintains a rotating system of paddocks by using moveable electric fencing. For him, a long-term goal has been to convert more of his forested acres to savannalike pasture, and the pigs have become integral to this effort. Over time, setting up paddocks for the pigs in the forest and letting them turn up the soil is changing the pattern of vegetation to favor perennial grasses instead of trees. For the pigs, this environment couldnt be better. Lightly forested land provides the animals with shade for staying cool and the opportunity to forage, giving them plenty of exercise and the chance to express their natural rooting instincts.
Were always trying to utilize the assets of the animal so that it expresses its animalness, and a pig fully expresses when its plowing. A fully expressed pig is a happy pig, Salatin says.
Pigs can be useful on the farm even in small numbers. David and Lise Abazs dont typically raise livestock, but they used three pigs to convert an overgrown field into an orchard on their organic Round River Farm, at Finland, Minn.
We wanted to do it so we didnt have to bulldoze, David Abazs says. We didnt want the traditional way of clearing the land. When you have 2 feet of topsoil, and it takes 1,000 years to make 1 inch, you dont want to lose any of it.
Tired of working their rocky ground with pickaxes, the Abazses decided that using pigs would help speed up the task. They bought three, constructed a mobile pen for the animals, and then kept moving the pen with the pigs in it across the overgrown field they wanted to clear.
The pigs even cleared away large tree roots; the couple would just sprinkle a little corn beside the roots and let their crew dig. By the end of the summer, the pigs had cleared the field. For the Abazses, the primary goal of raising pigs was to clear the land, but they butchered the animals when the plowing was done and discovered the fresh, rich-tasting meat was an added benefit. We had a big feast, David Abazs says. People had never eaten real pork before.
Fields, Not Feedlots But raising pigs as Salatin and the Abazses do on pasture with access to fresh air and sunshine is not the norm. Most pork comes from large-scale confinement operations where pigs are raised indoors, crowded together on a concrete floor that makes rooting impossible, to say nothing of turning around or lying down comfortably.
In a factory hog operation, because the hogs are crowded so closely together they tend to always be unhealthy or sick, says Diane Hatz, communications and marketing director of the GRACE Factory Farm Project (www.factoryfarm.org). GRACE, which stands for Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, is a nonprofit environmental organization that aims to eliminate factory farming in favor of sustainable and humane food production.
Hatz says the unhealthy atmosphere of large confinement hog operations stresses the animals, and increases the potential for disease to spread. To counter that, the pigs have to be given antibiotics regularly. Another problem with factory farms is that a lot of the animals never see sunlight until the day theyre taken off to be slaughtered, she says.
Factory hog production is widespread, but Hatz says GRACE believes the industry trend can be countered if enough people support farmers who produce pork sustainably. On a sustainable farm, the land can carry the weight of the animals, Hatz says. One of the definitions of sustainable is that whats taken out is put back in.
That includes manure. One of the biggest problems with factory hog farms is that concentrated waste from thousands of animals creates significant air and water pollution. Alternatively, when a small number of hogs rotates through a pasture, the animals produce a manageable amount of valuable manure that in turn enriches the pasture grasses.
Preserving Heritage Hogs Among people interested in sustainably raised meat are those concerned about the need to preserve heritage livestock breeds. The modern hog industry relies on only three or four breeds that have been developed for indoor operations. As a result, many of the qualities that help a pig survive outdoors such as hair and dark-colored skin, which help protect pigs from sunburn are disappearing from the gene pool.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) is one organization working with farmers across the country to preserve heritage livestock breeds and the valuable genetic diversity they carry. Other organizations working in this field include the New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy and Rare Breeds Canada.
It is possible to raise conventional breeds of hogs on pasture on Polyface Farm, Salatin raises three or four standard breeds but on Flying Pigs Farm at Shushan, N.Y., ALBC members Jennifer Small and Mike Yezzi have found that heritage breeds and sustainable farming are a winning combination.
I would say that heritage breeds are much hardier outdoors, Small says, noting that the Tamworth is especially useful for clearing weedy fields. Tamworths are often used to clear pasture because they are so rambunctious, she says.
Small and Yezzi began their pastured hog operation in 2000 with just three conventional pigs pink pigs as Small calls them. They have since switched entirely to three heritage breeds, and last year, they finished more than 100 hogs.
The main breeds raised on Flying Pigs Farm are Gloucestershire Old Spots, large, round pigs with white coats and black spots, and recognized for their mothering abilities; Tamworths, tall, lean pigs that do well in a variety of climates and are known for their hardiness and distinctive dark red coloring; and Large Blacks, which are pigs with dark coats and rapid growth rates that do especially well on grass. The natural hardiness of these breeds is a useful asset because the pigs are outside year-round grazing on pasture or foraging in the woods in the spring, summer and fall, and rooting in the snow in the winter.
But hardiness is only one reason the owners of Flying Pigs Farm switched to heritage breeds; taste is another. Their second year in business, the couple bought seven pink pigs and seven Large Blacks. When we went to sell the meat in the fall, people started raving about the quality of the Large Blacks, Small says. Their meat tends to be more moist and finer grained than supermarket pork.
Small says she thinks the rich taste of Flying Pigs Farm heritage pork also is influenced by the varied diet the animals eat and the respectful, humane way they are treated during their lives.
Charlie Bradley of Mansfield Center, Conn., another rare breeds enthusiast, sold the first heritage hogs to Flying Pigs Farm. He says he isnt surprised by the positive response the couple receive on the quality of their pork because thats been his experience, too.
Ive found it to be very tender, very tasty, just very good pork, Bradley says. It is the quantity and quality of fat in heritage breeds of hogs that give the meat its superior flavor when compared to modern breeds that have been bred to produce extremely lean meat.
Bradley keeps about 10 sows to raise feeder pigs that he sells locally. He says it isnt necessarily more expensive to buy a heritage breed, but they may be more difficult to find; he traveled to Canada to find his first heritage livestock.
It usually does cost a bit more to buy meat from heritage breeds, but Small says there are good reasons for the higher price tag: Heritage breeds take longer to reach market weight than conventional breeds, and because they also produce a higher percentage of body fat, fewer of those pounds consist of marketable cuts. Small says the high quality and great flavor of the meat nevertheless creates steady demand from customers willing to pay the premium. Cost per pound of our meat is definitely higher than cheap factory-farm pork, she says. What we tell our customers is to eat less meat, but eat better-quality meat.
Ultimately, she says, its the knowledge that the meat from her pigs was produced sustainably and humanely that makes raising the animals worth the effort. I know that Ive treated them with respect and theyve had a good life, she says.
Pork Production Basics Farmers always have found many uses for the pig a livestock animal that fits beautifully into the cycles of life on a small-scale farm. One reason behind the enduring popularity of homestead hogs is the animals willingness to eat practically anything, including kitchen scraps and garden waste. Large-scale commercial hog operations keep pigs confined indoors on a strict grain diet, but the animals are naturally omnivores that love to graze and forage for a broader range of foods.
Pigs also are hardy creatures that require a minimum of attention. When they were introduced to North America by European colonists, they routinely roamed free. Many farmers didnt even fence them in, opting instead to let the pigs roam the forests, feasting on insects, roots, fruits and nuts even such small animals as mice. As a consequence, their meat took on more succulence and flavor than the supermarket pork most of us eat today.
If youre ready to start raising pigs yourself, one of the simplest ways to get started is to buy a few young pigs in the spring and raise them to market weight. Pigs are herd animals that are more content day-to-day when they have the companionship of their own kind.
Typically a feeder pig starts at about 50 pounds and should be ready to butcher after four to five months, says Mark Honeyman, an Iowa State University animal science professor who also works with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. By then, theyre 5 to 7 months old and weigh about 260 pounds.
To get started, you will need a securely fenced area with a few basics, including a feeding trough (allow at least a foot of space per pig), a water barrel, a small sleeping shelter, and water or mud for the pig to cool off in if shade is not available.
Any three-sided, roofed house will work for permanent shelter; you can buy pig shelters at local farm supply stores or you can build a shelter yourself from sheet metal and wood. Whatever type of shelter you create, it should be well ventilated. Put plenty of straw on the ground for the pigs to use as bedding.
If possible, youll also want to give pigs access to a pasture, and to keep them from getting loose, youll need a sturdy fence. If you use electric fence, you will need two strands of charged wire, one 12 to 18 inches high to contain large pigs, and another 4 to 8 inches high to keep smaller animals in the pen. (For more information on fencing options, see Electric Fencing, August/September 2003.)
The best way to buy a pig is straight from a local farm, where you can ask plenty of questions about the animals before selecting one. Make sure the pig seems active and alert, and has a healthy-looking hair coat that is straight and smooth. Never buy a pig that seems small for its age.
To get the pig home, you will need a cage, carrier or crate. A dog carrier may work well for this purpose, but any sturdy contraption about the same size should do the trick.
Food and Water Needs
A pig will consume 1 to 3 gallons of water a day, and several pounds of food. A 50-pound pig consumes less than 3 pounds of food a day, but a 200-pound pig can eat more than 7 pounds. The goal of raising a feeder pig is for it to gain weight, so allow your pig to eat freely, and keep thinking about good potential sources of food.
You could raise a pig entirely on commercial pig food, which is primarily corn and soybean meal, or mix your own organic version of the commercial feed, but you also can use it as a supplement to round out the pigs diet. Grain can be placed in a self-feeder for pigs that have access to pasture or used to balance a diet that includes food scraps.
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia says he keeps a self-feeder containing corn, roasted soybeans, plus small grain with his hogs at all times. When we let the hogs run in a cornfield, they go weeks without touching anything in the self-feeder, he says. That means they are fully satisfied with the standing crop.
Melinda Gray of Back Acre Farm at Middlesex, N.C., whose family often raises feeder pigs, took another approach. My husband used to be a chef, and he would bring home scraps, she says. That was a wonderful way to do it. We still fed some grain, but we had an abundance of kitchen stuff to feed them.
The type of food you give the pigs will affect the taste of their meat. Consider experimenting the richer taste that comes from a diverse diet can be one of the greatest benefits of homegrown pork.
There is a difference, Gray says. I think with the scraps you get a little more flavor in the meat. She also has noticed a texture difference, finding that when pigs were fed scraps, the meat was less fatty. But even feeding them grain as opposed to buying our pork at the grocery store, I felt we had a better-quality product.
Delicious, Natural Meat
Raising your own pork may cost you more, or less, than supermarket pork, depending on hog prices, grain prices, the availability of free food scraps and unanticipated veterinarian bills. One way to bring the cost down is to slaughter and butcher the animal and cure the meat yourself.
If you dont plan to do this, make sure a butcher is available locally to do that work before you buy the pig.
The pork will keep in the freezer for up to a year. Honeyman of the Leopold Center says a 260-pound pig yields 80 to 100 pounds of chops, ham, sausage and bacon.
We have just over an acre of land, access to a stream, and woodlands behind us. Pigs would probably just love it. Unfortunately, we're in a suburban area with regulations against keeping livestock. I kicked around the idea of having some chickens once and my husband vetoed it immediately on those grounds. Oh well. I guess I have enough projects already!
Perhaps I could find a local source of pork raised in these superior conditions.
This is no longer true. In many states it is now illegal to feed table scraps to livestock due to the recent Mad Cow outbreak.
I hadn't heard that. My dogs are ok to feed, we don't eat them. :>)
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