Raising Pigs for Meat in Your Own Backyard
Heritage Pig Breeds are Tastier and Easier to Raise
By Kay Wolfe – There was a time when every rural household had a pig or two they were “fattening” for the winter. In just one generation, natural pig farming as a means of raising pigs for meat disappeared from rural America due to the industrialization of the hog business.
Hogs are now raised in mega hog houses by corporate farms. These hog breeders have selected their pigs based on their ability to grow fast in a most inhospitable environment. They are not selected for taste but for profitability and efficiency. The result is, pork no longer tastes like pork. It’s become dry as cardboard and pretty much tasteless, not to mention the effects of the antibiotics and other drugs they are fed daily just to keep them alive and growing. If you are old enough, or lucky enough, to have eaten home raised pork from the old breeds our grandfathers raised, then you know why pork was their favorite meat. It’s juicy, tender and oh so flavorful. If you have a few acres on your homestead then you can raise a hog or two. For years I resisted when my husband wanted to buy a pig. I fell for the old myths about hogs being mean, nasty and just downright stinky. Finally, I gave in and found nothing could be further from the truth.
My husband and I have raised other hogs but have found the “heritage” hog breeds to be the easiest to raise and the best tasting. Heritage pigs are the many breeds of old time hogs used in Europe and early America. They were selected for their taste, ease of rearing, and hardiness. These breeds are mostly foraging hogs in that they will glean a great amount of their feed from pasture vegetation. They are now rare and hard to find because they aren’t used by the commercial breeders. We raise Large Black Hogs but there are others just as good, such as the Tamworths, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and others. Match the breed to your location and goals as each breed has unique characteristics.
If you do a search on the Internet you will be able to find suppliers and if you ask around, you may find some locally. Be ready to pay top dollar for the heritage breeds, as this is a more expensive approach to raising pigs for meat. It’s up to us now to keep these breeds pure and ensure that the genetics of these tried and proven breeds are not lost to the next generation.
Prepare for Your Pigs’ Arrival
Before you bring your pig home, you need to make sure you are ready. This is the number one mistake most small farmers make, and yes, we did too. They bring the animal home first and then figure out what it needs. If you don’t plan for its arrival, you will be disappointed and can even make enemies of your neighbors when your hog roots up their garden. The first thing you will need is a good fence. We use woven wire fences (some call it web wire) with an electric wire around the inside bottom about snout high. Most people prefer not to go this route because it is more expensive than barbed wire but we love it because we can keep everything from hogs to goats in. Both are notorious for being escape artists.
Your pig will also need some form of shelter. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just a three-sided shed you build out of scrap lumber and tin roofing. It’s best if you build it on skids so you can move it as it gets wet and muddy inside. Some people use an A-frame shed built from treated plywood. It’s important that it has ample ventilation though, so leave one end open. Place the shed in a shady spot and he’ll be in “hog heaven.” Pigs can get too hot in the summer so they love a pool to cool off in. Find a low spot that you can fill daily with a water hose and they will jump in whenever they feel the need. Add to that a sturdy water and feed trough and you’re in business.
I absolutely positively hate to see a hog in a hog pen. I know people do it but you are not raising a healthy hog that way. They don’t want to stand in their waste any more than you would. Besides, you are missing out on the pig’s ability to forage for its own feed. We allow our pigs to run on large pastures. With that much space, the pigs are busy eating and don’t spend their day rooting. As long as there is plenty for them to eat on top of the ground, they will keep their rooting to a minimum.
Hogs quickly learn to respect electric fences and will not try to get out. Be sure not to put a wire where you may someday want that hog to walk, such as a gate, because you can’t get him through there if he thinks it has a hot wire. Pigs are smart animals but they have bad eyesight. He will learn where the wire is by touching it and won’t trust his eyes when it’s gone. Electric fences are economical and if you get them powerful enough and run enough strands, you can keep your hogs in.
You’re probably asking yourself: What can pigs eat? Well, the answer is, just as in people, a hog that eats lots of fresh greens and gets plenty of exercise will have more muscle and less fat than a pig standing in a pig sty eating high carbohydrate grains all day. We find that we get over 75% wrapped meat from a hog raised out on pasture due to its increased muscle and less fat. Not only that, but the pig is much healthier and has no need for antibiotics, steroids or any other chemical.
Vegetation is not enough for a growing pig so you will need to add a high-protein grain diet when raising pigs for meat. Ground corn is not good enough. That’s high in carbohydrates and low in protein. You would be raising lard mostly, not pork. You need a balanced ration made especially for growing pigs. When they are small, we feed them twice a day, just enough at each feeding for them to get full and walk away. Don’t leave food out at all times or they will get lazy and put on more fat than you would like. (Sound familiar anyone?!) Later on, once a day should be plenty as long as they have a good pasture to graze.
Finding a chemical-free pig feed may be difficult, depending on where you live. We have found that almost all purchased animal feed is medicated. You don’t have to ask for medicated feed, it’s already in there and they won’t tell you that when you buy it. Go to your local feed store and ask to look at a bag of pig feed (not sow feed, that has less protein). My guess is it will say “medicated” in small letters somewhere on the ingredients label. They don’t bother to tell you what the medication is or what it’s for. I don’t know about you but I resent the fact that they are selling me drugs that I don’t need and certainly don’t want in my meat. Call around and see who will custom mix your feed. If enough people start requesting it, maybe the feed mills will get the point. We found a feed mill in Seymour, Missouri that has a medication-free pig feed that is excellent.
Unfortunately, what you’ll find when raising pigs for meat, is that young pigs are prone to get intestinal worms that can stunt their growth and lead to a weakened state. We find that if we worm them at weaning and keep them out on clean pasture, they should not need worming again before slaughter. There are different products out there for you to choose from, including all natural. We have tried the shots and boy, we will never try that again. It took three of us to hold that pig still long enough to give a shot and it was not fun for any of us. We then tried the dewormer you add to their water but found they play in their water more than drink it and we could never know if they got the recommended dosage or not. We finally settled on the granular kind you add to their feed. That’s one thing you can count on, a pig is going to finish their meal! Other than that, we really have not had health problems to deal with. I attribute that to clean pastures and healthy eating.
Processing of the Hog
One of the most frequently asked questions is, “How can you eat your pet pig?” Our pigs are the heritage hog breeds and they most certainly do have personalities. Not all breeds do, but the older breeds tend to be very loving and gentle. I do love my pigs and enjoy scratching their bellies and watching them play. They follow my husband around like a dog when he is anywhere in sight. They know his voice and come running when they hear it. It does take some getting used to but unless you truly want a pig for a pet, you must always remember why he is there.
Different breeds of pigs will grow at different rates and how much you feed it will affect it, but they should be at around 200 pounds by six months of age or sooner. If you let it get much over 200 pounds, it will start putting on more fat than meat. Now most people don’t have a pig scale and it’s very hard for an inexperienced person to look at a hog and judge what it weighs, so how do you know? Many supply catalogs have a “hog tape” that you use to measure them and it will guide you through the calculation of determining their weight. Measure it every month so you can judge how close you are getting. Then compare your figures with the scale at the packing plant if you use one.
Farmers used to wait for a good cold spell and then they would kill their own hog and string him up in a sturdy tree to be sectioned up. There are lots of good books on the market for you to use as a guide and it’s not rocket science to learn how to butcher a pig. You can do this if you have the stomach for it. All it takes is a hand held meat saw for the bones, some good sharp butcher knives and then a home meat grinder for the sausage, etc. You’ll need a good sturdy table and a floor that can be mopped. If you don’t feel confident to cure your own hams and bacon, you can send those items off to a local processing plant to be preserved. The rest can be packaged and stored in your freezer.
If you would rather not learn how to butcher a pig and leave it to the professionals, ask around to see who your neighbors would recommend for a local processor. If you don’t have a trailer or rack to haul your hog to the plant, maybe you can barter with a neighbor to have him haul it for you. You can expect to pay the processing plant around 40 cents a pound live weight plus a killing fee to process your hog. As you can see, for a 200-pound hog, it might be worth your effort to do this part yourself.
If you have the land and time, raising your own pork can be very rewarding. You will find that it tastes so much better than what you buy and you can be guaranteed that it is free of drug residue and chemicals because you control what goes into your hog. Raised on open pastures, hogs don’t stink and they don’t need as much feed as hogs in confinement. The benefits and experience are enormous.
Originally published in Countryside July / August 2006 and regularly vetted for accuracy.