Different Strokes

29 Oct 2010, by largebla in post
A herd of Large Black swine.
Image via Wikipedia

by Brian Wright

Raising heritage breed hogs, especially the ones with low numbers of individuals, brings with it more than a business proposition, more than a cost per pound of meat or return on investment. To be happy you must reset your expectations.

I often speak with folks that have raised modern crosses and are frustrated by the low profits, if any, and are looking at heritage breeds as a way to renew their hog businesses based on the selling price of heritage hogs. I have to caution them that they will probably be disappointed as their metrics for success, their baseline for what makes a good hog, is skewed by their experience with modern cross hogs. They consider things like average number of piglets per litter, weaning weight, time to butcher weight, ratio of meat to bone, and many heritage hogs just can’t compete. This makes a lot of sense; of course modern crosses are better because the breeders who created them were pretty smart folks. They started with heritage breeds and selectively crossed those that had larger litters, larger muscles, etc. It would be unrealistic to take a foundation hog and expect it to be as good a piglet or pork producer as the improved breeds.

However, as “better” hogs were created, they lost some of the traits their ancestors had. This also makes sense because modern breeders raise their hogs in environments where things like cold and heat tolerance and pasturing ability are not necessary. To maximize the survival of piglets you provide them the least risky environment possible. You artificially inseminate the sows to prevent mating injuries and maximize insemination success. You raise the sows in an environment that is designed to improve fetus retention. When farrowing time comes you restrain the sow so that she cannot possibly injure the piglets and you keep her restrained so that the piglets can suckle easily, balancing the numbers of piglets between sows so that teat competition is eliminated. You wean the piglets early on a specialized feed so that you can breed back the sows at the earliest possible opportunity. Then you feed the piglets with a special diet to encourage rapid growth, including antibiotics that enhance feed efficiency. All of this makes sense if the metrics you use are as many piglets as possible raised to butcher weight as soon as possible.

There is nothing wrong with this from a business perspective, except perhaps the result of a saturated pork market with continued pressure from customer expectations of consistent quality pork at a low price.

However, replace these specialized cross hogs with heritage breeds and this model won’t work. Your litter numbers will be low and growth rates will be slower. You will only be able to produce a limited amount of pork because the market that will pay the price to make this profitable will be very small. And the cuts that will come from your hogs will not look like the traditional cuts that most people are accustomed to.

This also is true on a smaller scale. Hog farmers that raise a few hundred hogs per year will see the same issues; low litter numbers, low piglet weight and growth rates, lower feed efficiency and non-traditional cuts. Those that have learned their craft from modern crosses will be very disappointed.

In order to be happy with heritage breeds, one has to reset their expectations and understand the unique value that comes from the old breeds. Heritage breeds are best for those who are living the “homestead” life, making the change to living on a small farm in a simple, natural manner. This holistic view of farming is often more beneficial to the soul than the wallet. It is a decision to appreciate the intangible value of traditional farm life; doing things the old way and appreciating the benefits of providing food from your own effort. Usually hogs are only a part of this plan; a square to be filled. People take a look at their farms and eating habits and decide to try to make the farm provide as much of their family’s dietary needs as possible. They eat vegetables so a garden is a natural; they eat chicken, beef and pork so poultry, cattle and hogs are needed. They may want to do some old crafts, such as cheese, wool and honey so their cow (or goat) needs to provide milk; they need sheep to provide wool and bees to make honey. Once they have defined their needs they then start the process of choosing the breeds that will work for them.

It is easy, and inexpensive, to choose commonly available breeds and vegetable varieties, and many folks start with that. But since the choice to homestead is as much about emotional fulfillment as anything else, some folks decide to choose breeds that better fit this concept; going “old school” by choosing heritage livestock and heirloom vegetables. A Holstein cow will provide beef and milk, and a Hampshire hog will provide lots of pork, but a Canadienne cow or Large Black hog brings the real satisfaction of helping to resurrect a rare breed. Rare breeds have connected groups of like minded people that brings the enjoyment of belonging to a community. I’ve made lots of friends, around the world, that I would never have met had I not chosen to raise heritage breeds.

Heritage breeds also have meat that looks and tastes different than the stuff that you find in the grocery store. The first time you see the dark colored pork from a Large Black you might think it was beef. But cook Large Black pork low and slow and you will be ruined; grocery store pork will just never satisfy again.

Some heritage breeds, especially the rare ones, can also help pay for the homestead life, and although that should not be the primary consideration, it is nice to be able to make a little more off the hogs so that I can have other livestock that don’t provide much return. My sweetie and I call it our “traveling money”; we get to go see our kids every once in a while.

It’s also nice that the livestock we have chosen can utilize the food that grows naturally on our farm. Sustainability is all about lowering the need for outside inputs; making your farm “sustainable”. We started with Duroc and Chester Whites but left those breeds behind because they required too much supplemental feed. Our Large Blacks need less than half of the supplemental feed.

I think that the current price for Large Black and other heritage pigs will endure for many years as more people are choosing the homestead life due to the economy. Even when companies start hiring again the lessons will be remembered; you’ve got to have more to your life than a title and a paycheck. Life in a cubicle is just not fulfilling; even a part time farm will make life more complete. And if you choose livestock that don’t require constant attention…

With any hog, the true future is not in the breeding market but in the pork market. There will always be farmers who provide high quality breeding stock but the most successful will be those that can make the transition to pork. Large Black or LB crosses will be the product; hogs that retain the taste and quality of LBs while providing better proportioned cuts. The Large Black has lots of pork belly and ribs but relatively small hams and roasts; cross it with a Tamworth, Duroc or Hamp and you get the best of both. We have several LB X Hamp litters each year and they all sell out quickly to people who want traditional cuts with old world flavor.

My point in this very long post was to try to explain why you simply can’t compare heritage breeds with modern crosses. Different strokes for different folks; the markets are different. When choosing what hog you want to raise you need to match the breed to your expectations. If you like the natural life, the simple pleasure of raising livestock in the manner they were raised in the 1800s, then choose livestock that retain the ability to do well in that environment.

Copyright © 2010 Homegrown Acres. Used with permission.

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    Well said, It is always a pleasure to read your articles, thanks Mark.

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    Brian - Registrar Reply

    Thanks, Mark! That reminds me, I need to get your (or Kelley’s?) article finished and published…

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    Well written Brian 🙂 Nothing like good old “dark” pork to eat!

  • Jane Bailey

    Very well written Brian – thanks!

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    Well said…rings true for me and what I am trying to do with my farm “homesteading” like the 1800’s