Yep, it’s that time again. Time to get the old farm ready for the snow and ice. Part of that is to figure out where all of those hogs are going to spend the winter.
After driving to Home Depot and pricing all of the pressure treated lumber we would need to build sheds for all of the new hogs we bought this year, and freaking out at each 4×8 shelter costing over $200 just in lumber, we decided to go with hoop houses again. We’ve overwintered our mature hogs for the last two winters in these and most of the hoops are still standing (the ones that aren’t fell victim to little goats thinking they were mountains needing to be climbed…).
If you don’t know what hoop houses are, here is a good site with photos and instructions. They work very well for yearling and older hogs during the coldest of nights as long as there is lots of hay inside. However, we keep our piglets and their sows in smaller huts with heat lamps.
Things to ponder before you get a pig, by Brian Wright.
This is a question we get all the time from people considering whether to raise their own pork. It is natural to think that raising pigs is hard, or that it takes a special building or constant care. The truth is that pigs are one of the easiest farm animals to raise; if you let them, they will take care of themselves. The best environment for pigs is a piece of pasture and woods large enough so they have an area to eat, drink and wallow, area to sleep and area to poop with good barriers to keep the pig in and predators out.
Feed: Pigs need a balanced diet just like all animals. You can buy commercial pig feed that contains all the right proteins, fats, carbohydrates and minerals for around $8.00 per 50 lb bag (as of this writing). What many people don’t realize is that you can cut down on the cost and provide a healthier diet by letting pigs eat natural food that grows on your property. What is a pig’s natural diet?
Pigs are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plant and animal matter. They are very opportunistic feeders and much of their diet is based on seasonal availability. Foods include grasses, weeds, forbs, roots and tubers, browse, mast (acorns), fruits, bulbs and mushrooms. Animal matter includes invertebrates (insects, snails, earthworms, etc.), reptiles, amphibians, and eggs. They are especially fond of domestic crops such as corn, milo, rice, wheat, soybeans, peanuts, potatoes, watermelons and cantaloupe, so they will eat just about anything from your garden or your kitchen. Pigs also need minerals and they get those from the dirt they eat. If you let them, your pigs will happily feed themselves off the land. This is one of the reasons we raise pigs on pasture; all the grass and browse is free feed and it is good for them! You may still need to supplement their diet by giving them prepared feed but allowing them access to pasture can significantly reduce the amount of prepared feed needed.
One of the common mistakes that some people make is to think they can just feed cheap corn to their pigs. Pigs will grow fast on corn and this deludes some people into thinking they are getting big pigs fast. The problem is that pigs fed only on corn really are just getting fat. Corn only contains 9 percent protein and 70 percent starch (that’s why corn is used to make sugar and sweeteners). All of the extra starch in the pig’s diet is stored as fat, especially for confined pigs that don’t get adequate exercise. All that extra fat grows around the pig’s internal organs leading to all kinds of health problems. Pigs need a balanced diet just like every animal. They need about 12 to 16 percent protein with the rest of their diet consisting of carbohydrates, fiber, minerals and amino acids. Most feed stores sell good pig feed that works as a feed supplement if they also have other, natural food. Corn does work well as a treat since it is so sweet. You can use it to keep the pig preoccupied while you clean its pen or do other maintenance chores. Soak the corn in water first to make it soft and easier to digest or use cracked corn.
Water: Obviously pigs need clean water to drink but many people don’t know that a pig also needs water to control it’s body temperature. Pigs don’t sweat like you and I; we sweat to cool off as the sweat evaporates. Since pigs can’t do that they have to cool off in other ways. Shade and a cool breeze helps, but the best way to keep your pigs cool is to give them a place in which to bathe when they get hot. If you let some water trickle from their water bowl, the pigs will happily turn the muddy dirt into their own mud puddle (wallow). Not only will the wallow cool them off, but the mud that adheres to their skin will shield them from the sun and keep parasites (flies and lice) from hanging around. A muddy pig is a happy pig! We provide showers for our pigs; you can also just hose them down when it’s hot.
Shelter: In the daytime your pigs may just lay down and sleep anywhere but at night they prefer a quiet place to bed down. Any suitable shelter will be fine; we use old dog houses from a local dog rescue, “Port-A-Huts” that we found on Craigslist and we make hoop houses from cattle panels and tarps. Our pigs also have favorite places in the woods. These shelters double as shade in the day where they can get away from the sun and warm places in the winter.
Bathroom: Yeah, I know, when you think of pigs you think of nasty, smelly pig pens. Unfortunately this is the way many people raise pigs, letting them live in their own filth. The truth is that pigs are very clean animals, in their own way. If given the room, a pig will choose a corner to use as its bathroom, far away from where it eats, wallows and sleeps. Again, pasture is the best environment because the breeze helps keep the odor down and all manner of little critters help decompose the waste. If you have to raise your pigs in a barn or other enclosure, you must be the critter to remove the waste…
Barriers: Pigs are wonderful, intelligent animals that yearn to be free!
The problem is if you give them total freedom, they will eat your and your neighbor’s flower bed, rototill your lawn, sleep on your front porch, poop in your garage and, perhaps worse of all, be chased by and killed by your neighbor’s dog. You must limit their freedom to keep their natural behaviors from becoming a nuisance and keep the pigs safe from predators. There are many ways to do that; from building strong walls or fences to making natural barriers such as thick hedges or moats. We keep our pigs within large paddocks made of wire fencing and electric wire. Cattle panels are great for keeping large pigs controlled; pigs quickly learn to stay away from electric fencing but any barrier must be modified so that the pig can’t go under or over it. Wire fences must be on or slightly buried under the ground and you must quickly fix any area where the pig has tried to burrow under it. Electric fencing, whether tight wire or loose polywire, must have gaps no larger than six inches from the ground and between the first two or three strands. The advantage of electric fencing is that you can move it to give your pigs access to new pasture or rotate them between paddocks of pasture.
Although we don’t recommend it sometimes all you have is a barn or old shed in which to raise your pig. This will work IF it gives them the needed space for all their natural behaviors. In a barn you will need to keep their bedding fresh by using hay or other dry bedding as needed. You will also need to ensure there is adequate ventilation to keep the air healthy and neither too hot nor too cold. If the floor isn’t dirt you will need to provide a feed that contains minerals, a mineral block or dirt such as that which adheres to plant roots that you feed them. You will also need to give any babies an iron shot to prevent them from becoming anemic due to lack of iron (piglets raised on dirt get their iron from it naturally). Remember to provide them with natural food (grass, hay, vegetables, etc.) daily.
So, given that healthy pigs need good food, adequate areas in which to eat, sleep, cool off and poop, and barriers to protect them and the rest of your property, look at what you have before you decide to get a pig. Remember, you are going to either eat the pig, let it raise healthy babies, or just have a pet. Give it what it needs to live a good life and it will happily, and easily, return the favor!
The large blacks are such beautiful, intelligent, and entertaining creatures that we sometime forget why we raise them. It’s for the pork! If not for the pork, they would just be pets. Not that there is anything wrong with pigs as pets. We all remember the big pot belly pig craze back a few years ago. At first, everyone had to have one but then in a few years they were tossed out and you couldn’t give them away. The only thing that will secure a future for the large blacks is if people want to eat them.
I often tell people that when they sell a pig as a breeder, they have created a competitor, but when they sell a pig as pork, they have created a customer for life. This meat is just that good, as long as it is raised right. We believe creating meat of an excellent quality is a 3 step process. First, you must select the best genetics, and we think the large black creates the best tasting pork on earth. Next, you must raise it correctly, and lastly it must be killed and processed properly. If any one of these steps are breached, your quality will suffer.
So, why do the large blacks taste so good? I think it’s because they are a heritage breed, created when farmers bred for taste first and foremost. After all, the breeder was his own primary customer. When you don’t eat your own pork, you don’t really care what it tastes like. Commercial hog farmers who sell thousands of pigs a year think only of raising the most “protein units” at the lowest cost and in the fastest time possible and that calls for a much different breed of pig.
The large black is a darker pork with a short muscle fiber that makes it more tender. Also, studies have shown that the more high strung an animal’s temperament, the more likely his meat will be tainted (an off taste) from stress hormones. This easy going breed can be led to the trailer and walked into the packing plant without getting all worked up. A low stressed animal is always going to be healthier, easier to raise, and easier to handle.
Probably the biggest factor though is the fat. Although they are not a lard pig, they most certainly do have fat. Their fat is micro-marbled throughout the meat which gives it the ability to self baste as it cooks, keeping it moist and flavorful. As long as the pigs are grazed, their fat is a beneficial fat just like in pasture raised poultry. Most heritage breeds taste better than the commercial breeds but for my money, I’d prefer a large black any day.
However, even a large black can produce low quality pork if not raised correctly. This breed was meant to graze so get them out on pasture and let them do it. They love legumes such as clovers and young tender grass. If your pasture starts to get mature, mow it so it can sprout fresh growth all over again or else they will not be able to eat it. Even though they are a grazer, they do not have a rumen like a cow so young, growing pigs need more than forage. We like to feed ours a balanced pig grower formula with about 16% protein. Make sure there are no chemicals or antibiotics in your feed. You may have to ask but also inspect the label very closely. It has to say “medicated” if it contains additives. If you are raising all natural pork, you cannot use medicated feed and we find it is not necessary anyway. If you have your feed mixed, consider adding diatomatious earth at the rate of a 50 pound bag per ton. If not, then consider sprinkling it on their food at feeding time. It is both a mineral supplement and a natural wormer.
When your piglets begin to try eating with mom at around a week to two weeks of age, it’s time to build them a creep feeder. This can be something simple as long as the piglets can pass through the opening, but mom can’t. Provide a feeder that is big enough for all the piglets to comfortably eat at the same time or they will fight and push the smallest ones away. Don’t just dump the feed in the center either. Spread it out so every pig has an equal chance of eating. We like to have feed available for the piglets at all times since they grow so fast and require so much milk. A large litter will cause a sow to lose an enormous amount of weight during lactation. She will soon recover though after weaning so no reason to be concerned.
As long as the piglets are eating and healthy, we wean them at 6 weeks and move them to their own area. You can expect their mom to come in heat again at 6 to 10 days after weaning and this will be her most productive time. We continue to keep feed available for the piglets because their stomachs are too small to hold a days worth of feed yet. The large blacks will start grazing early if you have them on good pasture and the more they graze, the better their pork will be. By the time they are 3 and a half months old, we take the self feeder away and only feed once a day for a short period of time in the evenings. This encourages them to get up in the morning and spend the day grazing. If you let a feeder pig have a self feeder until processing, you are raising more lard than meat. Grass fed pork tastes better and is healthier than all-grain fed pork.
We like to market a young pig at about 250 pounds live weight. Using the pasture/grain method we have described, this takes about 6 and a half to 7 months. Past that age, a feeder pig is laying down mostly fat. If you let a pig get more than 300 pounds, you will have way too much waste and your customers will not feel they got their money’s worth of meat. If you are not a good judge of a pigs weight, and who is at first, just put on the calendar the 7 month date and see what the scales show at the processing plant. If they are too big, next time take them in a few weeks sooner.
As mentioned earlier, you don’t want to get them excited on the day they are to be processed. If you do not have a stock trailer, rent one or hire a neighbor to haul them for you. It’s best to make a loading ramp so they can easily walk from the ground to the trailer but not too steep. Have sides of strong hog panels or plywood. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, something portable would even work. Hogs are finicky about their footing so have a skid resistant surface of rubber or place old carpeting etc. to give them a good footing.
Don’t feed them the night before if you are going to load them in the morning. A hungry pig is much easier to bait than a full one. Always talk gently to your pigs and lead them, don’t chase them. Use the same bucket they see you pour feed with every day, rattle it a little to make sure they know you really have feed, and walk into the trailer and set it down. Be ready to make your exit out the back door. Stay quiet, move slow, and when they are all in eating, shut the door. Pigs are suspicious creatures so you may have to be patient. If they are not interested at first, the old trail of feed works to get them moving sometimes. It should be that easy if you have been with these pigs everyday and talked to them as you walk among them, scratching ears as you go.
The last step of course is the processing. Some areas have lots of custom processors to choose from while others have none. You’ll need to start searching for all the processors within driving distance. Visit all of them and take note of your impression. How does the place look? Note the professionalism of the facility and the workers, cleanliness, the way the meat looks (white paper or shrink wrapped cellophane), and what the people are like. While there, buy samples of their ham and sausage and ask about the services they provide, their prices, how far in advance they schedule, do they have minimum orders on specialty products, their inspections, and anything else you can think of. Write it down either while you are talking to them or when you get back in the vehicle.
Once you have gathered your information from all the processor, spend a day cooking and tasting their meats side by side. We all have our preferences so what you like may be different than what I like but over all, how do their seasonings taste. Is their ham and bacon to salty? Is the sausage seasoned just right or is it too hot to eat? Soon, a processor or two will rise to the top of your list with all things considered. That is the place you want to build a working relationship. You certainly don’t want to spend all this time and money raising a litter of feeders just to have them do a sloppy job of wrapping or make your ham smell like a dirty sock when you cook it. Just remember, the meat you are judging is most likely the pink commercial pig so your product will taste better but what you are looking for is the seasonings and curing. In addition, presentation is very important which is why we use a processor that shrink wraps.
Now that you have raised a litter of large blacks and you have done everything just right, it is time to take your pork home and enjoy. When you, as a customer, are pleased with your own product, it’s time to sell to the public and not one minute before. You do not want your customer to be your guinea pig while you are trying to fine tune your system. You should expect your customers to pay a premium price for this pork but your customers will expect premium pork in return.
The American Livestock Conservancy has a saying that we must eat these pigs to save them and I believe that is true. We love everything about these hogs but really, their main purpose is to produce pork. When the 3 steps of raising superior pork are followed, the results are mouth watering enjoyment. All it takes is one sale and your customers will return to you over and over again. So next time you have a litter, save some for eating, not breeding and put these steps to work on your farm.