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.
Written by Kay Wolfe