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Homesteader Charlotte Walker gives advice on selecting pig breeds, caring for pigs, and personal experiences with her first time raising them. There is really nothing like homegrown, pasture-raised, heritage pork
Raising pigs is a complex experience that impacts you in innumerable ways. Pigs will charm you and entertain you. They’ll make you laugh, and they’ll probably make you cry too. Being prepared for and understanding what a pig needs to be happy will make the experience of raising them far more enjoyable for both them and for you.
It takes time and effort, but if someone were to ask me if it is worth it, my answer would be an unequivocal and enthusiastic yes! There is really nothing like homegrown, pasture-raised, heritage pork.
Forming a Cooperative to Raise Pigs
The decision for us to raise a few pigs came from a neighbors visit. He hinted that his family would love to raise a few pigs, but they didn’t have the time. We fell into a long conversation about pigs, something he’d had some past experience with. Before long, we were shaking hands with our neighbor, and a cooperative to raise pigs had been formed.
Heritage Berkshire Pigs
The agreement was simple. We would buy four heritage Berkshire weaners, two for each family. Our neighbor would supply lumber at cost from his mill and help my husband build the pig shelter. We would be responsible for fencing and keeping the pigs securely confined to their pasture. Our neighbor would split the cost of all purchased feed, and we would collectively provide as much scraps, wild apples, and other foraged items as we could.
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How we selected the breed of pigs
We decided to purchase our pigs from a small family farm that specialized in Berkshire Heritage pigs. We chose Berkshires for three reasons: they are good foragers, they are well suited to being raised outdoors, and Berkshire pork (often compared to Kobe beef) is renowned for being moist, tender, heavily marbled with fat, and high in flavor.
They gave us a tour of their operation and answered our many questions. We were picking up “weaners” which are young pigs that have been weaned from their mother’s milk and are about 6-10 weeks old. They were loaded into the two large dog carriers we had brought and weighed no more than 35lb each.
Whatever you, do don’t name those pigs!
They were lovely, innocent little creatures with big brown eyes and the sweetest little curly tails. Right at that moment, I realized that I liked pigs. This was a feeling that would grow even stronger over the weeks and months that they lived with us. I posted a photo of our cute pigs on Facebook, and my sister-in-law called immediately, stating, “Do not name them. Whatever you do, don’t name those pigs!”. She then told my husband the same thing. Her advice came from experience, so we listened. It was good advice.
Pigs are playful and intelligent
The pigs quickly settled into their new home. They playfully ran around the pasture chasing each other with a game that strongly resembled “tag.” They spent most of their day rooting through the pasture, munching on roots, greens, and bugs. The pigs would take after-breakfast and mid-afternoon naps together, usually cuddled up in a pile, with one chin resting on the other’s back.
We looked forward to interacting with the pigs and spent quite a bit of time observing their playful antics. We soon discovered that pigs are intelligent and joyful creatures. They never tried to escape. They kept their shelter and bedding spotless. Other than needing us to deliver food and fresh water, they really didn’t need us at all. As autumn crept in and the pigs were close to their ideal weight, we started feeding them bushels of wild apples. Watching them happily crunching away on their apples was bittersweet.
Appreciation for the Meat
One frosty autumn morning, we quickly slaughtered the pigs and transported them to the butchers. We had a lot of mixed emotions that day and for a few weeks afterward, but this was our first time raising animals for meat, so perhaps this was to be expected. Raising pigs was a humbling experience that left us with a much deeper appreciation for the meat that we put on our table.
Eight things you should know about raising pigs
There is a freezer filled with organic pasture-raised pork, which is healthy nourishment for our family. The lard has been lovingly rendered and frozen for future use. Homemade old-fashioned lard soap is on a shelf in the linen closet. Bones have been used to make broth. We have done our best to waste nothing, and that, I think, is important. Our experience with pigs was as close to perfect as it could be. Based on our experience, here are seven things that you should know about raising pigs.
There are many ways to do it, but in our experience, you will want sturdy fencing wherever you intend to let pigs roam. You will also need an electric fence kit to protect the real fence from wear and tear. A pig’s natural instinct is to go forward rather than back away.
When you bring your weaners home, you need to teach them to keep away from the electric fence right away. Once they have gone forward several times and experienced the electric jolt from the fence, they will soon learn to back away. It’s much better to teach them when they are little than when they have grown to a more unruly size.
Pigs need shelter from the elements. Keep the rain off of them and keep their bedding dry. Shelters can be quite simple and inexpensive structures. I have seen examples of shelters made from wood pallets and even the canopy of an old pickup truck. We used a basic three-sided wooden shelter with a sloped roof.
The shelter opening should face away from the prevailing wind on your property. Pigs like to have straw bedding to nestle under during the cool nights. You might not realize this (I didn’t), but pigs will not defecate in their shelter unless they are confined to it and forced to. Even then, they will select a corner far away from where they sleep. Pigs, when given the choice, have very clean habits.
3. Food for Pigs
Unless you can grow your own grain, you will need to purchase bagged feed. Pigs eat 4% of their body weight each day and require protein and other balanced nutrients for health and steady growth. We augmented their feed with garden vegetables and vegetable scraps and the occasional bucket of organic bread from our neighbor’s family bakery.
We were fortunate enough to have an abundance of wild apple trees nearby, and we foraged dozens of bushels of apples throughout the autumn. Collecting wild food is labor intensive, but the upside is that it is free. You can also try and talk to your local grocer about setting aside produce they intend to throw away, and micro-breweries might be willing to give you their spent brewers’ grain.
They’ll need plenty of clean water, which was our biggest challenge. They would often tip over their water bucket, and their snouts, dirty from rooting all day, meant that water needed to be changed often. When October came around, the garden hose froze, and we were hauling buckets of water from the house. This was not ideal.
You will benefit from having a good system for providing your pigs with water. The farmers that we bought our pigs from had nipple waterers, and they were very happy with that system. You can hook the nipple waterers to a garden hose or plumb them properly. Some people use a large food-grade barrel, though this may not work in winter.
Pigs also need a wallow area, which is a large shallow hole filled with water. They roll around in water/mud to cool down. We used a small plastic children’s pool for the pigs. Once they outgrew that, we found an area that made a natural wallow for them. Having a good wallow reduced the number of times the pigs tipped over their water bucket. Maybe they were trying to tell us something!
6. Pasture & Space
They’ll spend all day digging up roots and bugs, happily munching away. We had about half an acre of pasture for the four pigs. By October, they had tilled, fertilized, and rooted the entire pasture. If you plan to have pigs every year or year round, you would want multiple pasture areas so that you can rotate the pasture, which will keep your land healthy.
Pigs raised on the same land, repetitively, can introduce problems (worms.) A happy pig with space to roam is a far less troublesome pig. They never tried to escape, the fence was never “tested” or damaged, and the pigs loved to race one another back to the gate when we called them for food.
Don’t overlook the importance of daily interaction and training with your pigs. Spend time with the pigs every day. They should be accustomed to human contact, and they should know that you are in charge. You need to be comfortable yet assertive with pigs and always alert. Having one of them nip your leg for a little sampling is not unheard of. A tap with your foot and a firm no will often send it squealing off, reminding the pig who is boss.
When you are bringing food to them, be consistent and call “here piggie piggie”. This will teach them to associate that call with food. Should they ever escape, and if you’ve been diligent, this call will probably entice them to come running back for food.
If you are not going to do the butchering yourself, make arrangements with a butcher well ahead of when you need them. Some will require the pigs to be delivered live. The rules for personal consumption versus selling to others differ. To avoid disappointment, find out what the options, prices, and regulations are before you bring your pigs home.
Raising your own pigs for meat is a rewarding endeavor.
Raising your own pigs for meat is a rewarding endeavor. The meat tastes far better than anything you will find at the supermarket. You’ll also have complete control over what goes into your pigs as far as food, drugs, and chemicals. The manure provides essential nourishment for gardens, and you are providing your pigs with a healthy, happy environment in which to live. When it comes to feeding your family, there really is no better way.