PHOTO: Ketzirah Lesser Art Drauglis/Flickr
Of all of the farm animals out there, pigs may be the most misunderstood. Phrases like “sweating like a pig,” referring to someone as being “useless as teats on a boar hog” and calling someone a “dirty pig” are examples of this disconnect. (Pigs don’t sweat, the number of teats on a male pig are an indicator of the mothering ability of its female offspring, and pigs are actually relatively tidy animals!) Starting a hog-raising business, you might find information out there that’s equally as off-base. From common terminology, to simple husbandry and selecting your stock to raise pigs for meat, there’s a lot to understand before you venture into the hog-raising business.
The basics of pig farming can be made clearer when you understand some of the terminology used among hog farmers. As you read this article and do your research, keep in mind these terms:
- Pig, hog or swine: used interchangeably, meaning any member of the porcine family.
- Piglet: an unweaned baby pig
- Runt: a small, weak piglet
- Boar: an uncastrated male pig
- Barrow: a castrated male pig
- Farrowing: giving birth
- Gilt: a female pig that has not farrowed
- Sow: a female pig that has farrowed
- Suckling pig: a piglet processed for tender meat
- Feeder pig: a pig sold to be finished for meat
- Grower: a pig being raised for meat
- Finisher: a pig nearing processing weight
- Herd: a group of domesticated pigs
- Sounder: a group of wild pigs
Hog raising has become a very industrialized enterprise. While pigs are pigs, natural hog raising and raising pigs for meat on a small scale require a different way of thinking. You have a few options regarding your management style and scope of operation.
A farrow-to-finish farmer breeds pigs and raises the piglets from birth to market. Breeding pigs requires more advanced knowledge, husbandry and facilities, but it allows you to control your animals’ whole life cycles and create your own lineage of hogs.
If breeding is not for you, a grow-out system allows you to purchase pigs from another farmer and raise the pigs from weaning to slaughter. Many farmers find this to be a more attractive option because they do not need to keep a boar (or do not need access to a boar) and do not need facilities for farrowing. On the negative side, it can be difficult to find animals that meet your needs—a certain age or breed, for example—that are for sale from reputable sources. Also, the older the piglet, the more you will have to pay to purchase it for your farm.
As opposed to confinement production, pasture raising allows pig farmers to keep their animals in a natural setting, on pasture and in woodlots. When properly managed, this production system can benefit animal health and the health of the land. Pigs can forage for some of their calories, and by eating natural seeds, nuts, grubs and more, the flavor of their meat can be influenced. Pasture-raised pork is a hot seller at farmers markets and to restaurants, plus it could become a favorite for your dinner table.
Preparing For Pigs
Pigs are naturally curious and intelligent, and these traits make pig farming a venture that requires thought and planning. Before starting a hog-raising business, be sure your property is ready.
Choose A Site
Site location is important, as hog manure can carry pathogens, and potential runoff needs to be directed away from vegetable gardens and water sources. There’s not a lot of information available about how much space you need for each pig. It depends, really, on the number and size of pigs, the condition of the land, and the foraging that’s available to them there. Michael Fournier, county extension director of Penn State Extension in Bucks County, Pa., suggests a minimum of 50 square feet per pig, preferably more.
Pigs also require a wallow—a muddy watering hole—to regulate their body temperature, even in cold weather.
Housing for natural hog raising doesn’t need to be fancy, but it does need to be stout. Pigs are surprisingly strong and destructive animals. If you’re rotating your hogs through a pasture system, a hog tractor—a moveable structure—can be a good investment. A 4-foot-high, three-sided shelter with a dry area underneath is all that’s needed as a reprieve from the elements.
Pigs will huddle up to keep warm in winter, though they’ll appreciate a thermal layer of straw bedding in the coldest weather. Any shelter needs to be well-ventilated, whether it’s cold or hot outside.
Fencing must be strong and preferably electrified. If pigs escape, they can cause serious damage to your and neighbors’ gardens. Because they love to root with their noses, it’s possible for them to dig out of enclosures. Bury your fence by 12 inches, or as Fournier suggests, put a strand of electric wire inside the pen at ground level to keep them away from the fence.
“Do not put the electric wire across the pen entrance,” he says. “The pigs will remember it and will be reluctant to go out the gate when it’s time to go to the butcher.”
Getting Starter Pigs
Think about the best time to bring pigs to your farm. Traditionally, hogs were butchered in the fall, when weather turned cold enough that the meat would not spoil upon processing. Today, many farmers prefer to not carry their animals over the winter because feeding becomes more expensive and caring for them becomes more labor intensive. If you have a farrow-to-finish operation, you’ll always have sows to care for, but you can plan your breeding so you don’t have piglets during winter. In a grow-out operation, you can plan to send your pigs to processing before winter hits.
Source your pigs from a farmer with a good reputation. You want healthy animals that produce the type of meat you’re after. Some breeds are known for lean meat, while others are prized for their lard properties, and within breeds, you’ll find variations between breeding lines. Get to know farmers and breeders. It might take a few tries before you find the hogs that will thrive on your land and in your management style.
The Livestock Conservancy, an organization committed to protecting and promoting rare livestock breeds, points out that most pig breeds are adaptable to any climate, given the proper shelter and wallow areas.
“When choosing a breed, consider temperament,” the organization recommends. “Some breeds are calmer than others, and animals will vary in temperament from farm to farm.”
With these ideas in mind, you can choose between heritage hog breeds and commercial hog breeds.
Heritage Pig Breeds
Heritage pigs are defined by The Livestock Conservancy as:
- being a true genetic breed, reproducing the breed type when mated with another of that breed
- being an endangered breed or a breed that was once endangered
- having a long history in the U.S., having been present since 1925; if the breed was more recently imported, it must be globally endangered
- having purebred status, either registered as purebred or being an offspring of registered purebreds
Heritage pig breeds to consider when raising pigs for lean meat include Hereford, Gloucester Old Spot, Mulefoot, Red Wattle and Tamworth. Heritage pig breeds you might look at when raising pigs for charcuterie and less-lean meats are Guinea Hog, Large Black and Ossabaw Island.
Commercial Pig Breeds
Commercial breeds used in industrialized pork production tend to be leaner than even the lean-meat heritage-pig breeds. Breeds that have been developed for confinement raising and efficient meat production include Berkshire, Chester White, Duroc, Hampshire, Landrace, Poland China, Spotted Pig and Yorkshire.
Some small-scale farmers raising pigs for meat like a cross between a heritage pig breed and a commercial pig breed, such as a Duroc-Large Black cross.
Raising pigs outdoors requires less management than raising pigs in indoor confinement situations. You need to carefully manage the land and rotate pigs through pastures so they don’t damage areas or cause nutrient overload, but for the most part, you do not have to clean up manure and be concerned with health issues that arise from confinement.
Feed management will depend somewhat on the area where you are raising pigs and on the age of the pigs. Pigs in woodlots will be able to forage for more food than pigs in pasture. Pigs kept in confinement will need all of their nutrition provided to them. Cooked food scraps aren’t great for pigs—it’s like junk food—but leftover raw produce is a healthy treat. You might also be entertained by feeding your hogs leftover squash and apples, especially, because pigs tend to be very enthusiastic about eating these foods.
Pigs do require a ration of grain, and you can formulate your own with the help of a veterinarian or nutritionist at your local feed mill, or you can find grain formulations at any feed store for every age and stage of growth.
If organic or non-genetically modified feeds are important to you, pay attention to your feed sources, as most pig feeds are corn- and soy-based.
Water must be available to pigs at all times, either in a trough or through a nipple waterer. A nipple waterer is convenient because you don’t have to worry about keeping a trough full. It still requires attention, as the water line or hose should be buried or kept out of the pigs’ playful-yet-destructive reach. You should check it twice each day.
Feeders and water troughs need to be made of durable material because pigs are rough on objects in their area. You can find plans for DIY feeders, though you might find yourself building more than one per year if your pigs are especially industrious. The tough-plastic troughs available for sale at farm stores are good bets; galvanized metal troughs are too easy for large pigs to bend.
A veterinarian can help you with a health plan for your herd. A few things to know when you are getting started include:
- Pigs are subject to many diseases. Like any livestock, you should quarantine new animals before introducing them to your herd.
- Only purchase new pigs for your herd from reputable sources with healthy animals.
- Keep a stress-free environment to keep your animals healthy. This includes always having at least two pigs because pigs are social animals and want companionship.
- Fournier recommends deworming when pigs are 125 pounds. Work with your veterinarian on a deworming program, and rotate pastures appropriately.
After all of the work you’ve put into pig raising, at a certain point, it’s time to send your pigs to processing. This usually happens at around 250 pounds. The time it takes to get to this weight will depend on the breed and your management style but is usually around 8 months of age.
Before you even bring pigs to your farm, you should have a plan for processing. You might decide to do the processing on your own farm for meat you will eat at home, or if you plan to sell your meat, you should start up a working relationship with a local processor.
From here, you need a pork-marketing plan for your hog-raising business, and really, the fun of raising pigs for meat is just beginning.