COLUMNS


Going Whole Hog with Heritage Breeds

By Sally Colby


Despite their sometimes less-than-favorable reviews by those who aren't familiar with them, pigs are intelligent, sociable and relatively easy to incorporate into a whole-farm system. Pigs work well on small to midsize farms to produce delicious and nutritious pork for CSA shares or farmers' markets.



A young Gloucestershire Old Spot (GOS) pig stays with its mother and learns to forage in the woods. The GOS was brought to the U.S. from England in the 1900s, and contributed genetics to the American Spot and Chester White.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Beranger/ALBC.

Many small farms that raise pigs have chosen heritage breeds. Jeannette Beranger, research and technical program manager for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), says that there are several reasons for the increasing interest in heritage hog breeds.

"One reason is that people are returning to more sustainable methods of farming," she said. "They're interested in alternatives. Heritage hogs are slower-growing and have more time to develop flavor, so the result is fantastic pork." Beranger added that heritage breeds are good mothers, are more self-sufficient and often require less input than breeds selected for confinement.

People are also interested in heritage breeds because there's a strong cultural connection to some breeds. "These are animals that their grandparents had," said Beranger, "or breeds such as the Guinea Hog that had a strong role in Southern culture as a backyard hog."

Although some of the heritage breeds are successfully raised in more modern, conventional systems, many are raised outside. "Pigs can handle cold and they can handle wet, but they can't handle both," said Beranger. "As long as they have a dry place to get out of the weather, they're pretty resilient. They can be bedded down in huts in winter and can stay comfortable."

Beranger says that pigs being raised outside require good fencing, preferably woven wire or hog panels. "Hog panels are more expensive, but they hold up better," she said. "Pigs can push through or underneath wire more easily. Pigs root around, and if you don't pay attention to your fence line, they can push their way out."

Another fencing option is electronet mesh or hot wire, but pigs can easily tell when the fence isn't hot. Beranger says that the best option is a combination of both solid fencing and hot wire. "On the inside of the fence, use a strand of hot wire 6 inches off the ground and 6 inches away from the fence," she said. "When they hit the hot wire, they'll learn to respect the fence and not dig under it."



The Tamworth breed originated in England and is well-suited for outdoor life.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Beranger/ALBC.

Beranger noted that sometimes when pigs hit the hot wire for the first time, they'll panic rather than backing off and go through the fence. After that, hot wire doesn't work. To avoid this problem, Beranger suggests training young piglets to hot wire by keeping them behind the hot wire with a solid outside barrier that the pigs can't go through. "When they first hit the hot wire, their inclination is to back off rather than go through," said Beranger. "The key is paying attention to fence lines and not going too long without checking them. The other thing is to never underestimate the power of an animal in heat. They may not respect hot wire."



The Guinea Hog is a part of Southern culture, and was often the backyard family hog.
Photo courtesy of Jeannette Beranger/ALBC.

No matter how the animals are being raised, they should receive a feed ration formulated for pigs. "If you put pigs out on pasture, don't expect that they'll get everything they'll need on their own," said Beranger. "They're always going to need supplementation. But if you have a nice, balanced pasture with lots to eat, you can cut the feed bill by about 10 percent." Any animals that are being used for breeding should receive a high-quality supplement to make sure they are fertile and can carry and raise piglets successfully.

Many farmers grow crops for pigs to graze. Beranger says that turnips are pig-pleasers, and that pigs finish well on milo. Acorns, grain scraps, cannery waste, brewers' grains and other feedstuffs that might otherwise be wasted are also good supplements. However, despite the fact that pigs are fairly easy to please when it comes to food, they can have sensitive digestive systems, and any supplemental feedstuffs should be introduced slowly and fed with caution.

Farmers can select from a number of heritage breeds, although some breeds do better in certain areas of the country. "Guinea Hogs do well in the South because they're part of the culture of that area," said Beranger. "Chefs love to tell the story of backyard hogs, and how lard is an important part of Southern cuisine. But don't try to market them in the Midwest, because they're used to larger, commercial hogs."



The Hereford is a good choice for beginners, with a good temperament and ease of finishing out for market.
Photo courtesy of Mark Hess/ALBC.

Tamworth is another popular breed, but Beranger cautions farmers to familiarize themselves with the bloodlines to make sure the pigs come from a line that's been selected for temperament. Gloucestershire Old Spot and Large Black pigs are laid-back and easy to keep. Herefords are ideal for beginners - they're friendly and grow out a little faster than other breeds.

Beranger says that it's important to register heritage breeds for several reasons. Registration gives the animal value, and safeguards them for the long term. "You can prove on paper that this is a purebred animal," she said. "A beginner just starting out with pigs and paying top dollar for an animal should have some assurance that it's a purebred. Any animals that could potentially be sold for breeding should be registered. Also, registration gives the animal an identity. If something happens to the owner and the herd is dispersed and no one has any idea what they are or where they came from, there's no way to prove it without paperwork."

Beranger noted that certain states are creating legislation that will prohibit raising feral hogs, and having registration papers may help ensure that your pigs won't be seized as feral hogs. "The typical fish and wildlife agent is not going to know the difference between a heritage hog and a feral hog," she said. "Some of the heritage hogs are legitimate old breeds that have been around a long time and have registries, but they're similar enough that people who don't know about hogs could easily mistake them for a feral pig. It's an important point that people should consider." Beranger says that Eurasian wild boar genetics mixed in with heritage hog breeds result in an animal that's larger than the original heritage, prolific and more aggressive. Although it isn't a likely scenario on farms with good fencing and good management, wild hogs can potentially breach fences and mingle with domestic heritage breeds.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit organization working to conserve historic breeds and to preserve genetic diversity in livestock and poultry.

For more information on the organization and heritage breeds, visit the ALBC website at www.albc-usa.org.

The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania.