“The hardest part of raising hogs,” we were cautioned, “is letting them go at the end.”
And of course, whoever told us this was right.
We loved our pigs. They were smart, stubborn, curious, and a little unpredictable (kind of like a girl I’m fond of…).
We bought 3 weaner pigs in the early spring. Now, note the spelling, ‘weaner’ not ‘weiner.’ Yes, pigs are kind of tubular in shape, but when one refers to a pig as being a ‘weaner’ it is because they have been recently weaned, not because they are shaped like a hotdog, not because they will end up as a hotdog, and not because they are male.
Our eight week old piglets made the voyage to our farm in a dog crate and left on the deck of a picker truck about 5 months later with a combined weight of over 750 pounds. We fed them hog ration and soaked field peas and they had all the pasture, bushes, dirt, bugs, and space they could want.
It was easy to research and fall in love with many different breeds of pigs. We are drawn to the heritage breeds of pigs, and breeds that are near extinction because we value diversity. We love this wooly mangalitsa breed in particular (maybe some day…).
Once we unloaded our pigs from their dog crate into their warm and cozy stall, we looked at each other and said, “Now what?” Thanks to YouTube and the library, we quickly picked up on the basic needs of caring for the pigs. Following advice from Polyface Farms and Not a Farm Girl, we started our pigs in a barn stall. It was rectangular in shape, and we angled electric wire across one side of the pen to form a triangle. This allowed the piglets to learn to respect the fence without feeling surrounded by it. If panicked, a pig could just crash through. But once they have learned to respect it, you can get away without any charge in your line for a week (that’s not a guarantee, but we got away with it…). After about a week, we moved the pigs outside. First into a horse pen with electric wire at snout height (6in.), then into an area with paige wire on one side and electric on the other, and finally, into some of our forest surrounded with electric fence.
Piglets are just like any other baby. They are amazing to watch, and we spent a good chunk of our days out with the kids watching the piglets be piglets and laugh ourselves silly at the antics they would get into. When they were young, the pigs would often be laying around sunning themselves, but as we’d walk up they would start performing. Chasing each other in circles, running laps, wrestling or playing. As soon as we were out of their line of sight, they went back to laying around.
It was easy to move them from the barn to their first pen. We put peas in the dog crate, a piglet would walk in, the crate would close and the two of us (they were at least 50 lbs. by then) hauled them to their new abode. The next time it came to move the pigs to a new home we made a rookie mistake. Whenever we took our slop pail to the pigs they would follow us around their stall and we foolishly thought we had “trained” them to follow us. Instead of moving to an adjacent pen, we thought we’d move them 100ft. over and that they would follow us with the slop pail. So we set the new pen up and opened the one side of the electric fence and then proceeded to frantically chase 75 pound pigs until it got dark. So that was a lesson well learned. The nursery rhyme of Little Bo Peep has worked really well at mentoring us in sheep and now pig management. “Leave them alone and they’ll come home” is often what happens. Thankfully, they eventually walked back to their old pen to go to sleep and left us tired, grateful, and a little wiser. The next morning, we made a chute with electric netting to connect the old pen to the new pen and they happily followed us to their new home. Ten minutes of
set up resulted in a two minute move. This pen had some old bales in it and most mornings, when we went out to check on them, we would have a small heart attack because they would have disappeared. We’d call for them and, with a collective grunt, three heads, or rumps, would pop out of the bale into which they had burrowed. Then they would trot over to check out what we were bringing for them to eat.
We regularly moved the pigs for several reasons. First, pigs are rooters. They dig, they till, they excavate all the old cars that the previous owners buried in random places. Leaving pigs in one area for too long leads to wallows and wallows eventually turn into big barren patches of concrete. However, moving the pigs after some mild tilling allows them to disrupt the seed bed without compacting the soil too badly, and the result is remarkable vegetation growth and an explosion in varieties of plants once the area is rested. Second, we have a lot of old forest on our property. Which means we have a lot of deadfall. The pigs were great at breaking down old logs, turning them over, busting them open to find bugs and anything else that was edible. A few seasons of pigs in our forest and we are hoping that they will have much of the deadfall turned into fertilizer and that they will clean up a lot of the rosebushes, allowing other varieties of plants and grass to start growing again. We also plan to use them to till up some old hay-bound pasture this year and we will update next summer on their progress. We have learned that each animal is a worker with a job to do. And they are happiest when they are doing that job. Cows love to mow the grass, chickens love to scratch and eat bugs, sheep and goats clip and prune, and pigs till. When you respect the “pigness of the pig” you can have a lot of work done for you, and the weight gain on an animal is really just a pleasant bonus and a savings on feed. A third reason for moving them is because we don’t have a septic system for them. Animals kept in a pen start to stink. Whether its a hamster or a cow, unless you get rid of their poop, it will stink and lead to disease. However, if you move the animals regularly then their poop won’t be concentrated enough to cause problems and will just be fabulous fertilizer. In many cases, such as for pigs, it is a lot easier to move the pigs than to regularly clean out their pens.
Pigs eat a lot. And they will eat anything (they are omnivores). Which means we had zero kitchen waste this year and there was no waste from our garden. Pigs are rapid composters, taking waste and turning it in to one of the most valuable resources you can have for your garden. And they do it a lot quicker that a compost heap.
Our pigs were like pets (“pets with a purpose?”) right up until butcher day. Butcher day was hard. I didn’t do it myself, which was actually harder in a way. I have killed the sheep and chickens that we have raised, and it isn’t ever easy, but I was surprised by how different it was to watch someone else dispatch the animal that you raised. Without a relationship with the butcher (which we are forming over time), it can be difficult to know what their approach to the life of your livestock will be. In the end, everything went as planned, but we noticed their absence frequently throughout the following days, not only in the newly descended quiet on the farm, and in the abbreviated chore times, but also just in a lack of their presence. Pigs are an animal with presence, with personality. And we missed that right away.
Now, we do need to talk about mobile butchering. It is a fantastic service. The butcher that we hired to do the pigs came out to the farm and killed them on site. Pigs weren’t meant to be loaded into trailers and driven down the highway at 100 kilometres an hour. There is nothing natural about it. They are notoriously difficult to herd anywhere that isn’t their idea. The stress that such a move puts on pigs is unfortunate, and also makes for less tasty meat. However, a mobile butchering service takes all of that out of the equation.
So, all story telling aside, is it worth it on the plate? Is it worth raising hogs with way when it comes down to how they taste? Did you really have to ask? This pork is the most flavourful, juiciest, densest pork I have ever eaten. When we make pulled pork in the crock pot with grocery store pork, we can cook it slowly until it falls apart and it can still have a dryness to it. Not these pork roasts. They are moist, they shred incredibly, and the amount of darker meat in this pork is awesome. The bacon? Delicious. The ham? Dense, solid, full of flavour. So filling. The ribs? I’ll tell you after dinner tomorrow.
Our pigs thrived outdoors. And, as a result of having lived a natural life and getting lots of exercise and sunlight and fresh air, they taste great. Far better than grocery store pork. If you want to see how some, possibly most, of the pork in the grocery store is raised click here for an enlightening W5 News feature. Of course the images on the internet aren’t all bad. There are some great videos of pastured pigs like these ones on YouTube. Next year we’ll try to do a better job of getting some video footage of our pigs, or, if you’re interested in buying one, you can come out and meet them for yourself.