Keeping pigs for pork and bacon can be a very enjoyable experience. Pigs are responsive animals and take well to close attention and general fuss. When kept extensively they spend their days in a determined search for food or simply sleeping and relish human attention. You could quite happily sit by a resting pig on a bed of straw for hours, giving them a scratch and responding to their grunt with a grunt! Hopefully the higher welfare will pay off and at the end of the day it is what goes on the trailer to the abattoir that counts, ideally a happy healthy pig that has, unlike many others lived a contented life without stress. Into the sausage maker they go sublimely curious of their fate.
You may wince at their demise, but feel exhilarated when tucking into a sausage sandwich courtesy of your own pigs. Very few pigs make it to old age and many that do, do so miserably, often permanently confined to a minimalistic home with pellets for breakfast. So if you can, why not make best use of traditional breeds for their hardy but often friendly outdoor nature and give them a life they deserve, if you have limited room make up for it with greater attention and affection, just don’t get too attached!
A porker may be ready for slaughter at six months of age and a single pig may provide enough pork for a family of five to have a weekly meal for five or six months. There are many sceptics out there that struggle to believe home reared pork is any better than butcher or supermarket produce but the truth is, very little commercially produced pork, sausages or bacon can beat the freshness or flavour of home produce. Unfortunately many people are deterred from keeping pigs, because they are often seen to be hard to handle, smelly, aggressive, destructive, belligerent and requiring of a great deal of feed. When kept on a small scale within a natural or semi natural environment little could be further from the truth. In fact the main reason for all these common issues with pigs is the way in which they are managed by the farmer. Pigs are often quiet and they prefer the shelter of woodland with trees to rub against, twigs for nest building, a varied diet and plenty of dry shelter. The intensity of some commercial and domestic environments such as sty’s and straw barns offer little of interest to a particularly intelligent animal, leading in part to boredom and destructive habits, stone chewing is a sign of boredom and will usually occur in small outdoor pens. They also tend to become fat in such environments. Despite this, their ability to designate an area as a latrine and their general tidiness which is most notably seen when kept confined, has led to their regular confinement to such environments. This is usually out of necessity by the farmer to keep a large number of pigs with easy and controlled management to make them profitable. However it is usually their confinement and great numbers that creates the pig farm smell that many people are familiar with. Furthermore with correct management including a wallow for hot days they are less likely to resort to rolling in their own urine to keep cool.
One of the great things about pigs is their great hardiness and resistance to pest and illness they tolerate cold saturated soils surprisingly well and rarely suffer from foot problems Their skin is tough, they heal well and most traditional breeds are rarely if ever aggressive unless particularly provoked. Even boars of many breeds can become very tame and docile.
In comparison with sheep, pigs are weaned earlier and are cheaper to purchase. This often means they are the first large livestock that new smallholders choose to keep. For beginners that do not wish to breed their own the best option is to buy weaned pigs for fattening of either sex at usually 8 weeks of age or over. Castration is unnecessary for those intended for use as porkers as boar taint is unlikely to affect young pigs. If porkers mate when they reach maturity at 6 -8 months it is not of concern because they will be slaughtered well before any substantial growth of the foetuses. Pigs are particularly prolific animals, capable of at least two litters a year with often in excess of 8 piglets in a litter, particularly from experienced sows. On rare occasions it may be possible to have in excess of 16 in a litter, although such numbers prove troublesome as most sows only have 12 or 14 teats, not all necessarily operational. Some breeds such as the Large White are notably more prolific than others this is a result of the careful selection and improvement of the breed for commercial use.
There are 10 breeds of pig native to Great Britain. Although the Hampshire breed, established in the USA could also be regarded as a native breed due to its origin in Hampshire, England which would bring the total to 11. Each breed has its unique attributes, they sometimes vary depending on the specimen, strain and source but all have some value to the domestic farmer. If you decide to keep breeding stock to produce weaned pigs for sale it is worthwhile purchasing pedigree stock. By purchasing pedigree pigs you can be sure at least as far as possible of the pig’s ancestry, ensuring you have pigs that have the correct attributes for the breed. It will also be possible to register, sell and exhibit your own pedigree stock. This will help in the preservation and continuation of a breed. The breed/s most suitable for you will depend on your requirements and circumstances. Each environment and everyone’s circumstances are unique. Pigs can be kept permanently in confined pens or sty’s which may be the best option for those with suburban gardens or small yards. On the other hand you may have a spare grass paddock or area of rough ground in which they can be left to roam extensively all year if necessary, although winter indoor accommodation on some wetter sites will help prevent excessive poaching to the soil. If you have woodland of at least half an acre (preferably over one acre) in size a pig could be left to its own devices all year and may require little more than a secure boundary fence and rudimentary shelter, with the occasional feeding depending on the size of the natural larder and time of year.
One of the most noticeable features of domestic pig breeds is their ears, they can be pricked, lop or semi lopped. Lop eared breeds are generally most docile, their ears helping to hide people from view and protect the eyes from thorny plants. These may prove the most easy to handle, being somewhat slower in nature. Prick eared breeds are often more alert and lively in habit, the Tamworth and Large White are two notable examples.
Domestic pigs are often fantastically coloured and patterned making them a surprising attractive and unique addition to a smallholding. Coloured pigs as opposed to white pigs are considerably less likely to suffer from sun burn making them suitable for extensive rearing on exposed sites.
All native pig breeds are large in size potentially making them dangerous animals around children and vulnerable or disabled people. The prime pork breeds Berkshires and Middle Whites are smaller than most but grow and mature quickly and can still be more than a handful if you want them to do something they don’t want to.