Orangutans with doughnuts

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This is part of a pig series cross-posted at the Washington Post.

In Yiddish, there are two words for eating: essen is simply to eat, and fressen is to eat like a pig. Keeping pigs has given us the chance to observe fressing up close. And, although whoever coined the adage about not wanting to see the sausage made wasn’t going quite this far back in the process, he may as well have been. It isn’t pretty.

Pigs eat a lot. And they eat like pigs. They spread their food all over the place, they grunt noisily, and they chew with their mouths open. They climb over each other to reach the food, and fight each other for the last scrap of something delectable

In one respect, though, pigs get a bum rap. No matter who tells you otherwise, pigs will not eat everything. And, even among the things they will eat, they have definite preferences. They are very fond of fish and fish skins. They love eggs, cooked or raw. Any kind of grain – bread, noodles, oatmeal – makes them very happy. They are not, however, overly fond of vegetables.

You’d think that the pig snout would be a blunt eating instrument if there ever was one, but it turns out pigs can use their snouts with remarkable delicacy and discernment. We’ll pile all our scraps into one bowl – fish skins mixed with pizza crusts combined with cucumber peels – in the hopes that the unappetizing peels will get snarfed up with the enticing skins and crusts, but that is not what happens.

We spread the snacks over the length of the long trough (long in the hopes that it avoids food fights, but the pigs all want the same morsel no matter how many other morsels there are), and the three snouts go in grunting. They push the food, and each other, around, and there is general mayhem. When the smoke clears, the fish skins and pizza crusts are gone, and the cucumber peels – every last one of them – remain in the trough. It’s uncanny.

Over the next several hours, some of the cucumber peels will disappear, and by the next day they’re usually all gone. There is at least one thing, though, that they simply won’t eat. They hate cabbage. The couple of times we’ve given it to them it has sat in the trough for days until we clean it out and let it get swallowed up by the pen. Ashes to ashes, cabbage to mud.

Watching a pig eat sheds some light on the eating habits of our own species. Animal protein? Yes please. And simple carbohydrates in the form of bread, pasta, and sugar. They, like us, have marked preferences for the fatty and the calorie-dense.

Many years ago, I interviewed an animal nutrition expert who’d been hired to design a diet for a zoo’s orangutans, who had lately gotten terribly fat. He found out that their obesity problem dated to when a local doughnut shop had started donating all its stale doughnuts to the zoo. The orangutans, it seems, had been getting the lion’s share.

Give orangutans leaves and fruits, and they maintain an appropriate weight even in captivity. Give them doughnuts – fatty and calorie-dense – and they get fat almost immediately. This is as much a problem for humans as it is for orangutans, but it works just fine for animals that are supposed to gain 240 pounds in six months.

We are all of us fressers.

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Comments

  1. I recall Dad’s satisfaction with one batch of pastured hogs — 3/4ths made an average 220 pounds, with 1/10th over 270, in five months and two days. Dad got to selling on yield-and-grade, rather than scale weight, on advice because his hogs routinely produced less fat per carcass than market average. Dad managed his own breed-rotation program using Duroc, Chester White, Hampshire, and others. He included Spotted Poland in his foundation herd, before my time. He deliberately bred for a lean type, healthy hog that did well on his pasturing scheme.

    I wonder if hogs are as distrusting about root vegetables — potatoes, beets, and mangel-wurzel? They sure do relish digging, this seems like a useful tie-in.

  2. Pigs are so interesting; and yes they wont eat cabbage; a butcher friend told us that they, like us get gas from it 🙂 A word of warning…they DO love fish, and must not get too much or the meat will taste fishy. Maybe not feed any for 4-6 weeks before butchering? Not sure how long it would take…….

  3. Interesting about the cabbage. Our pigs thrive on cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, rape, etc which are all part of the same family of cole crops. We plant these out in our fields. It might be a learned thing, that is to say the pigs may need to learn that the cole family is good eating – high in protein and other good nutrition. Perhaps you should sit down over brussel sprouts with them and set a good example of fine dining. Napkins optional. 🙂

    • Your pigs likely didn’t need the stuff that’s in cabbage or cucumbers that day. Since we started using cell rotation with our herd, we’ve been really surprised by the preferences of different groups of pigs. One group will devour cucumbers and squash, while another will not touch them. Some of our pigs love onions and won’t touch tangerines. They are all given the same base ration of barley, wheat, oats, and flax that everybody loves, but when it comes to snacks, each group has preferences. I think pigs eat what they need nutritionally. And, much of what they need is seasonal. Pretty much everyone here will turn their nose up at oranges in August. But, when it’s orange season (winter) here in Florida, they eat them right up. In November, they need that extra Vitamin C, I suppose. Our pigs even steal based on what’s ready to harvest. The sweet potatoes are left alone unless it’s the week that they should be ready. When I walk out to harvest them, I find that a group of shoats have used herculean strength to move their pen panels 10 to 20 feet in order to steal my lunch. When they graze our inter-plantings of turnips, rape, collards, kale, mustard, etc. they take the greens when they are medium size, but leave those turnips for later. Pigs are truly amazing animals! Thanks for introducing so many folks to them.

  4. Did I happen to mention just how big the ham steaks on the pigs we had growing up that fed day old dunkin donuts?? HUGE!! and the sweetest 😉

  5. Brad — That’s exactly why we didn’t feel like a heritage breed was the way to go. Farmers all over the country breed their own “lines,” adapted to local conditions and market priorities. Sounds like your father is a very sensible man.

    Myrna — We’ll cut off the fish skins at least a month, and maybe longer, before slaughter. We’ve been warned about fishiness, but nobody we’ve talked to thinks it’s a problem when the pigs are small.

    Walter — That’s hilarious. I love reading about your pigs, and how they eat grass and forage for vegetables. I suspect it is a learned taste — and I imagine they’d learn it pretty quick if we took their nice calorie-dense feed away!

    Trish — I’d have no problem feeding our pigs doughnuts if we had a source! One thing about an animal with a 6-month life expectancy: you don’t have to worry about heart disease.

  6. Well now that is the weirdest thing. We keep our pigs on our vegie block…right smack dab in the middle of 8 acres with mostly kale and cabbage and collards growing. If it’s not a brassica it’s generally a green or a vegie. Every day they get a huge barrowful of greens to eat, and most often it’s the excess leaves of the cabbages, caulis and broccoli. We even double dosed them when one of our sows had mastitis. Within 24 hours her teats were back to normal. Our pigs don’t quibble about cabbage.

    One thing I do know though is pigs like other animals will go for the delectables first and leave the least favoured to last. If you are giving them pizza, and carbs and all those other goodies they just by nature will eat them all to stop the rest from getting the treats. Piggy behaviour from pigs. Then, when they get hungry they sure as heck go back and eat their greens.

    Maybe, just maybe, you are giving them too much to eat over the course of a day, and then due to their choosiness thinking the leftovers represent dislike. Pigs are smarter than you know. It may be you are being duped to give them the treats more often than needed!

  7. You should read The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery, great book, that pig also wouldn’t eat cabbage or onion.

  8. I am not an authority, in fact, I know perhaps… only a bit more about Yiddish than the average non Jewish New Yorker, but I can not believe that there are only two words or phrases for the act of eating in the language; Yiddish, like English, a language I pretend to know quite a bit about, is actually a German language, and, like English, Yiddish is a beautiful bastard (a descriptive my students are always excited by, even after I expalin that the word *bastard* is a liguistic term, used to describe languages like English and Yiddish), a German mixed with Hebrew, the Romance and Slavic languages, that uses the Hebrew alphabet. The notion that a verb or verb phrae in any language, that describes a fundamental act, like eating, sleeping, having sexual intercourse…would be limited to a phrase that is neutral without a context and a negative that implies a context, one that in Enlish might be described with dozens of common phrses–pig-out, eat like a cow, stuff oneself, and so on…is hard to accept, even if one has a very limted knowledge of the subject.

  9. Cath — Your pigs are like Walter’s — all greens, all the time. I think it has a lot do to with what they’re exposed to. And I’m sure you’re right that they’d eat just about everything if they were a little hungrier. We have a feeder in the pen that they can use any time, so the test is whether they like the “treat” better than the food in the feeder. Fish skins, yes! Cabbage, no. But I also have a sense they like variety. They eat other garden scraps, like tomato tops, with a will.

    Laura — Thanks for the link! And I’m glad I’m not the only one with pigs that turn up their snouts at cabbage.

    Goose — Correct, of course. Essen and fressen are just the tip of the iceberg.

  10. I don’t have anything to add to the pig discussion, but if you like German food and German beer and find yourself in Madison, Wisconsin, you should check out The Essen Haus. Everything is served with a side of sausage and the beer comes in big glass boots (1 or 2L) or gigantic stoneware steins (3L). The beer is meant for sharing, of course, unless you can drink 2L of beer by yourself.

    • I love that! And don’t ever underestimate my beer-drinking ability. Much less, Kevin’s!

  11. There’s the difference…you have a feeder in the pen all the time! We only give the pigs a feed in the morning, and occassionally in the afternoon and then that is it for the day. By the time the next feed comes around they are hungry and the routine starts over again. We also don’t buy commercial feed for our pigs and our pigs are deliciously healthy, and it saves a ton of money too!

    • I’d love to do this without commercial feed, but we don’t have anything close to enough scraps and by-products. And we put the feeder in both because we read this is standard operating procedure growing pigs for meat and because we’d like to have the freedom to not be here one day. How’s that for commitment?

      • I love your commitment, because farming is a lifestyle not a noose. We go away too and when we do we then vary how we feed the pigs. That only makes sense. Access to non stop commercial feed though doesn’t gaurantee that your pig will taste as good as it can, or that they will have the will to forage because there is always an easy source of food available. Fromtime to time we throw some grain around for the pigs to scrounge for in amongst all the scraps. Totally understand too though that you may not have enough to feed them from your land.

        Whichever way you do it though, pigs are a great pet/farm animal, and can become great friends too!

  12. We’ve also observed, across species, an animal’s ability to select a calorie-dense option when available. Sadly this applies to Mike and me too. Both of us love the fatty pork crackling and chicken skin over the actual meat. The information on pig dietary preferences is fascinating. I’m starting to get pig envy.

    We grow jerusalem artichokes on the estate as game cover crops. Occasionally we have to clear that crop for rotation into corn etc. No machine can do the job as well as a small group of pigs, which will root and devour the chokes in record time. Knowing how much you love efficiency, I offer this as a potential feeding / clearing idea for you to try.

    Best use for jerusalem artichokes. Even deep-fried, I find them nearly inedible. But if turned into pork crackling, stand back and watch me fressen

  13. I’m with you on Jerusalem artichokes. Never could warm up to them. But we are thinking about what to plant in the pig pen once the pigs are … ahem … finished with it, and I’d love to try that. The problem is that the pen gets almost no sun, and even nasty, woody, tasteless vegetables seem to need sun to grow.

    You’re thisclose to pigs. I can feel it.

    • Even on waste ground, in low sun, those damn things seem to thrive. I suppose anything with a starchy root can rely on those reserves for energy when light is low, and keep growing. They may grown slower but what the hey.

      And, you don’t even need to really plant them. We scatter them on the surface, a tractor ploughs them in at any random depth, and every few years we plough through them again to split the chokes, which thickens the cover crop.

      Which makes me think of another observable phenomenon: why are the things that taste best more difficult to grow than the things that taste like Jerusalem artichokes?

      Pigs might have to wait another year. I made the mistake of visiting the beer tent THEN the goat tent at the county show, and under the influence of some home brew bought an anglo-nubian goat kid. That’s my one new species a year voucher spent…

  14. Sunchokes really like to have lots of sun and rich soil. They grow very well as a wild crop. Running the pigs through them works well because the pigs don’t eat all the tubers but instead scatter them and break them up planting little pieces that then grow as well as fertilizing the area. We grow a lot of sunchokes a.k.a. Jerusalem artichokes for our pigs. They’re for fall fodder.

    I am a sunchoke eater but given a choice between pre- and post- pig I’ll take the bacon raised on sunchokes, pasture and dairy! 🙂