Pigs!

We figured the five years that have gone by since our last pig-raising is long enough, and so we re-pigged at the beginning of July. Meet Buster, Malcolm, and Nellie.

Our previous pigs (Doc, Spot, and Tiny) were mutts, a genetic mash-up created by a local pig farmer who has since gotten out of the business. Our current pigs are true-blue Large Blacks, heritage pigs known for their ability to forage. We ended up with heritage pigs despite the fact that I’m not a big believer in them.

Heritage breeds came about because someone, somewhere, mixed and matched a bunch of different pigs until he came up with a pig that suited his requirements. If he was a farmer in a cold climate, with access to plenty of forage but not much grain, his breed would of course be designed to thrive in those particular conditions.

But no two pig farmers have identical conditions, and even if you’re working in a cold climate with plenty of forage, seems to me that you’re crazy to limit yourself to the gene pool of one particular breed. Sure, start with Large Blacks! But any pig farmer worth her salt will look far and wide for pigs that can improve her herd with, say, good mothering instincts, or docility, or fast growth.

Nevertheless, we ended up with Large Blacks because, at the time that we needed to buy piglets, they seemed to be the best local option. When we bought them, they were eight weeks old, weighed about forty pounds, and had just been weaned. They’d been bred by a very nice couple who live a couple hours from us, so Kevin built an enclosure in the back of the truck, and away we went.

Anyone who’s ever tried to catch a pig, even a small pig, even in an enclosure, knows that it’s not so easy. You have to grab them by the hind leg and lift them, squealing and squirming, to wherever it is you want to put them. First go-round, that was from their pen to the truck. Second go-round was from the truck to their new pen – 2200 square feet that we’ve fenced off in the woods.

At first, they were very skittish. And it’s not hard to understand why – we’d taken them away from their siblings, their mother, and everything that was familiar and plopped them down in a new place, where all they had was each other. As of today, four weeks later, they’re much better. They’ve come to recognize that Kevin and I are the bringer of all good things (i.e. food), and they no longer take refuge in a far corner of the pen when we appear.

They come investigate when we go into the pen and they happily eat out of our hands, but they’re still not completely at ease. The difficulty we’ve had getting them comfortable with us has surprised us, since the last batch of pigs settled in right away, and within days would come running toward us when they heard us coming.

I blame heritage breeding. Specifically, I blame their ears.

Those of you who are familiar with Large Blacks know that they have a very distinctive characteristic (other then being large, and black): their ears grow to flop over their eyes. The point of this, I’m told, is to protect their eyes as they forage. But I think it’s a serious design flaw as it renders them both blind and deaf in one fell swoop.

A pig that can’t see or hear very well is a pig that startles easily. When sounds, or movement, do penetrate, the poor things can’t gather more information to assess whether this is some kind of threat, or just humans bringing dinner.

Even so, they’re settling in. They seem to enjoy their pen, and they’ve burrowed out a couple of favored napping spots (napping being their second-favorite activity, after eating). We try and spend some time socializing them every day, and they’re getting more used to us.

Their personalities asserted themselves early. The smallest one, Buster, is the most intrepid. He’s the first to come to overcome suspicion and approach either us, or anything new in the pen. The biggest one, Nellie, is a bit of a bully, and she spooks easiest of the three. Malcolm seems to be in the middle in every sense: weight, wariness, spirit of adventure.

These pigs will have short lives. In about four months they’ll reach slaughter weight (about 250 pounds), and we’ll take them to a nearby USDA slaughterhouse (Adams Farm, in northern Massachusetts). Meantime, we want to make their lives as happy and comfortable as we can. They’ll have a steady supply of good things to eat (including the hickory nuts and acorns that rain down around here in the fall), showers on hot days, and plenty of room to root and run.

We do this because we like both pigs and pork, and we want to make sure that any pig we eat was raised well. The best way we know to do that is to raise them ourselves. And so we welcome Buster, Malcolm, and Nellie to the homestead.

8 people are having a conversation about “Pigs!

  1. Accidental Mick says:

    I’m pretty sure I mentioned before about my daughter and her partner starting a smallholding. First came the chickens. Four, all different breeds as the wanted to see for themselves which was the best for them. Right from the start, the friendliest, most approachable and the best layer was the hybrid which emphasises some of points above.

    However pigs “is” different. Obviously, the climate range in the UK is much smaller than yours so the it is easier to find a heritage breed that suits. There are very many regulations in the UK about keeping pigs and slaughtering them. For example, whilst you are allowed to slaughter them on the farm, the meat is not then allowed to leave the farm and in some extreme cases (which I didn’t really understand) only the person who did the deed is allowed to eat the resulting meat.

    Anyway the first pigs arrived last weekend. They are Oxford Sandy and Black, their names are Chops, Sausage, Pork and Crackling and they are ridiculously cute.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2b/Oxford_Sandy_and_Black_Sow.jpg/220px-Oxford_Sandy_and_Black_Sow.jpg

  2. Hello! I really enjoy your blog. I especially loved the mystique of farming post. I just wanted to say we’ve raised large blacks a few times and have found those personality traits as well. However, we have raised Gloustershire old spots( pure and crossed) the last couple years( we raise 60ish pigs a year) and while they share the same floppy ears as large blacks they are the friendliest least reserved pigs I’ve ever known! We have American Guinea hogs as well- a slow growing black hairy pig, amazing meat, with little stand up ears. Not at all aggressive, but very reserved and wary despite the same care and management as the GOS. So my 2 cents, I share your impressions of the large blacks but I don’t think it’s the ears!

    • Heide, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I’m very glad to hear about the experience of someone who’s tried more breeds, and has a better basis of comparison.

      Since I wrote this, our pigs have definitely become friendlier and less wary. They come running to greet us in the morning (when they’re hungry), but care a lot less in the afternoon (when they’re not). They’ve learned that getting scratched on the back feels pretty good, and they’ll hang out around us whenever we go down to the pen. But they don’t interact the way our other pigs did, and they still sometimes spook at sudden movements or noises.

      Should we do this again, perhaps an old spot cross would be just the ticket.

  3. Do you worry about the potential stress on your pigs as you transport them to the slaughterhouse if your aim is to make their short lives as stress-free as possible? Wouldn’t a mobile slaughter service be a better option?

    And, as I recall, you did the killing yourselves last time. What changed?

    thanks! Your adventures in sustainability is utterly fascinating.

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