I never thought I would raise my own pig, but as Thomas Jefferson once said, “I am an old man, but a new gardener.” Well, I am only 35, and I am but a new pig farmer. Here is what I learned while raising a pig during the summer of 2001:
Why raise a pig?
There are lots of reasons to raise a pig or two in your backyard. It seems like every day we hear stories in the news media about the potential health risks posed by the routine use of antibiotics in animal feeds. Diseases like “mad cow” and foot-and-mouth outbreaks raise further concerns about the safety of commercially-raised meat, and prompt questions about the wisdom of large-scale livestock farm practices. By raising your own pig, you can decide how it is fed, what kind of drugs it is given (if any), and how the animal is slaughtered and butchered.
When we decided to raise a pig on our New Hampshire homestead, we had never raised any kind of animals for food before. Inspired by a neighbor who purchased two piglets, I furiously read and researched all the information I could find on small-scale swine farming. It was a steep learning curve, but within a couple of weeks, we were raising a pig of our own. We were fortunate that our local public library had a copy of COUNTRYSIDE’S own Jerome Belanger’s excellent book, Raising the Homestead Hog. (Ed. note: This book is out of print; however you may find a copy at used book stores or on-line auction sites.) It was an indispensable resource, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy before you take the plunge.
Can you do the big “S”?
If you are new to raising animals for food, like we were, the first big question you should answer is whether you can bring yourself to slaughter your backyard pig. Do not tell yourself that you think you can do it, or even that you will be able to talk yourself into doing it. From the outset, you must regard the pig and the entire enterprise for what it is, a food-growing operation.
Believe me, raising pigs is fun, and they are intelligent and entertaining – but your animal is not a pet. It is easy to get attached to it when it is a cute little piglet. You and your family may even be attached to the animal when it weighs 200 pounds. But no one will be happy if you do not slaughter your pig when it is time, letting it grow to weigh 500 pounds or more and becoming a major consumer of your cash and time. An animal that large is also that much harder to contain, and could pose a safety risk to your family and others. And, by the time your pig gets to that size, it is of no real value to you or anyone else as a food source. The optimum slaughter weight for your pig is 200 to 250 pounds. Anything more than that, and you are putting too much money and too much feed into adding fat, not meat. Remember, one of the reasons you may have decided to raise a pig was to save money and grow healthier food!
I cannot count the number of times people told me that I would never be able to slaughter the pig. For every person who told me that, another would tell me about how their family once raised and slaughtered a pig, only to discover that no one could eat the pig when it ended up on the plate. But my wife and I had no doubts in our mind that we had no interest in caring for a 500 pound pet! We knew that it would not be easy to slaughter the pig, but keeping it would not be an option. Come fall, the pig would be going to the freezer.
I do not want to belabor the point, but it is important. To all those who asked how we could kill an animal that we raised and obviously cared for, I would usually ask whether they were vegetarians. If not, I pointed out to them that one way or the other, they were causing the same thing to happen to animals every time they purchased meat. Then the question I would pose to them would be this: wouldn’t you rather know how your meat is raised, what kind of conditions the animal lived in, what it ate, and whether it was slaughtered in a humane fashion, without suffering? Buying meat in a store may be easier, because you can pretend not to know what really happens on factory farms and in commercial slaughterhouses, but it sure isn’t easier on the animal. My wife and I know that for the time our pig was on the earth, it lived in a veritable pig paradise, especially compared to the animals raised on factory farms. Think about that the next time you have a piece of bacon, or buy ham from the deli.
One, two, three…?
How many piglets should you buy? If it is your first try, I would not buy more than two. Despite what everyone will tell you (even people who know no more about raising pigs than you do), you can raise just one pig. It is better to raise one pig well than to try and fail to raise two. It stands to reason that two pigs will take more time, money, and effort on your part. However, if you do raise only one, do not leave it isolated from people and other animals. I think the reason that our pig never seemed lonely was that we spent a great deal of time in our backyard, playing with our son, working in the garden, and just enjoying the outdoors. After she got used to us, our pig was always happy to see us and happily accepted pats on the head and treats.
Another issue that should guide your choice of how many animals to raise is the manure. It is an obvious point, but it must be said: two pigs produce twice as much manure as one pig. How ever many animals you buy, you need to have a plan to deal with the waste. One consolation: pigs really are naturally clean animals. Our pig would defecate and urinate in only one place in the pen. Because we had just one pig, it was a quick job for me to scoop the manure each day and put it in a large compost bin. Occasionally, I would really muck out the pen and put in fresh soil. That greatly reduced the problem of manure odors, except in the hottest of weather and only in close proximity to the pen.
Where you find a piglet or two will depend on where you live. In New Hampshire, the state Department of Agriculture publishes a weekly market bulletin that contains free classified ads listing all things agricultural for sale, including livestock. Another idea is to check with your state department of agriculture, county extension office, and farm supply stores for information on farms and breeders in your area. Also, check to see if your state has a pork producers association; if so, you should have no trouble finding a breeder eager to sell you as many animals as you need.
Although I had read up on the various breeds of swine, and their various advantages and disadvantages, I just wanted a good pig. And as luck would have it, that is what we found. As near as I could tell, our pig was a Tamworth cross. It cost $65, and was six weeks old to the day when I picked it up. Since I did not have a large pet carrier or a cage to put the pig in, I simply spread a tarp in the back of our SUV, and put in the pig. It worked out okay for me, but you might want to take into consideration other possible ways to transport your animal.
Success or failure in your new pig-raising enterprise may hinge on one of your earliest decisions, about where and how to contain your pig. My advice is this: build the pen strong, and build it as if it needed to keep a mouse contained. Piglets are escape artists (as I learned), and you will not enjoy pig raising if you are constantly having to catch escaped animals. So do it right the first time. Read all you can about pens and fencing in books and on the internet. Again, your choices have to factor in how much fencing will cost. But a shoddy fence could end up costing you a piglet or two, with nothing to show for it.
I have to admit, my first foray into building a pig pen turned out to be a learning experience. That is a nice way of saying the piglet got out! Not once, but twice on the day we brought it home. But after two frantic pig chases through the underbrush and not a few scrapes and scratches, I had learned what I did wrong.
Initially, I built a pen out of posts and rails from small trees that I cut down on our property. It was woefully piglet-porous. I had planned to copy a neighbor’s example and use electric fence as a cost effective way to fence in a large area for our pig. But with a toddler in the household, I wanted to have at least part of the area surrounded by conventional fence. So I constructed a pen near our garden and compost pile, of approximately 8′ x 12′. The location made it relatively unobtrusive, and there was plenty of shade, a necessity for pigs especially during the hot summer months. On three sides, the pen was made of rough posts and rails. The back wall was open to a wooded area surrounded by electric fence.
No sooner had I placed the pig in the pen than she made a beeline for the woods. When she reached the wire, almost without pausing she scooted under the bottom strand and out into the great beyond! After about a half hour, with the help of my wife I managed to catch the piglet, and put her back in the SUV’s cargo area. Then I quickly improvised a fence from posts and welded wire fencing to enclose the open side of the pen.
Once again, I placed the piglet in the pen. She headed right for her earlier exit, and after about a minute’s investigation and probing, she managed to root under the fence wire and make another run for it. After another chase and more reinforcing, I set out for the nearest home supply store (a half hour away). Returning at dusk with a roll of welded wire fence, I worked furiously by the dying light of a flashlight to fashion a stronger pen, one that proved to be enough to hold our pig. But I would say that the wire fence alone would not have been enough, without the rigid post-and-rail fence that I had originally constructed to support it.
After about a month, when our pig was very tame and welcomed our company (not to mention a good ear scratching, yogurt, and other treats), I re-strung the electric fence wire, adding another strand as close to the ground as possible below the two other strands that I had already strung. Then I reopened the back of the pen and held my breath. For the first week, the pig never left the original pen area! Free to explore a much wider zone, she chose to stay in the secure environment of her pen. When she did eventually venture out into the wooded area, it only took a couple of shocks from the fence for her to learn the new boundaries of her home. Each time she received a shock, she would run back to the smaller pen. That told me that even if she did manage to escape, she would not go far. She would eventually escape one more time, when I mistakenly left the electric fence off (on September 11 of all days), but a neighbor and a passing motorist managed to lead her back to the pen.
What kind of shelter will you provide? If you get your pig in the spring and slaughter it in the fall, you probably do not need an elaborate shelter. In the early months, our piglet found shelter in a heavy-duty plastic doghouse, extra-large size. Why a doghouse? Because we had one already, and it did not cost us anything to let the pig use it for a while.
Later, when it outgrew the doghouse, the pig took shelter in a simple lean-to which I constructed out of scrap lumber and a heavy duty plastic tarp. Make sure that it is sturdy, though, because pigs love to rub against anything that can be used as a scratching post, including shelters and fence posts. But when it comes to shelters for your pig, you have many options, and you can find an endless number of designs for shelters and sheds in books and on the Internet. Just remember that the more elaborate the shelter, the greater the cost. That cuts into your bottom line if part of your motivation for raising a pig is to save money on food.
Pigs need shelter from the sun and relief from the heat. Even in New Hampshire, the summer months can get very hot. The design of our pen area, with most of it in the woods, ensured that our pig could find refuge during the sunniest hours of the day. We would also wet an area of the pen using the garden hose, providing a mud wallow for the pig, something she clearly appreciated.
Pigs need lots of clean, fresh water. As we discovered, pigs will step in buckets and troughs, with the mud and manure on their hooves soiling the water. Following their rooting instincts, they will get their noses under a newly-filled pail or trough and upend it in seconds. It can be frustrating, but you need to keep the water source filled. Some people use nipple waterers, but that requires piping or hosing; that might be more elaborate than what you really need. We found that a heavy-duty, flat-backed water bucket with mounting brackets (purchased at a local feed store) worked well, and could be easily attached to the side of the pen to cut down on spillage.
The basic food for pigs is grain. In some areas, it may be more cost effective to provide corn (as opposed to other grains) as the dietary staple. But I found that I had less waste with grain, and that our pig preferred grain to corn.
In choosing grain for your pig, you have two basic choices: pellets or mash. I preferred pellets, again because I found less waste and that our pig seemed to prefer the pellets. No matter what you settle on, many people raising their own pig will be doing so because they want healthy, naturally-raised meat. That was our primary reason for venturing into pig farming. We wanted to raise our own meat, ensuring humane treatment for the animal and food reasonably free from antibiotics, pesticides, and genetic engineering.
If that is important to you, you may wish to consider raising your pig on organic feed. We decided not to go that route, mainly because of the cost factor involved. In our area, we found that the cost of organic grain was approximately twice that of non-organic feed. We did manage to find, without any difficulty, swine feed that was produced without added hormones, antibiotics, or animal products. For us, that was a good alternative to organic feed.
Part of the experience of raising a pig for the first time is watching and learning. With no previous experience, I had to learn on the job. So each day, I would observe and track how much our pig ate, and how much was left uneaten. Then I adjusted the amount of grain I fed the pig. If the pig ran out of food at any time during the day, I would give it more grain. My goal was to ensure that our pig always had grain available when it wanted it, but not so much that grain was spilled, fouled, or spoiled by rain. After I got a feel for the optimum amount of daily feed, waste of grain was virtually eliminated. Obviously, the amount of feed is never static, since it will always increase as your pig grows. But your goal should be to feed the right amount and no more. Again, as with your waterer, the food trough should be secured in such a way that the pig will not be able to tip it over.
When it comes to feeding your pig, be creative. In addition to the staple feed of grain, our pig had a wide range of food on a daily basis. After a few weeks, when we released our pig into a larger area surrounded by electric fence, she was able to root and forage. Providing enough space so that your pig can do what it does best – root for food – will help ensure the animal’s health and happiness.
We also fed our pig our vegetable table scraps, garden scraps, lawn trimmings and nontoxic weeds and grasses. A favorite treat was apples, old bananas, and generally any kind of fruit. We did not feed our pig any meat products, although she did enjoy egg shells, cheese, and her most favorite food of all – yogurt!
Yes, yogurt. And this is where creativity can really pay off in raising the backyard pig. We are fortunate to live near a major yogurt manufacturer, one that also happens to produce organic and all-natural varieties. Not long after we purchased our pig, I happened to read in our state market bulletin that the plant gives away buckets of yogurt byproduct for animal feed. This product is not intended for human consumption, but by all appearances it is indistinguishable from yogurt, at least to a layman like myself. Once a month, my wife would stop by the yogurt factory and pick up sixty one-quart containers of yogurt, which would go into our chest freezer.
Then, every few days, I would thaw out 10 to 12 quarts in our refrigerator. The pig would get two quarts of yogurt each day, one in the morning and one at night. It was such a favorite of our pig that she would begin squealing and grunting loudly whenever I appeared in the backyard at feeding time, and believe me, a quart would disappear in about three minutes flat!
Once upon a time, pigs roamed free and were allowed to forage for food on their own. Acorns, beech nuts, and other kinds of “mast” were a major food source. Fortuitously, friends of ours have a yard ringed with beautiful oak trees. In fall, those oaks drops thousands of acorns on their driveway, patio, and lawn. They were more than happy to fill a shopping bag for us on a regular basis, and these went to the pig – who delighted in eating them by the handful!
Another idea is to pursue networking opportunities, especially for cooperative purchasing. It was not until after we had slaughtered our pig that I learned that one of the local feed companies offers a bulk discount on feed, giving 100 pounds of grain free for every 500 pounds purchased.
While that is quite a bit to have on hand for one or even two pigs, especially early on in the growing season, you might be able to take advantage of the opportunity by pooling with other pig farmers.
I would stay away from feeding your pig restaurant waste or garbage, especially since it is likely to contain meat products that could pose health risks to your animal and your family. Your state probably has strict rules about how such matter must be treated before it can be fed to animals, for very good reasons. One of the leading theories about how the recent foot and mouth epidemic in Britain started is that pigs may have contracted the disease from eating garbage from a restaurant that contained illegally imported, infected pork.
One mistake that I made was that I did not have a clear plan in mind for how we would slaughter our pig. As the summer wore on, I kept telling myself that I had to find someone soon. Finally, I started asking around at feed stores. I found people who do the meat cutting, but could not find anyone who actually slaughters animals. I did find that I could send our pig to the one USDA-certified slaughterhouse in our state for a reasonable price, but I hedged on that one. I wanted to find another option.
After discussing the problem with my pig-raising neighbor, I learned the name and address of a fellow in the next town who does meat cutting, mainly for hunters. My neighbor also told me that he was planning to slaughter his two pigs himself, and offered to give me a hand with mine. Understanding that it probably would not be a very pleasant experience for me, I also realized that slaughtering the pig at home would be more humane for the pig. So I took my neighbor up on his offer. We would slaughter the pig at home.
If you transport the pig to a slaughterhouse, then you can have your pig slaughtered any time. But if you want to do it yourself, at home, you need to do the deed when the weather is cool. The optimal temperature is around 40 to 50 degrees – cold, but not so cold that the meat will freeze, because you will need to hang the carcass for at least twenty-four hours, to ensure that all residual body heat has dissipated.
After making arrangements with the meat cutter, we set the date for slaughter. On an afternoon in early October, my neighbor and I slaughtered our pig. The actual killing was quick and humane, and the pig met its end on the land on which it was raised. Within the space of two hours, the pig was skinned, gutted, and cut in half. After hanging the two sides in our shed overnight, I was off to the meat cutter. The hams, bacon, and shoulders went to a nearby smokehouse, and were ready in about ten days.
But how does it taste?
The meat from our pig is wonderful. Before we raised our own pig, we tended to eat beef and chicken. But our own pork is better than any meat, of any kind, that we have ever eaten. Even though our pig was a little larger than the optimal weight, the meat tends to be on the lean side. The range of cuts-ham, tenderloin, chops, roasts, and bacon -ensures that we do not get tired of eating pork. I would say that we are actually eating less meat, since we have virtually stopped buying chicken and beef from the store. The versatility of pork also ensures that there are almost countless ways to prepare it.
We have also enjoyed sharing meat from our pig with family and friends. Some of the people who thought we were crazy for raising our own pig have been the most enthusiastic about the meat that we have given to them. One friend even wants me to raise a pig for him next year!
So, looking back I can say without reservation that raising a pig in our backyard was a great experience. It went remarkably well, and we were tremendously satisfied with the end product. I have spent the cold winter months dreaming about my plans for next summer. Give it a few thoughts yourself, and you might find that raising a backyard pig is the right choice for you, too.