I’ll make you a promise.
Once you taste pork raised right on your own property you’ll never want to buy it in the store again.
That taste comes with a price tag, though. I’m not going to lie.
You’ll invest time, money and a whole lot of energy into raising your own pork. For 8-12 months (depending on the breed you raise) you’ll be on call daily to feed, water and care for your animals.
But I promise you, it will be worth it all in the end.
Cheap vs Satisfying
It wasn’t really that long ago that most of the meat consumed by families were raised right on the homestead. If a family didn’t have the means to raise their own animals, they bought their food locally.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to comprehend, but supermarkets as we known them today have been around for less that a hundred years. Piggly Wiggly started in 1913 as the first self service store. Small neighborhood grocers and markets became popular through the 30s and into the 50s, but it wasn’t until the 60s really that the supermarket started to become the place where a majority of Americans sourced their food.
What drives the American consumer today is cheap food and convenience. This has been the foundation on which the chicken , pork and beef industry has evolved to what they are today. In order to provide pork at the absolute lowest cost to the consumer, farming practices changed. It was no longer economical for the small farm to raise food for the local community, and farms got larger in order to spread their costs out further.
Not only did farm sizes increase, but a whole new system emerged out of this drive to get food to the consumer at the lowest price possible. The trucking and packing industries exploded, our dependence on cheap oil deepened and the way the majority of families sourced their food changed forever.
But what have we sacrificed in the crusade for cheap food? This is what the modern homesteader eventually needs to come to terms with. Often times, this reckoning is what will lead to the pursuit of something different. Ultimately, it’s what led our family to raising our own pork right here on the farm.
It comes down to breeds
“Why does your pork look so different than what I buy at the store?”
It’s a question we often hear from customers who have never really tried heritage pork before.
Our pork doesn’t look like what you normally buy at the store. It’s red meat instead of the white pork you might get in a Super Savor pack of chops. It cooks and tastes different too.
The difference often comes down to breed.
Out of the different hog breeds we’ve raised, my favorites are the Berkshire, Gloucester Old Spot and Red Wattle. Their personalities and disposition make it a pleasure to raise these breeds, and their meat is flavorful, well marbled and deeply satisfying.
What you get at the supermarket is quite a bit different. Why? Again, it comes down to economics. Large scale growers under contract with Smithfield and other pork companies need to raise pigs as efficiently and productively as possible. So they choose breeds that have a high food to growth ratio to gain maximum profitability. Raising a hog that takes longer than 6 months to feed out just simply doesn’t work with this scale.
The end result is cheaper, leaner meat at the grocery store that lacks the flavor you get when you feed out a heritage breed. Most people are okay with that.
But if you want a whole different experience with pork, then raising heritage breeds is where it’s at.
Let’s get down to the basics
Okay, so we’ve covered a little about WHY you might consider raising your own pork. Let’s recap:
- Today’s food system is based on economy pricing instead of nutritional value and taste
- Raising your own pork gives you more options that fit your personal values
Now let’s talk about HOW.
What do you need to start raising your own pork?
You’ll need dedicated space to raise pigs. You don’t need a lot of land if you are only raising a few hogs to feed your family. A good rule of thumb for deep litter is about 80 square feet per pig, or about an 8x10ft space. Of course, if you have fenced pasture, you can raise more pigs in a bigger space.
Pigs need shelter to allow them to escape weather and to keep them out of the wind. This simple pig shelter can be used in any space and doesn’t cost a lot to build.
Pigs need access to clean water at all times. Invest in a water tank like this one. I recommend not using rubber bowls as pigs like to drag them and spill them every chance they get. You’ve been warned.
Check with your local co-op or feed store to see what kind of pig feed they have available. You’ll usually have a good choice between conventional feed and non-GMO. Make sure it’s a good mix of 14-16% protein with lysine and other nutrients. Don’t feed just cracked corn. But do supplement with LOTS of garden vegetables and fruit.
Our pigs eat nettles, alfalfa, garden waste, spoiled milk, apples, eggs and just about anything we have on hand. We don’t feed them meat or leftovers from dinner. That stuff goes to the chickens.
On average, it’ll take about 5-8lbs of feed per day to feed a weaned hog out to butcher weight.
Pigs are great escape artists and they get bored easily. When they get bored, they’ll find any weakness that might exist in their fencing and they’ll escape. Good solid hog panels attached to solid fence posts sunk at least 3 feet into the ground will go a long way. Run steel TPosts in between your corner posts spaced out every 4 feet. This will keep your hog panels rigid.
Some breeds like to root more than others. In many cases, it’s wise to bury the bottom of your fencing in the ground to discourage your pigs from rooting underneath. Some people will run a hot wire at the bottom of the fence, about a foot off the ground, to prevent this.
Should I farrow or buy weaners?
Farrowing hogs simply means breeding and raising from birth. We have 2 boars and 4 sows, and we breed and raise our own feeders every year. But we also buy weaned pigs from a few local friends to supplement our herd.
In order to farrow pigs, you need to have dedicated space for your sow and for your boar. Since you’ll need to feed your boar and sow year round, farrowing will require a little more money. You do save a little by not having to purchase feeder pigs, however I still think you wind up spending more money in the end. However, farrowing pigs can be a deeply rewarding experience in and of itself.
Buying weaned pigs gives you more flexibility on when and how you raise your pigs. You could buy in April and butcher in the fall, before the weather turns. This alleviates the cost and burden of feeding additional pigs through the winter months, and is an attractive option to many first time homesteaders. Raising pigs for 6-8 months out of the year also allows you to set up a temporary pig paddock instead of building a permanent system.
Pigs benefit greatly from being with their mama for at least 8 weeks. When buying feeders, never purchase pigs that were weaned earlier than this. Weaning earlier can result in malnourishment or pigs that take longer to grow out to butcher weight.
When to butcher
Most heritage pig breeds will take on average about 8 months to feed out until butcher weight. Some breeds, like the Mangalista, Meishan and Kune Kune will take between 12-14 months. You’ll want to consider this when choosing which breed is right for you.
When it comes to weight, ideally a 300lb live weight is good to shoot for. Any growth above this will be mostly in fat. A 300lb live weight will yield approximately 210lb hanging weight and about140lbs in meat.
What to do with all the poop?
We raise our pigs in straw year round. The straw absorbs the urine and mixes with the manure, helping with the smell and making it easier to handle. All of our pig bedding & manure goes right into the compost pile. After a year of “cooking” it then goes into the market garden to give nutrients and organic matter to the soil we grow vegetables in.
Have you priced good compost recently? This is another way pigs will help pay for themselves, by giving you plenty of manure that will enrich your garden soil.
Steps to take before buying pigs
Pigs can be a rewarding addition to your homestead. They certainly come with their challenges, but a full freezer is a good trade off.
There are a few things you should do before taking the plunge and buying your first pigs.
- Do a little research – seek out people in your local community who raise pigs and ask a lot of questions. Read up on some of the heritage breeds you think you might be interested in. Doing a little research before you take the plunge will help you be better prepared.
- Know your why – why do you want to raise pigs? Yes you want to fill your freezer, but you can do that at the grocery store. Take a few moments and write down the reasons you want to take this step, and then save what you’ve written down for later reflection. Your reasons may change over time, but having a clear understanding of why you are making this decision in the beginning will help give you purpose and clarify your expectations when things don’t go the way you planned.
- Make sure you’re set up – after choosing which breed of pigs you want, spend a little time getting your space set up. How many pigs do you want to raise? Will you put them on pasture or in a fenced paddock? Getting set up well before you bring your first pig home will save a lot of time and stress.
- Start small – pigs are social animals and thrive when they are in good company. So buying one pig is never recommended. However, taking on more you can chew isn’t good either. I recommend starting with two pigs, especially if this is your first time. Two pigs are manageable and will feed your family for quite a while.
Are you ready to start raising your own pork?