“Whatever you do, don’t call them piggies!” was the advice given in the story’s guide to raising pigs. “They are hogs”. This seemed good advice to us, neophytes to farming and animal husbandry. We had decided to expand our farm to include nature’s highly intelligent opportunist, the pig. Avid fans of bacon and ham, and having more milk and whey from our dairy cow than we knew what to do with, hogs seemed a perfect addition to our homestead. In Ireland, they traditionally called pigs “the gentleman who pays the rent”. The storey’s guide said “the smell of pigs is the smell of money.” Although we were more interested in pigs as food, these quotations are quite suggestive of the high status hogs have had in times past. Our first surprise came when we spoke to a neighbour about our desire, and he said:
“So you’re looking for some wieners?”
We said, “no, we want some hogs.”
He replied “but you want them freshly weaned from their mother… you want them small?”
“Yes…” we responded, somewhat sheepishly.
It seems reading can only prepare you for so much when it comes to farming.
And so, we travelled to another near neighbour’s, not 2 concessions from our farm, to meet with a genuine hog farmer who had some piglets… (oops, “weaners”) available. As we talked to this fellow and his family, they told us they were the only farmers they knew about in the county who still had pigs. Everyone else had got out of the business mainly due to the rising cost of feed. High grain prices, coupled with the cost of long distance transportation, mostly to the States for butchery and processing had practically eliminated the profit margins of pork production. They then asked us about our barn, and we replied we had no barn, and were planning to keep the pigs outside on pasture. They seemed surprised by this, and the mother of the farmer said outright “pigs don’t pasture!” This surprised us again, as we could see a few pigs over there in the paddock beside the barn with the cows. “Oh, those are the resting sows. They get to go out between litters.” Ok, so pigs CAN pasture we thought, or at least sows can. And just so you’re keeping up with the game here, sows are pigs that have had at least 1 litter of piglets and are pregnant again, or have had 2 or more litters.
We bought 3 shoats and brought them home. Wait, weren’t we buying pigs? A shoat is a young pig which has been weaned. Two of them were gilts. This means that they were unbred female pigs. The other one was a barrow, or a castrated male pig. Had he not been castrated, he would have eventually become a boar. Still with me? Wanting to give them names, but not wanting to forget that these were to become dinner in the long run, we named them “Lardón”, “Jambón”, and “Bacón Savoureux”. French for tasty lard, ham and bacon. Our first pen for these pigs was a 15 x 30 ft. space directly behind our stable, sharing a wall with it, and having a sloped shed roof for shelter. We figured this would give the cows and horse an entertaining view of the porky proceedings. We had installed a perimeter fence using cedar posts, dug 3ft. deep, and 4ft. high, between which we spanned 2” x 4” welded wire buried 6 inches into the ground. This seemed to meet all of the conditions the guide had set out for us. From the very moment those pigs discovered they were standing on dirt and no longer on concrete, they began to squeal in ecstatic delight, and do what pigs do best, which is root through soil. That pen was able to keep the pigs in for the 5 months it took to get them to the right size, which for us was “bacon weight” or about 220 lbs. This means they have put on a good amount of fat in the belly so they make better bacon than a young lean porker. There were some escapes… 5 in total, all later in the season when almost all of the enclosed space they were on was already turned over to a depth of 2 feet (that area is now incredibly fertile). The pigs evidently were bored, and so tried to escape. Really, this wasn’t so bad. Though the freely roaming porcine did scare the horse quite a bit, he or she would only wander to the manure pile and root through the very fertile soils there. We could always coax the errant pig back with whatever kind of treat was to hand. A carrot from the garden, maybe a handful of choke cherries. A stem of amaranth, or lambs quarters, also known as “pigweed” can always be found where soils are fertile, and it truly lives up to it’s name. I can understand why pigs love the flavour of this spinach like plant. I do too, and it gets us through the early spring as the first green leafy vegetable to show up in the garden, and therefore in countless pasta dishes and sautées. They follow that pigweed right back to the gate and right back in. A few minutes later, after you’ve checked which ingenious way the hogs have outsmarted you this time, repaired the breach for another day, and patted the good critter on the back for returning, you calm the horse and things return to normal. Apparently, pigs are (wisely) sensitive to two wire electric fencing at 4 inches and 12 inches high, but we have not tried this approach. Instead, we built a 10ft. X 10ft. Cedar rail pen lined on the inside with the now repurposed welded wire fencing.
That first year taught us an important lesson about moving pigs around. Since then we have moved the pigpen every time the shoats root up everything inside, ploughing and fertilizing as they go. Under the edges, the plants beneath the fence rails that don’t get turned over, the grasses, legumes and plantains which survived there grow like a rocket and spread back out to make nice pasture for horses or ruminants like sheep or cattle within a season. That is if you don’t use it right away for a garden and just plant that newly plowed and fertilized patch with whatever it is you like to grow. We’ve tried following the pig tractor this year by planting a polyculture with potatoes, sunflowers, pole beans, and pumpkins interplanted, a variation on the native american three sisters, and the whole patch is sky high right now. We’ll leave this garden alone until the fall when the pumpkins are ripe, make pumpkin butter and pies, collect the sunflower seeds and stems for the chickens to eat, dry and store the beans for (ham) soups and next year’s plantings, and dig up the potatoes, to feed us and to plump up the pigs for finishing. Another experiment has butternut squash, carrots, sunflowers, mixed tomatoes and whatever else fell out of its envelope and into the big box in which we kept all of the previous years collected seed over the winter.
It’s amazing how good grass fed pork tastes! Not only is the meat more flavourful because the muscles are well worked frolicking around, but it has HDL cholesterol (the GOOD kind) and ideal omega fatty acid balance of 3’s and 6’s from eating grass, resulting in healthier meat. I think perhaps if more farmers considered raising pigs on pasture, (or even better, in forests, their natural habitat) instead of just grain feeding indoors, they could profit even when grain prices are high, and produce a better quality product and increase soil fertility while doing so. I’m looking forward to future years when perhaps our oak or walnut trees or our hazelnut bushes mature and give us a bumper crop of nuts. Mmmmm… nut-finished, pastured pork, what a beautifully delicious concept… I can practically taste it now.
Hogs do indeed go by many names: sows, boars, gilts, shoats, weaners, piglets, and even as we’ve come to know them; as “wigglers”, as in “I’m going out now to feed the wigglers”. We plan this year to find a breeding pair of hardy heritage pigs so we can see first hand how beneficial farrowing our own ploughs and manure spreaders will be. Highly intelligent, entertaining, quite trainable, and very useful as rototillers, our experiences with these “gentlemen who pay the rent” have been very rewarding, educational and enjoyable.