PHOTO: Shutterstock
Rodney Wilson
November 10, 2017

Pigs are referred to by many names—hogs, swine and porkers, to name a few—but one of the more endearing terms dates back to the 1800s: mortgage lifters. Before industrial farming and its large-volume production levels, pigs delivered notably high profit margins for farmers, making it possible for agrarians to cover farm costs and pay the mortgage.

When farmer friends asked my wife and me if we wanted two pigs—they had too many—I probably recalled this old-timey terminology. Because why else would we, stopping by to bid adieu as we left suburbia for our new country life in Kentucky, agree to a six-hour drive with two crated Berkshires in our SUV? We didn’t necessarily want to be hog farmers, but “mortgage lifter” holds a certain appeal.

We grew out that pair and enjoyed a successful market season with the meat, then tracked down a local breeder and purchased five more. After a few seasonal visits to the breeder, we decided to procure our own breeding pair and raise pork from birth to market. Recently, my wife turned to me and said, “I think we’re hog farmers.”

So, it seems, we are.

I don’t assume our story is unique, though there are certainly other paths to an interest in pigs. However you arrived at this point where reading an article about raising pork feels right, know that hog farming leaves some room for personal preference. For us, we know we want to raise pigs outside, on a six- to eight-month grow-out schedule to meet market needs. The following sections detail how we farm pigs in this way.

Birth

Piglets are born in litters of varying sizes. The largest litter we ever delivered was 14; the smallest, four. While a sow’s breed can have some bearing on litter size, most sources indicate 10 to 12 piglets as a reliable average.

Upon observing that a sow has entered labor—which occurs about 114 days from conception—prepare for the coming piglets. In your farrowing barn, erect a blockade with a space piglets can pass through but your sow can’t: a simple sheet of plywood with a small “door” cut into it will suffice. This setup creates a space where piglets can separate from the sow, providing a safe haven against crushing, though it won’t prevent it entirely.

Piglets can’t regulate body temperature until 48 hours after birth. Birthing removes the animals from an environment of just over 100 degrees F, triggering an immediate loss in body temperature that can prove fatal. If you have an enclosed farrowing barn, crank up the heat; if not, install heating lamps on the piglet side of the partition for easy access to warmth. At birth, it might be necessary for a farmer to assist by wiping piglets free of the birthing fluid and placing them under the lamp to regain body heat. Some piglets even get stuck in the afterbirth sack and need to be freed. We’ve experienced piglets that scrambled from mama straight to the teat, as well as ones that needed some serious coaxing. As a general rule, try to be present in case assistance is needed; mind your schedule, and watch for signs of labor.

Within the first 12 hours of life, notch piglets’ ears for identification, and treat navels with wound spray to prevent infection. Commercial farmers also dock tails during this time to prevent pigs raised in tight spaces from boredom-induced tail-biting. Because our pigs are raised outside, we don’t dock; that decision is up to you.

piglet piglets
Lee/Flickr

Suckling To Weaning

In Storey’s Guide to Raising Pigs (2009), an all-inclusive resource for anyone considering pigs, author Kelly Klober notes that traditional hog farmers used to wean piglets at 56 days, a number drastically cut by production farms that sometimes wean as early as 10 days old. Most small-scale farmers wean according to a schedule of their own determination. We aim for six weeks but know our sow well enough to note when she’s getting annoyed with nursing, and sometimes we wean earlier.

But before weaning, most farmers cut piglets’ wolf teeth; this happens during the first 24 hours. Wolf teeth are a set of eight needlelike teeth that piglets have at birth that can cause a sow such pain upon nursing that she refuses to feed her babies; piglets will also use wolf teeth to fight each other for teats, putting less resilient piglets in grave danger of starvation. The operation is simple enough—with a pair of small clippers or side cutters, clip the teeth right at the gumline, but be careful not to shatter a tooth, which can lead to infection. (Full disclosure: We did this once and never again. We’re told we’re foolish to bypass this step, and I won’t argue that, but we haven’t noticed a difference.)

A small amount of high-protein feed (18 to 20 percent) should be made available to piglets at around 3 weeks of age and kept separate from the sow’s rations, as well as a small pan of water. Piglets initially respond to feed with curiosity, often playing in it instead of eating, but they’ll begin to gradually consume food and water. This is called “creep feeding,” and it relieves the sow from some of her milk-production duties, as well as prepares piglets for weaning. Production farmers have strict schedules for creep feeding, but hobby farms can take a casual approach to this process.

When six weeks have passed—or your sow loses interest in nursing—piglets will have taken to the feed and water and gained necessary nutrition from rations, and you can separate the litter from the mother. On our farm, this means letting piglets onto a fresh pasture that’s fenced off from the sow; putting some distance between the pastures is advisable, as “out of sight, out of mind” discourages attempts to reunite. Once separated, switch piglets from creep feed to a grower mix with about 16 percent protein.

Castration

Castration can be a controversial topic among sustainable farmers. I acknowledge it’s an unpleasant task, but on our farm, we opt to cut male piglets, believing that the benefits outweigh the momentary discomfort. Barrows (castrated males) can be raised from birth to processing alongside gilts (unbred females) without risk of mating, avoid dangerous inter-herd boar aggression and eliminate the risk of “boar taint,” a strong odor and unpleasant taste that can degrade the meat of intact boars. Raising boars for meat is a viable option, but it requires some risk and maintenance. It’s your call.

The how-tos of castration can vary; farmers tend to settle on what works for them. We (it’s a two-person job for my wife and myself) castrate early on, as piglets are stronger than their tiny frames suggest—generally at 2 to 3 weeks old. We ready two clean pet carriers and load the males into one, then remove ourselves from earshot of the sow; our mama is extremely protective and liable to inflict damage upon hearing squeals.

Our technique calls for the stronger farmer to sit on a low surface, with the piglet positioned upright, secured by its back legs between the farmer’s legs and held close to the body; this position allows easy access to the testicles and maximum strength to counter struggling. Once the animal is restrained and subdued, the other farmer douses the scrotal area and castration knife (a surgical tool available at farm-supply stores) in iodine, then makes a small, top-to-bottom incision on one side of the scrotum. The testicle is then squeezed out by applying pressure to both sides of the incision—hold tight here, because piglets will struggle at this point—and cut free. Repeat for the remaining testicle, which is more difficult to extract without pressure from a second gonad, bathe the wounds in iodine and place the cut piglet in the clean pet carrier. With some practice, the procedure takes only a matter of minutes.

When piglets are returned to the mother, monitor wounds to ensure infection doesn’t set in; wound spray can usually remedy anything that doesn’t look right. And piglets will forget the incident almost immediately; the experience lingers longer with farmers than their patients.

vegetarian livestock pigs

Nicholas Erwin/Flickr

Pasture

Sunlight and fresh air is central to the way we raise pigs, and we like to let our piglets out of the barn as early as possible. Some pastured pig farmers encourage outdoor births, so this could be immediately.

There is some benefit to keeping piglets in the barn with the sow for a week or two to monitor health during those crucial early days, but we open the doors and let everyone outside long before weaning. Our pastures are fenced with electrified wire, and the little animals’ first day outside can get loud with squeals as piglets learn their boundaries. It’s difficult to listen to, but they learn quickly. And while the sight of tiny creatures frolicking in the open air can produce panic in new farmers, it’s best to get them trained outside while they’re still nursing, as the sow’s presence both protects them and discourages escape.

Raising Pigs

Weaned pigs are fairly low-maintenance. Rotate to fresh pastures or dry lots before their rooting causes too much soil damage—determine this based on available pasture, but generally try to avoid letting pastures turn to mud—and provide basic shelter from sun and rain. You can either make feed constantly available or establish feeding times to deliver feed: After about a year of the former, we switched to twice-a-day feedings to reduce feed loss due to moisture, infestation and waste. Monitor water levels closely: A pig will drink 2 to 5 gallons of water per day, and inadequate water supplies can result in dehydration fatalities.

Raising pigs is a pretty hands-off endeavor, but farmers should monitor the herd for illness. Signs of sickness include slowness to rise, going off feed, vomiting, diarrhea and coughing. If a pig shows any of these signs, consider contacting a veterinarian; if numerous pigs show signs of sickness, call a vet immediately.

Parasites are also of concern. Signs of internal parasite infestation include coughing, slowness to grow—these pigs are known as “poor doers”—and wiry-looking hair. Dewormer be purchased at local farm-supply stores in a variety of forms and are easily administered either as a preventative measure or to treat cases of obvious infestation. Discuss deworming with your processor to ensure medication is cleared from the animal before it’s turned into food for the dinner table, though deworming is normally only performed on grower pigs that weigh less than 125 pounds.

External parasites include mange mites and lice, both of which are of greatest concern for outdoor pigs in winter; they’ll cover themselves in mud to prevent infestation during warmer months. If your pigs seem especially itchy, examine skin for parasites and treat infestations with the parasite control of your choosing. Farm-supply stores sell a variety of effective products that improve on the old method of hand-washing pigs and applying a mixture of lard, potash and sulfur. (This according to The Biggle Swine Book, by noted farmer/author Jacob Biggle and first published in 1898!)

Grown Pigs

Pigs weighing 125 pounds or more are considered grown and switched to a finishing feed of around 14 percent protein. And though roughly two months remain before the animals hit “top hog” (a prime processing weight between 250 and 300 pounds; growth beyond 300 pounds converts feed to meat much less efficiently), you should schedule your processor dates at this point, if not earlier, to ensure your animal is processed at the right time.

While there exist a variety of slaughterhouse options, market farmers should seek out a processing facility with USDA certification; the highest level of approval, these facilities deliver a product that can be sold at market, to grocers and restaurants, and across state lines. Choose a facility that delivers the kind of service you want—organic and humane are important qualifiers for many—and be prepared to do some driving to deliver your animals and pick up meat when it’s ready. There just aren’t that many processors around anymore.

To Market, To Market

Finally, apply to a local farmers market, and inquire about and fulfill your state’s requirements for selling meat. When all the forms are filled out and approved, and you roll up to your assigned spot with freezers full of pork on opening day, be prepared to do a lot of talking about your product. An informed pride in the pork you raised from birth to market will be met with gratitude and, hopefully, enough profit to feed the litter for next year’s freezers. If you’re lucky, you might even lift that mortgage a bit.

This story first appeared in the July/August issue of Hobby Farms magazine.


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