Keeping a pig is so natural to homesteading that it’s hard to imagine farming without one. All-year our hard work is producing so many spare nutrients that just beg to be turned into bacon, sausage and pork chops. From watermelon vines to waste hay, from cabbage leaves to canning scraps, from tomato skins to table leavings—just about every aspect of homesteading seems to generate some kind of organic matter that will make a perfect meal for a pig!
But there’s a hitch: For the homesteader whose farm-raised nutrient stream varies with the cycles of the year, making sure there is a pig on the premises at the right times can be a challenge. You can’t just pick up a piglet off the shelf at the local Piggly Wiggly.
Whatever your local source of baby pigs may be, it may not be ready when you are. Unless, of course, you keep your own breeding sow and boar, to provide you with piglets on a regular basis.
Keeping breeding stock is one way to make sure the farm always has pigs when it has pig food available. But the homesteader or small farmer definitely needs to do some accounting before adding a mama and daddy pig to the payroll.
Pork Chops or Piglets?
We think almost any smallholding produces enough spare nutrients of various kinds to support at least one pig per year. Consider the following, which come on pretty regularly throughout the spring, summer and fall on most farms:
- orchard trimmings
- windfall fruits
- canning waste
- table scraps
- forage gleanings
If you keep a dairy animal—whether goat, cow or sheep—you usually end up with some surplus milk, buttermilk or whey to boost the protein in the pig bucket. These farm-produced nutrients can go most or all of the way to providing all the food a pig needs to go from weaning to slaughter weight in six to 10 months.
But add a sow to the mix, let alone a boar, and they’ll burn through those calories almost as fast as you can haul them to the barn. You can end up with a caloric deficit before ever you add a single pig for the freezer.
Maintaining breeding stock means you have mouths to feed—adult mouths, with big appetites—12 months of the year. You won’t eat these animals for a long time, but they do need constant feed in order to keep going.
So much for turning this summer’s garden surplus into next winter’s bacon! Unless you have a whole lot of surplus, all your waste goes to fueling your piglet-makers, not your baconers.
Of course, you can always buy feed for the extra appetites. But recent experience taught all of us that our sources of purchased calories—whether pet food, baby formula or even our own groceries—are not necessarily as reliable as we’ve come to expect.
Even when feed is available, prices have been going up—and up and up. So it’s good, when we add more mouths to the farm, to make sure we know how we’ll feed them (and what that’s going to cost) and whether we like the rate of exchange.
Remember also that parent pigs mean lots of baby pigs, even as many as a dozen or more at a time. And pigs have a short gestation period. A breeding pair could produce three litters of piglets a year, 36 or more in just 12 months! You want to have a good idea ahead of time how you’re going to manage and utilize that many little mini pork chops.
Whether you sell piglets or harvest them for the table, you’ll have to feed them in the interim. While they start out tiny, they’ll grow very fast, and their appetites grow with them. Keeping them fed can be a real drain on the farm’s resources, whether caloric or monetary.
Then there’s logistics, of course. Lots of folks like keeping a pig or two over the growing season, fattening it out during the warmer months and harvesting when the weather gets cool and the garden slows down for the winter.
Livestock is easy to keep while the weather is pleasant and water lines running. But breeding stock are on the farm year-round, meaning year-round chores. If your winters are on the cold side, it can be a real task making sure the animals have water in sub-freezing weather.
Do you love to take a break in winter and want to make sure your chore list is light at that time? Remember that breeding stock don’t go to Florida when the snow flies.
So when is it a good idea to keep a farrowing sow and a boar on the homestead? Well, when a lot of spare calories are produced for all or at least a good part of the year, using breeding stock to convert that energy into pork works wonderfully.
Truck gardeners and CSA owners are high on this list. The nature of their work produces so much extra food for so much of the year. If you raise a lot of meat birds for much of the year, cooked offal is prime pig calories, extremely high in protein.
And a small cidery or brewery would provide similar surplus calories on a regular basis.
So, the short answer: Before you add breeding stock to the farm, do a little accounting first.