How much time does it take to raise pigs on the homestead for meat? How much of a commitment is it? What do you need to get started? How much does it cost?…
I write this partly for myself to read next year, so that I remember how it all works, partly for others who are considering raising pigs.
Choosing a breed
The simplest way to begin it to buy piglets (also called ‘slips’) from someone who breeds them, they are usually between 6 and 10 weeks old, but sometimes there are older ones too. It’s important to look into breeds a bit, and figure out what you are after depending on where you are raising them, and whether you’d prefer a breed with more lean meat, or a breed that gives more vitamin-d-rich fat.
We raised ours outdoors in the forest, so we prefer traditional breeds that are suited to being raised in this way. We chose Wessex saddlebacks, because they are fairly easy to find where we live, their meat tastes good, they give lots of fat (which we want), and they are a breed that doesn’t develop the ‘boar taint’ in males quickly, as some breeds do. If we were raising them to 4 or 5 months, as most people do here, we wouldn’t have to worry about ‘boar taint’. If we’d chosen to get female pigs, then this wouldn’t be an issue either, but female piglets are often kept for breeding or sold quickly to others with the same idea, so it’s not always easy to find them.
Crossbred pigs are common and usually fine to raise for meat, you might just need to ask some questions and look up the other breeds so that you’re not disappointed with the amount of fat, if it ends up having the boar taint in the males, or if they’re not suited to living outdoors.
Pigs are easy to train to electric fencing when they’re young. They tend to go under fences rather than over them, and need one line of electric fencing close to the ground (but not touching it), and another at around the height of their snouts. If you’re starting with very small piglets, then you may need to adjust the fencing height as they grow. To get started with electric fencing you’ll need some insulators to put on existing posts, or portable posts, and a roll of polytape (horse tape). We used a mixture of this kind of post, and the white all-in-one step-in posts for multiple wire fencing that are easily found in local feed shops. The lowest setting on the all-in-one posts that we used would have been too high for little piglets, so the swivelly yellow ones like I linked to above are much better for pigs if you can find them.
Feeding and Watering
Pigs are notorious for flipping over feed and water troughs. You can secure the water trough to a fencing line if you’re using permanent fencing. For giving them access to drinking water in portable fencing the subject gets a bit more complicated. One option is this type (there’s more than one brand that makes them) or another option is a concrete ’dog waterer’ trough. If you’re home all the time and not raising many pigs, you can get away with bringing their water to them at least a couple of times a day in normal weather, in very hot weather you will need to be more vigilant about bringing water to them every time they flip the container over.
For choosing simple portable troughs to feed pigs with, it’s important to be aware of their height, and to find ones that are shallow, but wide enough to hold a decent amount of water or feed. I have seen tough shallow black rubber troughs in the feed shop that I think are a good shape for feeding and watering a couple of pigs, I would probably get these if I were starting out from scratch on a budget.
There are also portable feeders around made from galvanised metal, the pigs learn to lift the lids on the feed bowls, and as they eat from them, more food comes out of the reservoir above. These are good to have if you plan on going away while you’re raising pigs, they take the guesswork out of working out the right amount to feed and reduce the amount of wasted food, but they aren’t necessary when you’re only raising a couple of pigs and are there to feed them in the morning and in the evening. If you’re planning on feeding mostly pumpkins, whey, acorns and so on, then they won’t work for that. When we were feeding acorns, we just threw them in heaps on a clean spot on the ground.
For the amount of grain mix that a free-range pig will eat, I found this article helpful.
We put our pigs where there is a natural windbreak from the forest and hills, and plenty of shrubs, small trees, and logging debris for them to build their own shelters with. Older breeds of pigs are really well suited to living in forests. If you’re raising pigs in a paddock without trees then you’ll need some sort of shelter for them. A three sided shelter with an open bottom will be fine, old water tanks cut in half are often used for this purpose. Situate the shelter so that the open side is not facing the prevailing wind direction.
Raising pigs easily fits into the morning and evening chores that you probably already have for other animals. It doesn’t take much extra time to check in on the pigs (and top up their feed and water) when there are already goats to be milked and chickens to be fed. If you don’t have other animals, it’s not much time either, and an enjoyable way to get out of the house and have a connection to your source of food. As with raising any animal, there can be unexpected emergencies that need to be dealt with right away, such as an escaped pig or a sick pig, but these things didn’t happen to us. I have heard that female pigs are more likely to escape than males, so you could try and get all male pigs if you are worried about escapes.
The pig kill
A bit like the urgency of making hay while the sun shines, the pig kill is one of those times on traditional rural calendars when a lot of other things needed to stop or slow down until the job is finished. While red meat can be hung in cold temperatures for a few weeks, pig meat starts to deteriorate quickly, so it needs to be preserved within around four days. If you’re just putting all the meat in the freezer as roasts and chops then there’s not much to worry about (although you will probably have to allow for more time than you think you’ll need), but when there are sausages to be made, ham to be properly trimmed, meat to be salted and smoked, then this is when other things in life except the bare essentials need to stand still for a while.
For our two families, my husband was able to take time away from his work to help lift heavy things and mind children so that we could focus on the butchering. This is how it worked out for us this time:
Monday 1pm – the mobile butcher arrives, he does most of the work, but we are both there to help and to watch the process. I put the pigs blood I’d collected into the freezer, along with some of the organ meats. If we didn’t have a big freezer I would have made the black pudding on that day, but black pudding needs fat, so we would have had to have chopped a bit of fat off the pig on that day too.
Tuesday – The meat hangs all day. We could have done cutting up on this day if we’d wanted to. Hanging tenderises the meat, but hanging too long is not a good idea, I am not sure if overnight would have been long enough, and if hanging it up for this day did make the meat better.
Wednesday – 3 hours (I think). We cut one pig into primal cuts and divided the loins into bits for baconing and roasting. This is the first time we’ve done this so it goes slowly.
Thursday – I think we only had around 2 hours. We made rolled loin roasts, prepared the bellies for salting, and we may have trimmed two of the legs for ham (or maybe we did that on Wednesday). I think I made the bacon brine on this day too. We both stuffed up while trimming those first legs of ham, so it’s important to not be rushed during that process. If you’re making brined hams rather than prosciutto, then you don’t need to be as precise.
Friday – A full productive day. We start out in the morning cutting up the second pig. We are more efficient and confident with it this time than the last pig. We prepare the last two legs for salting, make more rolled loin roasts, salt all of the bellies and all of the legs. We ran out of salt (I think we began with between 75kg and 125kg of it), so later on I took one of the legs out of salt and put it in brine instead.
Saturday – A long day. First we start by cutting the meat off the bones of the shoulders. We start with one shoulder each, cutting the meat into fairly small pieces that will fit in the sausage machine as we go. This is a slow process. My friend begins to mince the meat in a machine as I cut up the third shoulder. My friend’s husband is here later on on this day, so we had three people working for a while, as well as my friend being able to go for a while to feed babies and cook us a nourishing dinner.
The sausage making took a lot longer than I’d imagined. We had two electric mincer/sausage stuffer combinations. The first one was 300 watts and was hopeless at mincing but worked well as a sausage stuffer, the second was 1000 watts and worked very well for both tasks.
I don’t know how it would have gone if we’d only had hand-crank sausage makers – for mincing it would probably be a bit slower, and for sausages it took one hand to direct the meat from the machine into the sausage casings, one hand to stuff more meat into it, so I imagine it would be a bit awkward and slow going back and forth between cranking a handle and stuffing more mince into the machine. Not impossible, I might try it one day, but it is just more to think about on an already busy day. Next time I would prefer to do sausage making over two days.
We divided the meat up by weight into bowls, so that we had around 3kg in each bowl to follow the recipes we’d picked out. We made lots of chorizo and saussison from ‘The River Cottage Book of Pigs and Pork’ (although to keep to a ratio of salt to meat that I’d seen elsewhere, I added ten grams extra salt to each recipe than the River Cottage ones originally called for), as well as some improvised fresh sausages for frying, mostly flavoured with salt, fennel, pepper and garlic.
It’s possible for two inexperienced people to cut up one pig, salt it for bacon, ham, make rolled roasts and so on in one day. It might be possible to do this for two pigs if it’s a very long day (10-12 hours). The need to make sausages with the shoulder could be reduced by making confit pork with some of it, and then making less sausages, or by freezing some for stewing meat or roasts instead. We like sausages though, and the preserved ones are tasty and a great way to store meat without plastic or electricity (although confit is as well), so I think it is worth taking the time to make them. For one pig, sausages could easily be made from the shoulders in one day. For two pigs, we would want to allow two days (or one long day) for cutting up and two days for making sausages.
How much does it cost to raise pigs?
It can be free if you can find enough fallen acorns, fruit and nuts from trees, or if you have abundance from the garden that isn’t quite up to eating-quality. Skimmed milk and whey from home dairying are other good sources of food. Bakeries, shops and suppliers will often give away their ‘waste’ food for pigs to eat, but a lot of the time other pig breeders are already on to this.
We gave our pigs access to a soy-free, gmo-free mix of locally grown cracked grains and legumes. We estimated that they went through half a tonne of this each, a lot of that was in the last month though, so anyone concerned about the cost can butcher their pigs at the standard 4 or 5 months.
Many people raise their pigs just giving them a set amount of food twice a day, so by finding the right amount that keeps the pigs happy but isn’t a huge expense you can cut down costs this way as well. One website I looked at estimated that they should be getting 3kg a day of the ‘farm muesli’ type of food we were feeding each during the last month.
When our first lot of bulk food ran out and I began feeding them a twice-daily ration of around 3kg per day each instead, I noticed the pigs seemed a bit aggressive compared to their usual behaviour. I’m not sure if they were like this because they were used to having food whenever they wanted it, if because of the cold weather our pigs actually needed more than 3kg a day each, or if pigs are always aggressive when they are hungry.
Raising pigs for lard and meat
Lard is a great fat for cooking with. It doesn’t get damaged by heat the way that many fats do, everything cooked in it tastes great, and it has good amounts of vitamin D. Lard is mostly monounsaturated fat, the same kind of fat as olive oil.
There has been a lot of negative press about animal fats during the last century, with margarine and hydrogenated oils being promoted as ‘healthy’, and many people cooking with polyunsaturated oils that go rancid when cooked with. When all of this negative attention began, animal fats were mostly produced on small, local farms. With changing technology, it was becoming easier for oilseeds to be grown on large farms and processed to form a form of fat that could be globally distributed by powerful corporations.
Many people still have a kneejerk reaction to the words ‘lard’ and ‘animal fats’ thanks to the effect these oilseed lobbies have had on official health information. After reading Weston A Price’s “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” it becomes apparent that the healthiest people were those who were eating their local foods, including animal fats, and those who were the least healthy were those eating these globally-distributed nutrient-poor sources of calories like vegetable oils. Animal fats were especially prized for feeding to children and to women of childbearing age, where the nutrients were most needed.
Most people in Australia have this kneejerk reaction, and the demand here is for lean meat, so farmers here generally raise lean breeds of pigs until around four months old, butcher them, and then there is not enough fat on the pig to make sausages, so the butcher needs to find fat from elsewhere to add to it!
It is expensive to feed the pig for the extra month or two that is needed to grow more fat if you’re buying in most of the food, but this cost is made up for I think, by the vitamin D in the extra fat, by not having to buy in quality cooking fats, and by having extra meat on the pig. It also probably gives the pig more flavour to be raised for longer.
As I mentioned earlier in the section about breeds, if you’re raising a pig for lard as well as meat, it’s important to look into the different pig breeds so you know whether you’re getting a pig that will provide good amounts of lard or not.
Is it upsetting to butcher pigs for food?
Everything has to die at some point. In the wild, animals die painful deaths from predators or starvation, so it’s not as though by not eating them, that we can stop animals from dying. I am satisfied that we have given these pigs a good life, living as they are meant to live with plenty of wild plants to eat and space to roam about, but this life can’t last forever, and my family needs to eat.
I watched the pigs as they were shot in the head. They didn’t notice the bullets. One moment they were happily eating, the next and they were not conscious. We thanked them, and made use of every part of them that we could, with anything extra being fed to chickens or composted to feed the soil.
A different kind of life continues. We grow and we create, nourished by the meat and lard. A hard winter and spring are made more cheerful by a larder of preserved meats. The blood that I didn’t catch sinks into the soil, feeds the soil life and the plants that then grow, for more animals to eat, for the cycle to continue.