Your first pigs

If you’re hop­ing to ex­pand your smallholding ac­tiv­i­ties in the new year with a few pigs, ex­pe­ri­enced breeder LIZ SHANK­LAND will have plenty of ad­vice for you in the com­ing months, in this new step-by-step se­ries.

Country Smallholding - - LIZ SHANKLAND PIGS -

Each time I turn up to teach an­other smallholding course at Hum­ble by Na­ture, I have a lit­tle wager with my­self: I bet my­self a fiver that, by the end of the day, at least three-quar­ters of the peo­ple at­tend­ing will have added pigs to their men­tal shop­ping list.

So far, I’ve never been wrong. Some stu­dents turn up con­vinced that sheep will be their first four-legged pur­chase, but once they meet the pigs – which now in­clude Berk­shires, Ox­ford Sandy & Blacks, Welsh, and KuneKunes – they are in­stantly won over.

Why? Well, firstly, pigs have some­thing that sheep don’t gen­er­ally of­fer – per­son­al­ity. Now this might sound a bit mad – and I’m well-used to be­ing told that I need to get out more - but you can have a really good re­la­tion­ship with pigs. They are, un­de­ni­ably, hard to ig­nore and, whereas sheep will nor­mally keep their dis­tance, per­haps even­tu­ally be­ing per­suaded to come a lit­tle closer with the prom­ise of food, pigs will be a com­plete con­trast, in­ves­ti­gat­ing you and want­ing to get to know you right from the out­set.

Af­ter dogs, pigs have to be the most charis­matic of an­i­mals – some­thing which can make it more dif­fi­cult to let go of them than other live­stock. If I’d had £1 for ev­ery per­son I’d met who started off rear­ing a couple of pigs for meat, but then got too at­tached to them to send them for slaugh­ter, I’d have col­lected enough money by now to be liv­ing in com­fort­able re­tire­ment.

Easy does it

As an­i­mals go, pigs are not dif­fi­cult to keep, as long as you get your fenc­ing and hous­ing sorted in ad­vance, and as long as you feed and wa­ter them cor­rectly. In fact, out of all the live­stock kept for meat, they are cer­tainly the most low main­te­nance

of the lot. If you buy healthy stock from a rep­utable breeder and fol­low the guide­lines I’ll be giv­ing you over the com­ing months, you should be able to pro­duce your own ex­cel­lent pork and ba­con with­out any prob­lems. Very few health is­sues are likely to oc­cur within the life­time of a meat pig, and you can look for­ward to a freezer full of your own home-reared pro­duce within the space of four months. Yes, four months – that’s all it takes. If you buy in some tra­di­tional breed wean­ers at around eight to 10 weeks, they should be ready for the abat­toir by the time they are 24 weeks old. That’s a very fast turn­around in­deed, com­pared with other species. If you choose one of the mod­ern, fast-grow­ing breeds, which tend to be weaned and sold even ear­lier, you might even see them reach pork weight by 16 weeks.

Buy­ing in or breed­ing?

Why make life dif­fi­cult for your­self? My mantra is al­ways the same: ‘keep it sim­ple’. Buy­ing in wean­ers is al­ways go­ing to be much, much eas­ier – and, if you’re do­ing it on a small scale, con­sid­er­ably cheaper - than breed­ing your own. As well as hav­ing to main­tain fully-grown sows – and, maybe, your own boar – all year round, there are a whole host of things to con­sider, such as hous­ing, up­keep of fenc­ing to con­tain big beasts, ve­teri­nary bills. Even more im­por­tantly, in my opin­ion, it’s es­sen­tial to learn how to look af­ter pigs prop­erly be­fore you even think about breed­ing. If you don’t, you’re just not be­ing fair to your pigs.

Buy­ing in wean­ers as and when you need them gives you flex­i­bil­ity to rear through the spring and sum­mer months, when the weather tends to be kinder, so the im­pact on your ground is likely to be less se­vere, and, of course, feed­ing out­side is much more pleas­ant for you, the keeper.

Do­ing it this way will also give you the op­por­tu­nity to try a wide range of breeds and see what suits you best – both in flavour and in ease of rear­ing. You’ll soon find that some pork is more pleas­ing to your palate, or more pop­u­lar with your cus­tomers, and that you find cer­tain breeds more en­joy­able to keep. Don’t be swayed by mis­con­cep­tions about lop-eared pigs be­ing more docile and eas­ier to man­age, or prick-eared pigs be­ing lively and dif­fi­cult to con­trol; ev­ery­thing comes down to how the pigs are han­dled and how much time you are pre­pared to spend with them.

Think be­fore you buy

What do you plan to do with your wean­ers once they reach the re­quired weight? You’d be sur­prised how many small­hold­ers I’ve come across who have gone into pig-rear­ing com­pletely the wrong way around – buy­ing in a batch of wean­ers with­out any thought of what they will do with them at the end of the rear­ing process. Nor­mally the only thing they have in mind is pro­vid­ing meat for them­selves, but peo­ple of­ten se­ri­ously mis­judge the amount that one small weaner will even­tu­ally pro­vide. You could be talk­ing any­thing be­tween 50kg to 70kg of joints from just one pig – enough to keep a fam­ily of four in pork for a year. In that case, what do you plan to do with the rest? Think about how many wean­ers you really want to buy, and also start mar­ket­ing your meat to your friends, work col­leagues, neigh­bours, and rel­a­tives early enough for them to clear some freezer space. Oth­er­wise you could end up fran­ti­cally hunt­ing for sec­ond-hand chest freez­ers, giv­ing your meat away, or trawl­ing the in­ter­net for yet an­other recipe for pork!

) Pigs can be raised on a fairly small plot of land if you use your space well.

Large Blacks are per­fect for be­gin­ners

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