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.
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!