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Choosing a feeder pig

Pig varietiesIf you decide to finish a hog or two for your table, your first big choice is what kind of pig(s) to bring home.  Most sources suggest starting with two animals since pigs are sociable, but you'll still need to make decisions about breed, sex, and various medical procedures.  Let's start with breed.

Commercial pigs are generally pure or crossed Duroc, Hampshire, and Yorkshire hogs, but small producers would be hard-pressed to maintain a commercial-style hybrid without keeping two separate parent lines going.  Klober considers purebreds best for small farmers keeping homegrown herds, but my limited research elsewhere suggests that pastured pork producers often work with a single hybrid herd.  For example, Walter Jeffries' hogs are primarily a mixture of Yorkshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, and Tamworth, while a producer local to us is mixing Yorkshire, Hamphsire, Berkshire, and Duroc.

In general, colored breeds may grow faster, taste better, and handle the outdoors better in cold, damp weather, while white breeds are better mothers, are more docile, and do better in heat.  Another factor to consider is that fat flecks in the meat of Duroc and Berkshire hogs are supposed to provide particularly good flavor.  But chances are, if you're just buying feeder pigs, you'll take whatever's available.

How about choosing between gilts (girls) and boars (boys)?  Gilts are reputed to grow a bit slower, and to end up fatter (according to Jeffries and our local producer) or leaner (according to Klober, who raises his gilts on high-protein rations to speed their growth).  With barrows, the tricky question is whether or not to castrate the pigs --- most sources recommend castrating boars (in which case they become barrows) to prevent a bad taste in the meat known as boar taint.  However, Walter Jeffries believes boar taint is mostly a myth and is only found in certain breeds, which don't include the ones he raises.  If you don't want to castrate and don't want to risk boar taint, gilts might be a good choice.

Boar taintWhile you're deciding whether or not to castrate, you'll also need to decide whether to dock tails and knock out wolf teeth.  Both of these surgeries seem to be similar to clipping the beaks of chickens --- confinement farmers do it so their animals don't kill each other when packed close together, but non-confinement farmers usually skip it.  Similarly, you might get away without deworming your feeder pigs if you're raising them in a rotational pasture arrangement.  (Organic alternatives to chemical dewormers include garlic and diatomaceous earth.)

The last factor to consider when choosing your pigs is the environment that they came from.  If you plan to raise pigs on pasture, don't buy them from heated nurseries.  And, at the other extreme, pastured pigs won't do as well in confinement.

I'd be curious to hear from more experience pig-keepers out there.  Do you recommend gilts or boars?  Do you castrate?  Any other tips for choosing a good pig for the homestead?

With spring just around the corner, now's a perfect time to start at the beginning of my Weekend Homesteader series.  I present one relatively simple project per week so you keep making progress but don't get overwhelmed.

This post is part of our Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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We raise 2 feeder pigs every spring. One to eat and one to sell to offset the expense. We usually purchase locally and white breeds seem to be what is available. We buy from a local kid when he has them that raises them for 4-H. We pay 35.00 each for pigs that are wormed and castrated if a male that average from 10 to 12 weeks of age. We feed a combination of grain and lots of vegetables culls from the gardens, weeds and kitchen scraps. We butcher at about 240 to 260.
Comment by Canned Quilter Wed Mar 13 15:41:43 2013

DO remember..... if you happen to slip, and fall in the pen.....they will attack, kill, and eat you.

Safety is a prerequisite.


Comment by Edith Wed Mar 13 19:48:56 2013

Thanks Edith,

I have heard that too, however, your comment made me really laugh. Now that I am second guessing raising pigs, it reminds me of petting my cats tummy. That is very dangerous as a well.

Comment by Dustin Wed Mar 13 21:15:57 2013

(I dont know if this went through the first time)

First off, sorry, terms are beyond me.

I raise 1 or 2 pigs every year, Ive been doing that since 08. I originally started with a one of each sex, with the male intact. Maybe at bit of a mistake because I ended up with 12 more pigs that year. I sorted it out and kept two boys to raise. One did start to get pretty aggressive around 4 months old. I eventually had to separate them, because the more aggressive guy wouldn't let the other eat or wallow in his mud.

Anyway I do a mixture two males or two females or one each every year. I keep them separate with fencing now days, no babies no fighting. I get them from the same guy each year, and he doesn't castrate, and I'm not up to it. I don't know what crosses they are, white with black butts, but I don't ever remember the meat being strong from them being intact.

Everyone is different but I have had a few males over the years get temperamental. I raise my pigs in a large corner space where I don't need to go into if I don't need to. But if they had more room or where roaming I would without a doubt get them castrated.

As for which Id go with male or female. I like males because they do grow a little faster, larger too, I like big hams. But Ive noticed over the years, being intact, the males don't put on the weight that the females do. And their feet don't taste as good for some reason. I label the meat when I put it in the freezer if it came from a m or f, because the girls are, um, more fatty. :) You know for cooking reasons its good to know.

Any other tips! Yeah! Don't let them get a taste for your potatoes, both kinds!

I don't know if you want me to get into talking about feed.

Comment by T Thu Mar 14 01:11:16 2013

So excited to see you two do this! I will be very interested in seeing how the project unfolds.

We buy pork from a local farmer's Berkshire hogs. It's the best tasting pork I ever had. It might be the best meat I ever had.


Comment by J Thu Mar 14 19:04:54 2013
Yes Edith, pigs are not stupid. Knowing that your plan is to ultimately slaughter they may decided to give you a nip as well. Do you blame them?
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