Farm

The BIG List of Things you Should Know About Raising Pigs

Written by Charlotte Walker

Our experience with raising pigs was a good one. In fact, we absolutely loved having them on our homestead.  Our four Berkshire pigs were so entertaining to watch that we soon started referring to our relaxation time on the porch as “pig TV”.  The pigs taught us lessons over the spring, summer and autumn and they left us with a sincere appreciation for what it truly takes to put meat on our family dinner table.

Pigs don’t need much more than the essentials that every human yearns for. Provide your pigs with kindness, adequate shelter, good food, clean water, a pasture and a wallow and you will be rewarded with happy pigs that stay out of trouble (most of the time). Yes, I have been jealous of our pigs staying cool in their wallow while I melted into my boots on hot humid days.

Here is is our big list of things you should know about before you bring pigs to your homestead.

Breeds

Berkshire Pig at 180lbs

Heritage Berkshire Pig

Find out which breeds are available in your area as the starting point and then research and compare your options. We chose the Berkshire, an old British heritage Breed. Berkshire’s are black with white markings on their leg, face and tail.  They are hardy and well suited to being raised outdoors.  Berkshire pork is often compared to Kobe beef. The meat is famous for being moist, tender, heavily marbled with fat and high in flavor. Regardless of what breed your choose, buy your pigs from a farm with a good reputation.

Weaners

Berkshire Piglet

Six week old Berkshire pig

Weaners are young pigs that have been weaned from their mothers milk.  This usually happens when they are 6-10 weeks old. We brought four weaners home when they were seven weeks old. They weighed around 30-40lbs, two were male (castrated) and two were female. We transported them in dog kennels, ensuring that they were protected from the sun and wind for the ride home. We Paid $80.00 for each.

6 Week old Berkshire Piglets

7 Week old Berkshire Piglets

Regulations

We were required to register for an Animal premises ID prior to picking up the pigs.  This program makes it possible for regulators to trace a pigs movement from the farm, to farm, to retailer,  in the event of a food safety issue or a disease outbreak.  Each Canadian province has its own contacts and procedures for registering. You can find out more here. Sometimes it can take up to a week or more to get applications processed so if you are thinking about getting pigs you might want to look into this early. Regardless of where you live in the world be sure to find out about your local regulations.

Fencing

pasture fencing for pigs

Strong fencing for Pigs is a must

Perimeter Fencing ~ You will want strong fencing. Whatever you invest in make sure that it is nice and sturdy. Install the fencing before you bring your pigs home. If you have the time, you can rent equipment and buy the bulk materials for a fraction of the price of having it installed for you.  Our materials for the fence pictured here included:  4′ high farm fence, 3 1/2″terminal posts & caps,  7′ T-posts,  4′ gate, 8′ double swing gate and a strand of barbed wire along the bottom of the fence.

Your perimeter fencing in combination with electric fencing will ensure that the main fence is never tested or damaged by your animals.  The Perimeter fence should act only as a second line of defense against escapees.

electric fencing for pigs

Electric fencing protects the main fence

Electric Fencing ~ You also need electric fencing. If you teach the weaners to keep away from the electric fence right from the start, you will be doing yourself a big favor. A pigs natural instinct is to go forward rather than back. Once they’ve gone forward and have experienced several extra shocks as a result, they learn to back off instead and won’t go near the fence intentionally.

We used the Stafix Energizer X6, Polywire and Rutland Treadin Blue posts.  You need a grounding rod and many systems can be operated with a battery if you don’t have access to power. We ran three strands of Polywire but two would have been sufficient.

Be careful, read and follow the directions for your electric fence system before you start installing it. Electric fence systems are designed to stop cows, pigs, and other large animals. Take it from me, the jolt of electricity that these fences put out feels quite unpleasant to humans as well. Teach children to keep away and turn it off when you are mowing or doing any work around the fence.

Shelter

three sided animal shelter suitable for pigs

Three sided shelters protected from the elements is suitable for pigs

You will need a shelter for your pigs. It does not need to be fancy but it will need to be large enough for them to grow into. We constructed a simple three sided shelter.  I have seen photos of people using old pickup truck canopies, there are a lot of great ideas out there. We elevated the shelter from the ground so that it would not be sitting in puddles or snow.

You want to face your shelter away from the prevailing wind. The ideal direction will vary depending on your property and geographic location. In our case the open side of the shelter faces east.

pigs snuggled up together in shelter

Pigs like thick bedding and will snuggle with one another for extra warmth.

Add a nice thick layer of clean straw for bedding.  Three of our pigs liked to snuggle up together at night and the other liked his own space. On cool nights they will burrow into the straw for extra warmth.

Hygiene & Health

Three sided shelter barred up for weaners

Pigs like clean quarters and will keep it clean if you let them.

Hygiene ~ When we brought the weaners home, we put some straw bedding in the shelter and blocked them in because it was pouring rain. They designated one corner farthest from where they slept as the toilet area.  We cleaned out the dirty bedding and opened the shelter up as soon as the rain stopped and they never went to the bathroom in the shelter again.

Health ~ We did not need to medicate our pigs and don’t believe in unnecessary medication or hormone use. Worms (internal parasites) can be a problem if pigs are raised on the same land year after year. Pasture rotation and good sanitation (clean bedding and uninhibited access to the outdoors) will reduce the chance of worm problems developing. If you want to medicate your pigs speak with a local farm or veterinarian to find out cost, supplies and how/when it needs to be done.

Pasture

Young Berkshire pigs on pasture

Pigs are happiest with space to roam and things to root up and eat.

We provided our pigs with a 160FT x 160FT pasture. Our original design was intended for two pigs but we ended up raising a couple for our neighbor as well.

We placed the shelter in the middle of the field, and had intended on splitting the pasture into six sections, rotating the pigs to a new section of pasture once they had depleted the previous section. The idea was that we would re-seed the sections after moving the pigs, providing time for that section of pasture to replenish itself.

The pigs were growing quickly and at the steady rate that they were rooting up pasture, sectioning it off was starting to feel like a waste of time. We decided to let them have access to the whole pasture. The pigs responded well to this, running around the pasture happily. The downside to letting the pigs have the whole pasture at once was that we could not re-seed sections.

The issue with not rotating the pasture or not letting it rest between animals is that the land just turns into a muddy pit and eventually very little will be growing on it.  This also means that you will need to bring in all of the feed. By rotating the pasture and ensuring that there is ample time for new roughage to grow you are saving money in feed, keeping a healthier/cleaner environment and your pigs are able to entertain themselves all day long. Everyone wins.

Pasture for Berkshire Pigs

The pasture in the spring

 

Pasture rooted up by pigs

The pasture in the Autumn

 

Feed Requirements

Well fed pigs are happy pigs

Well fed pigs are happy pigs

We found a table online that gave us a general idea of how much feed the pigs would need. A pig eats approximately 4% of its body weight per day. It was a tricky balance because we wanted them to fatten up steadily and gradually to get the best quality meat but we needed to watch costs. We augmented their daily feed ration with a lot of garden vegetables, table scraps, garden waste  & bushels of wild apples. Due to our ability to augment their feed so well, we were able to provide leaner rations of commercial feed than what the table recommends.

Feed Options

Animal by-products ~ As a rule, we decided not to give our pigs any animal by-products. We have two dogs who get first dibs on all leftover meat. We didn’t have leftover meat to give to our pigs so sticking to this rule was never a concern for us.

Commercial Feed ~ We purchased bags of organic feed from the Co-op. These bags were $39-$41 per bag. This steep price stung so we did our best to make it last.  Fermenting the feed bulks it up by about 1/4 of the volume so you can make the feed last longer.  We spent roughly $680.00 CDN on feed or $170 per pig. Keep in mind that standard feed is only $14 per bag. There is a difference between organic and non organic feed. Organic feed looks and smells like something fit for humans and the non organic feed in our experience is grayish with a less appealing odor. IMG_7781

Garden vegetables ~ The garden was our savior. Having a large garden and way too much zucchini, the pigs received fresh veggies on a daily basis for a few months. We also gave them the stems of plants etc at the end of the growing season.  Planning some extra food in the garden if you have the space is worth thinking about if you have animals to feed.

IMG_9026Grocery Clearance Produce ~ We bought clearance pumpkins when they were $1 each and the pigs devoured these. Some people are able to make arrangements with local grocery stores & craft breweries to be given stuff they are tossing out. It is worth trying.

Foraging Wild Food ~ We foraged for wild apples. We brought home countless bushels for free.

IMG_7808

Friends and Neighbours ~ Our neighbour brought pails of scraps (a lot of organic bread from their cafe) each week. Two of the pigs were theirs so it was part of our cooperative agreement. I am sure that other people would have saved us scraps had we asked.

There is free food out there, and people looking for ways to dispose of it.  Don’t be afraid to ask. If you have a nearby micro brewery, hops are excellent, as is whey from dairies and surplus bread from bakeries.

Fermenting Feed

Fermented organic feed with wild apples

Organic fermented feed with wild apples

In the few studies I could find on fermented feed for pigs, they indicated that the pigs on fermented feed showed a 10% increase in weight gain compared to those given the non-fermented feed. Given all of the studies on fermentation and the health benefits for humans, and given the fact that pigs also have a mono gastric digestive system (one stomach) I cannot find fault with this approach.

We measured their daily rations into large food safe pails (we got ours from the beer kit store).  You pour water to cover the feed, add 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar and Stir. Check it every day, stir and add more water to cover to mixture if required. The feed will plump up by about 1/4 in volume during this time. The feed was ready for the pigs on the third day.

We found that with the summer temperatures we could not exceed three days. There is a slight yeasty/brewing odor, but it should not smell sour.

Waterers & Feeders

Water bucket for pigs

We used a Rubbermaid tote for watering. There are better solutions though.

Water ~ We had a rubber tote that we filled with the greenhouse water house, a few times per day. This bucket would often get tipped over, intentionally I might add. Pigs are quite playful.

Our watering situation was our weak spot. We had to drag a hose from the greenhouse to fill the water bucket and make the wallow. Their snouts are always dirty from rooting so their bucket needed to be washed out every time we filled it.

If we raise pigs again we will invest in a food grade water barrel and nipple waterers to build a watering system that stays clean, needs less frequent filling and can’t be tipped over!

Rubber feed troughs for pigs

Rubber feed buckets worked perfectly.

Feeders ~ We fermented our pigs feed and did not want to pour it directly on the ground. We bought two large Duraflex black rubber bowls from the feed store. I was really happy with them. They were easy to clean and relocate and should last us forever.

Initially I had bought two shallow galvanized steel stock tanks. They were too deep for our pigs and never got used. The pigs did move them around the pasture sometimes for entertainment. Movable, indestructible and easy to clean food containers like the ones in the picture above work well for pigs.

Wallow

Plastic kiddie pools for pigs

We found this pool on our property and put it to good use.

A wallow is a natural or artificial hole containing water or mud. Pigs are unable to sweat and need wallows to cool their skin on hot days.  We found this kiddie pool on the property and put it to good use but they soon outgrew it and what once fit all four pigs …was only large enough for one. Over time the pigs seemed to pick the spot they wanted for the wallow and had even helped us dig out a hole. We would fill that up a few times a day throughout the hot months.

Training

Homesteader with berkshire pigs

The pasture as you can see is now a muddy and barren sight, depleted of all vegetation.

As young weaners you should start teaching them to be comfortable with human contact. Scratch their ears, give them a pat on the rump and talk to them.  Do not tolerate nibbling at your pants or boots. If they do try to taste you, give them a gentle nudge with your boot. They will squeal like you are trying to murder them. When you bring food call out “here piggie, piggie, piggie”. You are training them to associate the call with food. We have been told that this can be very helpful if you get escapees. Food is the biggest motivating factor in a pigs life. Be assertive. Be mindful.

Weight

Most of us don’t have a pig sized weight scale kicking around. To estimate their weight you can use this great calculator. We decided it was time when they weighed around 200lbs. Cold Autumn days had arrived and the pasture was pretty much cleaned out as were the wild apples. It was time.

There is an ideal weight depending on what type of cuts you want to achieve. A Porker is reared to pork weight (132LB) A Baconer for bacon (220LB) and a Cutter falls between the two at  (170LB) . We did get plenty of bacon and fat with our 200LB pigs.  You can find a chart explaining this here.

Slaughtering

Berkshire Pig Black with white tips

Eventually, the inevitable day arrives and decisions must be made. Where and who will do the slaughtering.

We slaughtered on premises and according to local regulations this means that we are not supposed to sell this meat or use it for commercial purposes. In order to sell the meat, the animal needs to be transported live to the butcher and slaughtered there. This is a sore subject for a lot of small farmers that care about their animals and the final product. Not all abattoirs are equal when it comes to how the live animals are slaughtered. You will need to learn about your options and plan accordingly.

You can read Ryan’s account of slaughtering the pigs here.

Transporting

Having a tractor on hand to move the slaughtered pigs from the pasture, bleed them out and load them into the truck was very helpful. Our neighbor who owned two of the pigs brought his tractor along and we were grateful for his help.

If you are transporting the pigs live, you will need a sufficient style of trailer or box on your truck to move them.

Butchering

We didn’t have sufficient facilities or skills to butcher our pigs. Once they were slaughtered and loaded in the truck, we immediately took them to the local butcher who was waiting for us. The pigs were skillfully hung on hooks before I could even absorb the events of the day. Our cost was around $0.40CDN per pound. This is based on the hanging weight which for us was about 100lbs. This price did not include making sausages or bacon (our butcher did not offer this service) which would have been extra. The cost for them to slaughter the animals would have been $25 per animal. I suggest you book your appointment well in advance, there was a waiting list when we called to make arrangements.

Meat Quality

Porks Steaks

Berkshire Pork Steaks. Not the best of our cuts but amazing for stews. A lot more color than store bought!

We have served our meat to relatives when visiting, and ourselves. The meat is well marbled, moist, and the color isLard Soap from scratch different than what you get in the stores. Some of the meat has been *almost* indiscernible from beef.

We have rendered the fat and made lovely lard soap and there are soup bones in the freezer as well. If you have a willing butcher you can get exactly what you want.

You will probably need to build a smoker or to find a friend who has a smoker for bacon. In our experience the butchers IMG_0143we spoke to did not offer this service. We have been preparing our bacon without smoking it but if we ever raise pigs again, we will build a smoker.

We have plenty of sausage meat and it makes excellent burgers, Shepard’s pie, pasta sauce etc. We did not buy the equipment to stuff sausages and will save that for the next round as well.

Expenses

sobeys flyer May 2016 I don’t know where to begin when it comes to putting a dollar value on our time.  No one is paying us to raise these animals and we don’t sell our products. If I had to guess, our time spent on raising our pigs from start to finish would average out to about 80 hours.

Was it worth it? For us it was absolutely. We have a freezer filled with premium quality organic pasture raised pork.

We are fortunate that we can do this to benefit our family directly.  Doing this commercially would have involved business expenses, reporting, taxes and other things that we are very happy to avoid!
Cost breakdown

These are our out of pocket expenses directly related to the pigs.

  • Organic Commercial Feed $680.00
  • Weaners (four) $320.00
  • 50 bushels of wild foraged apples $0.00
  • 30 Clearance pumpkins  $30.00
  • 80 hours of labour $0.00
  • Butchering (400lb @ $0.40) $160.00

Our cost per pig = $297.50  / Our cost per pound = $2.97 CDN
According to Statistics Canada pork chops are selling for $13.00/KG or $5.90/LB retail. I pulled up my local Sobeys flyer for this week and they have standard pork tenderloin on special for $5.99LB (Regular $7.99) and their Certified Humane Pork Chops were $6.99/LB (Regular $10.19/LB)

A few last words of advice

Don’t name your pigs. It makes it a little easier to say goodbye. Don’t waste anything. Their meat is a gift and the fat and bones are useful.  You have a whole pig so there are cuts that you might not be used to cooking with. This provides you with a great opportunity to expand your culinary skills.

Talk to people who have already raised pigs. Listen to their advice but remember that not everyone is going to give you advice that works for your situation. Ultimately you need to take all of this information and decide on  the right course of action.

Don’t be afraid to join online community groups. The photos and stories and the discussions are a treasure trove of  information that just isn’t available elsewhere.

Realize that slaughtering animals that you have spent months caring for can be emotional. For people that are new to farming, the gap from thinking you know what raising animals for meat will be like to  actually knowing what raising animals for meat is like … is a wide one.

Don’t let bad accounts of raising pigs make you fearful or discourage from trying.  Taking time to plan will make all the difference. Raising pigs is not hard. We truly enjoyed having pigs on our homestead.

Additional Resources

8 Things to know about Raising pigs ~ Some tips and additional insights into raising pigs for meat.

Raising Pigs Naturally & Humanely ~ Insights into keeping your pigs happy and making the experience a good one.

My Pigs ~ A bit of an emotional yet candid story about raising and slaughtering pigs. The good. The bad. The ugly.

The Tale of the Pig Who Got Stuck ~ A short yet amusing video and story.

The Emotional Complexities of Raising Animals for Meat ~ Nobody said it would be easy. It does get easier though.

What's on your mind? Leave a Comment!

3 Comments

  • I’d like to suggest getting in touch with your local veterinarian early. The last thing you want in a medical emergency is to be searching for a vet or introducing yourself for the first time. If you have a large animal vet nearby who does house calls, maybe let him or her know when you’re expecting delivery and they can come out to do a quick health check on the animals and point out any major problems with your planned set-up (if you have any). Your local vet is your friend.

    • Chad, thank you so much for the suggestion. I will take some time to revise the article to discuss Veterinarian care, I agree it is very important to have support on dial for emergencies or if you get out of your depth. We have been fortunate and have not needed any medical care or professional support for our animals (knock on wood) but I do have a list of people to contact should we ever need help. Thanks again for taking the time to read the article and offer this suggestion. I appreciate it.

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