Homegrown hogs can help you make compost and plow new ground — plus, your pastured pork will be some of the best you've ever tasted.
Distinguishing characteristics of a healthy hog.
Illustration By Celia Lewis
As if raising your own Sunday bacon weren’t enough, allow us to outline even more reasons for keeping pigs. The ultimate recyclers, hogs can take kitchen and garden scraps — or just about any edible “waste” — and convert them into healthful, delicious meat, plus nutrient-rich fertilizer. Evolved to root and dig, pigs enthusiastically unearth tasty treasures, plowing and composting as they go about their piggish pleasures. For firsthand experience with a system in which nothing is wasted, try raising pigs.
Until the industrialization of agriculture, pigs were a welcome addition to virtually every farm. Keeping pigs was a way to store essential protein until it was needed. After slaughter, the pork could be preserved without refrigeration when made into ham, bacon and sausage.
In addition to being sources of delicious meat and precious lard, the pigs our ancestors raised were versatile beasts with a multitude of functions. Pig farms near cities were an important way to recycle garbage, and there were systems in place to pick up kitchen waste directly from urban households and move it out to the pig farms. By keeping pigs, modern homesteads can still take advantage of this sustainable porcine power.
Have you noticed how the “moist and tender” pork from the supermarket these days doesn’t have much actual flavor? Flavor is a function of genetics, diet and time. One of the results of industrialized agriculture has been lean but flavorless pork. Pigs have been bred to grow as fast as possible and to be leaner in response to concerns that fat isn’t good for us. Industrial pigs are fed a “complete” ration that contains no fresh greens or roots of any kind. These rigidly confined pigs are given no room to move around and sometimes not even enough space to lie down.
The result is a highly consistent but bland “other white meat” that is easily overcooked, and is short on pork flavor and texture. In fact, industrial pork is so dry and flavorless that much of it is injected with up to 12 percent salt water to make it “moist and tender” (and to sell consumers 12 percent salt water instead of 100 percent pork!).
Pigs that provide delicious pork can still be found — heritage pig breeds such as those illustrated here, as well as “old-line” strains. These breeds are being maintained by farmers who’ve declined to buy into the industrialized system that keeps fast-growing “new-line” pigs indoors in tiny pens. Raise an old-line or heritage pig breed, and you’ll enjoy low-cost, great-tasting, hormone-free meat, along with a good supply of lard. You can make ham, bacon and sausage, confident they came from animals that were fed well and treated humanely — plus, with your lard, you can whip up the most flavorful baked goods you’ve ever tasted. (See The Lost Art of Cooking With Lard, a review of a new cookbook, Lard: Cooking With Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient.)
Though seemingly tender, the pig’s nose — indeed, its entire head — is designed to facilitate its most cherished activity: rooting. Pigs root for food, they root when they’re happy and they root when they’re excited. They are self-contained plowing units that can turn sod and rid the soil of grubs, grass, roots and rhizomes like no combination of machines and pesticide sprays so far invented. Using pigs for plowing is as simple as confining them to an area you want to see converted to turned soil.
The pig’s place in the garden comes in fall after you’ve harvested everything you want. Excellent gleaners, pigs relish leftover tomatoes, overripe or green. They eat weeds, tear out vines, mow down and munch cornstalks, and root out remaining root crops. If you used deep mulch on your garden, the pigs will break it up and turn it under — and will do all of this as they fertilize the ground.
Some food safety experts suggest that you avoid growing root crops and greens for human consumption on ground where fresh manure was recently applied. Though real, the risk of passing a pathogen appears slight. Other folks follow the ways of our ancestors and simply put the pigs in the garden for a few weeks in late summer to prepare the ground for cover crops and then plant as normal the following spring. If the land is your corn patch one year and your tomato patch the next, any risks associated with fecal pathogens will be negligible.
Pigs not only plow up the ground effectively and for little investment in fuel, but they are also some of the best mulch-makers around. If you provide several bales of hay or straw for your pigs, they will rapidly tear the bales apart, break the stems into small pieces and integrate that compost-like mulch into the soil.
In cold climates, if you use pigs to plow in fall and want to winter them over in the field, you’ll need to provide plenty of hay or straw as bedding in which they can bury themselves. These pigs will relish chewing, eating and rooting, and in the process even just a few hogs easily can add several tons of enriched mulch to the ground by spring.
If you wish to produce relatively large quantities of compost with pigs, having a decent supply of browns and greens is useful. Browns might come in the form of leaves, old hay or straw, and greens might be fresh grass clippings, manure from your milk cow, or another high-nitrogen material. Ideally, you will already have your compostables confined in a pig-friendly place, but you can also carry the material to the pigs if you can’t move the pigs to the piles.
When you winter or simply bed (with hay or straw) ruminants such as cattle or sheep in the barn or outdoor lot, they’ll deposit manure and liquid waste onto their bedding. Rather than removing soiled bedding and adding fresh, simply add clean bedding on top of the soiled. The animals will trample the litter into a “manure pack” that will be as tough to break up come spring as a well-made adobe floor. Don’t worry about how you will deal with the hard pack — simply scatter some corn or other grain beneath the fresh bedding every time you add it.
Pigs love to root, and though they will root “just because,” if they find a reward such as a kernel of corn or wheat now and then, look out! The pigs will put their snouts to work, and in no time at all that manure pack or soiled bedding material will be broken down into one of the richest soil amendments you’ll ever add to your gardens and fields.
For additional advice on raising pigs, check out Storey’s Guide to Raising Pigs.
Although we’ve used the words “pig” and “hog” more or less interchangeably in this article, it helps to know the technical difference. Here are some of the terms used by experienced swineherds.
Piglet: term for baby swine that is rarely used by folks who raise pigs
Pig: a young swine — something you might be tempted to call a piglet
Shoat: an adolescent pig that has been weaned but has not yet hit 120 pounds
Hog: a maturing swine that has passed the 120-pound mark
Boar: an intact male
Barrow: a castrated male
Gilt: a young female before her first litter
Sow: a mature female hog after her first litter
Weanling or Weaner: 8- to 12-week-old pig that has just been removed from its mother
Feeder Pig: a young animal (generally less than 70 pounds) you might purchase to raise for pork or to plow with
Most beginners feed their pigs a bagged “complete” grain and protein ration. A $50, 50-pound weaner pig might require about 585 pounds of feed to reach a slaughter weight of 250 pounds. At current (2012 pre-drought) prices, that would cost roughly $155 for conventional feed or $235 for organic. If your pigs are on good pasture, you could reduce your feed costs by about $22 for conventional or $40 for organic feed. You can lower costs if you provide supplemental dairy products, stale baked goods, or fruit and vegetable waste.
Pigs are far more efficient than cattle in converting feed into meat (but not as efficient as poultry). Your 250-pound hog should yield about 140 pounds of meat cuts. Custom slaughter and cutting prices vary, but should be about 80 cents per hanging pound. (Your 250-pound hog should provide roughly 187 pounds hanging weight.) The final cost to produce 140 pounds of premium pork from a pig you raise would be $355, which equals $2.54 per pound ($50 for the weaner plus $155 for feed and $150 for butchering). For organic pork, the cost would be about $3.11 per pound. Neither estimate includes land and facilities costs.
If you can’t put your pigs on pasture, take the pasture to the pigs. Collect scraps from restaurants, grocery stores and your neighbors. Whatever you bring will thrill your pigs, and can go a long way toward slashing their feed bill. They relish almost any kind of fresh greens, all manner of fruits and vegetables, and garden and orchard remains. Plant mangel beets, turnips, kale or other greens in areas easily accessible to your pigs and they’ll feed themselves when the time comes. Hogs will devour the tops and savor the roots of all of these crops while preparing the ground for your next crop, and gaining some weight to boot.
On pasture, hogs are opportunistic omnivores and enjoy the exercise of finding and eating tree nuts (mast), leaves, grubs, frogs and other goodies.
Fencing Them In
Keeping your pigs under control isn’t terribly difficult, especially if you raise them from weanlings and develop their trust — this usually involves you being a gentle source of treats (grain, turnip greens, fresh clover, apples, eggs and the like).
The best way to contain pigs is with a combination of permanent, portable fencing along with some devices called “sorting panels,” which are useful in close quarters. Make them from scrap lumber or metal and use them to turn pigs, to block their progress, and to protect yourself from intended or unintended encounters with the animal’s mouth or feet. Always keep your wits about you as you work your pigs — 600-pound gentle giants can injure you even if they bear no malice.
Most pig setups will include a more or less permanent central pen area where the pigs can be brought in and “trapped.” It’s convenient to provide food, water and wallow in this area because the pigs will associate it with good things and you won’t have difficulty persuading them to come on in. This pen is where you might catch piglets for weaning, separate an animal for loading on a trailer or just get a closer look at the pig when needed. This area might be best enclosed with welded steel hog panels, although some folks use woven-wire mesh backed with wooden posts and rails. You needn’t bother with such a stout enclosure for pasture or garden structures.
Electric fencing makes a fine choice for containing hogs on pasture or in the garden. You might choose a permanent setup for the pasture perimeter made of strong corner posts and three strands of conducting wire spaced about 6, 12 and 20 inches off of the ground. Temporary electric fencing can be used to create cross fences, separate animal groups from one another, create alleys that lead to the garden or field you want to plow, and to enclose those same spaces.
Give ’Em Shelter
Hogs raised outdoors should have access to shade and some form of shelter, though they may not opt to use it. Whether they’re raised in outdoor lots, in the woods or on pasture, pigs need a shed that provides about 6 square feet of covered space per each animal that’s more than 100 pounds. (Exceptions to this are breeds, such as the Mulefoot, that prefer to make communal hay or straw nests outdoors.) Many heritage-breed and old-line sows will gather and haul hay up to 100 yards to stuff their house and create a cozy place to bear and raise their young. Pigs use mud to cool down in the heat and to combat biting flies, so, if possible, keep a wet area so they can create a wallow.
If you decide to buy a heritage breed, take a look at the website of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to locate producers near you. For more ordinary breeds, check local classified ads, farm store bulletin boards or Craigslist. Expect to pay about $1 per pound or a minimum of about $50 for a non-heritage breed and more for a rare breed.
Storey’s Guide to Raising Pigs by Kelly Klober
The Illustrated Guide to Pigs by Celia Lewis
Raising Pigs of Your Own
Raising Pigs for Meat
Raising Pigs for Food
Hogs on the Homestead
Raising Grass-Fed “Pigloo” Pork
Tips for Raising Pigs During Sow Farrowing Time
Hank Will farms in eastern Kansas and is Editor-in-Chief of Grit magazine. He serves on the board of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and raises heritage Mulefoot hogs and Highland cattle. This article was adapted from his forthcoming book, Plowing With Pigs: Low-Cost Solutions for the 21st Century Homesteader, co-written with his wife, Karen K. Will.