Learn how to feed and care for pigs on your homestead.
Last summer we raised two pigs on our acre. We had no barn, fancy feeders or waterers. No pasture either. What we did have was plenty of weeds and garden leftovers . . . and what we ended up with was plenty of pork. Yum. The real stuff, lean and delicious, and it cost us an average of only 37¢ a pound.
We had several things in mind when, bumbling amateurs that we were, we decided to have a go at raising our own pork chops:
1) (And carrying the most weight) . . . We'd read enough about hormones, antibiotics and heavily sprayed feed given to commercially raised animals to want something better for our family and friends; 2) We wanted to see how fully pigs would use up the by-products of gardening, canning and foraging; 3) All we knew about hogs was what we'd read . . . we wanted to see how they would respond to us and each other;
4) We thought we might even save some money.
Our plan was to buy shoats (feeder pigs) in early spring, fatten them up over the summer at the slow but steady pace of whatever was available and have them butchered and frozen in the fall. That's pretty much the way it worked out.
While getting ready for our venture, we did a lot of reading. The most down-home, reassuring sources were parts of COUNTRYSIDE Magazine, an article by Victor Croley in the November 1968 issue of ORGANIC GARDENING AND FARMING and a small green book we found in a secondhand bookstore: HOME PORK PRODUCTION by John Smedley (Published by Orange Judd Publishing Co., N.Y., 1946).
We also found two helpful pamphlets at the local feed store: "The Purina Hog Program Book" and "Jasper, an Inside Look at a Modern Meat Hog".
Your local county agent probably can round out your hograising library with other useful publications.
To raise a pig, of course, you must first get one and we began scanning the want-ad sections of the local newspapers in early March. Feeder pigs were few and far between, so we called a farmer from whom we had once bought persimmons. As it happened, the man had an odd pair of shoats that were out of step with the others . . . a gilt (young female) and a barrow (castrated male). Each weighed about 40 pounds and we paid $14 apiece for them. No bargain, but we'd rather give the profit to a family farmer than to a mass producer.
In April and again during the fall—after we'd bought ours—we noted a number of newspaper ads offering suckling and feeder pigs for as little as $11.00 . . . but we had no real regrets. If we'd been too hasty in making a deal for our porkers it had only been because we'd been anxious to get started and make our first mistakes. Besides, if we'd purchased one of the bargain babies in the autumn, we couldn't have kept it over winter without a barn. (We were tempted to get one and keep it the summer kitchen, but we didn't. Perhaps it's good to run out of pork and get hungry for the next batch.)
Although most everything else on our homestead has a title, we agreed from the beginning not to name the pigs. We didn't want to raise them to 250 pounds only to have to keep them on as pets. Still, we had to call them something . . . and "Himself" and "Herself" were as close as we came to acknowledging Pig Soul.
Since we had decided to raise our own pork to save money and to produce meat as free as possible of harmful residues, we substituted hand-cut weeds—mostly plantain, dandelion, lamb's quarters and amaranth—for much of the bagged feed we would otherwise have had to buy the animals. After coarse chopping the wild salad, we moistened it and dumped it in the shoats' trough.
When we first offered the scavenged greens to Herself and Himself in April we mixed a handful of ground pig feed into the leaves to convince the shoats that the salad really was for them. The hogs caught on fast and spent most of spring and early summer devouring burlap sackfuls of the bountiful weed crop we gathered from unsprayed roadsides and hedgerows.
Our home-grown comfrey came into season in May and we were soon cutting, moistening, sprinkling with feed and presenting our little bottomless pits with one-half bushel of this fast growing, high protein crop a day.
We also grew mangel beets (a large, coarse variety for stock) and fed the vegetable chopped and mixed with greens. The beet that yielded best for us was Golden Tankard, from the Olds Seed Company (Olds doesn't charge for packing and handling . . . good folks).
Then there were the garden extras: the odd beets and carrots, flowered broccoli we'd somehow missed, squashy tomatoes, bolted lettuce, old corn, extra soybeans . . . and all the vegetable trimmings, banana peels and melon rinds. Down the hatch! You could just see the cycle of it all. Fabulous.
The processing that went on in our big rangy farm-type kitchen during the summer produced additional buckets and pails of byproducts: tomato pulp, apple pomace, coarse beet leaves, pea pods, cabbage leaves, berry rejects. The pigs eagerly turned it all into pork. About the only two things we found they didn't like (and believe me, we tried lots of different menus!) were mashed elderberries and sauerkraut.
At about that same time, the summer spurt of egg-laying enthusiasm on the part of our hens was filling our baskets and pockets to overflowing . . . so on more than one morning, the shoats started their day with eggs just as we did!
In August, when many weeds were going to seed (and were therefore less useful as fodder), we continued to feed the pigs well on other sources we had up our sleeve.
From our goats—Annie and Sonya, who had freshened in the spring and whose kids were weaned—there was loads of milk. On days when the fridge was full, I'd bypass the filtering and cooling processes and take the morning's milking straight to the pigs. Their enjoyment was noisy and delightful.
Our summer and early fall foraging jaunts yielded baskets full of windfall apples and pears. We ate and preserved the best ones and fed the others to Himself and Herself. Twice, we found free-for-the-picking fruit advertised in a local paper. In both cases, after plucking what we wanted from the trees, we stayed a few extra minutes to get the drops on the ground. Raking seems to be a nuisance that the orchard owners want to avoid and our porkers thrived on the soft fruit.
By September, many of the weeds that had gone to seed were surrounded by colonies of young; tender greens and dandelions appeared on our pigs' menu again.
During October and November, we did lots of stubbling: gleaning dropped corn that had been missed by the mechanical pickers in our neighbor's field. (Of course we asked permission.) We found it best to husk the ears as we picked them up, for often they were damp and might otherwise have molded when we stored the crop in bins in the garage. We talked about making a little homestead size crib by wrapping our rototiller crate with fencing, but . . . well, we're still talking about it. Fall came on fast. The pigs got their money's worth from each ear of corn we gave them when the ground was hard . . . but when their enclosure turned to thick, slurpy mud after heavy rains, too many cobs went to China. The only thing to do was to feed the grain shelled in the trough.
Lucky for us, a mill in the nearby village of Rheems sells feed without hormones, antibiotics or preservatives. We bought their hog chow by the 100-pound bag even though we scarcely ever fed it straight. Mainly, we used the commercial ration to thicken whey left from making cream cheese out of yogurt and to dress up the salad greens . . . which allowed us to raise two pigs on less than the amount of commercial feed ordinarily needed for one. Our home-grown fodder and wild greens, table and garden surplus, milk, eggs, foraged corn and apples made the difference.
Mineral supplements helped the shoats make good use of their food. We tossed wood ashes to the hogs and from time to time added a trace of mineral powder to their diet. The rooting instinct helps to keep swine well supplied with micronutrients, too. Fresh good soil abounds in trace minerals and natural antibiotics.
We had no way of computing the daily protein intake for Himself and Herself . . . maybe we sacrificed some efficiency in feed conversion, but ease is important to us, too. We just tried to make sure we offered a healthy protein serving each day . . . usually from more than one source: comfrey, eggs, milk, alfalfa leaves left by the goats, whey, soybeans. We felt that such a wild variety eaten over a period of days would strike some kind of balance.
The goats, chickens and rabbits—much as we love 'em—have their own persnickety appetites for scraps and no other animal on the homestead is so wholehearted about leftovers of all kinds as pigs. When our hogs were suddenly gone in November I really missed their guzzling, gobbling enthusiasm for our mixed offerings.
Admittedly, there were days when we felt we existed for the pigs rather than the other way around. Especially in August, when they were getting large and hungry.
Pennsylvania's wettest summer in years—and the mud that left the hogs' corner awash and well-seasoned with indelible pig manure—made caring for the animals all the more exasperating. When Himself and Herself saw me coming with the dinner pail they'd slosh their way to the trough and spatter me with the gooey mixture. It turned into a race to see who could get there first. Made us all look pretty silly. Finally, I took to wrapping a burlap sack around me at feeding time to help cut down on the extra wash.
Annoying as it all was, it still hasn't turned us off on porkers. Mike plans a network of ditches around their yard to divert runoff from the slight slope above. And we couldn't possibly (or could we?) have another summer with so much rain!
If we'd been able to keep our shoats on a solid surface, with straw bedding, we would have lost much less of the manure. Hog manure is heavy stuff, any way you look at it. We mucked out some for spreading in the corn patch and around the rhubarb but there was lots more in there, all mixed with mud that we still don't know how to handle. Any suggestions? Yeah. We could grow corn there . . . but it's the only place we have for keeping pigs.
The odor of Essence of Hog, by the way, wasn't the problem we had thought it might be, even though the pen is within 50 feet of our home. It's downwind and the northwest breeze blew it away. Plus . . . we weren't in the house very much anyhow!
We decided to have the barrow butchered in September, even though he was slightly on the small side. This would give us more of a spread between the two and, therefore, fresher meat and less trouble fitting the supply into our freezer.We considered dressing the animals out ourselves, but felt we weren't quite ready for that. As far as we're concerned, the butcher earned his fee.
"Was it hard," you ask, "parting with an animal you'd cared for?"
To be honest, it wasn't really the heavy feeling we'd expected. The arrangement between us and the pigs (admittedly a unilateral agreement) was—from the beginning—good care, food and occasional conversation in trade for meat. And we were so busy with garden, goats, haying and canning we really didn't have time to make pets of Himself and Herself as we had thought we might. After the half-hour struggle to get Him on the truck, all the while keeping Her in the pen, our feelings were more those of relief than regret! "
We had planned to wait until December to have the gilt dressed, but the weather turned very cold, meaning that feed would go mostly to maintenance, and the butcher told us he'd be too busy with deer after Thanksgiving to do it then, anyway. So we had Her—all 280 pounds—done in mid-November. The butcher said, "They were nice pigs." We felt we'd been praised by an expert.
But the best reward has been in the eating: lean pork . . . meaty sausage . . . unbelievably fragrant ham . . . spicy scrapple . . . abundant lard. The meat was perfect with Mike's homemade sauerkraut and small bits and pieces of it made scrumptious soybean casseroles, omelets and Chinese dishes with mung bean sprouts. Having our own soybeans, eggs and vegetables helped us get more mileage out of the pork, too.
We figure our pork cost an average of 37¢ a pound. That's allowing for all roasts, bacon, ham scrapple and sausage . . . but not counting the lard, which is thrown in free. Free or not, homestead lard does have value. Our daughter, Mary Grace, made enough soap from the first lard to last us a year and we kept the second batch handy (stored in our cold summer kitchen) for cooking use all winter.
Was it worth it? I suppose the best answer is to tell you that we've already embarked on our second adventure with walking pork chops. If we can do it, lots of other improvisers can too! Enjoy!
Our pigs lived in the Keener Memorial A-frame, so named from the inscription on several of the old boards that went into their house. We can't see that their dignified label made any impression on the porkers, but it sure saved us money when we were building their quarters.
Mike made the structure from boards and beams that were being discarded by a gravestone company (hence the inscription), and by a man who had dismantled his old front porch. Both sources were glad to have us—rather than the trash man—take the excellent wood they didn't want . As we carried it away, our salvage stuck way out the back of our VW squareback. We hung a red flag on it and sang all the way home.
The A-frame is 6 feet long and stands 4 feet, 2 inches tall on a base 5 feet wide. It's closed on three sides and partly open to the south. The piglets were cold when we first got them and they coughed (an oddly human-sounding cough) so we piled bales of straw in and around the A-frame for them to burrow in. Herself and Himself were so thorough about this tunneling, for the first few days we'd often think they had escaped . . . until we heard them snorting contentedly under the bedding.
The shoats' cottage was set in the same fenced-in enclosure that surrounds our goat shed and rabbit hutches. We call it the Peaceable Kingdom. To keep things peaceable and a little less muddy, we partitioned off half the open area for the new babies with parts of old gravestone crates and such.The 5-foot fencing, hooked to steel posts, that surrounds the hog lot is strong but fairly open at the bottom. We'd been told that a ring in the nose would prevent each pig from rooting, but somehow we didn't have the heart to do that so—at first—we put beams and logs along the lower edge of the barrier to keep Herself and Himself from nosing under. Then we bought a secondhand electric fence charger for $10.00. From then on a single strand of live wire a few inches above the ground on the inside of their enclosure kept the shoats in their corner.
To produce one pound of protein for man, a hog must eat 8.3 lbs. of protein while a steer must consume 21.4.
(From DIET FOR A SMALL PLANET by Frances Moore Lappe)
Fair average gain for a pig up to 225 lbs. is one pound a day, full fed from birth. Cost of gain increases with age, as in other farm animals.
One pound of feed daily per 100 lbs. live weight is needed to maintain a hog at constant weight.
Young pigs need more protein than mature hogs.
High oil feeds—such as soybeans, peanuts, etc.—produce soft pork when fed heavily.
(Above four points from PORK PRODUCTION by Wm. Smith, DVM, McMillan, N.Y., 1952.)
Signs of Health in a Pig
1. Eyes clear and bright 2. Tail carried in a curl 3. Hair smooth, lying close to body 4. Skin relatively soft, elastic
Good Meat Conformation
1. Rear legs set far apart 2. High tail
setting 3. Slight groove down top of
back 4: Well arched ribs 5.
Wide in the chest 6. Long, uniformly arched
7. Trim jowl and head
Pigs do well on pasture and can forage 20-30% of their feed requirements. Rape, clover and alfalfa make good forage. One half acre is enough for one or two pigs with a rotation plan and some extra grain fed. The manure they leave is worth several dollars an acre.
A good mineral mixture:
10 lbs. steamed bone meal
10 lbs. limestone or wood ashes
5 lbs. salt
Cook all potatoes and peelings fed to pigs and the animals will eat more. Don't feed 'em potato sprouts though.
We fed Himself and Herself at least three times a day . . . with snacks of odd tomatoes, fresh-pulled weeds and such tossed in between. We've since read that overfed pigs use slightly more feed per 100 lbs. of gain than those who receive just an adequate diet. So I think we'll take those desperate grunts a little less seriously next time. On the other hand, porkers have such small stomachs, when bulky greens are being substituted for more concentrated food they need to eat more often.
Swine suffer from heat and need plenty of water in summer.
A hog's appetite and digestive tract is more like that of a man than most other domestic farm animals.
Pigs will leave their droppings in one corner of their yard if given a chance. They try very hard to keep their sleeping quarters clean.
Meat conformation standards from "Jasper, an Inside Look at
a Modern Meat Hog", published by American Cyanamid Co.,
Most other Pig Facts from HOME PORK PRODUCTION by John Smedley, published by Orange Judd Pub. Co., N.Y., 1946.
The barrow weighed 218 lbs. and dressed out to 134 lbs. of meat, scrapple, sausage, etc., not counting lard.
The gilt weighed 280 lbs. and dressed out 170 lbs., not counting lard.
TOTAL MEAT . . . . . . . . . . 134 + 170 = 304 lbs. Plus 60 lbs. free lard
Any way you figure it, the meat cost us $.37 a pound. (What does ham cost in your stupormarket?)
NOTE: The Purina Modified Complete Program, for producers with some grain, states that it should require 678 pounds of their feed to raise a pig from 50 to 250 pounds. We fed less of the commercial chow (600 lbs.) to raise two hogs from 40 pounds each to an average of 249 pounds each. Foraging and recycling leftovers really does pay!
ALSO . . . Using our procedure and costs, but doing your own butchering, you can nearly halve our costs. . . yes, you can raise your own pork for $.19 a pound! (304 lbs. for $58, the cost of 2 pigs and the bagged feed.) This is a case where keeping things small saves money (if you had a lot of pigs, for instance, you couldn't gather greens for them yourself. You could put them out to pasture, though, if you had the land).
OR . . . A compromise . . . butcher your own hog and have the ham and bacon commercially cured at a cost of $.10 a pound. For 90 lbs. of ham and bacon this would raise your cost to $.22 a pound.
JUST . . . Borrowing or bartering the use of a truck for the trip to the butcher (at least in our case) would have shaved costs to $.35 a pound.