‘Berkie’ Babies: Raising Berkshire Heritage-Breed Pigs

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We had thrown the idea around for years of raising pigs. We first talked about raising them for meat production but didn’t know if we would be able to complete the process start-to-finish. Alan didn’t like the idea of taking the animals to a slaughter house to kill and be packaged. He likes to do his own butchering — then he knows how the meat is handled and how sanitary the slaughter is.

We learned all the rules and regulations — in North Carolina, you have to take the animal to a certified slaughterhouse because it cannot be done on-farm — and decided this approach was not for us. But we still wanted to do something with pigs. We just loved everything about the Berkshire. They’re so cute! So we decided we would raise a breeding pair and produce heritage-breed piglets.

The planning is usually the easiest part. Actually putting it into motion is another thing. We finally found a pure-breed female that was produced from AI (artificial insemination), but the owner did not have the paperwork. We were just glad we found a pure female, because we had looked for a long time.

Sourcing a Pure-Bred Berkshire Male

We also wanted a pure, intact male, but these owners didn’t have any stock that were not related. We went ahead and bought a little male that was a brother to our female. He had been castrated, so we would be able to keep them together. Pigs do better with a companion, otherwise they get easily stressed. They do really well with other animals, including goats and chickens.

When our female was of breeding age — we like to wait at least until they’re over a year old — we started looking for a male to breed her to. We made all kinds of contacts from pig directories and classifieds. We could not find an intact, pure Berkshire male!

We kept looking, because we also know the older the pig gets, the harder on her to have her first litter. In the meantime, Mr. Wiggles, the male companion for our Miss Piggy, was getting too large and we needed to do something with him. Even though a male is castrated, some will still run after the female and aggravate her. So, we decided we would kill him and this would be our winters’ meat.

We finally found an intact male at a farm about 3 hours drive from our farm. He was just weaned, so this meant another wait until he was old enough to breed with our female. We brought him home and kept him separated from our female. We named him Jethro.

Since the pigs were in different pastures we decided we would train Jethro to harness and lead so we could lead him to “Miss Piggy’s” pasture when he was old enough. This is another reason I say Berkshires are the best all-around pig. They are so easy to work with, train and they adapt quickly. Jethro just outgrew his harness too often and they don’t come cheap!

Jethro also loves to get out in the field and help move dirt and rocks, as seen in the photo below.

Finally, Jethro was old enough (at least 8 months old) and big enough to breed Miss Piggy.

Breeding Berkshire Pigs

We had to wait until the female was in estrus (heat) before taking Jethro to her. You have to be careful about the timing, because the gilt female (meaning she has not been bred before) will not accept the male if she is not in full estrus, and she will not stay in estrus for very long. A gilt may stay in estrus 24-28 hours, and a sow (has had at least 1 litter) may stay in estrus up to 3 days.

So, Alan harnessed up Jethro and took him to see Miss Piggy. We left him in the pasture for awhile and she didn’t accept his attention, so we took him back to his pasture. We took him back to her the next day and she was bred. We left them together in the same pasture afterwards, so she would be less stressed having a companion.

When Miss Piggy became heavy with babies and didn’t like company anymore, we moved Jethro again. He didn’t mind — he likes traveling.

We were able to put that date down. Gestation time in the Berkshire can depend on whether she has had a litter before. You can start watching the female at 113 days. Our Miss Piggy went 115 days both times she delivered.

Now, if you want to be sure of the breeding date, you need to leave the boar with the female while being supervised so, you will know if she has been bred. If she doesn’t accept his attention take the boar back to his pasture until the next day.

We try to place our piglets in good homes. That means we ask if they will be pastured. Even if we know they will be meat for someone’s table we want to know that they will be well taken care of up to that time.

Note: Miss Piggy and Jethro are available as a breeding pair. If interested, contact us at The Mushroom Hut@Fox Farms 828-682-1405.

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting “workshop stays” on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 

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