Raising Hogs on the Homestead

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Learn about raising hogs on the homestead.

Purchasing and raising hogs takes talent and an eye for choosing good breeding stock for the homestead.

Raising Hogs: How to Select Good Breeding Stock

Back in the days when the rangy, mongrel razorback was all the hog a farmer had to work with, folks didn’t worry too much about things like backfat thickness, muscling, or finishing. A pig was a pig was a pig, and that was all anyone needed to know.

Well, times — and pigs — have changed. Today’s pork producer must be able to evaluate his or her live animals with more than just a keen eye for good pig flesh . . . nowadays, the selection of profitable breeding stock demands good judgment tempered by an appreciation of consumer demands and a well-rounded knowledge of hog husbandry. I can’t give you all that here . . . but I can suggest a few practical tips and hints designed to keep you from making major mistakes in the selection of breeding stock.

A logical place to begin our discussion of how to select good stock is with stress, and the harmful role it can play in a pig’s reproductive life. Obviously, good physical conformation is desirable in an animal . . . but a hog that can’t breed ( or breeds only with difficulty) because of stress-related problems is a liability to the homesteader no matter how perfect the animal’s features are. Let’s take a look, then, at the three most important stress factors affecting hogs: Porcine Stress Syndrome, environmental stress, and breeding stress.

Porcine Stress Syndrome (PSS) is a disease that can result in the sudden death of a pig under certain handling and environmental conditions. The symptoms include red blotches on the skin, rigid legs, hard, bulging muscles, nervousness, and/or trembling. Research shows that PSS is at least in part a genetic problem . . . so if the animal you’re considering buying displays any or all of the above symptoms, remember that the tendency to develop the disease will not end with a single generation of pigs.

Environmental stress is another factor to consider when selecting breeding stock. Nowadays, hogs raised in confinement have the remarkable ability to go from birth to market weight in less than 150 days. The constant confinement that’s often used to achieve this rate of growth, however, tends to create stress in an animal . . . stress that’s likely to show up in the form of complications ( mastitis or agalactia, for instance) at farrowing time. Thus, you should make every attempt to find out — before you buy — whether the animal you’ve selected has spent its entire life in a confined situation. If it has, you may want to continue to shop around for another pig.

Breeding stress is the third (and final) stress factor you should take into consideration before purchasing any animal. Here, the size and age of the hog are of critical importance. Modern boars are slow to enter puberty, and if you select one that’s less than eight months old and press him into service, your chances of obtaining a smaller-than-normal litter are greatly increased. Also, when picking out a boar it’s important to consider the age and size of your sows, since a young, inexperienced male could be hurt or even killed by a feisty, older female during breeding. (Similarly, a young female — if mated to a large boar — could be seriously injured during the act of copulation.) To avoid breeding stress — and protect your hard-earned hog investment dollars — never buy a boar that’s too young or too old for your female herd.

Your next major consideration in selecting breeding stock should be what the experts call heritable traits. These include carcass length, ham size, the number of nipples, backfat thickness, and loin-eye size (all of which are more than 50% governed by heredity) . . . as well as feed efficiency and growth rate after weaning ( characteristics that are more than 30% determined by inheritance).

The importance of these traits — which together determine a pig’s overall appearance (or conformation) and performance — cannot be overemphasized. Today’s market animal has been bred to be heavy-muscled, firm, well balanced, and of adequate length. A short, low-set, or fat gilt is not going to produce the correct meat type in her offspring . . . nor will a tall, narrow, light-muscled boar. It’s important to realize, too, that all pigs — if allowed to breed freely — will revert back to the mongrel state (complete with heavy head, thick shoulders, and small hams) in a very few generations. The more attention you give to breeding conformation before you buy, then, the greater your chances will be of obtaining high-quality litters at farrowing time.

The best indicator of total finish ability is backfat thickness. Generally speaking, a small amount of backfat — 1.2 inches for 200- to 220-pound gilts and boars — is desirable. A soft, square back . . . a heavy, wasty jowl . . . loose, wrinkled sides . . . or a noticeable roll of fat behind the shoulder in the flank area . . . are indications of a heritable tendency toward excess fat production.

The animal you buy should also be well muscled and have meaty hams. The best indication of the quality of muscling can be gotten by viewing the pig from the rear. (Seen from behind, the hog’s back should have the shape of an upside-down “U”.) To judge the length and depth of the hams, you should get a full side view of the animal. Check to see that the hams are long and carry well down to the hock. Pigs that are extremely wide across the back — with hams that are thicker through the top than across the center — are usually fat. (In contrast, porkers that are narrow across the top, rump, shoulder, and chest are short on muscling.)

Growth ability, soundness of legs, a trim underline — especially on gilts — and breed and sex characteristics are other major factors to be considered when “sizing up” breeding stock.

[1] Growth Ability. Never buy an animal that’s over- or undersized for its age. Weight for age should always be considered carefully. (Remember, growth rate is more than 30% hereditary.)

[2] Soundness of Legs and Underline. Your breeding stock must have good bone structure and strong legs in order to maintain a long, productive life. Check for straight, widely spaced legs . . . short, strong pasterns . . . and — in the case of a gilt — six prominent, well separated udder sections on either side of the underline.

[3] Breed and Sex Characteristics. Look for prominent breed-type characteristics, good eye appeal, and clearly evident masculine or feminine traits.

Even though we homesteaders contribute — on the average — less than 150 pigs each per year to the total crop of market hogs, we’re still governed by the pork industry’s high standards for quality meat. There’s no reason why you and I can’t successfully compete with the large producers to meet those high standards, however, so long as we select our breeding stock intelligently. With the information I’ve just given you, you should be able to do just that!

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