The art of raising pigs begins with a strong foundation in the basics, including background knowledge in the terminology used to describe pigs and what different pig sounds usually indicate your animals are trying to tell you. Along with this important information, Celia Lewis’ The Illustrated Guide to Pigs (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) provides whimsical watercolors of unique and heritage pig breeds, along with guidelines on how to raise these animals for meat, fun or both. The following excerpt is adapted from Chapter 1, “Why Keep a Pig?”
There may be a number of reasons why you may be thinking of raising pigs, whether for meat, as breeding stock or as unusual pet. Learning how to raise pigs starts with the basics: Understanding porcine terminology and pig sounds (AKA: pigspeak). Don’t miss a few sample illustrations, complete with pigspeak translations, in the Image Gallery.
Raising Pigs for Meat
If you’ve never kept a pig before it is highly recommended that you start by raising a couple of weaners to supply your freezer and see how you do. This will entail buying in newly weaned pigs at around eight weeks old — these can be gilts or boars. You may have heard of “boar taint” (a taste or smell that may affect the meat of uncastrated male pigs) but this will not be an issue if your animals go for slaughter at 20 to 24 weeks before they reach sexual maturity. An added bonus of boar weaners is that you won’t be tempted to keep them to breed from which might be the case with gilts. If the weaners you bought are being sold for pork there may well be a good reason for this, such as poor conformation, and therefore they are probably not ideal for your foundation stock.
Perhaps you want to keep a couple of purebred sows in order to produce weaners to sell yourself. If this is the case, make sure that there is a suitable boar nearby and buy the highest-quality registered stock that you can possibly afford. You may be able to buy an in-pig gilt which will overcome the problem of finding a boar for your first litter.
Then again a personable pet may be what you have in mind. Don’t forget that a sweet little piglet may well grow to be 880 pounds in weight and turn your garden into a ploughed field. A large black sow of my acquaintance, who lived happily free range in a farmyard, once became impatient when her meal was not delivered on time. She stuck her head through the catflap in the front door, removed the door with one shake of her head, and went to the kitchen to help herself to food! If it’s a pet pig you’re looking for, be sure you have the time, space, and equipment to properly care for one. Check your state and local laws for any additional regulations that may apply to pig ownership or the keeping of exotic pets.
Choosing the Right Breed
Many breeds do stay smaller than others and some root less than others–but always make sure that you see the fully grown version of your chosen breed before you buy and if possible talk to someone who already owns the kind of pig you want. Pigs can live for around 20 years so a pet pig is not a short-term commitment. There is a vogue at the moment for mini or micro pigs — usually photographed looking achingly sweet in a teacup or some such — these are not a specific breed in themselves but have been bred from the runts of many different breeds specifically to be small. They are very expensive and you have no guarantee that they will stay small.
One other thing to consider, if your intention is to keep several different breeds of pig together; those with lop ears whose eyesight is constricted will have a distinct disadvantage over those with pricked ears, so it is best to restrict yourself to one or the other. Never allow children in with pigs on their own — pigs can and do bite; they have surprisingly sharp teeth.
Although a group of pigs is generally referred to as a “herd,” the old-fashioned word or collective noun is a “sounder.” Here are some of the other words used to describe pigs of certain types or ages.
Baconer: A pig kept for a longer period than a porker or cutter to produce bacon (200 to 220 pounds)
Boar: An uncastrated male pig
Barrow: A castrated male pig
Cutter: A pig raised for pork but older than a porker (140 to 180 pounds)
Gilt: A female pig before she produces her first litter
Hog: Any domesticated pig
Piglet: Young pig until weaned
Porker: A pig raised for pork, generally five to six months old (120 to 140 pounds)
Shoat: The name given to a young pig just after weaning (archaic)
Sow: A female pig that has produced her first litter
Weaner: A young pig that has been separated from its mother and is feeding itself — usually 6 to 10 weeks old
Understanding Pig Sounds (Pigspeak)
Pigs make a wide range of sounds with a variety of meanings. They don’t actually say “oink” but make a noise more like “groink” — but pig sounds are very difficult to spell! Below are descriptions of some of the sounds to help you understand what your pig may be saying:
Short, sharp bark: You gave me a shock
Series of barks: I’m suspicious, there is something new here and I might bite
Loud ,sharp groinking bark: I’m threatened and may attack
Quiet, continuous groinking: I’m totally content and probably rooting
Loud, sudden squeal: I’ve touched the electric fence
Continuous week week week squeal: Here comes supper at last
Grrr rr rr — a bit like a quiet lion’s roar: I’m in heat
Breathy, in-out he hon he hon he hon: I know you and I’m pleased to see you
Quiet, quick groink groink groink: Sow to piglets; also used when suckling
Protective-sounding, barking hah hah hah: Sow finding out why piglet is squealing
Low, nasal arf arf arf: Boar to sow — “You’re my kind of gal”
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from The Illustrated Guide to Pigs, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.