Veteran smallholder Alan Beat gives his perspective on the whole business of pig-keeping
Evidence suggests that pigs were first domesticated from wild boar around 13,000 BC in the Tigris river basin (the Near East). A separate domestication took place in China about 6,000 BC. These early civilizations used pigs mainly for food and waste disposal, but also used their hides for shields, bones for tools and weapons, and bristles for brushes. The first domestic pigs in Europe were imported from the Near East. This stimulated the domestication of local European wild boar and the Near Eastern genes disappeared for a time from European pig stock. The native pig of the UK was a large, rangy, lop-eared beast that was kept on free range pannage systems, or later in the backyard sty of rural cottages. Asian pigs were then re-introduced into Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries as modern breeds were being developed. The Tamworth remained relatively “unimproved” and is believed to be the closest living relative of the old English forest pig. It originated on the Drayton Manor Estate at Tamworth in Staffordshire, when the existing herd was interbred from 1812 with pigs imported from Ireland. Cottage Economy In 1821 William Cobbett published “Cottage Economy”, the founding manual of self-sufficiency, in which the pig and its products were accorded the utmost respect. His advice was for the cottager to avoid the risks and difficulties of breeding his own, but to buy growing stock instead at around four months old and kill at one year, or even more: “the better for it.” Feeding should be centred upon barley or peas, plus all possible scraps and waste from the house and garden. Cobbett pointed out that: “all pigs will graze, and therefore, on the skirts of forests or commons . . . find a good part of his own food from May to November . . . . especially if the cottager brew his own beer, which will give him grains to assist the wash”. Most important of all, the pig must be fat: “The last bushel, even if he sit to eat, is the most profitable. If he can walk two hundred yards at a time, he is not well fatted. Lean bacon is the most wasteful thing that any family can use.” Flitches of bacon should be rubbed with salt and the brine drained away, this being most important. Every four or five days, the salt should be changed. The bacon was cured after six weeks: “But always observe, it is FAT bacon that I am talking about”, a point he labours repeatedly! “Some other meat you may have, but bacon is the great thing. It is always ready; as good cold as hot; goes to the field or the coppice conveniently; in harvest and other busy times demands the pot to be boiled only on a Sunday; has twice as much strength in it as any other thing of the same weight; and in short, has in it every quality that tends to make a labourer’s family able to work and be well off” He finished with a thoroughly practical observation: “The fatting of a large hog yields three or four loads of dung, really worth more than ten or fifteen of common yard dung. In short, without hogs, farming could not go on; and it never has gone on, in any country in the world. Hogs are the great stay of the whole concern . . . without them the cultivation of the land would be poor, a miserably barren concern” The pig thus yielded the very best fertiliser for the cottager’s garden, and a valuable commodity with which to barter for his bedding and feed, so that he partly paid for himself. Today’s shopping housewife would be dismayed if faced with the fat bacon that Cobbett so heartily describes. We need to remember the long hours of hard physical work which the farm labourer then faced, and balance this against the essential energy that the fat and bread in his diet supplied. Very few of us work this hard today, so we don’t need the same high levels of energy intake. Nowadays we prefer leaner meat from smaller, younger, faster-growing animals, with just half-an-inch of back fat considered ideal. However, the outstanding usefulness of the fattening pig to the smallholder remains unchanged. Pigs convert their food into meat more efficiently than any other livestock, and part of this food will be discarded from the garden, and otherwise wasted. The resulting manure is the best possible fertiliser to return to that garden; and pigs will even dig the garden for you, or plough up and reclaim rough land with their remarkable snouts. It’s hard for me to imagine our smallholding running efficiently without a few pigs around. For a decade we kept breeding sows, while more recently we have bought in weaners each spring for killing in the late autumn. Overall we have found that Cobbett’s advice broadly holds true today: for the purposes of self sufficiency in pork or bacon, it is better to buy in weaners than to breed your own. Weaners Buy your weaners from a good source. Ask to see the breeding sows and boar as well as any piglets; look at the conditions in which they are housed, and the space they have. If there is much size variation within the litter, avoid obvious runts and pick the largest. Boars will grow slightly faster than gilts (females). Healthy piglets are bright-eyed, alert, active and inquisitive – though if they have full bellies, they may be contentedly asleep! Look for a good level of rapport between the owner and his livestock. Ask questions about their feeding and husbandry; any good breeder will be happy to answer reasonable queries. Enquire how the weaning process will be, or has already been, managed. Accepted best practice is to quietly remove the sow out of earshot, leaving the piglets behind in familiar surroundings and eating food to which they are accustomed. Over the next few days they are than fed little and often, at least three times daily, to minimise digestive upsets following withdrawal of the sow’s milk. Once settled to this new routine, they are ready for sale. None of this is much to ask and will go a long way towards avoiding problems after you have taken delivery. Many weaners are less fortunate, being simply taken straight from the suckling litter for delivery – less work for the breeder, but a much higher risk for the buyer, so beware. Traditional breeds or crosses offer real advantages of hardiness and flavour over modern commercial pigs. You must buy two or more, for pigs are social animals and should not be kept alone. Housing If weaners are bought in the late spring when the ground is drying out, they will be happy with a simple home-made ark of straw bales, wooden pallets, corrugated iron or whatever is available. The shelter just needs to be strongly built (or they will tear it apart) and weatherproof with ample dry bedding. During the winter months, free range will inevitably become a mud bath unless you are blessed with exceptionally light, free-draining soil. Pigs are contained by electric fencing once they have learned to respect it. Train them if necessary by running an electrified wire inside the fence or wall of a pen where they are safely contained for a few days. Feeding Use your pigs to recycle all edible waste on the smallholding. On free range they find some of their own food through grazing and rooting, but that diet needs supplementing with daily amounts of higher protein food; this can be home produced barley, peas or skimmed milk, but today many smallholders buy compound feed instead. Wholesome pig food, free of additives and GM ingredients, and organic if desired, is readily available. Is it better to feed ad-lib or restricted rations? Our experience has been that pigs fed ad-lib tend to lay down too much fat; whereas feeding a measured ration makes it easier to achieve the right carcase condition. Start at about one-and-a-half pounds of compound feed per head per day at eight weeks old, rising steadily to about four pounds at twenty weeks old. Then feed a level ration of four pounds daily to reach the live weight target of one hundred and fifty pounds for pork, or two hundred pounds plus for bacon. Weaners bought in May should reach pork weight in September, or bacon weight by October/November. Slaughter and processing Book your pigs in for slaughter several weeks in advance. The ideal abattoir is a small-scale operation, and you’ll need to make enquiries locally. Check that the carcase will be butchered and packed to your instructions. Some abattoirs will also cure bacon and hams at additional cost. Of course, you can do the butchering and processing at home, provided the meat is for your own consumption and none is sold. Just be aware that the task of dealing with two or more whole carcases is not to be underestimated – there’s a great deal of work to be done within a short timescale. Pork and sausages are relatively easy to tackle but you’ll need plenty of freezer space. Bacon and hams should be cured at low temperature, hence the old adage that pigs should only be killed when there is an “R” in the month; however unless near-freezing weather conditions prevail, it is far safer to cure in a refrigerated atmosphere or joints may turn rancid before curing is complete. On one smallholding we’ve seen a large chest freezer used to contain brine baths, controlled by an external thermostat to keep it ticking over just above freezing point – a neat DIY solution. There are countless recipes for both wet and dry cures, but the underlying principle is the same for both. Salt penetrates into the joint, drawing out moisture by osmosis. Once the moisture content falls below a critical level, the bacon will keep at room temperatures but is far too salty to eat and requires presoaking before cooking. Modern cures use far less salt, just sufficient for palatability, but not enough to store without refrigeration or freezing. We find that vacuum packing gives longer freezer life, and hence a year-round supply of high quality bacon from one operation. Today there are whole books devoted to this subject and it’s advisable to read one of these carefully before taking the plunge. Is it worth it? There isn’t any doubt about it: additive-free, outdoor reared pork and bacon from a traditional breed or cross is beyond any comparison with the insipid, chemically-enhanced equivalent from the supermarket. If you haven’t tasted it before, you are in for a real treat – enjoy!