The Domestic Pig (Sus scrofa domesticus) is descended from the Wild Boar (Sus scrofa), and is thought to have been first domesticated as early as 13,000 BC. As I have mentioned on other areas of Animals Unlimited my Grandfather kept pigs on his farm and I have always had a soft spot for these intelligent and charismatic animals. It is a shame that after the chicken, they are probably the most poorly treated of any livestock when kept in intensive farming conditions. Organic and small scale pig farming is making something of a comeback these days and it is good to see! Long may this trend continue!
Why keep Pigs?
Some people keep pigs as merely pets but most people keep pigs for meat production, either by breeding their own weaners for fattening or by fattening weaners purchased from a pig breeder. For the new pig keeper, the latter course is much simpler, requires less skill and experience and I would therefore generally recommended it as a good first step in pig keeping.
Raising weaners is not particularly labour intensive but pigs, like most animals, require care every day of the year; they need to be visited and fed twice each day, ideally at regular times. If you feel cannot commit to this, please think twice about whether keeping pigs is for you. While reading about animal husbandry is extremely worthwhile, I would definitely recommend attending a beginner pig keeping course at a local college or farm or spend some time with an experienced pig keeper before purchasing any stock.
Pigs that are raised to produce pork products for the supermarkets are bred for lean meat, fast growth and docile behaviour, and almost never for flavour. Rare breeds on the other hand take longer to grow to weight, have comparatively more fat, and produce tastier meat. So if you’re after quality rather than quantity I’d probably go for a Rare Breed pig, even if they can have a bit more of a fiery temperament! (I’d say more character!) than other commercial pig breeds.
Probably the best way to source of weaners is through the British Pig Association or the relevant breed society. Alternatively, pig breeders will often advertise weaners for sale in the local press or papers. Also worth trying are any local farm parks or city farms local to you.
Ideally, you want to get pigs at around eight to ten weeks of age, after they have been properly weaned, meaning they should be away from their mother and consistently eating a solid diet before you take them home. Check with the breeder as to whether the piglets have been wormed or had any vaccinations, or whether the sow has.
Pigs are social animals so for welfare reasons, you mustn’t keep a pig on its own. When choosing your stock ensure that your piglets are active, free moving and curious with healthy skin, bright eyes, no coughs, no stiffness in their movement and no limps. They should not have discharges from any orifice. If possible, try to buy piglets that are from the same litter but if that’s not possible, buy ones that are of similar size to try and eliminate bullying.
Pigs are omnivores and will eat a wide variety of foods. Also like us, they need a balanced diet of fibre, energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to thrive. Most small-scale pig keepers use a commercially prepared pig food. There are many different feed producers including organic and GM free. Feed will be your largest expenditure in keeping pigs, so it pays to do some research and get it right from the start. Pigs, like all animals, must also have constant access to clean fresh drinking water.
How much land you need to allocate for pigs depends on a number of factors, such as the type of soil, the number, and breed and size of pig. For instance, the Soil Association standards for the management of pigs outdoors state that you must, give your pigs direct access to the soil and growing green food, provide wallows and/or shade over the summer months, minimise stress through good handling systems. I would say this is probably the ideal situation, but of course many people successfully rear pigs without such an extensive use of land.
Pigs are natural forest dwellers, so if you have woodland available, then that is the perfect habitat for them. The tree cover making for secure and contented pigs. Pigs also naturally root over the land so can turn grassland into something resembling a mud bath very quickly! This is especially true if the soil type is heavy and the weather particularly wet.
You will probably want to give your pigs as much room as possible, but weigh that against the cost of fencing and how much land you have. Pigs can be successfully kept on quite limited areas of land and if you are only going to raise one batch of pigs a year, the land will have six months or so to recover. This break will also keep the worm burden down. If you are going to keep pigs all year, you should consider setting up in such a way as to allow you to rotate and rest the pens. In hot sunny weather, make sure that the pigs have a good wet, muddy wallow and plenty shade from the sun, as well as constant access to drinking water.
In almost all circumstances, you will need to provide some kind of housing for your pigs. If you are simply keeping a couple of weaners over the summer, you can probably build a temporary shelter using straw bales and pallets or corrugated iron, particularly if your soil is free draining. Otherwise, you will probably need something a bit more robust.
There are many pig houses on the market now, so you have a choice. You may also have an existing building that you want to use. Pigs cannot regulate their body temperature well, so consider this in choosing and positioning their house. A metal house will be like an oven in summer and a fridge in winter. Wood is better and there are now plastic houses available, some with insulation to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter. Positioning the house in a sheltered, shaded area will also help. Pigs need good ventilation but don’t like draughts. Cold isn’t a problem so long as there’s a good deep straw bed and the pigs can huddle for warmth. Bear in mind though that in winter pigs will need comparatively more food to grow at the correct rate, as some of the feed intake will go towards keeping the pig warm. Like anybody sensible they don’t like sleeping in the wet, so a house with a free draining floor is preferable.
As well as a house you will need some kind of fence to keep your pigs within their area. Many people these days use electric fencing for pigs with great success, pigs are intelligent so most soon learn the consequences of touching the wire and, so long as the power is maintained, will respect enclosure boundary. The main benefit of electric fencing is the ease with which it can be moved and installed. Whichever kind of fence you choose, it needs to be properly installed and very robust and once it’s in, it needs regular checking for any damage or you’ll be spending time trying to get your pigs back from your neighbours vegetable patch and making lots of enemies for yourself in the meantime!
Keeping pigs is really a rewarding experience, not only for the home produced pork and bacon, but also because of the great individual character, personality and intelligence of the pigs themselves!
I think Winston Churchill said it best when he said, “A cat looks down on man, a dog looks up to man, but a pig will look man right in the eye and see his equal.”
Happy Pig Keeping!