When we moved to the country, we had been vegetarians for 13 years, and we remained vegetarian for another year, then we very gradually started eating a bit of our own chicken here and there, as well as one of our turkeys for Thanksgiving. Even after we started to eat chicken and turkey somewhat regularly, we had no plans to start eating other meat, and I even said on more than one occasion that we’d never have pigs on our farm because they are only raised for meat.
My mama always said “never say never” because it will come back to haunt you, but I really, truly thought that I would never want pigs. I also believed that their only purpose was to be turned into meat. Then one day I admitted to my husband, “I miss bacon.” We decided to get a couple of weaned piglets to raise for meat and see how things went.
If we were going to raise pigs, though, it had to be a heritage breed, and I ultimately decided on Tamworths because they had a reputation for great meat, and there were quite a few breeders in Illinois. It took me awhile to find one, however, who raised pigs outside and didn’t give them a long list of vaccinations and other drugs, but that’s a post for another day. I did find a couple of piglets two hours away. I picked them up in my mini-van — yes, inside my mini-van — and drove them home. (I really do not recommend putting pigs inside your vehicle with you, even if they are in a dog crate. It will only take you a few minutes to realize why pigs should not be raised inside. Yeah, they don’t smell so great when confined to a small space.)
Since we were making cheese regularly by then, we often had a gallon or two of whey we’d give to the pigs almost daily through the summer, as well as other left-overs that the family didn’t want. Although it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to raise pigs, it went well enough that we did it again the next year … and the next and the next. Why did pigs become a permanent fixture on our homestead?
- They eat almost everything. They represent the best way to use up whey from cheesemaking, as well as excess milk from dairy animals. I always say that our pigs have the magical ability to turn whey into bacon. They also happily consume any extra eggs or kitchen scraps. If you want to feed them leftovers from the family meal, they should be boiled for 30 minutes to kill organisms that could cause disease in pigs. It has been illegal to feed uncooked scraps to commercial pigs since the 1990s. If you are selling pork, check out this article for the whole story.
- They will till up any area that you need tilled up. Most people view rooting as a bad habit that needs to be stopped, but that’s only if you have them in a place where you don’t want the soil disturbed. One year, we planted eggplants and squash in an area where pigs had lived the previous year, and it was the best eggplant and squash harvest we’d ever had! In addition to loosening up the soil, they also fertilized it for us. Just be sure you remove them from the area at least 120 days before you’ll be harvesting food.
- They act as a dead-end host for parasites that plague goats, sheep, and cattle. Because pigs have different internal parasites than ruminants, they clean up the pasture when they follow other animals in a rotational grazing pattern. I often put pigs in a pasture when goats leave because when they consume the eggs and larvae of goat parasites, their body digests the parasites. Goat parasites can’t survive inside of pigs, just as humans can’t survive on another planet.
- Bacon! Sausage! Ham! This one should be obvious, but I have to add it anyway. You will be able to produce your own delicious pork that you know was humanely raised and fed a natural diet.
Do you need to breed pigs?
Not necessarily. If you only want enough pork for your own family, you can buy two or three pigs at weaning from a breeder in the spring. Feed them through the summer and butcher them in the fall. A Tamworth weaned in the spring will have a hanging weight of 170 to 200 pounds by fall. If you don’t think you’ll eat that much pork in a year, you can sell one to a friend. Even if the pigs are only on your homestead for six months during the growing season, they will still provide all of the above benefits for you. And don’t forget, you get bacon!
Check out this excerpt if you want to learn about Hog Fencing.