I started raising pigs about four years ago after my wife and I moved up here from Philadelphia. The number of pigs I raise has rapidly increased from two pigs my first year to a planned seventy-five this year, although that number could very well double. Currently, I raise purebred Berkshire feeder pigs that I purchase locally from a breeder in Central Bridge. I pay $70.00 per weaned pig, which I then raise to a target weight of 220-250 pounds live weight. My ultimate goal is to switch from finishing feeder pigs to a farrow-to-finish operation composed of twenty to thirty sows farrowing twice a year so that I am finishing between 300 and 600 pigs a year depending on how many sows I end up with and what my average number of weaned pigs per litter is. I market the pigs directly as wholes and halves to individual people, directly in retail cuts at farmers markets and on the farm, and by what I call “non-commodity wholesale.” That is, I sell in volume at a premium price relative to the industrial commodity market to purveyors and wholesale distributors who themselves sell into the “Buy Local” market. I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for small local-regional farmers to partner with purveyors and distributors to satisfy what I believe is an increasingly strong market of larger scale buyers who themselves are not interested in working with individual farmers, either because those farmers individually are incapable of satisfying their purchasing needs or because they simply do not have the interest or human resources to negotiate with and manage ten or fifteen or however many farmers it might take to meet their needs. Toward this end, I am also involved in an effort to form a cooperative marketing group of New York pig farmers to make it possible to efficiently and consistently meet the needs of those large buyers.
My farm is a pasture-based farm, which means that all of the animals are raised outdoors on pasture, which I understand to mean a rich stand of actively growing forage, preferably in the case of pigs a high protein forage such as clover, alfalfa, rape, and/or some combination of the above with barley, oats, peas, and/or corn. My production model is based on what I believe to be the heyday of American pasture farming, the period from about 1910 to World War II. During this time large numbers of pigs were efficiently raised on pasture. Ordinarily, the collective knowledge of these master pasture-based pig farmers would have been lost or have become the esoteric knowledge of the few academics interested in reading dusty tomes in the stacks of university libraries. However, the extensive research publications of land grant agricultural research stations during this time period are now and increasingly widely available on the internet for contemporary pasture-based farmers to read. One key technique from this period that I am making use of is “hogging down” grain crops such as corn. It is much cheaper to fence off the corn field and have the pigs harvest the corn themselves than to machine harvest the corn and bring it to the pigs. With proper management, a farmer would be hard pressed to find a single wasted grain of corn on the ground in the field after the pigs have finished.
This is obviously an extensive system and requires a large land base to raise a significant number of pigs. An acre of pasture can support between ten to fifteen growing pigs or three sows and their not yet weaned litters. My planned pig operation of twenty to thirty sows will therefore require seven to ten acres for the sows plus twenty to sixty acres for the growing pigs, depending on the stocking rate and how many sows there are and what their average number of weaned pigs is, for a total of twenty seven to seventy acres of pasture, included within which would be a substantial number of acres of grain crops, corn mostly, for hogging down.
My current cost of production on a hanging weight basis as of today is $1.70 per pound. The two most important costs are feed and feeder pigs, which together account for about 80% of the total cost. My current costs for both are very high because of conscious choices I have made to support local farmers, but I am working towards substantially reducing the cost of both because I no longer believe that larger buyers are willing or able to support truly local production and I do not believe that I can simply and quickly convince my direct market customers why my prices are $0.50 per pound higher than the prices of the farm two stalls down from me at the farmers market (truly local feed is 60% more expensive than commercial feed that is imported from the mid-west). If I am wrong about this, I would gladly continue to support my local grain farmer(s). I plan to reduce the cost of feeder pigs from $70.00 to $50.00, or hopefully lower, by building up my own breeding herd, and I plan to reduce my cost of feed by switching from a locally grown, ground and mixed grain mix that I purchase directly from the farmer for $440 per ton (including mileage and mineral supplements) to a commercial feed made up primarily of grains imported the mid-west and other parts of the country (and world) that I can have delivered in bulk by the local mill for $275 per ton, and by making judicious use of hogging down crops beginning in the late summer and lasting through fall. The feed cost savings are achieveable in the near term, however, the reduction in the cost of feeder pigs will take longer to achieve, three to five years, depending on how long it takes to build up my breeding herd. With the feed cost reduction, I expect my cost of production for the 2009 season to hover around $1.50 per pound hanging weight, which is about ten cents more than I had budgeted. Within five years, and not accounting for inflation, I hope to get that down to between $1.10 and $1.20 per pound through the above described and additional cost savings. I would be very surprised if many farmers in New York, especially, but in the northeast generally speaking, could have a truly pasture-based heritage breed pig operation with costs more than a few percent lower than that.
The particular breed or breeds that a farmer chooses for his or her pasture-based operation is one of the most important decisions that he or she will make. The considerations are hardiness, willingness and ability to forage, the level of maternal instincts such as being careful when laying down to avoid crushing piglets, average litter size, and the feed efficiency of growing pigs. The most profitable approach for a farmer with a farrow-to-finish operation is a crossbred program due to what is known as “hybrid vigor” or heterosis. The crossbred that arises from the mating of two purebred animals is generally a better animal compared to the purebreds in terms of the above characteristics — they are hardier, they grow faster, they are rangier, etc. On average, in other words, all things being equal, a farmer with a crossbred herd will be more profitable than a farmer with a purebred herd. However, this presents a problem for a farmer like myself that is interested in rare breed preservation.
One can use rare breeds in a crossbred program. However, because the offspring are not purebred, the degree to which the crossbred operation actually preserves the breeds is pretty minimal. It provides a market for a small number of purebred breeding stock and their replacements, but it does not directly contribute to the population of that stock. My plan, therefore, is to make a compromise between the profitability of heterosis and the value of genetic preservation by having a mixed herd. Assuming a herd of thirty sows, twenty of them would be a rare breed of a good maternal line such as Gloucestershire Old Spot (GOS) while ten of them would be of a rare and pretty endangered breed like the Large Black. The farm boar would also be a Large Black. With this herd mix, two thirds of the breedings each year would result in vigorous crossbreds bred purely for the slaughter market while one third would be purebreds bred primarily to contribute to breed preservation through the sale of purebred breeding stock. Because not every animal born is worth keeping as breeding stock, especially boars, a substantial number of the purebreds would also be raised for slaughter. Every few years, a GOS boar could be brought onto the farm to produce purebred GOS as well. I believe this is the best way for a commercial farmer to make a contribution to breed preservation. More concerted efforts can be carried out by part-time farmers and breed preservation farms that have grant money or donations from private foundations.
Within the list of rare and endangered breeds, there are some breeds that are economically viable for a commercial farmer and others that are not. Some of the most critically endangered, such as the Guinea Hog, the Choctaw, and the, are not, generally speaking. The reason for this primarily is the average number of pigs born per sow. These older, more primitive breeds often have very small litters, on average. The difference between a six pig per sow average and an eight pig per sow average is the difference between a profitable farm and an unprofitable farm. Another issue is their smaller size and slower growth. As above, the preservation of these uneconomical rare breeds is best left up to part-time farmers and farms that specialize in breed preservation and that are in a position to receive grant funding and/or contributions from private foundations.
The two most critically endangered rare breeds that would best work for a commercial farmer interested in rare breed preservation are the Gloucestershire Old Spot and the Large Black. Keith Thornton, a world renowned expert in pasture-raising pigs, believes that a GOS sow bred to a Large Black boar makes an excellent slaughter pig for a commercial farm. GOS have large litters, on average, and strong maternal instincts, and both breeds are hardy and excellent foragers. The purebred Large Black breeding would also result in large enough litters of good quality pigs. Another profitable endangered rare breed, but one that I believe is well on its way to recovery, is the Tamworth. Tamworths do well in purebred and crossbred programs and are currently popular and reasonably readily available. GOS and Large Black breeding stock is currently difficult to come by, especially good quality boars.
One additional aspect of preservation that people do not often consider is the preservation of breed type. Livestock breeds are highly maleable, and because pigs are so prolific, they are even more so. The characteristics of a pig breed can be rapidly altered throughfor desired traits. One heritage breed that has been so extensively selectively bred that it barely resembles its historical type is the American Berkshire (the contemporary British Berkshire still reflects the older type). Because Berkshire meat is such a high quality meat due to its extensive marbling and the short length of its meat fibers, it has always had a place in commercial pig production for the high end market, and in spite of the fact that the size of the national herd has ebbed and flowed becoming more or less rare depending on the whims of the market, the Berkshire is one of the few heritage breeds that has been bred to reflect the leanness traits and muscling characterisitics of modern industrial pigs. Two other breeds that have been similarly bred are the and the , although the Duroc has always been coveted for its lean meat and rapid growth. A modern industrial pig is a very lean pig with the bulging and well-defined muscles of a body builder rather than that of the rangy, rotund porkers of old. The lack of fat coverage on these modern types of heritage breeds makes them substantially less hardy and negatively impacts on the quality of their meat, primarily due to less marbling. From a breed preservation standpoint, the preservation of breed type is not important, because what matters is the preservation of the breed genetics. As long as the genetics are there, the breed type can be manipulated back to a more historical type. However, I believe that in a heritage breed marketing program, type is extremely important. The “heritage” of the breed is much more than its DNA, it is also its cultural values — how it tastes, how it looks and lives on our farms, etc. A heritage breed marketing program should offer breeds true to at least some incarnation of its historical type. (Note that the particular historical type you are after is ultimately somewhat arbitrary. If you go back far enough both the Berkshire and the Poland China were great big fat lard hogs, so unless we start extensively using lard again, we should only breed them back toward the early years of their post-lard type when they were being bred for lean meat, but were still rangy and carried a good bit of fat, but were decidedly not lard hogs anymore)
With the burgeoning interest of large buyers in locally, humanely, and “sustainably” raised pork, I believe there is a tremendous opportunity for large numbers of farmers to make a real living for the first time in nearly three generations, while at the same time contributing to the preservation and perpetuation of pig genetic diversity. However, because of the current state of the local-regional farming infrastructure, especially in terms of the consistent, easy, and ready availability of large numbers of slaughter pigs, I am very worried that unless we make a concerted effort to meet this demand now, as it arises and matures, we will lose the opportunity to do so because the buyers who are out there right now trying to source large numbers of pigs will eventually throw their hands up in the air and give up. All it will take to meet that demand is a little vision, a deep commitment, and a bit of faith.