Heritage Breeds


Yesterday I spent an uncharacteristic full day away from the farm at Cornell University for an all day “swine school.” I left at 6:00am after feeding the animals in the dark with the assistance of my trusty headlamp, and I got back exactly twelve hours later. I double fed everybody, so Jen didn’t need to feed any adult animals at lunch time, but she did feed the bottle lambs a couple of times and checked water.

The content of the swine school was excellent, but the most amazing thing about the day was the attendance. There were over 150 people there.  Tro Bui, the Cornell professor that organized the event, called the level of attendance a “miracle.” Two things are clear from the level of attendance. The first is that more and more people are getting into raising hogs (one recurring conversation during the day was that people have had more calls for feeder pigs this year than they ever have before) and those people really want practical information on how to raise them — a lot of people drove quite a long way yesterday to get that information.

The primary reason that I went yesterday was to participate in the open discussion in the afternoon because one of the planned topics of that discussion was the pig marketing cooperative that I am trying to get going in order for NY (and local out of state) farmers to be able to collectively meet the needs of larger buyers. I am very glad that I made the trip to Ithaca. I really enjoyed the three formal presentations, and I really enjoyed the open discussion, but the coop idea is dead in the water. It is clear that that is not the right place for me to invest the considerable time and energy it would take to get it going. The cooperative spirit is sorely lacking in our culture. However, I have not yet given up on the idea of gathering together and organizing the pigs of local-regional farmers for sale to large buyers. My focus now is on another idea I had, the rebirth of wholesale meat markets, but in this case with strict local regional-only sourcing rules. Such an infrastructural choice will mean that the return to the farmer will be substantially lower than if that infrastructural choice had been a coop, but it will nevertheless get local-regional pigs into the hands of those large buyers, thereby substantially bolstering our burgeoning local-regional farm and food system.

While driving home from Ithaca, I thought for a long time about pig farming, primarily pasture- and hoop-building based, specifically in New York, but also more broadly in the northeast. Within the pasture-based pig farming movement, there is a strong preference for heritage breed pigs. They do better outside and they taste better than modern production hybrids. The heritage breed pig story also fits better with the pasture and hoop-building based models than does that of the modern production hybrids. Those models are about less than maximum production; they are about less than total control.

One thing that I thought of while driving was something that I have been thinking for the past few months, since the day after Christmas when I devoured Kelly Klober’s Dirt Hog that Jennifer gave me as a gift. I was extremely frustrated by Klober’s descriptions of buying pigs, either feeders, gilts, sows, or boars. Klober farms in Missouri, which is very much “pig country.” He states at one point that there were three or four purebred pig breeders on a just a few mile stretch of his road. In Klober’s world, when you buy feeder pigs, you go to the breeding farm and select your pigs out of pens, taking only those you want. Similarly, when you buy a gilt or a sow or a boar, you have options. For example, Klober talks about choosing a gilt that is in the top third of her litter, size-wise. Well, here in the Northeast, we don’t live in Klober’s world.

The Northeast, New York, specifically, is very much not pig country. Yesterday at the swine school I learned that in 2007, there were a total of 96,000 pigs (including breeders and feeders) in New York State. One of the presenters yesterday pointed out in response to the size of the New York pig population that there are at least, if not more than, 96,000 pigs in his and the neighboring county alone in Iowa. The statistics also showed that the vast majority of those 96,000 pigs live and die in the confinement system. Only a very small percentage of those pigs are purebred, and of those only a very small percentage are any of the “classic” heritage breeds such as Gloucestershire Old Spot, Large Black, Mulefoot, Poland China, Berkshire, etc., which are currently so much in vogue (and rightly so).

In New York, generally speaking, when you buy feeder pigs or breeding stock, especially heritage breed (purebred or crosses) there is no choice. You don’t select your pigs out of a pen of pigs for sale. You take what you get. If you want two purebred gilts, you don’t choose those gilts, selecting them from the top third of the litter size-wise, or selecting them based on other traits you might be interested in. You just go to the farm and pick up your two gilts when they are ready. You might not even be given the chance to see the sow or boar of your gilts, let alone their litter mates. Why are things done this way in New York? Because there aren’t any pigs in New York. Why pretend there are options when there aren’t any? We aren’t actors, we are — trying to be — pig farmers, and the reality of pig farming in New York is that there is no pig “industry” to speak of as there is in Kelly Klober’s world. There is a smattering of farmers, many of them, like me, new farmers, who have a hodgepodge of pigs that are not being bred or raised industriously, that is, with “systematic work or labor,” with an “energetic, devoted activity at any task,” with “diligence.”

One of the most frustrating realities of heritage breed pig farming in New York (again, also the Northeast, more broadly) is the way purebreds are handled. In this, there is literally no industry at all. Nearly every breeder of the most critically endangered though “popular” heritage breeds — Gloucestershire Old Spots, Large Blacks, Red Wattles — that I have spoken to considers every pig that pops out of the back end of a sow as breeding stock. There is literally, or pretty damn near it, zero selection for quality, either in terms of maintaining a breed standard or in terms of production. If the sow weans eight pigs, five gilts and three boars, then the farmer sells the five sows and the three boars as breeding stock. None of them are culled out to be raised for slaughter because they don’t make the grade. I have even seen runts sold as breeding stock. Can a runt grow up and breed? Sure, of course. Should it? No. I know of one breeder that has a sow that for two litters in a row has eaten half of her piglets. When I asked if the sow would be culled, the breeder said no, that she was still getting four pigs from her. When I asked the breeder if that sow’s pigs were being sold as breeding stock, the breeder said yes. There is no surer way to ruin a breed than by breeding the way we are right now. At some point, we are going to need to wonder after generations of this willy-nilly every pig out of the sow breeding if the breeds are even worth saving — although because pigs are so prolific even a breed that is quite far gone can be quickly recovered with industrious breeding.

On my way home, I decided to embark on a new crusade, a crusade to cultivate a New York heritage breed pig industry, to cultivate industriousness in New York heritage breed pig farmers. Doing so will require infrastructural development. It will require breeder networking. It will require importing animals from other parts of the country and other parts of the world. It will require focused and sustained educational programming.

The number of pigs and pig farmers in New York is on the rise, and many of those pigs are heritage breeds and many of those farmers are heritage breed pig farmers. If this increase is to be more than a fad and less than a disaster, we need to cultivate a cultural commitment to a heritage breed pig industry — to care, to thoughtfulness, and to diligence.

There are just a hair more than 19,000,000 people in New York State. Per capita pork consumption in the US is about fifty pounds per year. That means that on average, the people of New York eat 950,000,000 pounds of pork every year, just shy of one billion pounds, or about 9,000,000 pigs worth — a bit shy of 100 times the current number of pigs we have in the state. If we were to capture just one single percent more of that market for New York raised pigs, the number of pigs in New York would double. With no industry, however, such an increase in market share will be impossible to achieve.

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 Ossabaw Island, 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 through selective breeding for 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 Poland China and the Duroc, 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.

A heritage breed animal is the same thing as an heirloom vegetable or fruit. It is a breed of animal that was developed before the era of industrial agriculture, and is most often, but not always (Berkshire), in danger of going extinct because it has lost favor with commercial farmers. The danger of these breeds going extinct is the loss of genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is the key to agricultural survival. With little or no genetic diversity, a single disease can decimate an entire livestock (or vegetable or fruit) population. For example, the Irish potato famine was a consequence of the fact that nearly all Irish farmers planted the same variety, which was highly susceptible to the fungal disease blight. Had there been genetic diversity in the Irish potato crop, the famine could have been averted.

In (industrial) livestock farming today, entire national herds are composed of just one or two breeds, which places us in a position very similar to the Irish of the potato famine. While farmers long before the era of industrial agriculture chased the next best thing in ways similar to those of their industrial counterparts, one thing that served as a buffer to the rampant concentration on any single breed at the national level was the fact that animals were raised outside, on pasture, so local-regional climatic concerns constrained farmers’ choice of breed. In contrast, livestock are raised inside climate-controlled buildings in industrial agriculture. A pink pig (the color of the modern industrial breed), which thrives in one of these buildings does not do well outside in a hot sunny climate, primarily because of sun burn. Similarly, a small tropical hog does not do well in a cold climate. Therefore, in any given area, one might have found farmers all using the same breed, but there were still quite a few breeds being used commercially on the national level.

In addition to the very pressing concerns of disease and a lack of ability to thrive in varied environments, there is the less pressing, but really no less important, concern of taste. Modern industrial breeds have been selected for high production, be that growth, milk output, or egg laying. Often, this selection has been at the expense of taste. For example, modern industrial pigs simply do not taste good. They have been bred to be too lean. The heritage breeds of pigs, however, taste great because they get a little — or a lot — fat, which contrary to popular thinking is not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is living a sedentary, vehicle-based life, which incidentally is generally also a life loaded with added fats anyway, which are much more unhealthy than naturally-occurring fats.

Thankfully, throughout the period of industrialization, there have been groups of people committed to preserving the genetics of the various breeds of livestock that were once plentiful. The concerted efforts of these people have made it possible for us to return from the brink of the complete loss of livestock genetic diversity. As the tide has shifted away from industrial agriculture,* there has been a huge up-swell in interest in heritage breeds. Lots of people today are prepared to pay a significant premium for meat and poultry, and to a lesser extent milk and eggs, from heritage breed animals, both in order to preserve genetic diversity and in pursuit of pork or chicken “like grandma ate.” This consumer interest (I am loathe to make a a market-based argument) has enabled farmers interested in doing so to begin securing the genetics of many important heritage breeds, slowly, or rapidly, as in the case of Tamworth pigs, bringing them back from the verge of extinction.

I am committed to the preservation of heritage breeds. Currently, I raise heritage breed pigs and sheep. There are a couple of goat breeds that are considered “heritage,” but goats have never really been subject to the same industrialization pressures as other species of livestock, so most of the common breeds, of dairy goats, anyway, are also “heritage” in the sense that they have been around for awhile. On the meat goat side of it, however, there is a big push to develop modern high production breeds like the Boer and Kiko. Historically, goat breeds have been dual-purpose, milk and meat. This shift toward meat-only breeds may put some pressure on the dairy breeds, but, then again, it may not because goat milk (liquid, cheese, and soap) is becoming more popular. I am making no particular effort to raise heritage breed goats. However, I am keeping my eye on goat genetics, and if I am convinced down the road that it is necessary, I will certainly do so. Beginning in 2009, I will raise only heritage breeds of chickens, selecting a dual-purpose breed or breeds that is or are known to produce a good amount of eggs and a good amount of meat. This year, as a matter of convenience because I have just gotten into it, I am raising modern industrial breeds, but outside on pasture.

For more information on heritage breeds and the danger of the loss of genetic diversity, see the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which maintains a breed conservation priority list, organized by species.

*This is a blatant overestimation of the depth and breadth of the anti-industrial agriculture movement. In reality this movement has hardly affected the position of industrial agriculture at all, except in so far as industrial agriculture’s interest is peaked by it as a potential marketing niche. Not more than one or two percent of all pork and chicken produced in this country is produced outside of the industrial system. This is not to say, however, that the movement will not generate into a revolution of sorts; it very well might.

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