Meishan Pigs: The Best Small Farm Hog You’ve Never Heard Of
by Rico Silvera of Niota, TN
The Challenge of Raising Pigs on a Small Farm
At one time raising hogs was a staple for the American small holder farm. Nicknamed “mortgage lifters” for their ease of raising and profitability, family farms ritually harvested their hogs each year around Thanksgiving. But today the American small holder farm is finding it harder and harder to justify a presence for pigs in their livestock profile.
Today vertical integration and the rise of mega confinement (CAFO) pork production facilities have often squeezed the small farmer out of the profitability picture with pigs. Hybridized breeds, farrowing crates, bulk feed pricing and other cost advantages give “Big Agriculture” a leg up on the small land holder. In addition, the pigs themselves can present a challenge. Often farm raised pigs can be very hard on pasture, with rooting and other destructive tendencies. This makes rotational grazing difficult when these same pastures need to support other breeds of livestock also. Pigs can often be poor “pasture citizens,” aggressive towards other livestock, even preying on chickens and other fowl. Often breeding stock can grow to 500-800 lbs requiring large amounts of supplemental feed to maintain them. These commercial breeds can prove to be very poor mothers, resulting in high percentages of piglets lost between farrowing and weaning. Large and sometimes aggressive hog breeds often require significant additional infrastructure in the form of both durable woven wire and electric fencing to contain them. And after all of this the end product, the pork itself, is often indiscernible taste-wise from the low priced commodity pork that is available at any supermarket.
Small farmers increasingly are turning to Heritage breed pigs, seeking out niches in their local markets to make raising pork cost effective on their farms. The rise of health conscious diet trends like Paleo and Keto which place a premium on healthier pasture raised fats are changing consumer perspectives on what is “good pork.” The Slow-Food movement and the Farm-to-Table movement have encouraged chefs and consumers alike to seek out pork breeds with deeper, richer flavors. Pork in many markets is not just a blank drab canvas for barbeque sauce anymore.
But many heritage breeds come with their own challenges. Small litter sizes can force the small holder to maintain larger breeding herds to produce enough piglets. Temperament (rooting, aggressiveness, fencing requirements, etc.) can be the same drawback that it is with traditional commercial breeds. Often ultra-slow growth rates compound the issue of selecting a heritage breed. And finally, in breed selection, it can be a Goldilocks moment. That is where one breed is too big and the next breed is too small.
An Ancient Solution for a Modern Challenge
So, is there a breed in our future that can address these issues? Maybe, maybe not, but there is a breed from our past that just might. It was the pig that fit our farm model perfectly. Meet the Meishan Pig. Docile, bordering on sedentary, passive, medium sized, hyper-productive and delicious. The choice of ancient Chinese Emperors of the past may be the right choice of many future American small holder farmers. The Meishan Pig is a member of the Taihu group of pigs from China. This area (so named for Taihu lake) is a region in China where pigs have been domesticated for over 5000 years. To say the Meishan pig is unique is an understatement. Appearance-wise it is a medium sized pig (300-400 lbs), has long pendulous ears and a wrinkled face that is similar to a Sharpei dog. The Meishan is a lard carcass hog with intensely micro-marbled red meat. It is extremely flavorful and tender. However, what makes the Taihu pigs in general, and the Meishan in particular, singularly unique is their ability to farrow and wean large litters. Typical litters are consistently in the double digit range with 12-14 piglets being average. The largest reported litter in the US was 28, and in China 42. On our farm the record is 20 piglets. Meishan sows usually have 16-20+ teats and are renowned as excellent mothers, capable of extremely good weaning to farrowing ratios.
Through the past few decades “the new white meat” campaign and the rush to develop hyper-growth rates in pigs has relegated many lard breeds to obscurity. Pork flavor has not been the focus of the commercial pork industry. Lard breeds, even hyper-productive ones, have just not attracted much interest. But that was not always the case. In 1990, the world of swine geneticists gathered in Toulouse, France, for a conference on Le Porc Chinois (Chinese Pork). Of greatest interest was how the Chinese breeds in general and the Meishan in particular could produce litters of 14-20 piglets when most commercial breeds of the day couldn’t consistently get out of single digits. Prior to this conference, in 1989, the USDA imported 99 Meishan Pigs from China. This was the result of a 10 year negotiation with the Chinese Government. These pigs were divided equally (both in numbers and genetically) between three research facilities: the University of Illinois, Iowa State University and the USDA Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE. And there they remained in total genetic isolation for 25 years. Meanwhile the US (and world) pork industry moved far away from traditional pork flavor profiles and fat content. Lard breeds almost disappeared. Even in China the verifiably pure Meishans were relegated to a handful of government owned conservation farms. Under the agreement with China, US Meishans were limited to study facilities and zoos until all research was completed. During those 25 years, the Meishan breed became one of the most studied hog breeds in the US. But these pigs were not available to the small holder farmer. Between 2008-2010 the Meishan program at Iowa State was terminated and their remaining stock was dispersed. Unfortunately, documentation on this dispersal has been lost and most of the genetics were dissipated or highly inbred. However, in early 2016 the programs at the University of Illinois and the USDA Meat Animal Research Center were terminated at almost the same time. The Meishans from these herds (pure direct descendants from the original importation) were not lost. That story can be found on the American Meishan Breeders Association (A.M.B.A.®) website listed later in this article.
In 2016, the A.M.B.A. was formed to preserve and document these rare and unique pigs. The A.M.B.A. maintains the only online pedigree database available for the Meishan breed. To be assured of genetically healthy and pure Meishan stock, the member breeders of the A.M.B.A. are an invaluable resource. In the spring of 2018, the Livestock Conservancy identified the Meishan Pig as critically endangered with an estimate of less than 2000 verifiably pure hogs world wide (including Chinese conservation farms).
Does the Meishan Pig Fit Your Farm Model?
So how can this rare and unique ancient hog become a modern solution for some American small holder farmers? For the right farm model this can be the right hog breed for the following reasons: size, temperament, prolificacy, reasonable growth rate, pasture compatible, adaptability, and flavor and differentiation of product. Let’s look at these qualities one by one.
Size: The Meishan pig in the United States is from one of the three Meishan sub-types that once existed in China. The small Meishan, the medium Meishan and the large Meishan (now extinct). All of the Meishans imported to the US in 1989 were of the medium variety. Meishans are typically a 300-400 lb pig at full adulthood. This means, combined with its temperament, that the Meishan is an easier pig to handle and raise on pasture. Even if a 700 lb pig does not root (and most root extensively), simply the weight of the animal can be very damaging to pasture health. Larger pigs either need more and richer pasture or they need larger amounts of supplemental feed. The Meishans medium size means less feed or pasture for your mature breeding stock.
Temperament: Meishan pigs are docile, bordering on sedentary. We often have to wake them up to feed them. Meishans don’t test fences unless a boar is trying to get to a sow in heat (or vice versa). The majority of Meishan breeders do not even use electric fences. We have almost three miles of fencing on our farm and not one foot of electric. Meishans are not a rooting breed. If they have a diet that fulfills their nutritional needs they will root a wallow but they are not exploratory rooters. Meishans are known for the fact that they don’t root aggressively and can be co-pastured with many other forms of livestock.
Prolificacy: Larger average litters means that a small farmer seeking to raise pigs for a meat business can raise more piglets while maintaining a smaller breeding herd than when using other heritage or conventional breeds. Typically a farmer with two Meishan sows can produce more piglets annually than a farmer with three to four breeding sows of another heritage breed.
Reasonable Growth Rate: When seeking a 200 lb plus butcher hanging weight, small holders are often forced to choose between conventional hogs hitting this weight at 5-7 months, or heritage hogs which can often take 18-24 months. While Meishans are not fast growers by any means, breeders are finding that, with the right profile of pasture and supplemental feed, Meishans can hit these target weights in 10-12 months consistently.
Pasture Compatible: The member breeders of the American Meishan Breeders Association have been thrilled with the way that Meishans readily adapt to being raised on pasture. If given adequately nutritious pasture, Meishan adults thrive on it. Those raising feeder stock find optimum growth rates can be achieved with a reasonable mixture of pasture and supplemental feeds.
Adaptability: Though from a sub-tropical region of China, the sparsely haired Meishan has proven to be adaptable to many climates from the panhandle of Florida to the sub-zero winters of Montana and Maine. Simply given a three-sided shelter with dry, deep bedding, the Meishan is proving to be a highly adaptable hog.
Flavor and Differentiation of Product: It is becoming painfully obvious that, for the small land holder farmer to find profitability in the American food supply system, they have to identify higher profit niches. From grass-fed beef to flavorful red meat pork, farmers are winning the hearts and minds of health conscious chefs and consumers. It is in this area that the greatest potential for the Meishan breed lies. The Meishan is a source of premium pork that is catching the attention of foodie and Chef alike. In April 2019, at a fundraiser at the trending Insa Restaurant in Brooklyn, NY, the star of the night was Meishan Pork. Chef Sohui Kim, a James Beard House nominated Chef, prepared a multiple course meal with Meishan Pork as the centerpiece. Here are some of Chef Kim’s comments:
I knew that Korean food was a perfect foil to show off the red meat and delicious fat of Meishan. A half of pig worked great to do what we normally do at Insa which is to work off the whole hog, utilizing all parts of the pig. Bones for soup, meat for dumpling filling and sauces and the beautiful cut of pork belly un-marinated to truly savor the flavor of its uniqueness. Pork as it was meant to taste.
We had a great time noting the differences between the different varieties of heritage breed pigs we get at Insa and the Meishan. Meishan is the best pork I’ve ever had, incomparable to what people eat from the supermarkets. Once you go Meishan, you never go back! Haha! But so true!
James Wilkes is a former Board of Director of the Livestock Conservancy. He attended the Insa Dinner. Here is what he had to say about Meishan pork:
It’s fair to say Meishan is amongst the most memorable pork I have ever consumed… coming from a former livestock farmer that’s raised and eaten quite a bit of pork, lamb, beef, poultry and fowl, that’s saying something. The structure of Meishan fat was baffling, minimal shrinkage/waste with structure to it and a distinct taste after it was cooked to perfection by the staff at Insa.
Jeannette Berranger is a program director with The Livestock Conservancy. In March of 2019 she had the opportunity to prepare some Meishan Pork for The Livestock Conservancy staff; here is what she wrote about the experience:
The TLC staff loved the meat and all were stunned at how tasty the fat was and how tender it felt as if it was melting in our mouths. The meat of the butt roast was very flavorful and the meatballs were a big hit. A friend of our Director happened to stop by the office that day. He caters and specializes in Puerto Rican cuisine. When offered a piece of the pork he basically flipped out on it and charged into my office to say, “I never thought I’ d see the day when someone else could cook pork better than me.” I told him, “It’s the breed doing all the heavy lifting for flavor.”
Meishan Pork is clearly a differentiated product that can be used to access a higher end customer. Like any niche product it requires access to the right customer base and demographic. And it requires that the small holder have access to a processor up to the challenge of maximizing a lard carcass type pig. But it truly is a differentiated flavor profile that continues to impress at every opportunity.
Learning More About Meishans
To learn more about this critically endangered breed I recommend the following resources:
- The American Meishan Breeders Association: www.meishanbreeders.com
- The A.M.B.A. also has some short videos on their YouTube Channel
- The Livestock Conservancy: www.livestockconservancy.org
Of course you are welcome to contact us to learn about our journey with the Meishan Pig, and how the last research herds of US Meishan Pigs were rescued, at our farm website: www.godsblessingfarm.com
As you look to adding pigs to your livestock profile, perhaps the past has the key to your future.
About the Author: Rico Silvera and his wife Angelia operate Gods Blessing Farm in Niota, TN on 38 acres. They currently own and breed the most genetically diverse herd of pure Meishan Pigs outside of China. Rico is a former Member of the Board of Directors of the American Guinea Hog Association and is currently the President of the American Meishan Breeders Association. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org