extracted from ‘Your Move to the Country’ by Dennis Ogden of Kingman, AZ.
Traditionally it was the pigs that paid the mortgage on the farm. Pigs are a much maligned animal – they do not smell any worse than any other animal – if they are kept clean. Any animal that is kept in filthy conditions will smell, and pigs are no exception. It is critical to know that clean conditions, good food and plentiful water are essential to the health of any animal and make a significant difference in their profitability. So on to the small farmer’s friend – the pig.
Nomenclature: Baby pigs that are still nursing, or just weaned, are called “weaners”. Female maiden pigs are called gilts. Female pigs that are bred or have had young are called sows. Male pigs are boars. Castrated male pigs are barrows.
Buying pigs: Pigs are normally only sold at three stages of their lives: Full size and ready to butcher; breeding sows and boars; and just weaned piglets. We are interested only in weaned piglets – and maybe in boars if we get deeply into raising pigs. We can raise our own sows.
Piglets can be weaned off the sow at any age from 3 weeks old up to eight or nine weeks. The normal age for weaning is either six weeks or eight weeks. For our purpose we want piglets that have been nursing on the sow as long as possible – and eight weeks is ideal.
What are we looking for in a young pig – a “weaner”? Of course its health is the primary consideration.
Healthy young weaners will exhibit the following characteristics:
Bright lively looking eyes – a look of intelligence in the eyes (pigs are more intelligent than dogs).
No sign of any skin problems. The skin is firm with perhaps only a very slight dandruff-like powder in the hair. The hair is not long and coarse – that is the sign of a runt pig. There should be no sign of any cracking or broken blood vessels on the skin – these are signs of erysipelas. I prefer the white breeds of pigs since this makes for cleaner appearing hams, but this is a personal preference. Some breeds exhibit a wide range of coloring.
A quite long and straight snout is preferred. It is essential that the snout does not have any inclination to the side as this is a sign of rhinitis – a degenerative disease that rots the nose away. I like the nose long because it just seems that they eat better and stay healthier – and it is easier to tell if they have the rhinitis.
The ears should be quite opaque and not appear to be a little transparent. The ears may be erect or droopy depending on the breed. Good ears are an indication that there is no iron deficiency. If they are otherwise healthy, iron deficiency can be quite easily corrected – I’ll get into that a little when we look at raising our own weaners.
Healthy piglets are active! They squeal and run around. The tails curl tight against the rear and they can run – you don’t appreciate just how fast they are until you try to catch one. When observed from a distance they appear playful with each other. When buying less than the full litter the ones that you want are the ones that are the biggest and are the hardest to catch – ideally 30 to 35 pounds in weight.
Many years ago, before the advent of vegetable cooking oils, there were breeds of pigs specifically raised for making lard – fat pigs – very, very fat pigs! – in old illustrations some look like fifty-five gallon drums with short legs. In some backwoods areas there is still some of that lard strain of breeding in the pigs – we don’t want it. Look at the general overall shape of the piglets. We want a long lean pig with a straight back and evidence of good size hams. Fat pigs make fatty bacon, fatty hams, fatty pork chops, etc.
Castration: If raised for butchering, male pigs (boars) must be castrated. If they are not castrated they bring several problems. If they are housed with their female litter mates they will breed them at too early an age. Boars will fight with each other. Boar meat is not fit to eat, having too strong a taste. And boars, as they get older, get bad tempered and dangerous.
Weaner boars can be castrated as young as three weeks of age, though I prefer about six to eight weeks, while still nursing on the sow. There is really only one successful way of castrating a boar and that is surgically – the use of Burdizo pliers and rubber bands is not very successful with pigs. I will not go into the actual techniques for castrating in this book. It is quite easy to do and quite safe for the pig. I have castrated 500 or more piglets without ever losing one. When done at a very early age, it seems that they almost don’t notice it – a couple of squeals and they go back to feeding. Some people like the byproduct of castration, the “mountain oysters” – I always toss them to the dog – he likes a treat once in a while too. Get your veterinarian (not an amateur neighbor) to show you the correct way to do it.
If you think that you might possibly keep one or more of the weaners as breeding sows, then buy all female weaners – it will give you more choice when you get them up to a decent enough size to be able to select the one(s) to keep.
When you get them home: Have a clean pen ready with feed and water available. Sprinkle just a little iron powder (from the feed store) on the dry feed, or put liquid iron in the water – follow the recommendations on the package or bottle.
Now, and this can save you a lot of work, stand by the pen and wait until one of the weaners defecates. Immediately pick up the feces with a shovel and put it where you want them to deposit all the manure. Do this two or three times until you see them start to use the area you have selected. From now on they will deposit all the manure in that same spot and you can clean them out with just a quick shovel or two every day. The pen will stay clean and the bedding area (liberally supplied with clean straw) will stay clean for weeks at a time. Replenish the bedding straw as needed – they will eat a little of it. Incidentally this regimen works just as well if you bring older sows and boars home – they too are smart enough to keep clean if you will let them.
Worming pigs: All bought pigs should be wormed immediately on arrival at home before mixing them with any other pigs. There are few pigs that do not have at least one of the ascarids (roundworms, pinworms, threadworms). Worming medicines are usually added to drinking water. Use a lot of care, worming medicines are poison and should be dispensed exactly as prescribed in the label instructions. Keep these, and any other medications, well out of the reach of children and pets.
Feeding and care in general: Pigs are omnivorous – they will eat anything that you can eat – and enjoy it just as much as you do.
Commercial pig feeds come in a variety of protein and mineral levels. Most feeds also come in either a ground or a pelleted form – the pelleted form seems to be the most palatable and there is less waste:
- Starter feed for young pigs – a high protein feed designed to give them a good start.
- Grower – for growing pigs (of course!). A medium protein level feed.
- Finisher is for putting the final finish on market hogs. A lower protein level designed to put meat on while not adding fat.
- Sow feed is specially formulated to provide the sow with the nourishment she needs to feed herself and the nursing piglets.
- Bran is only for certain specialized uses.
There are two basic types of hog feeders. One type is the metal self feeder sold in feed stores. They are good, but a little expensive. If you study the dimensions of one in the store, particularly the sizes of the opening at the bottom, you can make one out of wood that will work just as well and cost a whole lot less. Pigs are smart enough not to overeat if there is food available 24 hours a day. If it is the right feed for their age they will thrive, grow and stay healthy on a self feed diet.
You can make metal trough feeders out of the inside of an old hot water heater. Cut a nine inch wide opening in one lengthwise and weld a couple of eighteen inch long pieces of old car springs across the bottom to stop it rolling over. It is smart to also put several straps across the top to stop them from lying in it.
I do not recommend feeding restaurant waste to pigs – I have lost pigs due to them ingesting fiberglass cigarette butts in restaurant waste. I suppose that in California, where there is no smoking in restaurants (lucky people!), the waste may be OK to use, but it is a nasty smelly business that takes any pleasure out of raising nice healthy pigs.
All animals need water to be available all the time. If you use a metal trough for watering, the pigs will try to get in it to take a bath if there are no straps across the top to stop them. There are automatic waterers that, when attached to a wall and connected to a water supply, put fresh water in the fixture any time it is used. The pig has to push a valve thing with its nose and water comes out. Pigs are smart and they learn to do this very quickly – however, note that baby pigs cannot work these devices until eight or ten weeks old.
Almost any absorbent material can be used for bedding, but straw from any grain crop (except some barleys) is the preferred bedding. It absorbs any moisture, it is non-toxic if eaten, and it makes a significant contribution to the quality of the manure when it goes on the garden – be generous, that cement floor is a cold place to lie on at night! If you fasten a two by six on edge across the middle of the floor of the pen and put the bedding straw on one side, the pigs will keep that side clean.
Litters can be mixed once they are weaned – I do not recommend having more than about 50 growing pigs in one (large) pen. They should all be about the same age and size.
There are standard markings for identifying individual pigs that involve ear notching and/or tattooing, however the small farmer always knows each pig by name.
A last comment on care of all pigs – pigs can sunburn, particularly the white breeds. And pigs cannot sweat – that is why they like to roll in mud in hot weather to cool themselves off. Their skin dries out in the sun and wind. If they do not have access to a place to roll in clean mud, then they will benefit from a little (non-detergent) motor oil dribbled on their backs once in a while to replace the natural oils they are losing – use new oil, not nasty dirty old stuff.
Feeding growing pigs: Pigs are very healthy animals. Given half a chance they will thrive on any reasonably sensible diet – remember pigs, like people are omnivorous – this means that besides fruit and vegetables they will eat meat – don’t let little children EVER get in a pen with any pig – pigs are not fussy what kind of meat they eat. Like pigs bought at auctions or privately, weaners should be wormed a week or two after they are weaned – see “Worming pigs” above.
There is a simple standard feeding schedule for raising good quality pork and ham without excessive fat. And the first thing to note is that it does NOT include corn! I learned to raise pigs in Canada where the Canadian government pays a premium on top of the market price for each pig that grades out at a quality suitable for export as Canadian bacon. The standards are very rigid to get this extra bonus. It is a simple fact that corn fed hogs would never get that bonus. The bacon in our American stores is a disgrace. The fat content is indicative of a striving for weight and not for quality. If that is the quality of bacon and pork that you want, then read no further – just feed corn and enjoy the fat that you raise.
Quality pork is raised on oats and barley, with some mineral supplements. It takes about 700 pounds of feed to raise the kind of bacon that we want. 100 pounds of starter, 500 pounds of grower and 100 pounds of finisher. When buying commercial feed, look at the label for the ingredients. The chances are you will not find one without some corn, but hopefully there will not be too much. A 30-35 pound weaner raised on this diet, with adequate water and clean surroundings will weigh right about at 205 to 215 pounds at 5 to 5½ months of age. The barrows will be at the 215 and the gilts will be at the 205. They will dress out to 160 to 165 pounds of high quality, low fat meat.
If you are not sure you can judge their weights, there is a little trick you can practice. As the pigs grow, let them get familiar with you, scratch behind the ears and never hit them. Carry a dressmaker’s cloth tape measure and get them used to you measuring them around the chest just back of the front legs when they are eating – it is not hard to get their confidence when they are not being abused. They will weigh the desired weight when they measure just about exactly 42 inches around the chest – trust me! Most American hog producers take their pigs up to 250 or more pounds – that extra 40 pounds is all lard – from the corn.
Breeding sows: Your best source of sows is the pigs you have raised yourself. Buying a sow from someone else really is “buying a pig in poke” – you don’t know just why it is being sold. It may be barren, only have very small litters, be addicted to eating its own young, or who knows what else could be wrong with it.
A good time to pick out the gilts to keep as sows is right at the time they are ready to butcher – 205-215 pounds and five to six months old. They could be picked out a little younger, 180 or so pounds and bred then. That is the age and size used by commercial pig factories, but I think they are a little too small when they farrow (give birth) to be good milking mothers. Pick gilts from big litters. Be very selective. Pick out the long lean pigs – they make the best bacon. Pick out the biggest – they will have the biggest babies. Count the number of teats that look functional – there should be at least 12 working teats if the sow is going to be able to feed a decent size litter. Pay a little attention to the gilt’s personality – she will be bigger and heavier than you are and has sharper teeth – you want to be able to get in the pen and help with the farrowing without her getting upset or attacking you. Look them over very critically – they represent a half of the genes going into the next generation, and they are the difference between successful pig raising and a losing hobby.
You can tell when a gilt or a sow is in heat and willing to be bred by the appearance of the vulva – it becomes fuller, softer looking and redder, almost inflamed. She will arch her back and squeal a little when you scratch it, indicating a willingness to be bred. A sow will come into heat a few days after farrowing – a bad time to breed her – it is hard on a sow to be pregnant while still milking. A good heavy milking sow actually gives more milk than some cows! She will also come into heat about three to five days after her babies are weaned off her, and this is a good time to breed her. This lets you get two litters a year from each sow. Commercial producers push their sows to five litters every two years by weaning the piglets too young and breeding the sow while still nursing the piglets – false economy for the small farmer.
It is normally better to take the sow to the boar. Sometimes if you bring the boar to the sow she will attack it quite viciously for invading her space. Some think that two breedings a day apart give a bigger litter. If you own the boar and it is easy and handy to do so, then why not?
The gestation period for a pig is 114 days (three months, three weeks, and three days). This is quite firm and only varies by one or two days.
Care of bred and nursing sows: While a bred sow will belly out in her pregnancy, do not let her get too fat. It is a problem with sows and boars that they do not seem to ever stop growing until they die of old age. That nice looking 200 pound gilt is going to end up being a 600 pound sow after a couple of years have passed. This tendency to keep growing presents us with a couple of problems. One is finding a suitable size boar that can breed our 200 pound gilt and at the other extreme finding a boar to breed our 600 pound sow. During her pregnancy feed her sow ration and if she is over eating and gaining too much weight cut her feed back to a measured amount. Give your food scraps to the pregnant sow in preference to any other pigs – the variety is good for them and hand feeding them helps them to regard you as a friend and not a jailer. One thing to be careful of is that a very thin sow may turn on her young and eat them, if she is hungry enough. A second problem is that when sows get larger they get clumsy and can, and will, roll on top of the little pigs and crush or suffocate them.
About two days before she is due to farrow change her diet to a wet mash of bran. This helps prevent constipation which can cause problems during the delivery.
Wean the pigs away by taking them away for one night, let them nurse the next morning then never again. The sow will get excited, but gets over it – at this time be careful as she can get very mean.
Housing for sows and their litters: A good farrowing pen takes a little more work than a regular pig pen. Mount a two by four rail or a metal rail all around the pen about five inches above the floor and five inches out from the wall. This is to prevent that clumsy sow from crushing the babies against the wall when she lies down or rolls over.
Fence off a triangular piece in one corner for the piglets to sleep in. This should be about four feet by four feet off the corner with a five inch high access for the baby piglets to get under to get away from the sow. Over this triangle hang a heat lamp to keep the babies warm. You want about 85-900F at the height of the piglets’ back for the first week or so. It helps to have this fenced off corner next to the aisle where you can just reach in to get a piglet without going into the pen – it is less disturbing for the sow.
Housing for all pigs: Pigs benefit from dry housing and also from some fresh air. But be aware that unless you have put hog rings in their noses they will uproot anything and everything that is not thick concrete. If there are holes or cracks in a concrete floor the pigs will work on it until they can heave up the concrete. Pigs have powerful shoulder muscles and noses – a 250 pound sow can lift up the side of a car with her nose. In an inside pen pigs need about 50 square feet of floor space each. A sow with a litter needs about 75 square feet.
As an alternative to barn housing with a concrete floor there is a practice that is very effective for the small farm/large garden. You can build a small hog house out of about three sheets of plywood (at least ½ inch thick) in an “A” shape configuration. Use two sheets for the walls and one for one end. Make it quite strong. It will be about eight feet long and four feet wide at the bottom. There is no floor. Close one end and open the other end into an attached four foot wide by eight foot long wire pen three foot high built on a two by four frame. This structure, with handles attached is light enough for two people to lift/drag the whole thing a few feet every few days. We put one of these in our garden and my wife and I moved it as it was needed – every three or four days. Each time we moved it we moved it so the inside area was on new clean, dry ground. Throw a couple of slices of straw in the house for bedding. The pigs rooted up all their old bedding out in the wire run and anything and every thing that had been left in the ground from the previous growing season. After moving it I immediately turned over the run area with a garden fork to incorporate the manure. This system is almost completely free of flies and smell and does fantastic things to the garden soil. This is a good size for up to three pigs.
Care of newborn piglets: Important! – you can save at least one piglet, and maybe more by being present during the birth of the litter. A sow’s litter will vary from one (or none) to up to a normal maximum of sixteen. Baby pigs are born almost blind and weighing about 3 to 3½ pounds (if you have been feeding the sow properly).
As mentioned above, have a heat lamp over the fenced off corner so you can put the babies in the warm area as they are born.
The sequence of events as baby piglets are born is quite interesting to observe. As each baby is born just about blind it will stumble around and will automatically head for the sow’s head. She will bite off the umbilical cord and the baby will turn around and head for the sow’s teats to feed. Let it feed for a few minutes or until it quits, then put it under the heat lamp. This is one point where you can save it’s life – sometimes the sow, while in the throes of labor, will jerk her legs around and kick the baby off course, the baby will head off into the distance and never find its way back without your help.
As you put each baby under the heat there are a couple of things you can do for it. Using a small pair of side cutting pliers, clip just the points off the four needle teeth – these are very sharp little (usually) black teeth. These teeth can scratch the sow’s udder causing her to reject the babies or to get infections on the udder.
Give the baby a dose of iron (follow the package directions very carefully). Pigs are born anemic and the sow’s milk is deficient in iron. On larger farms this iron is given in the form of an injection into the hip.
If the sow hasn’t done a good job on the umbilical cord, clip it with a pair of scissors to about one and a half inches long – dip the end of the cord in a small container of weak iodine to prevent umbilical infections. At about the time the afterbirth comes, put a dab of iodine on the sow’s nose to prevent her from rejecting the piglets due to their smell.
In the wild, sows eat the afterbirth but for us this can cause problems. Once in a while the sow will like the taste of blood and turn to eating the babies – so if you have the chance pick the afterbirth up on a shovel and get it out of the pen. Do not let her have access to any piglets born dead.
Out of each litter there will usually be two runts. (See “Healthy young weaners” above for identifying runts). One will be distinctly smaller than the others and one will be only slightly smaller. The runts are the two end ones on the umbilical cord while still in the sow – they get less nutrition through the sow’s blood flow in the umbilical cord. If there is a large litter, say over 12, it is best to dispose of the smaller runt – it is not going to be able to fight it’s way to a nipple on the udder against its bigger siblings. The larger runt makes a good whole roasted pig when it reaches about 50 to 80 pounds – it will probably never catch up to the others – have a barbecue with whole spit roasted pig and invite all the family and neighbors! During the eight weeks of nursing it will be time to castrate the boars (see castration above) – this is one good reason to have the baby area easily accessible.
At about 3 or 4 weeks of age start putting a little pig starter loose on the floor in the corner bedroom. As they eat it, put more in every day in a container. They will continue to nurse but will benefit from the vitamins and minerals in the starter and have no setback or problems continuing to eat and grow when they are weaned.
Boars: Boars are a pain in the neck. They are non-productive except for about 5 minutes once in a while. They get big and dangerous. There is no demand for boar meat. Castrating a 600 pound boar is an exercise that provides lots of excitement and adrenalin production – it involves a 55 gallon drum and a couple of strong men. Even after castration, boar meat only brings about 3 cents a pound as animal feed. There are methods for removing a boar’s tusks that involve some slightly hazardous work with a crowbar and hammer that I am not going to even try and cover. If you are lucky, one of your neighbors will keep a boar that you can use.
The rapid growth and short gestation of pigs presents a problem in that you can get a nice young boar and use him on your sows. About 8 months later you have a new batch of gilts that you do not want to breed back to their father and maybe a new boar that you do not want to use on his mother or sisters – so you have to sell the older boar and the new boar or buy new sows or gilts. Then buy a new boar. Or find someone with whom to trade boars. Most commercial hog farmers will not let you have use of their boars on your gilts or sows because they are afraid of bringing in disease, however they will sell you a young weaner boar that is unrelated to your stock or sell you a boar that they cannot use any more. In any case, you will not get any profit or good meat from a boar.
Growing your own feed: It’s possible, but realistically only on a large scale. It is impractical to try to grow, harvest and grind up an appropriate mixture of oats, barley, or other grains to feed to your pigs. Concentrate your efforts on growing food for your own table or for sale and buy commercial pig feed. This being said, I must point out that there is very little cash profit in raising any livestock on store bought feed. Using the “A” frame housing method that I outlined in “Housing for all pigs” above, we found that if we raise three pigs in that portable housing and sold two we would get 160 pounds of pork, ham and sausages almost, but not quite, free.
Fencing: There are only two types of fences that will reliably keep pigs confined. The best is the specially made hog fencing that is so much stronger than regular fencing. The other is electric fence – the hogs will try it and learn to respect it – but they will try it every day to make sure it is still working. It is very disturbing to get a call at 5 am from a neighbor complaining that twenty or so of your pigs are in his flower beds – it makes for bad neighbors.
Butchering your hogs: You can do it yourself. In the back woods of the south many hogs are butchered and the hams smoked at home. It is a messy business best done on a crispy cold fall morning when there are no flies around. There are government pamphlets that detail how to cut up a pig and how to smoke the hams, season the sausages, etc. Or get a knowledgeable neighbor to teach you. I have done it and I hated doing it – those pigs were my friends just as much as my dog is! I prefer to deliver my pigs to a professional slaughter house and pay them to return to me a box of nicely packaged meat.