How to choose a pig (or two...)
Carol Harris provides some advice on choosing pigs for a smallholding.
You’ve just decided to become a pig-keeper. Your first thought is that you’d like a variety of pigs, because you just can’t decide which you like best. You’ve always fancied spotted pigs, but you also like the ginger ones, and the white ones and the black ones, so you think you will probably have some of each.
By co-incidence, you spot an advertisement in the local paper: pigs free to good home – phone after 6.00pm. It sounds too good to be true, you phone, a rather grumpy person answers and says he’s selling up and wants to dispose of his stock really quickly. He says there are seven sows and a boar, plus a litter of 10 piglets. He doesn’t seem to know what breed they are but tells you they’ve been producing litters regularly and are very cheap to keep as he just gives them barley and a few cabbages.
He thinks some of them may be expecting litters, but can’t be sure as the boar just runs with them all permanently. You think it will be a good solution for you as it’s a ready-made breeding group (although you hadn’t really thought about breeding so soon, but don’t want to turn down the opportunity).
You arrange to go to see the pigs the next day. When you get there, you find a very dilapidated farmhouse, with lots of ancient cars and trucks littering the yard, numerous scruffy hens picking at the ground and some cats with mangy-looking coats eyeing you from a distance. The owner comes out and points to a field with some rusty tin shelters and lots of deep mud. Some pigs are turning over the ground hoping to find something edible. One of them is limping and another has bare patches all over its coat. One has a very large stomach and looks pregnant.
They’re covered in so much mud, it’s difficult to tell what colour the pigs are underneath. Some piglets run over to greet you, but the older pigs seem a bit lethargic and don’t respond to you at all.
He then says there are some more pigs in the next paddock. You follow him and find two pot-bellied pigs that seem to find it difficult to walk. Their feet are extremely long and turned up at the ends. They seem to be living in a lean-to shed with very little shelter.
When you ask why he’s disposing of the animals, he says he can’t be doing with pigs anymore and is just carrying on with sheep. You wonder why he only wants to give them away, but can’t get any sensible answer from him.
You feel so sorry for the pigs that you decide to take them in. You don’t yet have any suitable housing or fencing, but feel sure it won’t be difficult to sort something out. He says he will have to deliver them at the weekend, because he can’t keep them any longer and you agree to that.
So what’s wrong with that? Well...
First, before even contemplating keeping pigs, you should make sure you have suitable facilities, including an adequate amount of ground, suitable housing, a water supply and excellent fencing. I will be covering these topics in more depth in later articles, but wanted to write this piece on choosing pigs early on, so you can bear this information in mind while you’re preparing suitable homes for your livestock.
Once you’ve definitely decided to keep pigs, you should ask yourself...
What do you want the pigs for?
This may sound a strange question, but there are various possibilities: to provide meat for yourself, to produce meat for sale, to keep pets for your family, to have animals for showing, to produce stock for breeding, to preserve a rare breed of pig and so forth. If, for example, you want a couple of pet pigs, or you want to start a meat supply business, your requirements are likely to differ, so why you want the pigs is an essential first question.
What facilities do you have for keeping your pigs?
If you have a farm or smallholding, you’re likely to have better facilities than if you simply have a large garden. For larger-scale pig-keeping, you must have sufficient ground and space for adequate housing. If you have very, very little space then you’re probably best advised to switch interests and get a dog, some chickens or any other animal with fewer space requirements. If, however, you can adequately provide ground for your pigs, then a major element of pig-keeping will be in place.
What preferences do you have?
Do you like large or small pigs, coloured or spotty ones, prick-eared or lop-eared ones, lively or docile ones? Your own personal preferences can help determine your choice. However, you should think about this in conjunction with the next question.
What are your capabilities?
If you’re fit, strong and mobile, you will be better able to cope with the degree of activity required to look after several large pigs. Just moving straw around for bedding is a hefty chore in itself, let alone trying to handle wilful and energetic pigs. So if physical abilities aren’t your strong point, you may be better suited to a small and quiet breed. There’s little point being drawn to boisterous animals that you’re not able to manage.
Having asked yourself these questions, you can then set about locating your pigs.
Even if you’ve answered these questions carefully, you may well have more than one breed of pig to choose from. I will be featuring a breed of pig in each of my articles for a bit more in-depth information on them, but to give you a feel for what’s available, in the UK at least, here is an overview of the various breeds.
Pig breeds in the UK are split into 'traditional' and 'modern'. Traditional breeds, often called 'rare-breeds', are mostly either endangered species or 'at risk' as a breed. To give an idea of what this means, in 1994, four of the traditional breeds had fewer than 200 new registrations, a further three had fewer than 300, one had fewer than 500 and only one had over 700 registrations. Some British pig breeds have already become extinct.
Traditional pigs come in a range of colours, are very hardy, tend to have long coats and mature slowly. They have a higher amount of fat than modern pigs as they’re able to live outdoors in all weathers. They also produce smaller litters than most modern breeds of pig.
The modern breeds are all referred to as 'pink' pigs – their coats are white and their skins are pink. These breeds are largely kept for commercial pork production on intensive farms. They grow quickly, have large litters and are ready for meat production at a much earlier stage than the traditional breeds.
Apart from the traditional and modern breeds, there are various other breeds that people keep. These tend to be smaller in size and are fewer in numbers than the modern breeds. The box here shows the main breeds in each of the categories I’ve mentioned – there are a few more modern breeds, notably the Duroc, Hampshire and Pietrain, which are 'coloured' pigs, but numbers of these in the UK are very low at present.
It’s important to find a reputable breeder, with well looked after, well-bred stock. Even if you just want a pet, you will do better with one that has been well nourished and cared for, rather than left to fend for itself in poor conditions. A good breeder has a reputation to maintain, so you’re much less likely to find poor or poorly kept specimens at a good pig establishment.
And a good breeder will probably be very helpful after you’ve bought your animals. Most will be happy to speak on the phone to answer queries or chat about good pig-keeping, because they’re interested in the development and welfare of their breed and keen to help new people get started.
Do try to buy registered, pedigree pigs. The traditional and rare breeds will only survive if they’re kept by enthusiasts and registered as pedigree animals. Without registration there is no guarantee that your pig is the breed it purports to be and, without registration, you don’t know the history of your pig, so you don’t know if it’s been in-bred with possible genetic problems resulting.
Also, if you want to breed for food and sell via butchers that deal in rare breed meat, or if you want to show or to sell breeding stock yourself, you will need paperwork proving the pedigree of your pig. And a pedigree pig should be marked with ear-notches, tattoos or tags so it’s obvious which pig it is.
The quality of animal
Make sure that your pigs have good conformation and breed characteristics as defined by their specific breed standards. Although the standards vary (these can be obtained from the British Pig Association or from the relevant pig breed societies) there are certain elements of conformation required whatever the breed – in particular sound legs and a good underline/teat placement.
And make sure the pigs you are thinking of purchasing are in good health – if they’re healthy, they should look alert and interested in their environment, their coats should look in good condition, their eyes should look bright and they should move easily without signs of stiffness or lameness. Their bodies should be well covered without appearing too fat and their ribs should not show beneath their skin.
If food is offered, they should take it immediately and eat with obvious enjoyment. You may not know much about conformation or breed characteristics, but you should be able to spot an animal that looks lively and fit rather than dull and malnourished.
Make sure that the temperament of your pigs is good. An aggressive or unduly timid pig won’t make a good acquisition. The aggressive ones will be hazardous to you and any visitors, the timid ones will be difficult to catch and examine or treat if needed. Pigs generally have good temperaments and very individual characters so temperament is an important selection criterion.
Depending on your purpose in buying pigs, their age can be important. If you’re buying to raise for meat for yourself, then weaners – young pigs around 10 weeks old – are best, so you can buy at a reasonable price. If you’re buying breeding stock, then you can buy young, but you may prefer to buy rather older animals so you can see how they have grown on and how their conformation has developed, and also so that they’re closer to breeding age when you get them.
You may even prefer to buy ‘proven’ animals - sows or boars that have already produced or sired a litter, although they will be more expensive. And you may also want to buy a sow with a litter which can provide you with a breeding animal as well as some young ones to sell on or keep for meat. You will probably need more expertise if you take on older stock or ones with litters and this isn’t the preferred course of action for most people.
How to find your pig
To find your pigs, you can contact the British Pig Association (BPA) via their website: www.britishpigs.org.uk, or a relevant breed club or society (most of which will be listed on the BPA website). Both the BPA and the breed or regional societies will have lists of breeders and advertisements for stock for sale.
You can also search the internet for breeders, contact the Rare Breeds Survival Trust or look in smallholding, farming and countryside magazines. Another good way of finding a pig is by going to shows that have pigs and talking to exhibitors.
Buying your pigs
If possible, take a more experienced person with you when you buy, or make certain that you’re going to a reputable breeder who will give you good advice rather than simply want to make a sale. If you’re buying young stock, ask to see the parents if they’re on the premises, so you can see how the younger ones may turn out as they grow and also to check that the parents show no signs of defects or ill health.
It’s difficult to give guidelines on price, as this can differ from breeder to breeder, but you may want to check out more than one breeder to make comparisons. Younger stock will tend to be less expensive, but if they’re very cheap, it could be a sign that their feed and general care has been skimped.
Check if the pigs have been wormed or injected against any illnesses – Erysipelas is the commonest ailment to have preventative treatment, but if you’re buying from an organic farm, you may find that the pigs are not wormed or treated for any other possible illnesses, because routine medication is not generally allowed.
Make sure you get the animals’ registration documents, as you will need these to show transfers of the animals to you. And ask if you can have a bag of the pigs’ present food when you take them, so that you don’t change their diet immediately. You can gradually alter their feeding if you don’t plan to use exactly the same feed as the breeder.
And finally, before you do any of all this, you might consider attending a course on pig keeping. This is one of the best ways of getting a practical introduction to the subject, seeing a well-run pig farm, meeting people knowledgeable in the field, seeing animals close up, getting hands-on practice in handling pigs and the chance to discuss both general and specific issues relevant to you in keeping your own pigs.
I hope you have every success in your venture.