New year, new pigs!
PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:43 28 March 2014
Raising batches of weaners for meat can be a very satisfying process but, for many people, there comes a time when they want to take a step further.
If you are contemplating taking the big step from pig keeper to pig breeder, please consider whether it’s a realistic prospect. See the panel on the opposite page and ask yourself if you really are ready.
Avoid the classic mistake of breeding from what you’ve already got. There are countless cases of pigs which were bought to fatten for meat being kept on as pets and ending up as breeding stock. Many pedigree breeders sell weaners for others to raise for meat. They are the ‘rejects’, if you like – the ones which don’t meet the criteria set out in the breed standard (more on this later), or which simply don’t have the physical potential to become good breeding stock.
It’s up to you whether or not you breed pedigree, but the same basic rules. Never breed from anything which looks less than healthy, genetic deformities, or unusually aggressive tendencies. Whether male or female, it should be strong and well-grown, with good bone structure, a level back, strong, straight legs, and good depth of chest to allow plenty of space for internal organs and, in the case of sows and gilts, to accommodate a growing litter. Good legs (see pictures a and b) are important for sows and gilts because they need to be able to support the weight of the boar; the boar needs strong back limbs, too!
A pig with a bad underline should not be bred from. Teats should be in a straight line and in pairs – a bit like buttons on a double-breasted jacket - and spaced evenly down the underbelly. There should be at least 12 fully-formed and functioning teats (14 in some breeds).This applies to both females and males, because both parents can pass on this important characteristic to their offspring. If teats are badly-spaced, missing, or ‘blind’ (i.e., they don’t work) and a large litter is born, some of the piglets will not receive enough milk.
Piglets are very ‘teat faithful’; a newborn will choose its favourite minutes after entering the world and will fight to retain it. The last two pairs of teats can occasionally be tucked away under the sow's flank when she is lying down to feed her litter, making them less easy to get at – another factor which can mean the difference between piglets thriving or starving – so ideally choose pigs which have teats starting well forward.
Each breed has a ‘checklist’ of essential and/or desirable qualities. If you want to start breeding pedigree, you need animals which have been registered with the appropriate body (for most, this means the British Pig Association, but for British Lops and KuneKunes, it will be the breed society). There is an obligation on breeders not to register anything which does not meet the relevant breed standard. Whatever the breed, the standard will demand a good underline and conformation, but there will also be requirements concerning hair and skin colour, coat markings, and other preferences, including the shape of head or nose. See the BPA website www.britishpigs.org.uk for details.
Why breed pedigree? Well, if you want to help our native breeds to survive, this is the best way to do it. Conserving rare bloodlines means identifying where they are and continuing to breed from them. The only way you can be sure that a pig is the breed it appears to be is by having that all-important pedigree certificate which details its ancestry: “A pig without a pedigree is just a pig”. It also makes sense from a marketing point of view, because as well as selling offspring as meat weaners, any which are worth registering can be sold as pedigree stock – so you potentially have two sets of buyers. If you are planning to sell your meat with a rare breed label, it MUST have come from registered parents and you have to be able to prove it – otherwise you could find yourself in trouble with Trading Standards.
The right age
It’s customary to wait until pigs – gilts and boars alike – are eight to 10 months old before allowing mating to take place. However, this should be treated more as a guide than as Gospel. Pigs which have not had the correct nutrition in the formative months may not be sufficiently well-grown, so although the calendar says they are ready, their physical state will suggest otherwise. Similarly, gilts and young boars can become sexually active as early as four or five months old, but that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to breed. At that age, they are still in a crucial growing stage. A pregnancy which takes place too early can stunt a gilt’s growth quite considerably; boars can produce sperm from an early age, but it may be immature and abnormal in character.
And now, the $64,000 question – what should you buy and what should you pay? Well, that depends on what breed you want, how great demand is, where you live, and the age of the animal. As a rough guide, most good breeders will sell registered pedigree weaners (i.e. eight weeks old and eating solid food) for around £80 to £100. The advantage is not just price – it also means that you can get to know your animal and build up a bond. You could opt to buy something at ready-to-breed stage (eight to 10 months). At this age, you will have a much better idea of what the fully-grown pig will eventually look like, but you should expect to pay in the region of £250 to £300 – maybe more if you want a gilt already in pig. A third option is buying an older animal – maybe a tried-and-tested sow which has had one or two litters. Prices will vary considerably, depending on age and quality, and how badly the owner wants to sell, but don’t take on anything that is too old (I would draw the line at four or five) or which hasn’t been bred from for a while, because fertility may be impaired.
Are you ready?
• Do you have the time and commitment? Instead of fitting your pig-rearing around your holidays, you’re now talking about a day in, day out obligation, whatever the weather or time of year.
• Do you have sufficient land? You will have permanent, adult residents on your land – plus offspring – so you need to be able to rotate your stock in order to let the ground recover.
• Do you have enough pig-keeping experience under your belt, and would you know what to do if something went wrong during pregnancy or farrowing?
• Do you have plans for the piglets? There’s no point in breeding unless you have a market for the offspring or the meat. Bear in mind that a traditional breed can produce six to 14 piglets at a time, whereas a cross-breed or a modern/commercial type could have twice as many.
• Do you intend keeping a boar, or is there a suitable one within easy driving distance which you could hire? Keeping a boar for just two sows may not be practical or economically viable, whilst finding a suitable stud boar that you can borrow when you need him may prove difficult. Artificial insemination is an option, but it can be a tricky skill to master.