Picking your porkers
JULY 20, 2010: Liz Shankland gives advice for first-time pig-keepers on buying those first meat weaners.
Liz Shankland gives advice for first-time pig-keepers on buying those first meat weaners. Deciding to take on your first pigs is a big decision and, as we discussed in last month's Country Smallholding, not one to be taken lightly. Still, if you heeded all my warnings, did your homework, got all the red tape sorted out, and now have suitable accommodation ready and waiting, it's time to think about getting your weaners. It may sound straightforward, but buying pigs isn't like popping into Pets at Home to pick up a couple of gerbils. Depending on where you live, you may find that you don't have a huge amount of choice, and you could have to join a waiting list to get exactly what you want. Of course, that's not what you want to hear. You've decided that you want to raise your own pork and you want pigs NOW! You've probably decided the breed you want and know how many you'd like, too. But now for the bad news: weaners don't just sit on a shelf all year round, waiting for people to turn up and buy them. Some of my pig-breeding friends have suffered real ear-ache from would-be buyers who are shocked and disappointed when they can't get what they want precisely when they want it. Most beginners want rare breed pigs, which is great for all of us committed to the cause of conservation. But think about it: there are reasons why some breeds are rare. It partly because comparatively few people breed them; many of our traditional native breeds went out of fashion decades ago when consumer pressure for cheap, lean meat forced farmers to produce fast-growing hybrids with less fat. It has taken decades of hard work to save them from the brink of extinction. Another reason why they aren't popular with intensive pig farms is because they tend to have much smaller litters than modern breeds or popular crosses – often as few as six or eight, compared with the high teens or more which are common in commercial hybrids. I've had to disappoint a few potential customers this year because two of my sows had unexpectedly small litters. Some of the piglets were still-born and some were squashed by their mums. I took provisional orders from people several months earlier, but I could only sell what I actually got, and I had to endure quite a few "But you said I could have two piglets!" retorts. All I could do was apologise on behalf of the sow in question and offer contact details for other breeders who might be able to help. So the moral of the tale is, start making contact with breeders as early as possible and wait your turn, or be prepared to compromise and take a different breed. I live in South Wales and I've had calls from as far afield as Yorkshire, Scotland, and Ireland from people wanting Tamworths – a good indication that not everything can be found on your doorstep. Finding a good breeder If you really have your heart set on a particular breed, start with the breed club. The British Pig Association (www.britishpigs.org) has contact details for all the clubs, most of which will have websites with sections where members post "for sale" adverts. The BPA site also has a searchable database which holds information on who has what and where. It's not the most user-friendly of sites but, with a bit of practice and a lot of patience, you should be able to pinpoint where the main breeders are located. Agricultural shows are a great way of getting to meet breeders and, with the season about to start, there will be plenty of time to do some networking. Shows are the "shop window" for breeders like myself, offering a chance to show the standard of your stock to potential buyers and peers alike. Getting a good collection of rosettes speaks volumes and many a deal is struck whilst chatting around the pig pens. Most breeders will be willing to talk endlessly about their pigs and answer your questions, so make the most of the opportunity. Expect to pay between £45 and £50 for a non-registered weaner from a pedigree herd, and less for cross-breeds. Breeding stock which has been registered as pedigree will be more, of course – a gilt at eight weeks is likely to cost between £80 to £100, or possibly more, depending on quality and bloodline. Other places to buy Of course, you could turn to the classified ads section in your local newspaper or online. After all, you will probably find someone living fairly close to you, and you might even pick up a bargain. I wouldn't recommend it, though. There are some extremely reputable breeders who place small ads, but there are an awful lot of other people out there who can only see pound signs. Remember the notorious "puppy farms"? Back in the 1980s and 1990s, dogs were being bred in horrendous conditions to satisfy demand for cheap pets. Health and welfare were not considerations - just profit - and consequently puppies were sold which were riddled with disease and often died soon afterwards. One of my big worries about the current fashion craze for so-called micro pigs is that the same kind of unscrupulous folk will turn to breeding these novelty pigs in the same kind of conditions as a way of making money. We all love a bargain, but just because something is cheap it doesn't mean it is worth the money. So when you see an ad offering weaners at a cheaper price than the one you've been quoted by a reputable breeder, just consider why that price is lower. To a good, responsible breeder, the health of his or her herd is paramount. Breeding stock will be carefully chosen and vaccinated on a regular basis and accommodation will be kept clean to minimise infection. No breeder will compromise the health of a valuable pedigree herd by skimping on husbandry. I'm not saying don't buy from newspaper and online ads; what I'm saying is, be cautious. As well as looking at the weaners, look at the living conditions, ask to see other pigs in the herd, and make sure you feel comfortable before handing over the money and loading the trailer. Buying at auction is an even bigger minefield for the inexperienced customer. Farmers' marts are great fun and extremely exciting, but they are full of pitfalls for the novice buyer. You have to know exactly what you’re proposing to buy, and be able to carry out all the basic health checks before bidding. You should also talk to the vendor and ask questions about any veterinary treatments which might have been given. Have the weaners been wormed, for instance? The big problem at a mart is the risk of infection with so many animals coming and going. Personally, I wouldn't take a chance unless I knew the breeder of the animal and had checked it had been vaccinated against anything it might pick up. When you buy direct from an established breeder, you should be able to ring that person for "after sales advice". I'm always more than happy to do this, and the last thing I say before waving off new customers is, "Don't forget – any problems or queries, just give me a call." It's the kind of thing I would expect if I was buying in new stock for myself. Buying at an auction is an entirely different way of shopping. But, as the saying goes, "You pay your money and you take your choice." TIPSWherever you're buying from, take a good look at the pigs and make sure they are fit and healthy. Never buy anything which looks too quiet, or generally under the weather, thinking it will be much better when you get it home. Basic things to watch for include: • General appearance and posture – listlessness, dull eyes, droopy head, dry muzzle, reluctance to stand • Discharge from eyes or nose; scouring (i.e. diarrhoea) • Generally poor coat/skin - dull or scruffy hair, bald spots, scabs; animal scratching a lot • Coughing or sneezing • Lameness or other signs suggesting the animal is in pain