Time to breed pigs?
People who enjoy rearing weaners for meat often wonder whether they are ready to move on to breeding. Liz Shankland looks at the pros and cons.
There are two pig-related phone calls and emails that I dread getting. The first is the one that goes: “I’ve never kept pigs before but I’d like to start, and I was wondering whether you had any pregnant sows for sale.” The other is along the lines of: “We bought two weaners to raise for pork, but we’ve got so attached to our girls that we’ve decided to keep them and let them each have a litter. Have you got a boar we could borrow?” The answer, in both cases, is a resounding “NO!”. The decision to start breeding is one that should never be taken lightly – and certainly not on a whim. I’m not saying that breeding livestock is rocket science, but you have to know what you are doing – for the sake of the animals involved and to avoid getting yourself in a tricky situation that might not be easy to get out of. I’ve come across numerous smallholders who have looked at the price of weaners (good quality rare breed piglets to raise for meat can cost you anything between £45 and £65 at eight weeks old) and have decided, instead, to buy a sow in pig. This ‘buy one, get eight free’ mentality may be easy to understand on one level, but it’s not a course of action that I condone. Welfare of the sow and litter must be paramount, and I honestly feel that, until you have had some experience of keeping and looking after pigs, of caring for their needs day in, day out, you’re not prepared to become a pig breeder. As I touched on earlier, one of the most common reasons for pig keepers becoming pig breeders is that they find out way too late that they haven’t the courage to send their animals for slaughter. “So what’s so wrong with being soft-hearted?”, you might say. Well, nothing, really. If you want to keep your pigs as pets, that’s fine – but if you want to breed from them, that’s another matter. Piglet problems If those pigs were sold to you as meat pigs, that’s all they will be good for. There will be a reason why the breeder has decided they aren’t good enough to breed from. It could be that there aren’t enough teats, or that some of the teats are ‘blind’ or inverted, or poorly-placed. All of these things can have an impact on how a litter of piglets will thrive. Quite simply, if the number or placement of the teats makes it difficult for all the piglets to suckle, some will lose out and may even die. There may be other reasons, too. All breeding stock should have good bone structure - a level back, strong, straight legs, and good depth of chest to allow plenty of space for the internal organs. Female pigs need strong backs and legs to support the boar at mating time, so a pig may be downgraded to a meat pig because, physically, she just doesn’t look sound enough. Of course, in the world of pedigree pig breeding, a whole host of other factors come into play. Each breed has its own breed standard - a checklist of desirable traits. A good breeder with a reputation to protect will only register a pig as pedigree if it meets the breed standard – which will include anything from hair and skin colour to coat markings and the shape of head or nose. Pedigree breeding aside, you get what you pay for. So, if you snap up a bunch of weaners for £20 at market, don’t expect them to be great foundation stock for your herd. Markets are for offloading unwanted animals and – as I’ve said in previous articles – they can also risky places from which to buy because you can’t be sure what diseases you might be taking home with your ‘bargains’. Some points to consider before you decide on becoming a breeder Pigs are fairly low-maintenance creatures – until you get to the breeding stage. With this in mind, it pays to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages that might be involved, so think long and hard before you come to a decision that you might later regret. • Do you have the necessary experience with pigs to take things a step further? Have you reared any pigs? Have you administered injections or other treatments? Do you know enough about keeping pigs to take it to the next stage? Would you know what to do if something went wrong during pregnancy or farrowing? • Have you the time and commitment to get into breeding? Keeping weaners until they reach pork weight isn’t too much of a commitment. You can do it through the spring and summer months, when the weather is generally better, and you can arrange the date of your annual holiday so that you can jet off after they've gone to the abattoir. However, if you’re thinking of keeping breeding pigs, you’re looking at embarking on an all-year-round occupation. That means looking after them in good weather and bad. • Have you worked out the costs of feeding sows all year round? Check the prices of pig feed and calculate what you’ll be likely to pay. Sows should really farrow twice a year, in order to maintain fertility, but if you settle for one litter a year, will each sow really be earning her keep when she’s not producing piglets for you to sell? • Do you have enough land to support some fully-grown pigs all year round, along with some of their offspring? Raising weaners in batches, as and when you require them, means you can choose to rest the land and let the ground recover. But just think what a couple of sows - which can reach 400kg in weight – might do to your fields. With all that regular rooting and trampling, you are going to need a lot more space. You will need indoor accommodation in winter or fresh ground on which to rotate the pigs. • Will you keep a boar? If you only have two sows, it won’t be economically viable to keep a boar – plus he will get frustrated and possibly destructive if he has no ‘work’ to do. Hiring in a boar as required may be an option, but some breeders are reluctant for their boars to travel to other holdings because of the risk of disease. You could consider artificial insemination, but it’s a tricky procedure which can take time to master, and you also have to be spot-on predicting when your sows will come into season so that you can order the semen (see Ask the Experts on p12). • What about farrowing accommodation? Lots of people farrow outdoors, but it’s a lot more manageable indoors, should you need to intervene in a difficult farrowing, plus the piglets will undoubtedly be safer if the weather is bad. • Have you thought about what you will you do with the piglets? Do you have a market lined up for them? Are you confident of finding outlets for the pork, or buyers for the weaners? A traditional breed sow can have anything between six and 12 piglets a time; a modern or cross-bred one may have twice as many! At the lower end of the scale, two sows breeding twice year might have 24 piglets between them; or, at the higher end, you could end up with close on 100!