To breed or not to breed?
Carol Harris on issues relating to breeding pigs and selecting stock
I once had a Siamese cat that I bred from. I also had another cat – a pretty long-haired animal that had come from a pet shop and been neutered before I had it. When the Siamese was due to have each litter, she insisted on making sure that the other cat was around and would drag her into the box with her. The long-hair had to stay there until each kitten was born and it was her job was to clean them up – the Siamese mum would then deign to feed it. The long-hair had never had a litter in her life, but seemed to know what to do. The Siamese who was the breeding animal couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do her job without her companion. Some animals seem to be natural mums but others don’t and when you’re thinking of breeding animals, you may well have to deal with issues such as this. While writing this, I heard of a pig-breeder who had just had a litter of piglets from a young mother that really didn’t want to know about them – resulting in the family having to hand-rear them. The thought of getting up at two-hourly intervals during each night can really focus your mind on just how much you really want to go into pig-breeding – it may be a rare occurrence, but still needs considering as a potential problem. There is a world of difference between keeping a couple of pet pigs or raising a couple of weaners for your freezer and becoming a fully-fledged pig-breeder. Once you begin breeding, you have a much wider range of issues to consider and you should think carefully before making such a decision. Let’s look at some of the things you should think about. The effect on your lifestyle Breeding means you will have larger numbers of pigs to take care of – each litter will probably result in 10-12 piglets, and if you have more than one litter a year, that means you’re in at least double figures for most of the time. Your workload will increase accordingly and you will have to think about staying at home when litters are expected, feeding more frequently, moving larger quantities of bedding and food around on a daily basis, spending more time on cleaning houses and runs and, eventually, handling transport of pigs to slaughter, the subsequent butchery and marketing of your meat. Once perhaps a hobby, your pig-keeping will have become a business, which is a completely different thing. The costs involved Although you will probably aim to make money from breeding, initially, it can cost you more. You will need suitable facilities, including a farrowing shed (the name of the housing required for mums and litters), specially constructed rails around the inside of the shed to give the little piglets an escape route when their mums try to lie down on them, a ‘creep’ area for the small piglets to go to after feeding (helpful, again, to keep them out of harm’s way when mum lies down) and infra-red lamps over the creep to keep the piglets warm for their first few weeks. Your feed bills will also increase while the litters are growing, although you will recoup the cost when you come to sell the piglets or their meat. Your level of expertise Breeding any animal requires knowledge and expertise. You will need to learn about selecting good specimens to breed from (specialists in your chosen breed are usually very helpful to newcomers and will give you good advice), knowing when they should be mated, finding a suitable boar as father, feeding appropriately during pregnancy, preventing health problems, knowing how to handle births and understanding how to rear youngsters in the most effective way. You can learn through talking to more experienced people, reading, attending courses, going to pig-shows and, of course, by developing your own skills as your experience progresses. Your purpose in breeding You may wish to breed to produce meat for sale (and to have some to keep yourself), or to produce animals for show or for breeding. You may want to help preserve a particular breed that is in danger because its numbers are so low. You may have a farm shop and want to offer your own meat products to customers. It’s important to know your reasons for breeding, as they will affect your decisions regarding the type, quality and number of animals you keep and breed from and they will also have consequences – such as you finding customers for meat, or having increased numbers of animals on your premises. Your activity levels You will need to decide how large or small your breeding programme is to be. Will it be one litter a year so you can have meat of your own, plus some to give away or sell to a small number of customers? Or will it be several litters a year so you can have a regular supply of meat to offer to direct purchasers, shops or restaurants? Large scale meat production is a big commitment and you need to be sure you can cope – physically, emotionally and economically – with its ups and downs. Once you’ve considered these issues, you can get down to the practical decisions. How many breeding sows will you have? Each litter that a sow has is potentially an income generator, but requires that you find customers for live animals or for meat. If you don’t have a market for what you breed, you will have problems. Also, sows can go infertile if they’re not bred from regularly, so you can’t just have the odd litter every couple of years. Intensive farms tend to wean piglets very young (sometimes as young as four weeks, and even three wasn’t unknown in the past) and then put the sows to the boar again immediately. That, of course, turns sows into breeding machines, but you can’t go to the other extreme and only breed from them very intermittently – once you’ve started, you need to continue. The longest you should probably leave a sow between matings is about a year, and most traditional breeders will mate their sows more frequently than that – often from six to nine months between matings. Bearing this in mind, you can work out how many sows you can cope with in terms of work involved and sales required. Will you buy weaners and raise them, older gilts, or in-pig sows or gilts? Buying weaners is the cheapest option. You can purchase two to three-month-old females from a reputable breeder and raise them yourself to breeding age. In this way, you can socialise them well and have the pleasure of watching them grow and develop. However, there’s no guarantee that they will breed well (or at all) and you will have to wait several months before you can have them mated and produce litters.
Buying older gilts costs more, but you can obtain an animal that is ready to mate and easy to assess in terms of conformation, temperament and health. Again, you don’t know if they will be fertile, but most pigs do produce litters so this is a fairly good option. Buying in-pig animals is the third option. An in-pig gilt is a pig mated for the first time. She will be able to produce a litter for you fairly quickly, but you won’t know whether she will be a good mum, producing lots of milk and looking after her babies well. An in-pig sow will have had other babies before, so will be a proven mum, but this will probably be the most expensive option of all. So there are various choices and you should assess the pros and cons of each before making a decision. Once you’ve bred a litter of your own, you will have another choice, which is to keep one of your own home-bred animals to add to your herd. Will you keep a boar? You have a number of choices here – you can send your females out to someone else’s boar, you can hire a boar that comes to you and runs with your females until they’re mated, you can keep a boar of your own, or you can use artificial insemination (although the latter course of action has its pros and cons and breeders have very differing views on it as an option). Keeping a boar means you will have to consider whether you can keep it sufficiently occupied fathering piglets (either with your own females or with visiting ones from other breeders). If you only have one or two females, your boar is likely to have to be on his own for long periods and this isn’t satisfactory as pigs are very social animals. Also, if you have more than one breed of pig, you will either need more than one boar (and you can’t keep the boars together or they would fight) or you will have to resort to cross-breeding. Finally, boars are larger and stronger than females and grow long tusks, that can need regular trimming. You will need to be confident about all aspects of keeping a boar if this is the route you choose. Decision made? Once you’ve made your decisions regarding stock, you will need to be aware of various factors to do with the process of breeding. I will go over these briefly but you would be well advised to do a lot more reading and learning before you embark on a breeding programme. Some good ways of furthering your knowledge are going on a course, talking to experienced breeders, reading in more depth and asking if you can help out a local breeder so you get some practical experience of looking after breeding stock, observing the changes in animals during the breeding cycle and, if possible, observing – or helping with – litters being born.
This article is from the June 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.