The economy of pigs
PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:51 28 March 2014
Beer, bread, and bacon. Alan Beat sources his own
However, it’s the pig and its products which are accorded the most respect. His advice, given as usual in great detail, is for the cottager to avoid the risks and difficulties of breeding his own, but to buy growing stock instead, at around four months old, and kill at one year or even more “the better for it”.
Feeding should be centred upon barley or peas, plus, of course, all possible scraps and waste from the house and garden. Cobbett points out that all pigs will graze, and therefore, on the skirts of forests or commons... find a good part of his own food from May to November... especially if the cottager brew his own beer, which will give him grains to assist the wash.
Most important of all, the pig must be fat: The last bushel, even if he sit to eat, is the most profitable. If he can walk 200 yards at a time, he is not well-fatted. Lean bacon is the most wasteful thing that any family can use.
He progresses through the method of killing and cleaning, and using the lesser parts of the carcase, until dwelling at length on the serious business of curing bacon. Pork is dismissed in one short sentence: I shall not speak of pork, for I would by no means recommend it.
So, bacon it is, then! The flitches (what a lovely word) should be rubbed with salt and the brine drained away, this being most important. Every four or five days, the salt should be changed. The bacon will be cured after six weeks, having used more salt than some other cures, but for a far better result, he assures us. The bacon is best smoked before storage in dry sifted wood ash to keep flies away: But always observe, it is FAT bacon that I am talking about, – a point he labours repeatedly, lest the reader be in any doubt.
Some other meat you may have, but bacon is the great thing. It is always ready; as good cold as hot; goes to the field or the coppice conveniently; in harvest and other busy times demands the pot to be boiled only on a Sunday; has twice as much strength in it as any other thing of the same weight; and in short, has in it every quality that tends to make a labourer’s family able to work and be well off.
He finishes with a practical observation that won’t even have occurred to most modern farmers, brought up to expect fertility out of a chemical bag: The fatting of a large hog yields three or four loads of dung, really worth more than 10 or 15 of common yard dung. In short, without hogs, farming could not go on; and it never has gone on, in any country in the world. Hogs are the great stay of the whole concern... without them the cultivation of the land would be poor, a miserably barren concern. The pig thus yielded the very best fertiliser for the cottager’s garden and a valuable commodity with which to barter for the pig’s bedding and feed, so that he partly paid for himself.
Today’s shopping housewife would be dismayed if faced with the fat bacon that Cobbett so heartily describes. We need to bear in mind the farm labourer’s long hours of hard physical work then, and balance this against the essential energy that the fat and bread in his diet supplied. Very few of us work this hard today (thank goodness) so we don’t need the same high levels of energy intake.
Barley, peas and vegetable waste remain a very effective diet for fattening pigs, but nowadays, we prefer leaner meat from smaller, younger, faster-growing animals – indeed, a modern small porker is approaching slaughter weight at four months old which was Cobbett’s starting point for fattening, while bacon weight is reached at seven to eight months, with just half-an-inch of back fat considered ideal.
Although we may disagree, then, with his enthusiasm for fat bacon, the outstanding usefulness of the fattening pig to the smallholder remains unchanged. The pig converts his food into top quality meat more efficiently than any other livestock, and at least part of this food will be discarded from the garden, and otherwise wasted. The resulting manure, well-rotted, is the best possible fertiliser to return to that garden, and the pig will even dig the garden for you, or plough up and reclaim rough land with his remarkable snout.
Certainly it’s hard for me to imagine our own smallholding running effectively without a few pigs around, and we’ve kept them in one way or another for most of our time here. For a decade, we kept breeding sows, while in more recent years, we’ve bought in weaners each spring for killing in the late autumn. Overall, we’ve found that Cobbett’s advice broadly holds true today: for the purposes of self sufficiency in pork or bacon, it’s better to buy in weaners than to attempt to breed your own.
This apparently simple starting point is littered with pitfalls for the unwary. Piglets are traditionally weaned at around eight weeks old and should weigh 30 to 35lbs apiece, but buying your livestock at this stage is far from the beginning of the story. You need to go right back to the breeding adults and their husbandry.
Why is this? Consider the worst case scenario of pigs kept intensively. The sow may be fed a diet containing antibiotics and growth promoters which must pass on via the bloodstream and milk to her offspring. She may be dosed for worms or lice with systemic chemicals, which enter every living cell in her body, so again, must also affect her offspring. The newborn piglets may have their teeth clipped back to gum level (to prevent biting of the sow’s teats), their tails docked (to prevent tail biting) and an injection of iron administered (to prevent anemia), all within the first few days of life, while boars may be castrated soon after (to prevent ‘boar taint’ in the meat).
As the piglets grow and begin to take solid food, they will probably be fed a diet containing added copper, antibiotics and/or other growth promoters which are widely and routinely used throughout the pig industry for greater profit. They may be weaned much earlier than the natural time of eight weeks, right down to three weeks from birth, because this also is more profitable as the sow produces more piglets per year. They may be housed in confined pens which deny natural behaviour patterns.
I could go on, but I hope you see my point – however carefully you subsequently manage and feed your growing pigs, you can’t undo what has already been done to them over the formative part of their short lifespan. So if you aim to produce additive-free, humanely-reared pork, as most smallholders will surely wish to do, you need to start off with weaners that have been bred and grown to those standards.
None of these horrors need be inflicted upon the sow or her litter. Most are ‘solutions’ to problems that directly result from intensive management, and the small-scale pig keeper is unlikely to have any need for them. We certainly didn’t find the need for tooth clipping, tail docking or iron injection for our own piglets, nor did we castrate, having proved to our own satisfaction that ‘boar taint’ doesn’t exist in the pork or bacon from pigs that we’ve reared, killed and eaten.
The obvious solution is to buy your weaners from a good source. To establish this, you need to visit before buying – never mind if you’re a novice, common sense will be guide enough. Ask to see the breeding sows and boar as well as any piglets, look at the conditions in which they’re housed, and the space they have. Look at the whole litter of piglets to see what size difference there is between them. An even litter is ideal, but if there’s much variation, avoid obvious runts and pick the largest. Be aware that boars will grow slightly faster than gilts (females).
Like all animals, pigs that are healthy and thriving will look as if they are. They’ll be bright-eyed, alert, active and inquisitive – though if they have full bellies, they may be contentedly sleeping! Look for a good level of rapport between the owner and his livestock. Ask questions about their feeding and husbandry. Any good breeder will be enthusiastic and happy to answer reasonable queries. If he isn’t, look elsewhere.
It’s well worth establishing by your questions how the weaning process will be, or has already been, managed by the breeder. Accepted best practice is to quietly remove the sow out of earshot, leaving the piglets behind in familiar surroundings and eating food to which they’re accustomed. Over the next few days, they’re then fed little and often, at least three times daily, to minimise digestive upsets following withdrawal of the sow’s milk. Once they’ve settled to this feeding routine without any problems, they’re ready for sale. This is an appropriate point at which to worm the piglets, if this is thought necessary – for instance, if they’ve been free-ranging on ground shared by other pigs in the recent past.
None of this is much to ask and will go a long way towards avoiding problems after you’ve taken delivery. It has to be said that many weaners are less fortunate, being simply taken straight from the suckling litter for delivery – rather less fuss for the breeder, but a much higher risk for the purchaser, so beware.
If you intend to change the feed of your weaners, do it gradually. A sudden change at this stage in their lives may cause digestive upset, leading to scouring, dehydration and weight loss, weakening the animal and leaving it vulnerable to other ailments. To avoid this, either stick with the same feed that they’ve been reared on, or else change gradually over a period of several days from the old to the new ration, perhaps buying a small quantity of feed from the breeder for this purpose.
Locating a good source of weaners may not be easy, then, and when you find a source, there may not be any weaners available at the time you want them, so start enquiring in good time. Here in the south west, you can expect to pay around £25 for a quality weaner at eight weeks old. Traditional breeds offer real advantages of hardiness and flavour over modern hybrids that have been developed for rapid growth at the expense of most other qualities, including taste! You must buy two or more, for pigs are social animals and shouldn’t be kept alone.
Housing and management
If weaners are bought in the late spring, when the ground is drying out and temperatures are rising, their housing and management is relatively straightforward. Free-range may be fine if you have an area of rough ground that the pigs can plough up, but may not be possible if you need to conserve valuable grazing for other livestock. Free-range pigs will need to be contained within fencing such as woven stock-wire, which they’re liable to uproot unless there’s an extra strand of taut barbed wire at ground level. They will respect electric fencing but, like all livestock, need to learn first, and untrained weaners may charge straight through it for the first day or two.
Summer free-range pigs are happy with a simple ark for shelter that’s easily home-made from straw bales, wooden pallets, corrugated iron or whatever is available. The shelter needs to be weatherproof with ample dry bedding. However, during the colder, wetter months of the year, ‘free range’ will inevitably become a ‘mud bath’ unless you’re blessed with exceptionally light, free-draining soil. On our heavy clay, we found that winter pigs needed permanent housing in accommodation that was large enough to provide sleeping, dunging and exercise areas.
Our solution was to concrete an outside exercise area leading off an existing stone building, and to contain the pigs there with permanent fencing. More recently we’ve found that growing pigs thrive in this accommodation during summer as well, often preferring the cool interior of the stone building to the heat of the sun. Whatever your choice, all needs to be ready before the pigs are due to arrive.
Pigs fed on lower value feed will grow more slowly (see feeding table). A pig above 150lbs gives chops and joints somewhat larger than most people want, so we find this to be the optimum slaughter weight for pork. For bacon, the opposite applies – too small a pig yields skinny rashers and hams – so we aim towards 200lbs. If you have no means of weighing your pigs, don’t worry, use the table as a guide (knowing their age) and experience will soon teach the rest. Weaners that are eight weeks old in May should reach pork weight in September, or bacon weight by October/November.
The finances of the whole business look something like this at current prices for a pork pig of 150lbs live weight:
Cost of weaner £25
Organic feed £44
Kill and butcher £30
Bedding, sundries £5
In return for this, you should receive around 90lbs of pork in various forms, plus the head (if you want it for brawn etc) weighing another 10lbs.
For a bacon pig of 200lbs live weight, the finances look like this:
Cost of weaner £25
Organic feed £66
Kill, butcher and cure £60
Bedding, sundries £5
In return for this you should receive around 120lbs of bacon, ham, sausages etc.
We prefer to buy and rear four or five weaners at a time. The work involved in looking after five pigs is much the same as for two, but at the end of it, there are surplus pigs to sell privately as freezer pork, the income from which offsets the overall cost while the muck heap also benefits.
For example, in 2005, we bought five Saddleback/Gloucester Old Spot weaners in late April, supplemented their bought-in organic rations through the summer with fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen garden, plus spent grains from home brewing, and glutted them with our fallen apples and pears through the autumn. In September, three were killed and sold as pork, leaving the smallest and largest of the bunch to grow on. In October, these last two were killed for our own use, the smaller for pork, the larger for bacon and ham. The result was an ample supply of pork joints, chops, cubes, mince, sausages, bacon, hams and gammon steaks to see us comfortably through the next 12 months, while the overall cost to us, balancing the income from those sold against all expenditure, was just £40 – and we still have the muck to put back on the garden.
Is it worth it?
The answer is a resounding yes! – not because of prejudice through your own involvement, but because there just isn’t any doubt about it: additive-free and humanely reared pork from a traditional breed or cross is beyond any comparison with the insipid, chemically-enhanced equivalent from the supermarket. If you haven’t tasted it before, you’re in for both a shock and a treat, because the quality is so much higher, you’ll wonder how you ever settled for the other stuff before.
We sell our surplus pork at a premium price, well above the going rate locally for commercial freezer pork, not for extra profit but because it accurately reflects our costs of production. Despite this higher price, we can’t keep up with demand. Customers become regulars, and more approach us through recommendation than we can supply. They can’t all be imagining the difference.
Over the last three months we’ve looked at William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, the founding book of self-sufficiency, and find that it remains strikingly relevant nearly two centuries later. The brewing of beer, baking of bread and rearing of pigs continues to provide a central basis for self-sufficiency and healthy living. Cobbett’s book points us towards understanding the personal and social qualities that smallholding helps us to develop, and I hope this short series will encourage you to produce your own beer, bread and bacon too.
The last word must be from Cobbett:
A man of right mind must be pleased with the reflection that there is a great mass of skill and ability under his own roof. He feels stronger and more independent on this account, all pecuniary advantage out of the question... yet on men go, from year to year, in a state of wretched dependence, even when they have all the means of living within themselves, which is certainly the happiest state of life that anyone can enjoy. n
Alan & Rosie teach smallholding and self-sufficiency at the Yarner Trust, Welcombe Barton, Welcombe, Bideford, Devon EX39 6HF. Tel: 01288 331692.
Alan’s book A Start in Smallholding and Cottage Economy by William Cobbett are both available from the CS bookshop. simply click on the Bookshop link to the left.
This article is from the April 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
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