RAISING PIGS: New Piglets
Why we buy piglets rather than breeding our own; preparing for their arrival and minimizing the stress of their transition; what to feed them; and a few thoughts on choosing heritage breeds versus modern breeds.
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To breed pigs, or to buy piglets?
We once tried breeding our own piglets. It turns out we’re not made of the right stuff to be pig breeders.
For one thing, taking good care of a boar, sow/s and piglets required way more space than we were willing to dedicate to pigs.
Secondly, although we had no trouble selling our surplus piglets, we weren’t super comfortable with it. What if they ended up in tiny, barren pens, in piles of their own excrement?
And the final clincher for us was the question of what to do with a retired breeding animal, particularly a boar who really does not make very good eating.
We’re not keen on shipping our animals off our farm to be butchered because we want to be sure that they die without stress. So that eliminates the option of shipping a retired boar off to be butchered for pet food.
In the end, we ate our one boar, and every bite of that boar-tainted meat reinforced our decision not to try to be pig breeders any more.
Luckily, we’ve found a small pig farm near us that we are delighted to buy piglets from. Craig and Toni Geary at Cheliro Farm produce organic, free range rare heritage breed pigs, dairy goats, cattle, poultry, fruit, and vegetables using regenerative agriculture.
When new piglets arrive
When new piglets are coming to our place, we set everything up for them before they arrive.
We have a pig proof pen all ready for them with a large pile of hay bedding that they can hide in, water, food, and a pile of shavings for pooping in. The last thing you want to do is put the piglets in a pen when they arrive and then stress them further by going in and out adding food, water, and bedding.
With everything ready for them, the piglets can hide and rest to recover from the stress of being separated from their previous companions and transported, and they can creep out to eat and drink when they’re ready. It won’t be long before they’ll be greeting you noisily at the gate the moment they hear you approaching, but at first it helps if they feel that they can hide somewhere safe.
Another note on keeping stress to a minimum for piglets and pigs is that they are very social animals. If at all possible, please consider raising two, not one. One pig alone is a recipe for loneliness, anxiety, and boredom.
What to feed them?
Pigs are omnivores and can thrive on a wide variety of foods. Just keep it varied, be willing to experiment, and do your own research.
There are laws in Australia against feeding “swill” or food scraps that contain or may have come into contact with the meat of other mammals. This is to prevent certain diseases; you can read more about it here and here.
Keeping in mind that caution about swill feeding, this pig farmer in Vermont, USA, was one of my early sources of inspiration and shares lots of useful ideas about feeding pigs naturally and making use of the food wastes that abound in a world of industrial food production.
Some possibilities for staple pig foods are:
- Grains (preferably soaked or sprouted beforehand for better digestibility).
- Dairy products (our pigs are fed excess dairy products that the small local dairy factory cannot sell, for example when the pipes of the machines are flushed between products or a product is dented, poorly sealed, mislabeled, or can't be sold for some other reason).
- Cooked and raw vegetables (starchy vegetables are better cooked).
On the topic of starchy vegetables, do be careful with potatoes. Go easy on potatoes, and always cook them.
Plant foods on their own won’t meet a pig’s needs for protein, but they do make up an important part of a pig’s diet. In addition to their dairy foods, listed in approximate order of preference, our pigs like to eat:
- worms, grubs, and other critters that can be dug out of living soil,
- pumpkins and sweet potato tubers
- sweet potato runners, garden greens and weeds,
- overripe bananas, paw paws and other fruit that’s damaged or surplus to our needs,
- grass, sprouts, shoots, all green and growing things that can be foraged from ground level,
- banana flowers (the male flower that hangs down below the bunch, which you can cut off after the bananas have finished forming), arrowroot stems and tubers (they prefer the tubers cooked), chokos, and excess choko vines.
Do recently weaned piglets need special food?
When you order your piglets, ask what they’ve been eating.
Some pig breeders fully wean the piglets and make sure they’re eating a variety of solid foods before selling them; others will just separate them from their mothers on the day of sale.
Recently weaned piglets need a little more care at first. I include something high in probiotics such as kefir or yogurt, and initially I avoid pasteurized dairy, un-soaked grain, and uncooked starchy vegetables.
After they’ve had a few days to a week to recover from the transition, recently weaned piglets can eat more varied food including raw vegetables and pasteurized dairy.
What about pig pellets?
I’ve never used pig pellets because they are not what I would call a “real food” for pigs (or any other species).
Even so, if for some reason using pellets make the difference for you between being able to raise your own pork or not, I think pork raised at your place on a staple diet of pellets along with whatever else you can rustle up for them would still be better—for you, for our planet, and for the pigs—than pork that comes from a factory farm.
Does breed make any difference?
We think that breed does make a difference both to what you can feed your pigs and to the quality of their meat, although our opinions are very subjective.
Of the various breeds we’ve tried, our favorites are always the older, heritage breeds that were developed before factory farming and indoor pork production.
These old heritage breeds were developed to forage for a lot of their own grub. We find that they willingly eat a wider range of plant foods, which makes life easier for us.
A pig that will happily munch up chokos, uncooked arrowroot tubers, the spent banana flower that hangs down at the bottom of the bunch after the bananas have all formed, and large fibrous winged beans that nobody else wants to eat, fits in much better with our system than one that will only eat pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and ripe bananas.
We also think that the heritage breeds’ meat has better flavor and a better distribution of fat.
Craig and Toni, from whom we buy our piglets, are doing their bit to preserve the English Large Black – an old, rare breed of pigs that fell out of favor when pig farming moved indoors.
This article was written at the time that we had our first English Large Black cross piglets from Craig and Toni – and we’re instant fans of the breed. We like their lovely temperament and their willingness to eat a very wide variety of plant foods. And their ears.
Part 3 will share some ideas for keeping feeding time manageable and enjoyable for you, the person with the feed bucket, since pigs are so very pushy about food.
And then in Part 4, we’ll tackle the question of teaching your piglets to understand and respect electric fence.
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