Learning how to raise your own pigs for meat is a great option for any homestead or farm wanting to become more self-sustainable and without the level of commitment of raising beef cattle.
We have been raising pigs on our farm for well over 10 years. We began raising just a few piglets for our own consumption and now actually breed piglets for sale and raise milk fed, heirloom pork for customers, which is the main venture on our farm.
I really think pigs are one of the easiest animals to raise on a homestead. They mature quite a bit faster than a beef cow and render way more meat (and lard) then a chicken or rabbit (and frankly pulled pork and fresh bacon are just amazing!!!)
So maybe you have thought about raising a pig (or two) and don't know where to start? Here are some tips and pointers I hope will help you on our way to raising your own delicious pork.
1. Buy piglets – For someone interested in just raising a few pigs a year for meat its easier to buy piglets than raise breeding stock. Piglets vary in price due to location, time of year (they are more expensive in Spring when kids in 4-H are trying to find them) and by breed. In my area piglets run about $125/each but they can be as low as $75 depending on market demand.
2. Age matters – we sell our piglets at 8 weeks of age. The industry standard is 6 weeks of age but we find that piglets allowed to remain with the sow those two extra weeks have stronger immune systems and do not need to be fed starter feed. Of course, that means we have to feed the sow extra to keep up her condition but we think healthier piglets are worth it. If you can find piglets that have been allowed to nurse a bit longer its worth the extra cost.
3. Space Considerations – Before you bring home piglets you need to have a pen and some sort of shelter. I will talk more about fencing in a minute but there are some considerations to take in account when planning your pen. If the pen is small, the piglets will grow faster because they will not have as much room to exercise. However, in a small pen the ground can be really destroyed. Also, in a smaller area, parasites have more of a chance to grow. Finally, a small pen in the Spring when the weather is wet can result in a great big mud pit. We prefer to use rotating areas in the warmer months and really large areas closer to the house in the colder months (we actually put pigs on our garden areas during the winter so they can till them up in preparation for Spring planting).
4. Fencing – When piglets are young, its better for them to be in a cattle panel, hog panel or pallet pen. Electric netting, string or wire don't work well with small piglets because they can get out (spoken from lots of experience and a piglet that took off for two weeks in the surrounding woods of our property). We keep piglets in a small cattle panel pen with electric wire on the bottom until they are about 12-15 weeks old and then we transfer them into pens made with electric string or wire. Usually by this age they are trained to the electric and are large enough not to mess with going through it. Its good to have an exit way or gate that is not electric, however. Pigs can be so well trained to electric fencing that when we want to move them they will not go near a place that there USED to be electric fencing.
5. What do I feed this pig? – There are lots of possible ways to feed your pig. The easiest is to buy a commercial hog grower. Pigs grow fastest on this type of ration. Unfortunately, most commercial hog grower formulas contain corn and soy which is probably GMO. A lot of them also contain medications. Another option to is to make your own feed from a grain and protein source or find a natural pre-made feed in your area. In addition to pre-made feed, pigs love all types of produce. You can even grow crops specifically for your pigs like mangels, forage turnips, beets and pumpkin. On our farm we feed a locally sourced barley and peas combination with added swine minerals. Our pigs also get lots of fresh milk, table scraps and local apples and pumpkins. Please do not feed your pigs bakery scraps and the like and expect a healthy pig with great tasting meat. You eat what your pig eats so quality matters.
6. Demand vs measured feeding – Another thing to consider when raising pigs is whether to set up a self feeder and let the pigs eat whenever they want or feed them a set amount each day. There are pros and cons for both. Demand feeding makes the daily workload smaller except on the day when you have to fill the pig feeder. Also, if pigs always have food available they will be less likely to root as much and so your ground stays in better shape. Pigs who are demand fed also tend to grow faster so your time to maturity is less. The problem with demand feeding is that pigs can eat a LOT of food and this can get expensive, especially as the pigs get older. We have found that if you are only raising one or two pigs demand feeding is the way to go. Its when you are raising 10 or more that it can become cost prohibitive. We give each of our piglets 5 lbs of their grain mixture each day. In addition to this they get milk, table scraps and produce. This allows us to have market weight pigs at around 8 months or so.
7. Medicines and de-worming – I am not a fan of chemical de-wormers because of the mutations and resistances they create. On our farm we have found garlic to be a much more effective de-wormer anyway. We add approximately 1 lb of garlic granules to one ton of feed. In addition, oregano oil is also superb at fighting parasites and infection. Finally, we keep geranium essential oil handy for bleeding (pigs can get in scuffles) and tea tree oil for cuts and scrapes.
8. To castrate or not? – Castrating pigs is a controversial issue. There are many who find the practice cruel and unnecessary but others who say it needs to be done to prevent boar taint. If you are raising two male pigs you will need to determine whether you want to have this procedure done. However, when you are raising piglets of opposite sex its wise to go ahead and castrate. When we first started raising piglets we were told they wouldn’t start to breed until they were 9 months old. Since we butcher at 8 months we didn’t think we needed to castrate. Bad advice and we ended up with pregnant market pigs. We now castrate all male piglets raised for meat. We have found Bach’s Rescue Remedy very helpful in the process – it keeps both pigs and the person doing the castration calm.
9. Breeds matter – Different breeds of pigs have different qualities, including differences in size, meat quality and temperament. These are things you will want to investigate when choosing your piglets. We raise heritage breeds of pigs (Gloucester Old Spot, American Guinea Hog, Tamworth) because of their docile and friendly temperaments and excellent meat quality. The American Guinea hog is a much smaller breed of pig and will not yield a conventional carcass weight but because of their easy handling ability and chef quality meat it’s a tradeoff we are willing to make.
10. Butcher weight and hanging weight – Most pigs are butchered when they weigh around 180-250 lbs live. This will result in a hanging weight (meat and bones minus the head, feet and organs) ranging from 160-225 lbs. How much meat you end up with in your freezer is totally dependent on the types of cuts you choose during processing.
11. Should you call the butcher? We have butchered many a pig on our farm. Once you learn to do it its not that hard. The whole process takes about 3 days. The first day is the kill and hang, the second is skinning and cutting up the pieces, the third is usually sausage processing. A downside to butchering yourself is that unless you know how to cure bacon and ham you won’t end up with those cuts (you will have fresh ham which is really good but not like traditional cured ham). The benefits of butchering yourself is the know-how and the cost savings. Traditionally, having a hog butchered costs anywhere from $150-$250 depending on processing and curing.
12. Taste is superior – Finally, why would you want to go to all the work of raising your own pork? By raising your own you control what they eat which makes for a healthier product for your family. Also, raising pigs is a lot of fun and I love to watch their antics. However, I find the best reason for raising homestead pork is the taste. Once you try it you will never want supermarket pork again..:) Happy pig raising!!
Do you have a question about raising pigs? You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy is is a wife and mother of 18 children. In addition to parenting and homeschooling their mega family, they also run a small family farm, which we affectionately call “Autumn Creek Ranch.” They love the work of Joel Salatin (me, too) and have patterned much of what they do by his example.