How long do you keep a Pig before butchering?

Most hog farmers purchase “weaners,” piglets about two or three months old that are no longer reliant on their mother’s milk, and raise them to slaughter weight, which on factory farms is achieved by the time they’re six months old. For the most part, pig-raising is left to professional breeders. My vision for raising pigs was more of a rustic operation.

The goal was to have a herd that included both a mama and papa, aunts, uncles, and offspring in the natural way. I had approximately five acres of woods that was perfect for them to romp around in. I simply envisioned them getting fat on acorns, and I would be able to satisfy my meat cravings with farm-fresh pork.

My farm vet discouraged me from purchasing pigs by sharing the stories of wild pigs being malicious and unpredictable. While discussing the scene, he claimed to have rescued a man from being trampled to death by a boar. Therefore I chose to start with a pig; A pregnant pig Ms. Piggie, a chocolate brown duroc-Yorkshire mix, had an abundant mane of black hair running down her back. She was both beautiful, and a great source of joy. There is strong resemblance between the facial features of humans and pigs, if one ignores the snout and focuses on the eyes, one will see the likeness. Ms. Piggy had elegant eyelashes, very like those of the muppet Jim Henson.

The economics sounded promising: Pigs average about 10 babies per litter, so for the price of a few weaners I would end up with 10 pigs, plus a mama that I could breed again the next year, and the next, and the next. Although I intended to keep the cats, I decided to rent a boar when the time came.

However, I was only able to take up pig farming for one stressful year. Here are a few of the key takeaways from this endeavour.

Some pigs are too cute to be bacon.

Approximately one month after I purchased Ms. Piggie, she constructed a nest in the back of the yard. I gave her an exceptionally soft bed and private corner in the barn where she could rest in peace. But she preferred a more rustic environment, accumulating a heap of pointy branches from a cedar tree I had chopped down. I thought it was a horrible place to sleep, but I later learned that it was designed to help the piglets if an enemy came by. In the end, it turns out that I’m the only person Ms. Piggie is worried about.

Upon further consideration, I realised that I was the only predator that Ms. Piggie was worried about.

On the morning of June 1, I found her next to her brush pile in labour. I was at university at the time, so I hurried home each day to check on the piglets and found a few more sticking their noses out of the basket each time. At the end of the day, I was fortunate enough to see my first born. Piglets are smaller than people would think and their birth happens very quickly – with one grunt, the whole thing comes out. #10 was a brown-striped runt, with little chipmunk facial features. I decided one way or another that the one in question was too adorable to become bacon. My son’s name is Red

Don’t mess with angry babies.

Ms. Piggie and I neither got along well, nor did we have regular contact with each other. So I tried to get them as far along as I could, because I hoped that it would make them easier for me to approach later. Definitely not in the cards. The piglets would squeal bloody murder every time I got close to their nest, and Ms. Piggy would let out a roar whenever I got too close. After realising I kept losing, I stayed at a distance.

About four months later, I walked past a herd of pigs near a feeding area and observed a few pigs fighting over food about 50 feet away. At that exact moment I was walking past Ms. Piggy, who somehow deduced that I had woken up about her kids’ alarm. She bit me on the leg, which felt as if someone were gripping a one-ton vise tightly on my calf. I leaped over the fence like an Olympic pole jumper, and afterwards, while sitting in the shade sullenly icing my bruised calf, I realised that there are some valid reasons that pig farmers prefer to purchase weaned piglets minus their mothers.

Pigs will make you bankrupt.

My pigs ate lots of acorns, rooted in the earth for grubs and worms, hoovered up mulberries, persimmons and other wild fruits that fell to the forest floor, and slurped up the whey left over from my goat cheese endeavours. I filled my garage full of day old bread from a local bakery, and then sold off lots of leftover produce from a nearby natural grocer. To improve their overall weight gain, I fed organic pig feed. It also ensured they were getting the proper balance of nutrients and minerals.

The local chefs I contacted said they were willing to pay $3 a pound for pork, but they would do that only if I fed them organic pork. Although I was committed to feeding organic grains to the farm animals, I were paying twice as much for the product. At the time my pigs were ready for slaughter, they cost me nearly half a thousand dollars each month in feed. After each cow was slaughtered, it weighed around 150 to 175 pounds, which sold for approximately $500 per animal.

You can do the math, but by the time you factor in ancillary costs – slaughter fees, vet fees (male pigs sold for meat must be castrated, and I was not prepared to attempt this myself), the original purchase of Ms. Piggie, fencing supplies, diesel to go pick up organic pig feed that is only available at one location in the entire state, etc. – not to mention the labour involved, you can see why my experiment in raising pigs, at least in the romanticised way I attempted it, left me in debt.

Pigs are hard to handle.

If you have previously read about my adventures while trying to catch escaped goats you will think I was an inept farmer after I tell about all the times my pigs broke out of their pen. The biggest lesson I learned raising pigs is about financing the purchase of a bomb-proof fencing as soon as possible. The snout of a pig is engineered for burrowing through the ground, and is strong enough to uproot small trees and small boulders. There is special fencing designed to contain pigs, but I decided to pass on the thousands of dollars it would have cost to enclose my 5-acre paddock, which was already fenced, albeit flimsily.

The biggest thing that I learned is to not to build bomb-proof fencing until you have already acquired pigs.

When Ms. Piggie escaped from my yard and ate all the corn available from my neighbor’s farm. This neighbour is the same one who already helped me recover my escaped goats; and, because this person is the local sheriff, I’m lucky he didn’t issue a citation. Piglets grow to be strong as an ox after a few months, and can bust through a weathered barn door, which alerts me to the piglets wandering around out in the road. After I coerced the young woman back onto the property, a policeman happened to drive by, but he was nice enough to stop and help restrain her, rather than write me a ticket. I believe it was far enough away from the city that the police won’t reprimand you for it.

Other causes included my neighbor’s pigs getting into my flower garden, and my pigs getting into my garage where I kept their food, along with my household trash cans and lots of other stuff. It looked like a hurricane had passed through when their little party was over. They also turn over many water containers in order to create mud puddles, making it difficult to maintain a clean supply of drinking water. Yes, there are special watering devices designed for pigs. However, these tend to be quite expensive items.

There were more mornings than I care to remember when the sound of oinking outside my bedroom window meant the pigs had once again torn through my latest efforts to reinforce the fence and were tearing up the yard. Today, I still have fears about it.

There’s no way to make bacon.

Before the end of my first year of farming, I realised it was not a fit for me. I wanted to do it in an ethical and sustainable way, but I quickly realised that it was not possible to make it viable, especially for a guy trying to finish graduate school. I could make a modest living at it had I devoted all my resources to this business, but I had other interests that were more important to me.

But I’m afraid to say it actually turned out that I never got the bacon. I had pork roasts, ribs, and sausage coming out of my ears, but the nearest USDA-licensed facility to actually make bacon was far away. Why is the price of curing small quantities of pork higher than that of purchasing bacon at the store? Furthermore, I learned that my pigs didn’t have enough of a belly to make bacon: bacon is only made from the belly of young pigs, which only develops if you stuff them with corn-based feed. As much as raising my own food filled me with joy, and at times filled me with distress, with my pigs it was one of the most stressful activities I’ve ever undertaken.

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