Heritage breed pigs come from bloodlines going back hundreds of years when livestock were raised on multi-use, open-pasture farms. Pigs were once owned by small farms everywhere. As they helped forage and clear land and were fed whey from the milk product of cheese, they were a part of the natural cycle of the farm. Heritage breed pigs were endangered breeds until a recent resurgence of small farming.
The more common breeds are Hampshire, Berkshire and Durocs. The Berkshires and Durocs are known for their marbling. These breeds became known for a variety of characteristics, including the rich and hearty taste of their meat, distinct marbling, bacon flavors and creamy fat. The Hampshire are more common and known to be for a leaner meat. They are the black pigs with a white band around their middle and are one of the oldest breeds in America.
Then along came mass productions of pork, and thus factory farms and these heritage pigs didn’t do well in confinement, so specific breeding developed pigs that were at least more tolerant of living in uncomfortable, cramped quarters. Chester White and Yorkshire are the more popular breeds for confinement. They are chosen for their ability to produce large litters, their ability to fatten quickly, and also their longevity .
The pigs of yesteryear were largely forgotten, but have seen a recent wide resurgence with chefs, gourmets and those interested in traditional food supporting farmers who take to raising heritage pigs. Breeds are chosen often not only because of the taste, but also the suitability to the local climate.
As recently as a few years ago, the heritage breeds were in danger of being lost forever, as fewer heritage bred pigs were grown, their gene pool decreased. As more and more folks have become interested in backyard pig raising (as these breeds are best-suited for pasturing), these pigs are becoming harder to find and the cost continues to go up.
And to make the pork industry really interesting…
Intensive factory farms have added Berkshire or Durocs to their livestock because they can get more money for the meat. The food industry follows money. They have come to learn that the word organic and heritage breeds is something conscientious consumers are seeking! Consumers are beginning to recognize names of breeds and It is no longer enough to see “Berkshire Pork Chops” on the menu and assume it is a local pig humanely-raised. You need to ask how the animal was raised, and just to make you really crazy: what one farmer thinks is perfectly okay farming practices are not necessarily what I would consider good farming practices! I like to see pigs running around with loads of space filled with grass and places to root around. It all gets very complicated. It’s good to support heritage pigs, but it’s always good practice to know your farmer and learn more about all the issues.
The pigs we brought home this year are Large Black and they are very nice pigs. Last year we had Old Spot crossed with Berkshire and those were nice pigs and delicious meat as well. We had Duroc one year and I would not let my kids near them as they were very aggressive and loud. It is all a learning experience and I find it all very interesting.
So is all this worth it?
- A young pig (Berkshire, Old Spot or Large Black) can cost as much as $150. Pig raising is not cheap.
- Fencing and hay are required as well as a daily supply of fresh vegetables and table scraps.
- One bag of organic feed costs $23.
My young pigs can go through a bag of grain in three days without any kitchen scraps. A pig can cost $600- $700 to raise. We slaughter our pigs ourselves. This year we will be selling our own pork and will take the pigs to a very humane slaughter location which is a four hour drive – plus a 45 minute ferry ride.
- Add $65 for the ferry plus the gas at $100.
- The slaughter is $45.
We will cut our own meat. However, this is still costly meat! The average hanging weight for a pig is 200 pounds.
This is all for pastured pigs, humanely-raised, fed on feed & table scraps – mostly organic. This is very different than some pigs who are fed left over breads and Twinkies and Entenmann’s baked goods! Our pigs are on a pretty darn good diet and are always finished on buckets and buckets of acorns. It’s worth every bite!
And then there is the health of the animal and the real health of the meat and I found this very interesting comparison:
“Pigs raised on pasture have 300 percent more vitamin E and 74 percent more selenium (a vital antioxidant) in their milk than pigs raised in confinement, according to Don C. Mahan, Professor of Animal Sciences at Ohio State University. This bounty of nutrients promotes healthier litters, shorter farrowing times, and good milk let down. The pigs’ meat is enriched with vitamins as well. Fortifying the pigs’ diet with synthetic vitamins, the standard practice in confinement operations, does not achieve the same results because the artificial vitamins are more poorly absorbed.” Source: eatwild.com