With our pork production on the farm expected to increase dramatically this year – we have a few new customers…yay! – we have been giving more thought to the value of our products.
We like to raise pigs in the old-fashioned sense, meaning they have plenty of access to pasture and are allowed to roam freely for a vast majority of the day.
When we first started raising pigs, we caught some flack for this. We were told by many people that this would make our pigs tough, unpalatable, and gamey.
Luckily, that hasn’t been the case. We’ve received rave reviews about the quality of the pork, and although I didn’t even really like pork to begin with, I am now obsessed with the juicy, succulent flavors that we produce in our pork.
So what gives?
For one, we started by raising heritage pigs.
Heritage pigs might not be for everyone, but in my opinion, they have a place on each and every small farm. Here’s what you need to know about the benefits – and of course, the challenges – of raising heritage pigs.
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What is a Heritage Pig?
As defined by the Livestock Conservancy, a heritage swine is one that adheres to the following characteristics:
“True Genetic Breed. The breed is a true genetic breed of swine. That is, when mated together, it reproduces the breed type.
Endangered Breed. The breed is or has been endangered, as defined by The Livestock Conservancy, and appears on or has recovered from the Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List in the Critical, Threatened, Watch, or Recovering categories.
Long History in US. The breed has an established and continuous breeding population in the United States since 1925. If developed since 1925, foundation stock is no longer available. If more recently imported, the breed is globally endangered. (Please refer to The Livestock Conservancy’s criteria for the Conservation Priority List for details).
Purebred Status. Heritage Swine must be registered purebred animals or immediate offspring of registered purebred animals. Swine that are the result of a breed association sanctioned grade-up program must have obtained purebred status.”
Pork that is marketed as heritage must come from meat animals that are the result of mating registered animals of heritage breeds.
Heritage pigs must also be given access to diet that allow them to display normal omnivorous behavior as well as open pasture environments. They cannot be administered routine prophylactic antibiotics or given any other kind of growth hormones, either. Even parasite problems are dramatically reduced.
Pros of Heritage Pig Breeds
Simply put, heritage pork just tastes better. I remember the first time I ate a storebought sausage link after having been spoiled with my homegrown pork for years. I almost threw up – it was so pale and bland.
Heritage pork has a unique flavor that is absolutely to die for. Plus, there are plenty of choices depending on the desired flavor that you’re trying to get. Want an extra-lean pork? Raise Tamworths or Durocs. Want a juicy, well-marbled pork chop? Raise a Gloucestershire Old Spot. The options are endless.
Exceptional Cooking Ability
If you have a fondness for cooking shows, you may have noticed that celebrity chefs seem to be huge fans of heritage pork. Why?
For starters, heritage meat has a better taste (as previously mentioned), texture, and even nutritional content than your standard grocery-store variety of pork. Heritage pork also shrinks up to 50% less during cooking, resulting in higher yields.
Usually Doesn’t Have Antibiotics or Hormones
Unlike factory farm pork, where antibiotics and hormones are needed to combat diseases and issues in growth that can normally be addressed by providing more space, heritage pigs don’t usually need that kind of treatment.
Within reason, of course – no matter how sustainably you operate your pig farm, there’s a chance that you could need an antibiotic from time to time. However, heritage pigs tend to be much hardier at resisting disease and stay healthier than the breeds developed for indoor confinement.
Heritage hogs are generally raised more humanely, too. Large concentrated animal feeding operations can hold up to 10,000 hogs – imagine that just for a minute. A pig grown outside with free access to pasture is going to be able to engage in natural pig behaviors that lend to a healthy, happy life.
Better Adapted to Outdoor Environment
As a corollary to the last point, heritage pigs are much better adapted to outdoor weather. They are good foragers and know how to root and search for their food. They tend to be good mothers and can more or less fend for themselves.
Higher Fat Content
Because heritage pigs have not been crossbred, they have higher levels of fat with increased levels of nutrients. When you raise or purchase heritage pork, there’s not a lot that can go to waste here. The fat is easily rendered into lard or can be kept on the cut for a juicy, flavorful effect.
Commercial hogs are bred for lean carcasses, but fat is what makes heritage pork so spectacular. It has all kinds of fats and unique marbling that help humans stay healthy when they eat it. It is also high in vitamin D and other minerals.
This increased fat content also makes heritage pork perfect for long cooking as well as cooking at high temperatures.
If you care about the environment, you should consider raising heritage pigs. Pasture-raised heritage pork is much better for the environment – hog CAFOs generate a terrifying amount of manure, piling the waste in cheap lagoons (or open air pits that can be smelled for miles away). Sometimes, these pits leak – and when they do, they contaminate the groundwater.
Compare this to a heritage hog raised on pasture. It will spread its waste over a larger area over a shorter period of time, fertilizing the soil as it does so.
Breed Conservation and Agricultural Diversity
The Livestock Conservancy recognizes certain breeds of heritage pigs in an effort to promote agricultural diversity. Unfortunately, most of the pork produced in the United States comes from four specific breeds that are genetically selected to mature quickly and perform well in confinement.
Should these breeds develop some kind of genetic flaw or predisposition to a certain disease, the domestic pork supply could be in jeopardy. By preserving traditional breeds for future generations, it helps to not only preserve part of our tradition as a nation, but to secure our country’s supply of meat.
Cons of Heritage Pig Breeds
Don’t Do As Well in Certain Environments
Pay close attention to the nature and characteristics of your heritage pigs. Some pigs, like Gloucestershire Old Spots, don’t do well in extremely hot, sunny climates because of their propensity toward sunburn. They weren’t raised for those conditions.
There are other pig breeds that will fail to put on weight in confinement – or will produce meat with undesirable textures or flavors. It’s important that you do your research and make an informed decision about which characteristics matter to you and which ones simply won’t work with the environment you have.
Can Be Tough to Find
Heritage pig breeds can be tough to find. Especially if you are looking for an uncommon breed, like a Kune Kune or a Pietrain, it can be difficult to find these pigs. In some cases, you may have to put your name on a waiting list.
What’s worse is that you can sometimes be duped by breeders who have crossbred their heritage pigs with non-heritage pigs or pigs with poor bloodlines. This can result in undesired characteristics in piglets and their later progeny as well.
7 of the Most Popular Heritage Pig Breeds
An excellent foraging pig, Hampshire is one of the oldest in existence. These pigs have white bands around the front portions of their bodies, including the front legs. They are very hardy, producing high-quality meat.
The Hereford pig is a lean hog designed for exceptional meat production. One of the most common pigs raised for exhibition, this breed can be raised on pasture or in a confined space – but pasture may yield the best results, as Herefords are excellent at rooting.
Large Black pigs are easy to manage and weather-hardy. With deep, long bodies, they were originally bred for bacon. They do well on pasture and are also resistant to sunburn.
Gloucestershire Old Spots
Gloucestershire Old Spots are also native to England, traditionally raised to clean up orchards. They are rare in the United States and have lighter skin that requires some shade in the summer. They grow quickly, reaching market weight in just seven months.
Berkshire pigs are delicious dark meat. A popular niche breed, the Berkshire is one of the oldest pig breeds around. This breed is also known for its hardiness and good foraging ability.
This breed is native to England but was further developed in the United States. Known for excellent bacon production, this pig breed also has excellent mothering ability.
Originally from England, Tamworth pigs are much smaller than some other breeds. Nevertheless, they produce tons of tasty bacon for you!
Consider a Heritage Breed
With plenty of advantages to raising heritage pigs, there really aren’t many cons to doing so. If you’re thinking about raising pigs, make sure you check out this article for more information on how to get started.
What are your favorite heritage pig breeds? Let me know in the comments!
Want to learn more about farming? Be sure to check out these articles!
- 12 Reasons Why Sheep Are the Coolest Livestock You Can Raise
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lambing (But Didn’t Want to Ask!)
- 12 Common Hoof Problems in Sheep
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