When you’re first starting out with homestead pigs, one of the first decisions you will have to make is which breed is right for you. Learn why breed selection is important and how to choose with this overview.
This article is part of the series The Complete Guide to Raising Pigs in your Backyard. Click here to check out the rest of the series!
Why Does Breed Matter?
When you venture to add pigs to your homestead, you may be tempted to purchase whatever you can find. But there is no rush, new litters of piglets are born everyday and you do not need to settle for the first option that comes along. Some breeds can be aggressive, require a more experienced handler or take much longer to reach slaughter weight. All of these aspects can make your first experience pig farming much more challenging than necessary. Set yourself up for success and do your research before making your first piglet purchase.
There are several factors to consider when determining which breed of pig will work for you. Size, temperament, foraging ability, and meat flavor are some of the most important qualities but you will also want to ensure that the breed you choose is well suited to your climate.
If breeding is part of your homestead plan, you will want to choose a breed with large litter sizes and have strong mothering instincts. Red wattle pigs are one of the best choices for the novice breeder since they are extremely fertile, typically produce litters of 10-15 piglets, have a docile temperament, and make excellent mothers. Gloucestershire old spots typically have litter sizes of 10 or more, they are a docile breed, but may be better suited to farmers with a bit of experience. Large black, tamworth, hereford and mulefoot pigs have litters of around 6-10 and have manageable temperaments for beginner to intermediate experience levels.
To learn more about starting a breeding program for beginners, I highly recommend reading Small-scale Outdoor Pig Breeding. Although it is aimed at a British audience, it does a wonderful job of explaining the entire breeding process to the novice pig farmer.
If you’re a fan of this blog, you will often hear me rave about “heirloom” fruits and vegetables. In the livestock world, this same classification is referred to as “heritage”. Heritage breed is a term used for livestock with purebred bloodlines that date back hundreds of years. These days, farms that specialize in raising heritage breeds often use organic farming methods and raise their stock on pasture to achieve higher vitamin and antioxidant levels within the animals themselves. This can also cause market prices to be much higher for heritage pork than that of traditional commercially raised product.
Why bother with a heritage breed? First of all, the flavor! From food bloggers to world famous chefs, the buzz is going around about just how delicious heritage pork really is. After raising 10 American Guinea Hogs in 2018, I can whole-heatedly agree. There is very little shrinking when cooking the meat and it is full of tenderness and flavor.
Besides flavor, many heritage pig advocates urge people to utilize these animals on their small farms to increase demand and ensure that the breeds don’t die out. If preserving the lineage of heritage breeds is something that’s important to you, the book An Introduction to Heritage Breeds: Saving and Raising Rare-Breed Livestock and Poultry is a wonderful read!
Cross breeding is a commonplace practice used to capitalize on favorable traits of each breed, a process known as heterosis. Typically, best results are achieved when using a cross-bred sow to favorably impact attributes such as litter size, conception rate, piglet survival rate and growth. In short, cross breeding can produce heartier, healthier offspring with fewer health issues. I have personally raised several yorkshire/landrace crosses and absolutely loved the results.
Pigs are highly intelligent creatures that respond to socialization and training via food rewards. They love to play and are extremely social with both humans and other pigs and can even be quite sensitive and shy. For these reasons, a pig’s disposition is often in direct correlation with their care and treatment.
A mistreated or neglected pig can become aggressive, however if properly cared for and fed with regular human interaction, most pigs are docile and friendly. They happily come to great us when we visit their enclosure, eagerly awaiting whatever goodies we may have brought them. They will let us touch them and even bring their noses up to meet our hands when offered.
When we think of raising pigs for meat, the typical image that comes to mind is the 300 pound pink pigs you see at the fair every summer, but there are so many more choices out there. Most commercially raised pig breeds need to reach 250-300 pounds to be considered “market weight”. However, there are many smaller heritage breeds that can go to market when they have reached the 150-180 pound range. These breeds include: American Guinea Hogs, Kunekune, Choctaw and Ossabaw Island. Homesteaders often choose smaller breeds since they are easier to handle and transport.
One important consideration when choosing a smaller breed of pig is that the butchering costs will be higher. Most butchers charge a “kill fee”, then have a set price per pound for different cuts and preparations. So with a kill fee of $50, 10 pigs that are 150 pounds would cost $500 to butcher and 5 pigs at 300 pounds each would only cost $250 (plus the cost per pound of hanging weight). I have even had a butcher be annoyed at the prospect of butchering smaller “pot belly” pigs.
Different breeds also mature at different rates. The longer a pig takes to reach market weight, the more feed it will consume, which increases costs. Berkshire pigs are one of the most efficient pig breeds in terms of growth and reproduction.
In their natural habitat of forests and wetlands, pigs thrive by eating only what they can find. A foraged diet would include worms and other insects, fresh foliage of plants, berries and flowers, roots, fallen tree nuts, fish, frogs, snakes, birds and rodents. Pigs stick together as a group when foraging and return to their shelter to sleep together in a giant pig pile. It is clear that they are highly social animals.
When pigs forage, they use their noses to dig the earth which is known as rooting. While all pigs have this ability, some breeds such as Berkshire, Tamworth, Mulefoot and Choctaw, excel at foraging. If you are looking to keep pigs on a large pasture or woodland area, choosing a breed that can supplement it’s own food supply can both reduce costs and improve meat flavor.
Meat flavor is hugely affected by a pig’s diet and lifestyle, however certain pig breeds are known for their superb taste. Tamworth are considered one of the best pigs for bacon. Hampshire pork is quite lean while Mangalista is known for a high fat content. Red Wattle and Ossabaw are both full of spicy, bold flavor while Duroc pork is more mild and juicy. Gloucestershire old spots produce pork that is nutty and marbled with fat.
If you are raising pork for your own consumption, consider your family’s personal taste preferences when selecting a pig breed. If you will be offering pork to the general public, research local demands to ensure that your product meets the needs of your market.
These breeds and their crosses are more popular in the USA and are easier to find when searching for piglets.
- Chester White
- Danish Landrace
- Gloucestershire Old Spots (Spotted)
- Poland China
Less Common Breeds
These more rare breeds can be more difficult to source and are often raised by small-scale farms.
- Large White
- Red Wattle
- Brittish Sadleback
- American Guinea Hog
- Ossabaw Island Hog
- Large Black
- Hungarian Mangalista
- Choctaw Hog
- Lincolnshire Curly Coat
To Learn More . . .
If you’re interested in learning more about raising pigs, check out the rest of the series The Complete Guide to Raising Pigs in your Backyard!