Choosing and Keeping Pigs
Choosing and Keeping Pigs

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Publisher: Firefly Books

Author Statement: by Linda McDonald-Brown
Audience: Trade
Specs: 150 color photographs, directory of pig breeds
Pages: 208
Trim Size: 7 1/4" x 7 7/8" X 10/16"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20090801
Copyright Year: 2009
Price: Select Below

Choosing and Keeping Pigs

Everything you need to know about small-scale pig keeping, either for food or as a pet.

Everything you need to know about small-scale pig keeping, either for food or as a pet.

Backyard pig keeping is growing in popularity, both as a food source, as demonstrated by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, and as pets. Pigs are easy to rear, breed and feed, and they are hardy and adaptable animals that help clear ground, recycle waste and fertilize soils.

This practical and accessible guide is the ideal beginner's handbook and includes expert advice on:

  • How to choose and purchase a quality animal and how to help preserve rare breeds
  • Equipment, housing and fencing
  • Moving and handling
  • Feeding, nutrition and pasture
  • Pig health care and common diseases
  • Selecting a boar or sow for breeding, hogging, farrowing, taking care of piglets and pedigree breeding
  • Preparing for slaughter, butchering and subsequent storage
  • Showing pigs in competitions.

Choosing and Keeping Pigs also includes a history of pig keeping and a comprehensive directory of 30 traditional and rare breeds. This unique reference provides all the information a pig keeper requires.


Linda McDonald-Brown is a highly respected pig keeper who runs her own company constructing pig shelters. She keeps and breeds a wide range of traditional and rare pig breeds and teaches courses on how to keep pigs.



Pigs are sociable, intelligent animals that will give you many hours of entertainment and pleasure throughout their lives. This chapter explores the history of pigkeeping and looks at how to select a breed. One thing is for sure: your life will never be the same again!

Why keep pigs?

Pigs can give you years of enjoyment, just as much as any cat or dog, as long as you give them the space and care they need. You don't need a reason for becoming a pig owner -- pigs are simply a pleasure to keep!

A passion for pigs
Ask any smallholder why they keep pigs, and the chances are you will be with them for the next couple of hours -- after which you will leave none the wiser. You will, however, know everything there is to know about their pigs. As you walk through the pig pens listening to their owner regaling you with stories of their favourite pigs over the years, it will occur to you that, whatever the reason, their pigs have become an all-consuming passion.

Rearing your own meat
Most smallholders start out by buying and raising two weaners (newly weaned piglets) just for their freezer. Sitting down to home-produced pork is not only an extremely tasty experience, but you also have the satisfaction of knowing exactly what went into your meal. Many smallholders experiment with different sausage recipes or try their hand at curing bacon, which they then either use for their own consumption or sell locally.

Keeping a couple of weaners for the freezer doesn't take a huge amount of work, and the cost of getting them to porker weight is reasonable when you consider the amount of meat you get in return. However, pigs should not be seen as a 'get-rich-quick scheme', for feed costs can fluctuate wildly. Whether you plan to keep ten or a hundred pigs, a budget needs to be set and a close eye kept on it.

Today pedigree weaners are in demand. If you are planning to breed in the future, selling newly weaned pigs is a good way of maximizing profits faster than breeding weaners to fatten them on and sell for meat. However, the initial outlay of breeding pedigree weaners can be considerable. Buying in-pig pedigree gilts (female pigs that haven't yet produced a litter) can be expensive, depending on the breed. However, if your gilt has a large healthy litter that is sold at eight weeks for a good price, you should get back the money you paid for her (and more).

Many pig owners progress to selling the meat they produce on a more professional but small-scale footing through cooperatives, local shops or farmers' markets. If done properly, keeping a close eye on costs, this can earn smallholders a decent profit, because the demand for local free-range meat is growing rapidly.

Other reasons for keeping pigs
If breeding for meat doesn't appeal to you, but you would still like to find a use for your pigs, buy a couple of older pigs and put them to work on any rough land or woodland that needs clearing. Pigs are renowned for digging up ground, and in no time at all will clear nettles, thistles, weeds and other unwelcome growth. If you are planning to plant young trees in woodland, put pigs in first to clear any bracken and briar.

Alternatively, you may wish to keep pigs for them pleasure of showing them and reaping the rewards of your careful husbandry and pedigree stock (see Pigs on Show, pages 106-115). Or you may want pigs to help you become self-sufficient in food, alongside growing your own vegetables; or simply to bring a touch of the farmyard to your suburban lifestyle, whether you keep pigs as pets or for their meat. Whatever your reasons, your plans should not be set in stone. What often starts out as a bit of fun, with minimal time and effort required, frequently turns into an all-consuming passion.

How to use this book
This book is aimed at anyone who wishes to keep a pig for the first time, particularly novice smallholders who need guidance on how to care for their animals and get the most from them. Getting Started (pages 18-45) offers advice on essential equipment and preparing for your pigs' arrival. Caring for Pigs (pages 46-65) describes the daily, weekly, monthly and annual tasks, explaining how to feed, water and handle your pigs. Pests and Diseases (pages 66-77) discusses common pig ailments and how to treat them.

Breeding (pages 78-95) looks at getting your pig in-pig, the birth and caring for piglets. Processing (pages 96-105) explains what happens to pigs when they are processed as meat. Pigs on Show (pages 106-115) covers showing your pig and the etiquette and ethics involved. Pig Breeds (pages 116-191) is a directory of all the main pedigree breeds, detailing each breed's appearance, character and care needs. Finally, the questions and answers section on pages 192-201 deals with frequently asked questions about choosing and keeping pigs.

The history of the pig

Pigs are one of the most versatile creatures around, and over the centuries they have provided us with food and clothing and products such as buttons, artists' brushes and fertilizer; they have also played an important part in the medical industry.

Domesticating pigs
The pig has been around for thousands of years and is believed to have been one of the first animals to be domesticated. Early breeds of the domesticated pig were descendants of the wild boar (Sus scrofa). Pig remains have been found at Neolithic sites, including one in Wiltshire in England, and cave paintings thousands of years old, such as those at Altamira in Spain, show wild pigs and humans together.

Domestic pigs historically have been raised in one of two ways: either by keeping them confined to a pen (the method that is familiar to us today) or by the more natural method of allowing them to forage over a wide area (a method that is still popular in some countries). Pigs are omnivores and, left to forage for themselves, will survive by eating almost anything, including roots, fruit, reptiles and carrion.

Early practices in England
Pigs were an important source of food for the Anglo-Saxons and were looked after by swineherds who took them to pannage. This is a legal term for the practice of turning pigs out into the forest at certain times of year to forage for foods such as acorns, beech nuts, roots and berries. Pannage came to play an important role in woodland ecology and is still practised today in parts of southern England.

Up to the Middle Ages, pigs were probably the main source of meat for humans and were kept in most villages. However, the widespread practice of letting them out to forage meant that they were often viewed as pests. To discourage unsupervised foraging, stray pigs were killed or the pigs were impounded and the owner charged for their return.

Traditionally, most pigs (apart from breeding stock) were killed at the beginning of winter to provide the villagers with much-needed meat to keep them alive during the cold season. Those pigs that were not killed often wintered out in the forests, with no extra food.

The popularity of pig-keeping slowly declined after the Middle Ages, due to the growth in sheep-breeding and restrictions on pannage. A new type of pig was now kept -- the cottagers' pig, less hardy than the forest pig. During the 18th century most cottagers kept at least one pig, feeding it on leftovers and waste produce from the vegetable garden. They would rarely breed from their pig, instead buying it at weaning and keeping it until it was ready for killing a few months later.

Changing fashions
During the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, important improvements were made in the selection and breeding of pigs. Prick-eared pigs of Chinese and Siamese bloodlines were introduced to improve existing breeds, establishing the pig breeds that we are familiar with today. The Berkshire, for example, displays the prick ears and slightly snub noses characteristic of Asian pigs. In contrast, the Tamworth, unlike other breeds, has not been influenced by Asian breeds and remains the closest relative of the wild boar.

Fashion and the market have affected the fortunes of traditional British breeds over the years, with many breeds coming close to extinction and others (such as the Lincolnshire Curly Coat and the Dorset Gold Tip) being lost for ever. Until the 1930s traditional breeds were produced commercially, but after the Second World War the market changed and the specialist pork pigs and bacon pigs declined. Demand increased for the Large White and for the Essex and Wessex breeds (now known as the British Saddleback, after an amalgamation took place in 1967). Pigs such as the Berkshire and the Middle White, which had been renowned for their pork, declined to dangerously low levels and it is only in recent years that they have started to recover. The Middle White, at one time so popular with the capital's butchers that it was known as the 'London Porker', is now making a slow comeback as more and more restaurants put it on the menu. The popularity of the Large White continued to grow and in 1952 it overtook all other pigs to become one of the most important breeds in commercial pork production.

Following the recommendations of the Howitt report in 1955, the government asked the British farming industry to focus on three breeds -- the Large White, Landrace and Welsh. By the 1970s most traditional British breeds were all but lost, but thanks to a handful of determined breeders and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust they are now regaining ground. As more people become aware of the provenance of their food, they are turning to traditional breeds raised naturally. Farmers' markets and the internet are increasing the availability of pork products from traditional breeds.

Lard, meat and bacon pigs
In general there are three types of domestic pig: the lard pig, such as the Mangalitza (see pages 156-159); the pork (meat) pig, such as the Berkshire (see pages 132-133); and the bacon pig, such as the Tamworth (see pages 138-141). Lard pigs are not as popular as they were: when the lard market declined after the Second World War, numbers of Mangalitza and other lard pigs fell considerably. However, due to the development of a market for cured meat, it and other lard pigs are now growing in number.

Pigs are not just needed for meat and lard. Pig by-products play a part in the manufacturing of many everyday items. Pigs are also important in the medical world: their heart valves have been successfully transplanted into humans for a number of years, and pig pancreas glands are a source of the hormone insulin, which is used to treat diabetes.

Today, pigs are once again living and foraging in some of the world's forests, as they did thousands of years ago. Some Scottish estates, for example, have reintroduced pig herds to help in the management and conservation of their woodland. Such initiatives can only be beneficial for the future of pigs, which must surely continue to be very much a part of our lives.

Choosing the right breed

When selecting a breed of pig, you will need to take into account your own circumstances and environment, as well as the pigs' character and needs, to ensure both your enjoyment and the welfare of the pigs.

Pure or cross-breed?
Choosing the ideal breed of pig for you and your family can seem daunting to a novice. Do you go for cross-breeds or pure pedigree types? Do you opt for large or small, coloured or plain pigs? It is important to consider first what you are planning to do with your animals. Are you keeping them as pets, for the freezer or are you hoping to breed from them? Do you need them to root or would you prefer pigs that graze?

Whatever your reasons for buying a pig, it is important that you find out what you are getting. Crossbreeds certainly have their place, especially in the meat trade, where cross-breeding is undertaken to improve the quality, taste and texture of meat. However, even an old hand can never say for sure how an eight-week-old cross-bred weaner will turn out, for it will have the temperament and characteristics of two different breeds. A Tamworth (see pages 138-141) crossed with a wild boar (see pages 162-165), for instance, is definitely not a pig for a novice; it can be aggressive and an amazing escape artist. A Gloucester Old Spot (see pages 126-127) crossed with a Saddleback (see pages 128-131) will probably have a more placid temperament, but if you are planning on keeping pigs for meat, you will need to consider if this cross is suitable for the type of cuts you have in mind.

Buy a pure-bred weaner and you can say with more or less certainty how it will turn out. At the same time, you will be helping to keep these beautiful breeds going. Most breeds have their own club and it is worth joining for access to a list of local breeders and a regular newsletter that contains a wealth of information.

Take a good look at your own circumstances and what space is available to you. A large, mischievous pig like the Tamworth is better suited to a free-range environment such as woods and will not be happy in an urban or semi-urban garden, no matter how large it is. However, the Kune Kune (see pages 184-187), a smaller and friendlier pig, will probably adapt quite happily to a more confined area -- a space at least 10 x 10 metres (30 x 30 feet) would be suitable for a pig of this size, as long as all its welfare requirements are met.

Rooter or grazer?
You also need to take into account that pigs tend to root and can turn a lovely green pasture into a mudbath within weeks. However, some breeds root more than others. In general, pigs with long snouts (such as the Tamworth, see pages 138-141) tend to root, while pigs with snub noses (such as the Middle White, see pages 144-145) graze and do less damage. This is certainly something to bear in mind if you are planning to keep a couple of weaners in your garden for the freezer. On the other hand, if you are planning to use your pigs to turn over a scrubby piece of land, you definitely need to buy pigs that root.

In general, pigs with lop ears (ears that cover their eyes), such as the Large Black (see pages 134-137), Oxford Sandy and Black (see pages 124-125) and Gloucester Old Spot, tend to be quieter and more easy-going than the prick-eared breeds, and are often recommended for beginners.

Type of meat
If your pigs will be solely for eating, decide exactly what sort of meat you would like. If you want to fill your freezer with joints, chops or sausages, it is worth looking at the Berkshire (see pages 132-133), which is world-famous for its succulent taste -- and much prized by the Japanese. Known as the 'Ladies' Pig' because of its dainty size and attractive features, it is an easy pig to keep -- perfect for novices who only have access to a small plot of land. For bacon, the Tamworth has to be top of the traditional breed list and is worth considering once you have gained experience with other breeds.

Agricultural shows
Once you have researched the different breeds, make a list of the ones that you feel would meet your needs (and whose needs would be met by you). Having narrowed down the search, it is time to go one step further and meet the breeds that you have shortlisted.

During the summer, agricultural shows are widely held, many of which have pig classes. For the novice, this is an excellent opportunity to meet the different breeds all at once and see exactly what you would be taking on. At the top shows you can watch the crème de la crème of the pig world and see how they handle. Viewing the various breeds in top condition in a show environment should help you decide if a particular breed is for you. At the end of the day, you need to like the appearance of the pig, for you will be looking at it every day!

Once the classes are over, breeders like nothing more than talking about their pigs, and you may find there is an opportunity for you to go inside the pens with a breeder and get to know your prospective breed at close quarters.

Local breeders
An alternative to agricultural shows is to visit local breeders. As long as you give plenty of warning, many breeders will be happy to show round a potential future customer. Be honest with the breeder as to why you wish to keep pigs. If you are going to keep them purely as pets, there is no point going to see a breeder about a Landrace (see pages 120-123), which is first and foremost a commercial meat pig. You should be looking at something smaller, such as a Vietnamese Potbelly (see pages 188-189) or a Kune Kune (see pages 184-187). If you are in any doubt about which type to get, the breeder should be able to help you decide how suitable the breed is for your requirements.

Breeding pigs
If you wish to breed from your pig, it is a good idea to research the local market before investing in stock. If, for example, there appears to be a saturation of Large Black breeders in your area, a sensible option would be to go for a different breed, such as the Oxford Sandy and Black, for you might need a market for up to 12 piglets in any one litter. The situation may change over time, but at least you will be able to get a foot in the door.

It is important that you realistically assess the amount of land you have available for the pigs. Breeding pigs require greater amounts of land. Should you not be able to sell the weaners as quickly as you had hoped, you will have to keep them separate from the sow. So buying a pig with the intention of breeding in the future should not be undertaken lightly; if you only have a small back garden at your disposal, then getting your beloved gilt in-pig should be put on the back burner until you have more land.

Obviously, if you are planning to breed, you should start off with pure-pedigree registered pigs. All the traditional breeds would be in danger of extinction if another reversal of their popularity occurred, as it did in the 1960s. By buying, breeding or even just eating pure-breds, you are helping to conserve pigs for future generations. In the event of an outbreak of disease such as foot-and-mouth, your traditional pigs may be exempt from slaughter if they are pedigree and registered.

At the end of the day, there is nothing more satisfying than looking out of your window and seeing pure-bred traditional breeds snuffling around the trees and knowing that you have played your part in helping to conserve them.


Table of Contents

Getting Started
Caring for Pigs
Pests and Diseases
Pigs on Show
Pig Breeds
Questions and Answers

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