There is only one way to start off my series of breeder profiles, and that’s with Honey Pig. She was one of the first three pigs we bought, has always been my favourite, and is much of the reason we do what we do today. I really can’t overstate just how much I love this pig, and I know she loves me right back. That’s mainly because the rest of the family thinks she’s ugly, and she tries to bite them but not me. 😊
Pigs are the most maligned of intensively farmed animals, chickens being the only other stock that might be able to vie for that unenviable title. This isn’t news either. Everybody knows it. Everybody has seen the awful videos. It’s no secret that the life of most intensively farmed pigs sucks a whole lot.
When presented with the fact that most of the pork available to consumers comes from tortured pigs, we are faced with a choice. We can either ignore the fact, because pork chops and bacon are delicious, or we can source our pork and pork products from a farm where we’re confident the animals are treated with the love and respect they deserve. Me, being the cynical, untrusting, control freak that I am, went with option C, and chose to raise them myself. 😊
I’ve been trying to shop and eat ethically for many years. Us moving to the country to grow our own food was the culmination of that. As a result, it shouldn’t be too surprising that one of our goals was to own and raise pigs. I ate next-to-no pork or pork products, because finding them from free-range, ethically-raised animals can be quite hard. I wanted pork belly and salami back in my life though, so pig raising was definitely on the agenda. It was on our mid-term plan though, and Linhda was very firm that we’d not have pigs for at least five years. They’re much harder to keep than something like sheep or goats, and Linhda was determined that we’d be fully set-up and ready before we got pigs. Imagine her surprise when I bought home 3 little weaners inside of 8 months of moving in… 😃
In my defence, I had researched pig keeping to the nth degree. I had devoured every bit of information I could get my hands on, and felt 100% prepared. I will readily admit just how naïve that was of me, and the learning curve that we faced was WAY more than I could have imagined. Several years on though, I’m confident that we have it right. We are always learning of course, and I’d never be arrogant enough to claim that we are the masters of all we do. We’re doing it at scale though, and we’re producing an excellent product from the happiest animals you’ll ever meet.
That all had to start somewhere, and it started with 3 little Large White x Landrace weaners we bought after answering an add on gumtree.
Going to see the pigs and pick them up was a revelation. Dad and I went to the property, which was somewhere north of Blyth from memory. It was a smallish farm, probably around the size of our place now, and was nicely set up. These people depended on the pigs for some of their income, but obviously cared for the animals on a personal level as well. That day I started a routine that I’ve kept every time I meet somebody who keeps pigs – I picked their brains, probably until they just wanted me to shut the hell up and go away.
They had a handful of girls and a boar or two, and had a couple of litters for us to choose from. At the time, I was thinking we’d grab one or two, entirely to feed-on and eat ourselves. We got to the property, and got to meet the mum and dad. Just as an aside, always meet the parents of any piglets you buy. You’d be surprised how much the piglets inherit from their parents – the obvious physiological stuff, but also personalities. Anyway, within a minute of meeting the parents I knew that I wanted to breed from the pigs I bought. The result was that we bought two girls and one boy. I named them Honey, Smoked, and Ham. 😊
Honey and Smoked were girls to keep as breeders, and Hammy was to feed-on for us. At the risk of rambling (a mate told me recently that my blog posts were just one big tangent, but I’m not even sorry), Ham Pig was amazingly educational for us. We got really close to him, and he was the first pig we ever took to the abattoir. There was the education of keeping, feeding, loading, transporting pigs, which was invaluable in and of itself, but there was also the emotional test. I freaking loved that pig, and came within a second of turning around at the abattoir and just bringing him home again. I remember distinctly what it was like. The ramp at the abattoir was too high for our trailer (it actually lowers, which was also part of the learning curve come to think of it 😊 ), so we weren’t sure how we’d unload him. He was super tame though, so I figured I’d just lead him. I literally, opened the trailer, gave him a scratch, and called him to me, at which he jumped down and calmly followed me into a holding yard. I then gave him a big pat, told him I loved him, and left before I was tempted to see how quickly I could reload him to take him home. 😊
But back to Honey… Honey and Smoked grew quickly, and both were lovely girls. They would’ve been 8 or 9 months old when we had the opportunity to buy in four boys. I trawled gumtree daily for things like this, and was amazed to see somebody advertise this group of boys, super cheaply, and they’d deliver them. As it turns out, their regular buyer had fallen through at the last minute, the boys weren’t castrated, and they needed to divest themselves of the boars quickly to avoid the risk of boar taint (I cover boar taint in detail in my post on castration). We grabbed all four pigs, I spent an hour picking the lady’s brain when she dropped them off (again, not sorry), and we then had four boys from which we could choose a breeding boar.
The result was Boris, who was slightly younger than our girls, and slightly smaller. He was also Large White x Landrace, but leaned more towards the Landrace side.
Gilts (female pigs who haven’t had babies) come into season young, much younger than you’d think (5 to 6 months old). If you’re not careful, that can lead to what we term “teenage pregnancies”, of which we’ve had a couple. Most people start to breed their girls at around 8 to 9 months old. Some do it based on age, and some on the number of heat cycles, but it’s really dependent on their size. If they’re large, healthy, and can take the boar’s weight, then they’re probably okay to breed from.
What we did with Honey and Smoked was leave them until they were a month or two older before breeding from them, as I didn’t like the idea of them being too young when they got pregnant. Even then, they didn’t have their full growth on them, and both girls would end up being bigger than Boris.
Both girls were with Boris at the same time, and we saw matings with both over the same period. We didn’t notice them come into season again, and so assumed they were both pregnant at the same time. You’ll hear that pigs are pregnant for 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days, which, while accurate, is also a little ambiguous as not all months are created equal. You might also read that they’re pregnant for 114 days exactly, but it can be a day or two either side of that. When you consider that their cycle is a few days long, and they can mate over that entire period, then there may be a few days on either side of your calculations, meaning you end up with a window of a week or so. Some are quite regular, and Honey is an example of that. We’ve recorded her confirmed matings, and 114 days later, on the dot, she’s dropped. That would’ve been true of the first time too, except we messed it up. 😊
The problem we faced was a size disparity in the two girls. Smoked was huge, and while Honey was, and is, a big pig, she just wasn’t as round as her sister. We assumed that Honey hadn’t taken on the first round of matings, and so was a cycle (3 weeks) out. We were very wrong. Both girls got pregnant at the same time, both girls dropped on the same night, the smaller Honey had 10 babies, and the larger Smoked had 6. It was surprising to say the least.
This taught us to watch the girls more closely when they’re due. They have definite physiological signs of impending birth – full teats, the weight drops lower etc. There’s also nesting behaviours and personality changes. These are all things closely tied with husbandry, and areas where people like us have the advantage. We see these girls every day and we know them. As a result, we know when there’s a change. We learned over time exactly what to look for, and are now pretty good at picking girls who are close. A lot of intensive farms use hormones to regulate the girls’ cycles, they AI, and then they induce labour, so they have none of these problems. I like the closeness though, and the husbandry that we’re able to employ as a result. It’s actually husbandry that you have to employ if you’re going to get it right, but it’s still one of the fun parts. 😊
We’ve never since had a problem picking when Honey is close. She’s one of the easiest sows to pick pregnancy and impending birth. She also has zero problems with us being with her when she gives birth. We clearly missed the opportunity that first time, but in the litters since she’s had one of us, or a crowd of us, there with her the entire time.
Honey has had several litters, and never less than 10 in a litter. Her mortality is a little over 10%, which is comparable to that found in intensive farms. She loses a lot of condition while she’s nursing, and we have to keep the food up to her. We’ve found that with some girls – some lose condition no matter how much you feed them, while others can keep it on quite well. Honey just happens to be in that former category, so we’re extra careful with her.
Not long after her second litter Honey came down with pneumonia. We didn’t know quite what was wrong with her. She was laying alone in a back corner of our back paddock. She would normally come over if she spotted me, I’d give her giant scratches, and she’d wiggle her giant back to-and-fro, making these disturbing noises that sound like a raptor from Jurassic Park (it’s still our routine). If I was holding food, then she’d come running over as fast as her big body could move, which is both surprisingly fast and terrifying. This time, however, she spotted me, she spotted the food, but she stayed laying down.
This was another example of tame pigs being the best. I remember going over to her, giving her a pat, calling her to me, and leading her across the paddock into a yard. Herding a quarter-tonne sow over a paddock on your own would be the definition of frustration. Having her tame enough to follow you like a pet dog is awesome. I highly recommend it. 😊
Honey was clearly unhappy. She was snotty, and she was actually throwing up this gross phlegmy stuff after she ate. She was also off her feed a bit, which is the surest sign of an unwell pig – they always want to eat. We got the vet out and they diagnosed pneumonia. Honey was put on a course of antibiotics, and it took us a full 12 months to nurse her back to full health. She was really quite unwell for a while.
I speak about Honey quite a bit in my post on culling sows, including that first litter of hers and how we had to rush around getting a creep and heat etc. set up for her. I also speak about the fact that we’ll be keeping her forever. I doubt that her breeding days are over, but when they are, we’ll retire her to one of our grower paddocks and let her live her life out. That’s for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s because I love her and want to make sure she’s looked after. I’ll never apologise for that. 😊 Secondly, she’s earned it through the babies she’s given us. Lastly, and most importantly, she is genuinely much of the reason we do what we do now. It was my relationship with her that showed me just how important it is to raise pigs the way we do it. She showed that you can do it this way and still get great results, up to and including low piglet mortality. I remember looking into her weirdly mismatched blue/brown eyes, seeing the personality and soul there, and wondering how anybody could abuse something so freaking amazing. She made it through the Pinery fires, the only one of our pregnant girls to do so, and she had a litter a week later. I remember the hope that gave us after the shittest farm day of our life. Honey Pig, to me, is the symbol and embodiment of what we do.