Sunday, 1 August 2010

How We Raise Our Pigs

by Danelle at My Total Perspective Vortex

A couple months back I engaged in a comments discussion about pork. The idea that pork, pork fat, and all things bacon related are bad for your health is very ingrained into our local Midwestern American culture and others too.

It's not entirely true.

It's not the pork. Rather, its not entirely the pig's fault. I'll preface this to say that if you ate all bacon all the time, you might be very very happy but not very healthy...or you'd die a very happy death. Mmmmm, bacon. Everything is better in moderation. Now, that said, I'd like to share with you some things I have learned over the past two years about pigs, bacon, and food.
Our Berkshire pig on his first day at our farm....
Breed affects behaviour, temperament, farrowing skills- all which matter to the farmer, but not as much to the consumer. We raised Yorkshires (what is typically grown in confinement and ends up in the conventional grocery stores) last year and Berkshire (heritage) this year.  The Yorks were still incredibly tasty at harvest BUT they didn't eat clover or play as much. That said, some breeds pasture better than others, which is why we chose Berkshire to raise this year. Plus Berks make better and more lard.

Pigs relaxing in the shade.
What DOES matter is 1) what they are fed and 2)where and how they are housed and 3)how they are butchered.

Feed: Corn and soy mix with added amino acids- that's standard. Most feed has GMO grain in it. We feed ours Reichart's Dairy Air goat dairy whey, 4-H grain mix, and veggies when we can. Finished on walnut, apple, squash, and whey or milk. They also sometime get buckets of canning scraps (NOT table scraps, pigs can contract the same diseases that humans can so they never get food that has been in contact with human saliva, ever.), like peach skins and bruise cuts, tomato cores, and corn cobs. We are working with a local co-op to make us a special grain mix that they can prove has no GMO grain in it and working to analyze the rest of their diet to see if we can eliminate soy altogether. We might have that balance done for next year's run.

Pigs eating goat cheese whey.
We hand mix the grain with water in 5 gallon buckets before giving it to them. Wet slop is easier for them to eat and it minimizes loss for us from wind blowing and excited pigs. We've tried it both dry and wet. The pigs prefer wet. It also aids in hydrating them and making sure they get clean water when it is very hot and dry like it is right now. They don't move around as much in the heat so getting them fluid is really important.

Water. Access at all times to CLEAN water. Not well water. Very important. Seriously. VERY important. Most well water in Iowa (where we live) is seriously and dangerously contaminated. If people can't drink it, neither should meat you will consume.  We run a hose out their waterer from our house water. We check it everyday to make sure it is full and clean.

Pigs eating clover and dandelions.

Housing. Open air and sunlight? How much room does each pig have in the enclosure? Ours have 2000+ square feet per pig. Confinement can be 6-8 square feet per pig. There are lots of arrangements that are in between. Hoop buildings where the pigs are still indoors but have more room and can run around together, smaller pasture arrangements, larger herds on pasture......all variables.We have 18 pigs on one acre. It is bordered on two sides by stands of trees, to the south and west. These trees provide windbreak and shade at the hottest parts of the day. Shelter from storms and harsh wind or sun are required, we have a couple options for them: a tarp pulled over a hoop that is open on both ends and a metal hoop building with a solid end at one side and hay bales stacked on the other.

Windfall apples.
Medications. This question is rarely asked by customers. All anybody cares about are antibiotics and hormones- which are VERY important things to care about, but they are not the only things to care about. We do not give our pigs hormones. Ever. If a pig gets sick we might treat that pig with an antibiotic, but it is NOT practice for us to give them medications just to make them grow bigger.

Pigs have to be wormed. It is a different wormer for pigs on pasture because they are exposed to different worms, lungworm is more common in pastured pigs for example. Confinement pigs are given lots of full spectrum, according to our local vet.  Some people don't bother and the parasite load of the pig is just...hard to imagine. Lungworm can kill a pig by suffocation. So we choose to worm them. I will even go as far to say that it is cruel not to worm the pigs.  Death by suffocation is not something that can be prevented by good diet or animal health. Their wormer is a really small does that gets mixed in their feed when we see it is needed. In the time we have had this group, we've wormed twice based on visual queues that worms might be present.

Vaccines. Most livestock vax's are way safer than human vax, our pigs have been vaccinated once for a respiratory disease that has 80% livestock death and is common in our region, transmitted by wild birds and more of a threat to pastured animals.Some farmers choose to give more, some none at all. If it matters to you, ask.

Our pigs get to live about 6 months to a year. We harvest them when they reach a target weight (around 250 pounds). We hand measure them to estimate this.  This year we have separated out 4 to be harvested at a time and we can then treat this small bunch to more apples, fruit, nuts, and whey.

We use a local, family run meat locker. The animals are killed humanely, and they only take small groups at a time. They also use a hot water carcass wash versus a lactic acid or celery wash. Their process for curing is better too, they use less nitrates and more time. So the processor matters a LOT in the process of making your meat healthier and better for you. It's not enough to claim grass fed or pasture raised if the animal goes through a nasty slaughter house with poor processing.

Slices of cottage bacon that required extra lard to fry, even in my inherited 100+ years old well seasoned cast iron skillet.

There is a lot to pork that matters. It is not just buying directly from the farmer, but all these other factors that go into making safe healthy meat. Honestly, we learned much of this in the last 18 months while becoming "pig farmers".

Then it comes home to the consumer. How it is cooked matters. How it is stored matters. Having a good product is just the beginning.

I never thought I would ever cook with lard. Or fat back. Or many of the other parts of pigs that have names that sound like if you eat them you'll get a fat back too. Lard is better for you than processed veggie oils. My family has better health now that we use olive and grapeseed oil, butter, lard, and coconut oil instead of Crisco, corn, or canola (rapeseed) oil. Better cholesterol levels, better sugar levels, and better overall health. We don't worry about weight gain or irritable bowel and even the severe ulcers I had are no longer a problem. No, its not all credited to our pork, but a general better lifestyle and healthy approach to whole foods, local foods, and natural fats and oils.

Good pork, and humane meat animal raising practices are out there. If you want it, go out and get it. Support those who do it the way you want so they can keep doing it that way.

I also don't claim to be an expert. We've been running pigs out here only two summers, but I can try and answer any questions you may have about our pigs or pork in general.

*edited to add: manuer run off and watershed. These are also important considerations for us. We have a small group on a large grassy pasture, one acre located in a section of about 10 acres. We also have an eleven acre pond and a creek. Neither have shown any contamination or fish kill from run off. We had been told that running pigs on grass pasture would destroy the ground, but while they do root around, their section is still mostly green grasses and clover. The trucks that installed the fences detsroyed more ground than the pigs have. This is also one of our reasons for rotation. The pasture used to be corn/bean rotation so we are restoring it by putting animals on it.