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Raising pigs

Swine can be a smart addition to many small farms. Here's how to get started.

If you are interested in raising pigs for show, meat, or just as a pet but you don't know where to start, here are some options and ideas.

Ready for the show

Pigs can be a wonderful 4-H or FFA project for children. To get started, you need a shelter large enough for the pigs to run around in with plenty of ventilation, says Don Sanders, a veterinarian and associate professor at Ohio State University. Manure must be removed, and the pigs must be fed on a regular basis. "You can't feed them at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. one day and then 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. the next day. A regular schedule helps avoid digestive problems," says Sanders.

For first timers, Sanders suggests working with experienced breeders who have good reputations for the club pigs they sell. Check out their history and talk to people who have purchased pigs from them. Choose one breeder, rather than buying from three or four different sources. "Each set of pigs may have its own infections and virus issues," he says. "Mixing several groups together can set off a viral disease that becomes quite serious."

Show pigs need to reach a weight of 260 pounds to be considered in the judging process. To do this, purchase a pig that weighs 20 to 30 pounds. Block off at least 120 days to get it to the ideal weight, as the pig will need to gain 2 pounds per day. Check protein levels regularly. They should be high (22%) when the pigs are young but should decrease as pigs grow. When the protein drops to 16%, make sure you are feeding the pigs lysine and copper to make strong bones and to promote growth. Check with your Extension office or feed supplier to determine the precise amount of these ingredients.

Overall, let your kids do the work. But don't be afraid to help them along the way.

Raising locker pork

Locker pork means pigs that are raised to be butchered at the local locker for families in the community. Lori Stevermer and her husband raise and sell locker pork in Easton, Minnesota. "We work with the local butcher to get the type of cuts consumers want. They can customize to fit their situation," she says.

The Stevermers also market hogs to Compart Family Farms in Nicollet, Minnesota, and to Hormel. Stevermer says they do not take any different precautions with their locker pork pigs vs. their other pigs because all pigs raised follow a strict health and nutrition program. She says you need to practice good biosecurity and have a solid vaccination program to keep pigs healthy. You might want to think about enlisting a nutritionist for feeding advice.

Butchers usually look for pigs that grow well and are muscled. "It's not as easy as, 'I'm going to buy a few pigs, feed them whatever I have on hand, and hope someone buys my product,' " Stevermer says. She advises starting with 10 to 20 sows depending on what you can handle. Provide them with a good environment, especially adequate shelter. If you don't have the means to protect the pigs in colder weather, it is possible to raise them only during warmer months.

Wean pigs at about 21 days old or when they're about 15 pounds, and then put them into a nursery with other piglets. The Stevermers feed their young pigs with a specialized diet of high levels of nutrients, including protein.

After seven weeks in the nursery, the pigs move to a finishing barn for four months until they reach about 270 pounds, the ideal selling weight. They go to the locker at about 6 months old.

Stevermer advises future locker pork sellers to find an excellent butcher and to maintain a strong relationship with him or her. The stronger the relationship, the more likely the butcher is to recommend you to others within the community.

Heritage beauties

Traditional or heritage breeds can produce flavorful meat different than anything a customer can purchase in a supermarket, says Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The main interest of the group is to preserve breeds that represent unique genetics; if these breeds disappear, there will be no way to recoup them easily, says Beranger. The downside of heritage pigs is the populations can be scattered. "If you don't live in an area that has a concentration of that particular breed, it could be challenging to get a new boar, and frozen semen may not be available."

To market top-dollar pork, Beranger suggests trying one of the following breeds: Red Wattle, Gloucestershire Old Spots, Large Black, Ossabaw, Tamworth, Guinea Hog, Mulefoot, and Hereford.

You need to educate your consumers so they realize purebred pork has a higher price tag because it isn't supermarket pork, says Beranger. Marketing is key.

The cost of a heritage-breed piglet can be $100 to $150. Some of the more uncommon breeds can cost $200 or more depending if they are of breeding quality. Once you get your pig, it's essential to register the animal, as it is the only way to track the animals long term and document their pedigrees.

Like all other swine, heritage hogs need adequate living conditions, including a good fencing system and properly bedded housing. They will need the regular round of vaccines and should be wormed as needed.

Beware though; some people will try to sell everything as breeding stock. Beranger says it's not advisable to buy very young piglets as breeding stock because it takes at least six months to determine if a pig is of breeding quality. Make sure you do your homework on the breed you choose. Some may have different nutritional needs than the more common commercial pig breeds.

Pigs as pets

More and more families are adopting pigs into their homes. Patty Hill, vice president of the Northwest Miniature Pig Association, has been a longtime pet owner of potbellied pigs. She vouches for the pigs and says they are great additions to most families. However, owning these animals isn't as simple as owning a dog or cat. There is a significant amount of work involved.

Take your surroundings into account. Potbellied pigs can't climb stairs, so if you want them to be able to go in and out of the house, you will want to consider installing a ramp for them to use. Hill says she even installed a larger doggy door so her swine can come and go as they please.

You must also have a large enough space for them to wander around. If you'd like to keep your pig outside, clear out an area for it. Hill suggests padding the area with gravel, followed by a layer of straw. She also says you should have a closed-off enclosure to protect the pig from the elements.

Make an appointment to visit with a veterinarian who knows a thing or two about this type of pig. The vet can give you food recommendations and will check for arthritis, bad teeth, hoof trouble, and tusk issues. While they require a bit of upkeep, miniature potbellied pigs are worth it, says Hill.

"They're really smart  but really stubborn," she says. "They remember everything and are very loving pets. And if you can get them trained the way you want, they bond, especially the males. They make a great pet, they really do." 

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