I’ll admit, I had my reservations about raising pigs. Being a country girl from rural Ohio, I’ve grown up around hog farms. My uncle was a hog farmer for most of my life. My brother even raised a couple hogs for 4-H one year. The only things I really cared to know about pigs were that they destroyed everything and smelled horrible, even if they are rather tasty. So it really came as a surprise to me more than anyone when I agreed to raise a couple for meat. It wasn’t long before I also decided to breed them, but that’s a story for another time.
So after a lifetime of swearing off pig farming, why the sudden change of heart? It was mostly economical. We want to raise most, if not all, of our own food. We need to fill the freezer. Pigs were the easiest and most cost effective way to achieve that end. I highly recommend raising pigs for meat to anyone with the means and here’s why.
While cattle require acreage, pigs can be raised in a much smaller space, which makes them ideal for homesteaders operating on smaller acreage. We live on a 5 acre wooded lot with very little grazing available. To raise a cow, we would need to spend a lot of money on hay and grain. Pigs on the other hand only require 20 square feet per finished hog (less space for weanlings and growers). Granted, I have found that more space equals less smell, so I prefer closer to 50 square feet per pig, but it’s still much less space than I would need for a cow. Many homesteaders also prefer to pasture raise their pigs. Just keep in mind that the larger the space, the more calories the pigs will burn, so they will grow at a slower rate and need to consume more feed. It’s up to you to determine the balance that’s right for you.
Here in Central Florida, a weaned calf (I don’t recommend bottle babies) will cost about $600-800. A yearling will cost closer to $1,200. If you have the acreage, you can finish them on grass with very little additional investment until it’s time to take them to the butcher. If not, you also have to factor in the cost of hay and grain for at least 6 months to finish them. It adds up quickly. On the other hand, decent quality 8 week old piglets are $60-80. You’ll have to buy grain, but a well bred meat pig should be ready to butcher around 6-7 months old, so you’ll only be feeding it for 4-5 months. It will also eat considerably less than a cow. It takes approximately 650-750 lbs of commercial pig feed to get a 50 lb feeder pig to a butcher weight of 250 lbs. I pay about $12 for a 50 lb bag of 17% hog grower feed, so that equals $156 – $180 in feed costs per pig.
Healthy as a Hog
Forget horses, pigs are the true masters when it comes to health and resiliency. In my three years of raising pigs, I can count on one hand the times any of them have been sick. In fact, none of them have been sick since I’ve started vaccinating. Even those times when they have been sick, I’ve been able to treat them on my own, and they’ve made a full recovery. I did have one issue with a piglet with a hernia, but that was genetic and not much I could have done about it. Now that I know what to look for, I know not to castrate male piglets with hernias. Even with that piglet, the vet didn’t expect him to survive the next two days, and now he’s a 250+ lb hog ready to go to the butcher. Seriously, they are very resilient animals.
The average steer is butchered at 18 months old. If you’re raising a weaned calf, that means you’ll be waiting a year before you can fill your freezer. A well bred meat pig will be ready around 6-7 months old. If you buy an 8 week old piglet and free feed it (access to grain 24/7), then you can have a freezer full of pork chops, bacon, and sausage in as little as 4 months. Raise a piglet every 6 months and you’ll have more pork than you know what to do with, believe me.
Granted, when you butcher a cow, you’re usually getting back 400-500 pounds of beef. It’s usually more than the average person can fit in their freezer, so you end up selling some of it to friends and family members. However, all of that beef only accounts for about a third of the cow’s live weight. Cows have an average dressing ratio of 62%, that means that a 1,200 lb steer may only have a hanging weight of 744 lb. That’s just with the organs removed, much more weight is lost when the head, skin, extra bones and fat are trimmed off. That’s not to say that you can’t get those things back from the butcher (I highly recommend getting the bones and fat back), but they’re generally considered waste.
Pigs have an average dressing ratio of 74%, so a 280 lb hog may have a hanging weight of 207 lb. They have much less bone than a cow, so you don’t lose as much weight with the finished cuts. On average, you can expect to get about 50% of the live weight back in finished cuts. That’s 140 lbs of pork on a hog you may have fed for 5 months and only paid $80 for vs. the steer you paid $800, fed for a year, and got back 400 lb of beef. I’ll let you do the math.
I also like to get the extra bones and fat back from the butcher. I render my own lard and use it in almost all of my cooking. I use it to replace a lot of vegetable oils in savory dishes. I use it as the fat to saute my vegetables in. I also use it to season my cast iron pans. The bones I can use for stock and bone broth. Also, ask your butcher if they use the jowels and ham hocks. Some butchers may grind them into the sausage, or you can get them back to cure and smoke yourself for use in bean soup. In the book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, the author uses almost the entire hog, including the blood and intestine. If you’re interested in curing and smoking your own hams, sausages, and bacon, I highly recommend that book.
Little Goes to Waste
I don’t know about you, but I hate throwing away food. We survive on leftovers, and I generally try to use up all of our leftovers before they go bad, but sometimes even the best of intentions die in the back of my fridge. This is where I love having pigs. Even if the food has started to mold, I’m able to feed it to my pigs (scary science experiments excluded). There really isn’t much they can’t eat. When we had problems with a fox killing our turkeys, I threw the turkey carcasses to the pigs. We’ve also thrown them old baked goods and rotten vegetables from the local grocery store. I know some people who make their pig’s entire diet out of scraps, although I don’t really recommend it. Scraps should be treated as more than a supplement. First of all, pigs are omnivores and need a balanced diet of proteins, fats and vegetables. It’s difficult to know if they are getting that balance with scraps. Second of all, they tend to grow more slowly on scraps and may not reach their full growth potential. You’ll spend less on feed, but you’ll probably have to house them for a longer period of time and end up with less pork in return. I prefer to have a higher turn over so I can make room for the next batch of piglets. Plus, if I have to pay the butcher, I’d like to get my money’s worth.
Another unexpected benefit to feeding rotten vegetables to pigs is the volunteer vegetable plants. All of the tomato plants in my garden this year have come from pig manure. We also have a papaya tree because we fed papaya to the pigs. However, compost the manure before you try using it on your garden (I dig the volunteers out of the compost pile). Hubby tried fertilizing the onions with pig manure one year, and the onions were crowded out by volunteer tomato plants. I’ve joked that I’m going to feed my vegetable seeds to the pigs one year because they seem to get the best germination rate.
If you’re looking for a way to be more self sufficient, and you have the space for pigs, I highly recommend them. They don’t have the health issues that a lot of meat animals may experience, making them very easy for beginners to raise. One pig can provide approximately 140 lbs of pork, easily filling the freezer and providing your family with enough pork for several months. The meat also preserves well through curing and smoking, which is why they were a favorite animal of pioneers and homesteaders when our country was first founded. They can also help you with composting, turning your leftovers and rotten vegetables into valuable manure. After all, how many other animals can turn tomatoes into bacon?
Want to learn more? Check out these links: