When it comes to selecting the best animals for your homestead, choosing the right breed of a given type of livestock is often more important than the type of livestock itself. When you’re selecting the best homestead pigs, it’s important that you choose the heritage breed pigs that will match your goals, your resources, and your environment.
Heritage breeds are not only better suited to your environment, but they are also able to adapt to the conditions that you can provide for them. Heritage pigs often provide farmers with better feed conversion and better resistance to disease.
Not only that, but heritage pigs are undeniably fun to raise. Here’s everything you need to know about raising heritage breed pigs on your homestead.
What Are Heritage Breed Pigs?
Many people confuse heritage pig breeds with endangered breeds. This is not the case. Although some heritage breeds are sometimes listed as endangered, there are many small farms that successfully raise heritage breeds – meaning they aren’t exactly endangered.
At one point, everybody owned heritage breeds, as they were part of the natural systems and circle of life on the farm. Pigs would root up the fields, helping to till them over for a new crop. They were allowed to forage in the woods for their own food and occasionally fed table scraps or whey from the cow. When their lives ended, they would become sausage and pork for the dinner table.
Later, as pigs became a commercial commodity, commercial farms realized that the existing breeds of pigs weren’t exactly well-suited to being raised in confinement. They didn’t do well in the cramped, crowded living quarters provided by large farms. As a result, selective breeding developed pigs that were more tolerant of these conditions.
Sadly, the Livestock Conservancy has yet to formally define the term “heritage pork.” Therefore, its definition is up for debate. While some people argue that heritage pork must be from only Conservancy-listed breeds, others say it must be meat from a historic breed.
In general, however, most people agree that heritage pork is produced from breeds that originated before 1900 – and just about everybody agrees that heritage pigs taste much better than your standard supermarket pork.
The Benefits of Raising Heritage Breeds
Despite the fact that the term “heritage pork” has yet to be defined, there’s a lot to be said about raising heritage pig breeds. They’re slowly beginning to make a comeback – as more people turn to their local small farms and move away from the supermarket shelves, heritage breeds are gaining support everywhere.
Ask any professional chef, and he’s likely to tell you that heritage pork is much more marketable than standard mass-produced pork. Unlike the uniform, colorless pork sold in plastic wrap at the grocery store, heritage pork will vary widely in flavor depending on how it was raised and what its genetics look like. You might have one cut that is mild and fatty, while a cut from another breed is dark and lean.
Depending on the breed, the textures and flavors can vary. This variation means that you can produce just about any kind of pork you want by selecting the perfect heritage pig breed for your purposes.
If you’re fed up with the ways in which factory-farmed pigs are treated but aren’t willing to make the conversion to a full-fledged vegan, heritage pigs offer an excellent middle-ground solution.
Small farms that raise heritage pigs are typically raised on pasture, providing them with much better (and more natural) living conditions. Since heritage breeds are suited to these conditions, there is very little that the farmer has to do to intervene with the pig’s normal, natural processes.
3. Environmental Adaptability
Conventional pig breeds raised for mass production are well-suited to indoor confinement and close quarters. A commercial pig isn’t nearly as self-sufficient as a heritage pig.
Heritage breeds are well-adapted to their natural environments, making them the perfect candidates for small farms with limited resources. Many can live outdoors every season of the year – they thrive in their natural environment. As a farmer, you can choose a pig breed not just based on its taste, but on how acclimated it is to your local climate.
4. More Health Benefits – For You and Your Pig
As a corollary to the last point, because heritage pig breeds are designed to be raised in a natural environment (on pasture), they are also a better choice when it comes to your health, too. Pastured pigs have a higher vitamin content as well as a better ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids. Lard from pastured pigs also contains high levels of vitamin D – a vitamin that conventional pigs tend to be lacking in.
Other critical nutrients found in pastured heritage pigs include vitamin E and selenium. These vitamins not only boost your health when you eat meat, but they also assist a heritage pig in producing healthier litters with shorter farrowing times. These vitamins make it possible for you to raise a pig with zero antibiotics or synthetic vitamins.
5. Environmentally Friendly
So much of the mass-produced meat that our country consumes creates an environmental hazard. Confined animal feeding operations pose serious risks due to the large quantities of manure that they produce. When you are able to raise a pig on a well-managed pasture system, you can reduce environmental damage to the air, soil, and water so that it is virtually nonexistent. Raising pigs on pasture also helps improve soil behavior.
In addition, heritage breeds promote diversity. A diverse population provides better protection against diseases that could potentially wipe out an entire community of pigs.
Today’s average consumer will pay top dollar for pork that is humanely raised and highly flavorful. The good news is that if you’re raising a heritage breed pig, you’re going to meet both of those criteria. More marketability equals a bigger payout, and while you’re likely not interested in homesteading for the money, there’s something to be said about making a nice profit.
Plus, it's much easier to raise pigs on a budget when you're investing in heritage breeds.
The Best Heritage Breeds for the Homestead
Remember, a breed doesn’t need to be endangered in order to be considered a heritage-breed pig. Consider these classic heritage breeds as you’re researching the best heritage pig breeds for your homestead.
The Berkshire hog is native to the Berkshire area of England, where it originated about 200 years ago. These pigs were fattened on the waste products from the region’s many distilleries, breweries, and dairies.
A medium-to-large hog, the Berkshire pig is black with a white snout. Most also have splashes of white on their tails. These hardy, fast-maturing pigs are good-natured, producing uniquely marbled and succulent meat. There’s a serious market for Berkshire pork in Japan, too.
Tamworths originated in the British Middle Ages, long before there even was such a thing as an established breed. Named for the village of Tamworth in Staffordshire, these pigs arrived in the United States in 1882.
A medium-to-large, narrow-bodied pig, this breed has a gorgeous red color along with upright ears and a straight snout. Tamworth pigs are extremely intelligent and active – this is not a breed to be raised in confinement. However, it is excellent at foraging and does well outside, yielding nicely-textured, lean pork.
The Hereford hog is one of the most popular breeds among first-time pig raisers and children involved in 4H. An easygoing pig, it’s easy to tame and adapts well to most settings.
It does well when allowed to forage on pasture, but can also tolerate a bit of confinement housing. This pig breed grows rapidly and is easy to fatten up. It’s one of the best pig breeds if you have a large area of land to till up, too.
4. Gloucestershire Old Spots
It might have a lengthy, difficult-to-pronounce name, but besides that, there’s nothing complicated about the Gloucestershire Old Spots breed. This pig is mostly white with a few black spots. It also has large floppy ears and is exceptionally large.
Native to Gloucestershire, England, it was originally developed to be raised on dropped apples in orchards. Old Spots are good-natured pigs and excellent foragers that produce large harms and flavorful pork.
The Hampshire pig breed originated in Kentucky in the early 1800s. A medium to large-sized black pig with a white belt around the front legs, this lean pig has erect ears and an arched back.
Known for its docility and hardiness, this breed grows quite quickly and has an excellent feed conversion rate. The meat is mild with minimal back fat.
It’s unclear where and when Yorkshires originated, but most people suspect it was sometime in the early 1800s. In England, these pigs are known as Large Whites. They are some of the largest pigs you will find, with muscular bodies and very little back fat. They produce excellent qualities of lean pork.
7. Large Black
The Large Black is another popular British breed, originally raised in the English counties of Cornwall and Devonshire in the early 1800s. A long-bodied pig with black and gray skin, this pig has floppy ears covering almost the entirety of its face.
Large Blacks are resilient pigs with even dispositions. As great foragers, they produce beautifully marbled pork.
8. Chester White
The Chester White was developed in Pennsylvania in the early part of the nineteenth century. A large white pig with floppy ears and a dished face, the Chester White is a great ham producer.
It is known for its hardiness (it has a thick coat that helps it perform well on year-round pasture) and its fast maturation rate. It is also easygoing, producing lean but well-marbled pork.
The Duroc was originally developed in New York and New Jersey during the early 1800s. Widely exported around the world, this pig was used in the development of many modern commercial pork farms as it grows out quickly and has an efficient feed conversion ratio. A hardy breed, the Duroc produces flavorful and well-marbled meat.
10. Guinea Hog
Guinea Hogs are odd-looking little pigs, but should not be confused with the Guinea Pig. They are growing increasingly popular on many small farms in the United States. This breed developed in the southeastern United States in the 1800s and is a landrace breed that was developed to withstand dry, hot weather.
A compact, hairy pig, the Guinea Hog is usually black or red. It has a curly tail and upright ears. A great breed for lard production, this pig only grows to about 250 pounds maximum and is a great forager.
What to Keep in Mind When Raising Heritage Breeds
Not all heritage breeds are built alike, so it’s important that you do your research when it comes to selecting the best breed for you to raise. You’ll want to take the following factors into consideration.
1. Location and Facilities
Think about the breed you want to raise and what its skin and hair look like. White pigs sunburn easily and will need additional shade in a hot, sunny environment. Other breeds, like Choctaw pigs, are considered feral swine in some areas and you cannot raise them there.
On the other hand, easygoing breeds like Large Blacks are easy to raise and don’t require elaborate fencing or housing facilities. Active breeds, like Tamworths, will need a lot of space and plenty of pasture as they constantly forage and root.
2. Consumer Preferences
Do some research into your local market. You might love the subtly smoky taste of Berkshire pork, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to sell it if nobody else in your community wants to buy it. If you’re only raising meat for yourself, that’s fine – but it’s something to keep in mind if you are raising an entire herd of pigs. Chefs often pay premium prices for heritage pork, so you may be able to market to local restaurants just by doing a little extra research.
If you do plan on selling your meat to others, you’ll also need to make sure you are relatively close to a processing plant. Porks must be processed at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, and not all slaughterhouses accept swine from small-scale producers – it’s worth a call before you commit.
3. Living Conditions
Make sure you have the space to dedicate to your heritage pigs. Heritage breeds aren’t designed to be raised in small stalls – they need open, grassy pastures, mud wallows, and lots of room to root around. Make sure you have the space and time to commit to providing these unique pigs with the living conditions they need – and deserve.
Raising heritage pig breeds might not be for everyone – but if you have adequate space on your homestead and the time to commit to raising these productive, hardy pigs, it’s definitely worth considering.