by Kelly Klober
I’ve been around the hog business for 50-plus years, saw the Ohio Improved Chester breed go extinct and the Mulefoot come close and the demand for heritage pork arise. I was on the auction seats when boars sold for five figures and had butcher hogs to sell when the price per pound was first a zero and then a single digit to the right of the decimal point.
It seems that pork producers most often fall onto hard times when they move too far from the traditional roles for hogs and the keeping of them in modest numbers. Hogs were once but one part of a number of livestock ventures kept on a farm, kept in quite modest numbers often following rather seasonal patterns of production, and the resulting pig crops were marketed in any number of ways as the markets might dictate.
When I got my start, most swine herds numbered eight to 12 sows and were one-boar herds. Those little sow herds made Missouri the feeder pig capitol of the world. The small swine herd is again coming out from the far fencerows and the back of the barn (actually, I don’t think it ever really went away).
At the height of the price collapse in the mid-1990s, a local sale barn was selling butcher hogs for three times and more the buying station price. Selling them one and two at a time to people who wanted a butcher hog raised in the traditional manner, in the dirt!
Such hogs were hard to come by then and even now. The greatest number of butcher hogs are of a mix of genetics designed to produce tons of confinement generated, commodity pork. They arrive in the stores with all manner of cooking and eating concerns, are produced with products and in a manner that cause grave concerns among consumers and have come to epitomize nearly all of the ills of factory farming. As one old country wag put it, “Follow a semi load of confinement hogs a few miles down the road and even a Texan would become a vegetarian.”
I grew up in Eastern Missouri, in an area many termed the “purebred buckle” of the Corn and Hog Belt. Each spring and fall purebred boars and gilts, literally by the thousands, left Missouri for swine herds from Maryland to Hawaii.
Everyone had a favorite pork breed and just in my local FFA chapter (we were still Future Farmers back then) there were boys with herds of Duroc, Hampshire, Yorkshire, Spot and Chester White hogs. There were also herds of Landrace, Black Polands and Berkshires nearby and in the next county to the East was to be found the National President of the Tamworth Swine Association. From time to time, hogs showing large amounts of Wessex or Mulefoot breeding would still pass through the local sale barns.
Each breed had its many adherents, many farrow-to-finish producers would combine two, three or four pure breeds in rotational crosses to produce hogs to perform well on their farms, and the old National Livestock Producer (one of the last farm magazines then still published in Chicago — Sandburg’s “Hog Butcher for the World”) published frequent articles on farmers outside the Corn Belt using but a single purebred to produce quality butcher stock.
For the longest time hogs were broken into two categories; bacon-type and lard-type. In the industry such terms fell by the wayside long ago, but are still heard once in awhile being used by someone way behind the curve. The breed that was once held up as the classic example of bacon-type, the Tamworth, slid dangerously close to extinction and is now supported by a quite narrow gene pool and has but minor breed status. Its numbers are again growing due to research demonstrating that it produces pork of exceptional quality for cooking and on the plate.
The swine breeds have become more aptly divided into three groups based on their established performance traits, mothering abilities and carcass quality. There is some overlapping of these categories, and all of the breeds will respond favorably to selective breeding for trait improvement in any category. It took a fair number of years, but we took our herd of Duroc sows, a breed known primarily for hardiness and growth, and raised farrowing averages to a bit above 10 pigs per litter.
With Duroc selection, you learn quickly that carcass length and litter size are traits for which you must consistently select. We never bought a Duroc boar from a litter of less than nine pigs weaned, and he had to have littermate brothers and sisters that were of “keeper” quality.
Each breed is believed to have its own strengths and weaknesses, but all pigs are pork and can be bred to perform better. Landrace have the length card to play, Chester White pigs may be the very best white heritage pork breed for the dirt, Hampshire sows produce perhaps the richest milk for their young, a lot of Berkshires have litter size issues and Tamworth sows have a reputations for being “barky.”
Still, a big part of American agricultural history is built upon the creation or further development of these breeds. There would be no Cincinnati without the ancestors of the Chester White pig breed or the early Berkshires. A great many books have been written on the development of livestock breeds; I have several and get lost in their pages often. For this article, it will probably be best to talk about but a few swine breeds and in rather broad strokes.
All of the major breeds trace their roots back to the European Wild Boar, a creature of the forest floor that lived the old adage of “root hog or die.” Producers returning to outdoor production are scrambling to find the genetics that will work outside. Some breeds work better than others. The gene pools of some breeds are now dominated by lines that have been bred for confinement for scores of generations, and recent trends to extreme muscling in show stock have caused some lines within breeds to be compromised with outside breeding from such swine exotics as the heavily muscled Pietrain breed from France.
The most traditional breeds for outside production use are the Duroc, Spotted, Black Poland, Tamworth and Chester White. You will note that there is much overlapping from this group into the smaller group of pure breeds that had been confirmed to produce pork with more distinctive cooking and eating properties. That group includes the Duroc, Chester White, Berkshire and Tamworth. Of that group, the Berkshire and the Tamworth are getting the most play among foodies and food writers.
Sadly, most pure breeds are not nearly as widely available as they were even shortly before the turn of the century. A lot have been put to breeding for the extremes of type that, I and many others believe, have been so overemphasized in the show pig area of swine production. Show pigs for youth project work are a big business, but too many shown in recent years are to real hogs what NASCAR racers are for the family sedan.
The Duroc is the big red hog with the drooping ears. Its strengths have been frame size, rugged constitution and good rate of growth. They are known for good bone and strong foot and leg structure. They were the breed on which the frame was made for the legendary butcher and feeder stock, the corn field hogs of the Midwest. A higher tail head setting is indicative of better carcass length on the rail and a rule of thumb for boar selection that extrapolates to overall length is to select for males with at least three nipples ahead of the penile sheath on each side of the underline.
The Chester White, the white hog with moderate sized, drooping ears, has often been tabbed “the mother breed.” They may not be the fastest of gainers and their pigs can be a bit smaller at birth, but that is often a result of larger numbers born in a litter. Select them for growth, frame size and free movement and reach in their stride. We raised Chesters for a number of years and I always felt that they were an undervalued and underutilized breed.
The Spotted, once more commonly called the Spotted Poland China, is one of the classic corn field hogs, but was always more popular east of the Mississippi River. They are a big outline breed, had one of the larger average litter sizes of the colored breeds of swine and are durable hogs. Sometimes you will see them with hind legs tucked too far underneath the body instead of out on the corners. Such hogs will run with a scissors kicking action to the hind legs. An ancestral breed for them is the Gloucester Old Spot, the English orchard hog that proudly proclaims being raised in the great outdoors for over 100 generations. They are the swine breed kept by Prince Charles. The Spots do share the black and white spotted pattern of the double-muscled Pietrain breed, and very heavily muscled, spotted hogs should now be considered perhaps a bit suspect in their breeding. This could be said to be a concern with many black colored pigs now.
Black Poland China
The Black Poland China might be considered the forgotten swine breed. In the first half of the 20th century, it and the Berkshire were numbers one and two in national popularity and total numbers. It is a black hog with white points and drooping ears. At one time there were more Black Poland sows at the eight parity and beyond than sows in any other breed.
To me, they are another undervalued breed, and there have been some very impressive barrow show and carcass competition wins with this breed in recent years. Though it may take some time to find seedstock sources, they are a very hardy breed, one that stays sound and may be poised for better days. This, also, could be the breed poised to join that select group of swine breeds now being noted for distinctive pork quality.
The Berkshire is a black breed with white points and erect ears. If you have been out of the loop for some time this may be the breed that will now most surprise you. The short, heavily curled up noses are gone and the belief that they were a genetic deterrent to some diseases has been proven to be a myth.
Frame size has grown and they are highly valued for the distinctive pork that they produce. They produce what is known in the Asian trade as “black pork.” Berkshire pork indeed has a darker color, has the intra-muscular fat marbling most associated with beef graded Prime, and even has a different pH level than the pork from other breeds. They hang a good carcass, but length and litter size concerns still remain with this breed.
Here in the Midwest, the traditional role for swine keeping was in small numbers as one more venture to add to family farm diversification. By opting for a pure breed, the producer adds marketing options beyond feeder and butcher stock and direct pork sales. Such producers may also sell show pigs and seedstock, and many of the pure breeds now are certainly in need of new breeders and much new thinking on their behalf.
It may be that the road ahead for swine producers on a more human and humane scale will come to resemble what has happened with sheep and poultry production outside of the industrial farming sector. The herds will be modest in size (probably one-boar herds, again), they will rely ever more on purebred genetics, they will be more artisanal in their production, and much of their marketing will be done directly to end consumers.
I have received many recent accounts of swine producers selling seedstock “packages.” These are generally a bred female, one or two young gilts and a young, unrelated boar. It is a herd in the making and a way back into hog production that fits a new era of swine production. These aren’t dabblers or fad chasers, but people coming back to produce hogs with a plan and a passion — both of which are sorely needed.
Which breed to choose is a question that has been posed to me often over the years. Beginners and those who have been away for a time I point toward the more established, colored breeds of swine. There are more sources for them, the producers have often continued with populations of middle-of-the-road type animals that have real world value, and they are reasonably priced once past the handful of super pigs competed for by the show pig breeding studs selling semen.
Premiums are now being paid for hogs that are 50 percent or more pure breeding for specific breeds, new technology has prime pork cuts being placed on restaurant menus on par with fine steaks, and swine breeds are now being recognized from the farm gate to the retail meat case.
Butcher and feeder pig producers have traditionally used purebred hogs in a crossbreeding rotation of two, three or even four different pure breeds. This was much more easily done a few years ago when purebred suppliers could be found in far greater numbers.
The norm was a three-breed rotation of a black, a white, and a red breed. A fourth breed could have been used to increase the level of hybrid vigor in the offspring, but even then lining up the quality sources of four different breeds was a considerable challenge.
The classic three-breed cross began with F1, Hampshire X Yorkshire gilts, once a very important crop for hog farmers in our area. These blue rumped, largely white gilts would be bred to Duroc males to produce offspring with a high level of heterosis. Such pigs would generally be a bit larger at birth, be born into litters one or two pigs larger than purebred norms and be pigs with a very vigorous nature. The traits of economic importance such as growth rate and carcass merit were most influenced by their immediate purebred ancestry, however.
All male pigs would be castrated and sold as meat animals, and female herd replacements would be selected from the largest, fastest-growing and best formed of the female offspring. Those females would then be bred to a purebred boar of the breed farthest back in the breeding order, a Yorkshire.
The York sired gilts that were retained would then be bred to a Hampshire boar, then the breed farthest back in the breeding cycle. The Hamp-sired gilts would be bred to a Duroc boar and the rotation cycle began again.
A two-breed rotation would generally be a rotation of Yorkshire stock with Hampshire or Duroc animals. These were, and are, generally the most widely dispersed of the pure breeds. The Yorkshire contributed the mothering and litter size associated with the white breeds of swine and the Hampshire contributed growth and carcass quality.
These crosses worked because they were always followed in an exacting order, and it was possible to shop through large numbers of boars from the different breeds to find individuals strong in the traits that needed to be improved in the meat animals being produced and/or the females being retained to go back into the breeding herd.
If such rotations aren’t well planned and carefully followed they quickly fall to little more than mongrelization with no predictability to the offspring and their resulting performance. We did some crossbreeding experiments over the years; all farmers are tinkerers, with varying results. We crossed a Duroc boar with Spotted females and produced the classic sandy red with some black spotting, corn field hogs of our part of the Midwest. They grew well and were well accepted as feeder stock by those with a long memory and the understanding that colored hogs perform better in simple facilities and during the cold seasons.
A three-breed rotation seeking to capitalize on greater outdoor adaptability and distinctive meat quality might draw from the Berkshire or Black Poland breeds, the Chester White and the Duroc or Tamworth. Tamworths, Berks and Black Polands are all still coming from rather narrow gene pools now, and a fuller knowledge of the backgrounds of these breeds will certainly prove helpful in selecting lines with the needed vigor and breeding for better outcrossing.
No Show Ponies
A few years ago I saw a Hereford gilt win the always competitive 240- to 245-pound market hog class at a major county fair in Eastern Missouri. She was a pretty good meat wagon with some flash, you might have wanted to see a bit more frame and depth to her, but she was a pretty gold ol’ pig as we say here in Missourah.
The point that really struck home was that she was out there in the show ring holding her own with all sorts of Hamps, Durocs, and their crosses. And that is the yardstick by which all minor, rare and heirloom swine breeds and varieties must ultimately be measured.
Not long ago I encountered an owner of a herd of one of the more minor swine breeds defending their wide array of sizes, body types and coloring as useful “genetic variability.” It was an interesting welding of chaos theory to the art and science of livestock breeding.
Hogs aren’t show ponies! Even the littlest, cutest ones were bred that way to fit the canoes taking them to the barbecue.
Right now, a lot of these rare and minor breeds are in the midst of a fairly hot breeders’ market. Let the few pot bellied pig folks that are left tell you where that road leads. The demand and the temper of the times has opened up some of these minor breeds to practices such as the extensive use of artificial insemination that will only reduce gene pools and cripple breeding stock sales.
The Hereford breeders have a long-established, independent breed association. They have set down clear standards for evaluating their breed, hold regular conferences to better inform newcomers and market seedstock and are putting hogs on the rail. This is the established means to give a breed greater presence and build upon its utilitarian character.
As old hands will tell you, pigs are prettiest when they are going up the chute on their way to a profitable pay day for their producers. A role for heritage pork producers that has yet to get much play is in the returning of the breeds of choice to the roles and type for which they were developed. We don’t need new colors and sizes, but rather hogs that are profitable to own and grown for practical ends.
A lot of veteran swine producers will tell you that we got swine type on point about 20 years ago. Hamps looked like Hamps, Durocs looked like Durocs and Chesters like Chesters. They had good internal dimension, muscling was good but not extreme, length and depth of side got proper emphasis, and the animals carried a layer of cover adequate for life outdoors and to fuel needed hormone activity. Finish to a depth toward 1 inch is not a bad thing. Such cover provides natural insulation, fuels good hormone output and fat is needed for good cooking quality and flavor.
A pig’s path leads to pork. They are a most practical animal when allowed to be what nature intended a hog to be. The hands of the factory farmers and the faddists both are perhaps too much upon them now.
Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken available from Acres U.S.A. Klober’s talks, “Opportunities in Small-Scale Pig Farming” and “Beyond the Chickens: Alternative Fowl for Diversified Farms” from the 2013 Acres U.S.A. Conference is available on CD. For more information visit www.acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.
This article is from the February 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.