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The Big Pig Project 2010

21 September 2010 22 Comments

In our quest to eat more sustainably, we’ve been experiencing what it’s like to raise our own animals for meat. So far it’s only been chickens, but we just raised the bar another notch with the addition of three pigs to the back yard!

Aren’t they adorable? These little guys are super-cute, and you could sit and watch their antics for hours. They’re the offspring of a large white boar and a black sow, which is supposed to be a good combination for meat flavour (according to a Small Farms magazine I borrowed from the library, anyway!).

They’re like little four-legged disc ploughs – they lower their snouts into the turf and just push, driving through the grass and mounding the dirt out on either side. At times they seem to get almost their whole head underground!

We built a pen for the pigs with barbed wire stretched along the ground to discourage them from digging under the fence, and another run of barbed wire higher up to discourage them from rubbing or pushing against the fence and knocking it over. There are also a couple of strands of normal fencing wire. We’ve put chicken wire around the pen to keep the chooks and ducks out as well.

For shelter, we screwed an old ute canopy onto some heavy timber sleepers. A bale of straw inside, and it’s a very comfortable abode. As you can see, there are plenty of trees in and around the pen to give them nice dappled shade.

These little guys are only about 7 weeks old. We’ll probably take the first one to the abattoir at about 20-25 weeks old, depending how fast they grow. The other two will then be killed at about 25-30 weeks old. Killing one early will give us some idea of how we’re going with meat vs fat development in the others, letting us adjust their feed if need be. It’ll also give us some butchering experience with only one animal to process before taking on the other two – I can’t imagine trying to process all three at once without any prior experience!

Build your own chicken coop.

22 Comments »

  • Anna said:

    I’m so impressed! Pigs are highest on my list of animals to add to our homestead, but Mark has very valid points against them (size, difficulty of slaughtering them ourselves.) But everything I’ve read says that pigs are great at using up food scraps that even chickens won’t eat, and at finding their own food. Please keep us updated!

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Anna: I will! I’ve done research on how to slaughter, clean and butcher them – although we’ll be using an abattoir for now. You can shoot them, and several old hands I’ve talked to say they used to belt them with a ball-pein hammer between the eyes. I know people that hunt with pig dogs, and they slit their throats with a big knife.

    In general they seem pretty easy to look after and they’ll eat pretty much any food. There are rules (here in Australia, anyway) about feeding them kitchen scraps (swill) though. They grow super-fast too! They’ll reach 80-100 kg in 6 months or so, with a dress-out of about 75%.

    I’m especially interested in using pigs to clear out an area for our vegie patch next spring – they seem to do a more thorough job than any rotary cultivator, fertilise as they go, and with the side benefit of bacon at the end!

  • JulieG said:

    Wow, this is a big project! I’ll be interested to see progress photos as they go along. Most of what I know about pigs comes from Michael Pollan and Temple Grandin, so it’ll be fascinating to see how they go in a group of just 3.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @JulieG: No worries, I’ll be taking photos and posting them. I’ve also read Pollan, and am trying to raise them along Joel Salatin lines. Pigs are social animals, so shouldn’t be raised alone. These three are brothers from the same litter, and seem to be having a grand time in their new ‘digs’.

  • Anna said:

    Shooting the pig then dressing it out like a deer was what I was thinking of if we get into hogs — I figure it shouldn’t really be much harder than a deer.

    I’m curious to hear more about the rules around kitchen scraps. Is this only if you’re selling the meat? As far as I know, in the U.S., if you’re eating the meat yourself, you can feed your pigs anything. (Although that might not be true if you use a commercial butcher rather than doing it yourself.)

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Anna: Yeah, that’s the general approach. If you want to keep the skin on, though, you have to roll the pig in a big tub of hot water and scrape it to remove the hair. It’s a hard, messy job. Or you can skin them and forego the crackling. I’m taking mine to the abattoir, who will kill, scrape and gut them and split the carcass in half for $35 per pig. Bargain, I reckon! I’ll then bring the carcass home and butcher it myself – most butchers around here seem to charge about $1.50 per kg to butcher them.

    Here in Australia (and I think Britain is the same), it’s illegal to feed pigs ‘swill’ – kitchen/food scraps that have been in contact with any meat products. So we give them vegie trimmings, old fruit and garden scraps, but not meal leftovers.

  • Jason said:

    Well you beat me to the pigs. I am a bit jealous. I figure your grass in the penned area won’t last longer than a few weeks. I would not worry too much about the swill rules. You can do what you want with your own food. If no one complains, then the governing bodies won’t bother inquiring. Let us know when the first one escapes. 😉

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Jason: I thought you’d be interested! They’ve already turned over most of their pen area, but the grass is still growing in clumps. It won’t be long till it’s all dirt, I’m sure. I know what you mean about feeding the pigs your own way, but you do have to make declarations and sign paperwork at the abattoir or they won’t take them. I’m sure many people do feed swill and don’t declare it, but we’ll be doing things by the book. I’m going public with the project here, after all, and wouldn’t want to get in any trouble! We’ve got plenty of suitable scraps for them anyway, and the kitchen scraps don’t get wasted – the chooks relish them.

    I’m a bit nervous about them escaping, too. I just bought an electric fence energiser yesterday, and will install it this weekend. I think our fence would hold them, but don’t want to risk it!

  • Jason said:

    I did not realise that swill included animal meat. I agree with giving that to the chooks, even clucky chickens will put some effort into getting meat scraps. Smart call on the electrics. We have had a number of pigs escape from some of the neighbours. Once I go down this road, that is what I plan to use.

  • Edwin (Wollongong Fitness) said:

    I just read on wikipedia that “Approximately 45-50% of the animal can be turned into edible products (meat). About 10% are waste, and the remaining 40-45% of the animal are turned into byproducts such as leather, soaps, candles (tallow), and adhesives”. What sort of byproduct will you be getting from from the pigs? I know you can make footballs from the hide and use their heart valves for human heart surgery.

    Where did you get the pigs from and I’m curious to hear how much the pork will cost you per kilogram (purchase cost, feeding, upkeep time and abattoir fees) compared to those in Woolies and Coles.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Edwin: They dress out to about 75%, but that includes bones, trotters, head etc. The blood can also be used to make black sausage and the intestines to make sausage skins, so even that 25% isn’t necessarily waste. I’d rather use the hide to make crackling than footballs, though! Let me know if you want the heart valves.

    The pigs came from a young guy at Albion Park who breeds them for pocket money. I’ll post some more details about costs later, but I figure it’ll cost me about $5-$6 per kilo for the meat we get back (there are a lot of assumptions in that, though!). Even at double that cost it’d be a bargain for humanely-raised pork. I’m not factoring my time into the costs – it’s fun, so I figure I’m getting paid back for that as I go along!

  • Donna said:

    Hey Darren,

    Congrats on the new little addtions. I will be watch to see how it all goes. You guys are doing so great on your sustainable journey. our latest additon is a rabbit. Not for eating LOL its was rileys birthday gift, she is his little precious… one sustaianble attribute that she brings to the family is her dun.. Great for the garden. I clean the cage each day she growls at the gloves.. Take care u guys..

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Donna: Mmm, rabbit :-). I actually just bought some rabbit breeding cages – not sure when I’ll start that little venture. The rabbit manure would certainly be great for the gardens and worm farms!

  • Isobel said:

    I will buy them. Don’t abuse your power, raise these beautiful intellegent pigs and live with them, don’t eat them. They want to live as much as you or I. I will buy them.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Isobel: Have you owned pigs before? “Living with” 3 intact (i.e. not castrated) male boars, who will weigh 250+ kg each when full-grown, would be difficult, expensive and potentially dangerous. They only stay cute little piggies like Babe for a couple of months, and will be 120 kg by six months old. These are meat animals, being raised ethically as an alternative for my family to intensive, confinement-based factory farmed pork products. They have an excellent quality of life.

    The reality is that some animals must die for others to live. We are all part of an interconnected system. Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, omnivore or whatever, animals are dying in your food production chain. I’m choosing to take control of some of that food production myself, so that the animals involved are cared for, live well, die humanely, and are fully appreciated.

  • Isobel said:

    Don’t assume I am only interested in “Babe-like” pigs, it only makes an [expletive deleted – children read this blog] out of you. I have extensively read about and stayed with adult pigs. I believe it was Einstein who quoted that the best diet was a vegetarian one. Which is more sustainable un-argueably. It is possible to live without meat which would be the true meaning of a “green-change” in the end your only downsizing the pollution, but it is by no means “green”. These animals still emitt the same amount of CO2 as they usually would. The more sane alternative is vegetable farming which uses less resources and produces less emissions.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Isobel: Let’s keep it civil, please. Remember you’re a guest here on my site.

    Animals emitting CO2 is not an issue. They’re part of the normal fast-carbon cycle (animals eat plants, animals emit CO2, plants turn CO2 into new growth, animals eat plants, etc). Even if the number of animals were reduced, the carbon would still be returning to the atmosphere through decay of the plant matter.

    The CO2 we really need to be concerned about is that which was once locked away for the long term in fossil fuel deposits, now being released by the burning of oil, coal, gas, etc. This is “new” carbon being added to the current ecosystem, and throwing it out of balance. Deforestation makes this problem worse – which is one reason I’d like to see more people grow food in their backyards instead of on inefficient industrial monocrop farms (but I digress!).

    One gas we do need to be concerned about with intensive factory-farmed animals is methane, a potent greenhouse gas. It’s emitted when ruminants are fed grain (as in beef feedlots), and when manure is allowed to decay anaerobically (as in manure ponds). My pigs are fed a healthy diet, and their manure is composted for the garden, so their methane emissions are much lower.

    By the way, their CO2 and methane emissions would be just as much if you or I kept them as pets. Actually, they’d be higher because they’d live longer and grow much larger.

    The evidence I’ve seen suggests to me that intelligently adding animals to a system (farm, vegetable garden, etc) actually increases the output of that system, without increasing its “pollution”. They quickly cycle crop wastes into fertiliser, they contribute work (tilling soil, eating pests, etc), provide food (eggs, meat, milk) and give other useful products (wool, leather, feathers, etc).

    I’m interested that you promote a vegetarian diet, and not a vegan one. Is that deliberate, or am I reading too much into your wording? I don’t know if you approve of eating eggs or drinking milk, but both of those involve the killing of animals (not to mention potentially inhumane treatment, depending upon the production methods).

    A vegetarian/vegan diet isn’t necessarily green or healthy – one could be eating meat-free high-calorie junk food grown in industrial monocultures and imported from around the world. But that’s an extreme example, and it’s true that a typical vegetarian diet has less impact than a typical western diet. No argument from me there. The modern food system is broken.

    If you raised your own meat, and ate less of it than most, and grew a substantial portion of your own fruits and vegetables, and did it all organically/sustainably, you’d have a much smaller footprint than most western vegetarians, though. That’s the ideal I’m working towards.

    Humans evolved to eat meat, and I’m convinced that it should be a part of our diet for long-term health. I have no problem with people who choose not to eat meat, as long as they respect my choice.

    I’m pretty sure we both agree that western cultures eat too much meat, most of it raised in the wrong way. We probably agree that most of the grains, fruits, and vegetables grown in western countries are grown the wrong way too.

    I’d rather focus on our common values than on the small areas where we disagree.

  • JulieG said:

    Isobel, I’m not sure that insulting Darren is the best way to convince him of your points. Did you want to maybe rephrase things a little? Also, regarding the CO2, the methods used in raising, feeding and caring for the animals need to be accounted for as well, and Darren’s method will create fewer emissions than a factory farm would.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @JulieG: I’m happy that you can see where I’m coming from with this project. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  • Jason said:

    I will add some points as well to this meaty discussion.

    Fruitarians truly have the least amount of impact in the type of food that they consume, particularly when they eat organic fruit. But like anything else, growing food displaces other natural systems which used to exist in the area, but this is the least destructive. So Isobel if you are truly concerned about your own impact, do consider Fruitarianism. A good book to read is Fruitarianism The Path To Paradise if you want to know more.

    That said, when growing fruit organically, there will be huge pest pressures. In order to mitigate them, it is best to include animals into mix which, for instance, eat spoiled fruit instead of it breeding more pests (e.g. QLD or Med fruit fly being a prime example).

    So if you are now going to have animals helping you managing your food production system, you should think about breeding them yourself (to be more sustainable of course). Any associated litters or clutches will have around 50% males. If allowed to mature, there would be lots of fights impacting upon the well being of less strong males as well as the wellbeing of the females (ever seen what happens to a duck when a number of drakes are around – not a pretty sight). So the best way to deal with this is to cull some of them (speaking as a meat eater). There are other options as well, but in the case of chickens, roosters are very hard to get rid of due to various restrictions.

    The fact is, no matter what means you choose to sustain yourself, there are implications to your existence on this planet. Other creatures get hurt. While I like to minimise harm for other creatures to what is absolutely necessary, we are part of a natural system. With a proper systems in place, people have the ability to raise their own food on a much more productive way with less destructive impacts then ever before.

    Well done Darren for going down this path!

  • johnny fleming said:

    This is wonderful. And you will probly live longer raising your own meat. Im sure many people could start doing this if they have the yard space. Every little bit helps. I hate the coal power plants. Im going to encourage everyone to use wind and solar. Also im a big fan of hybrid cars and trucks they seem to run the cleanest…. support. My website please its off topic but we are going to use our profits to promote Green. Energy. Thanks

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Johnny: Thanks for the compliment. Pigs are a bit big for backyards, but certainly smaller animals like quails, chickens, rabbits, etc are fairly easy to breed and look after. When you grow your own meat, you also tend to value it more and use it more carefully, so you actually end up with less meat in your diet overall – especially if you’re also growing your own vegies. More vegies and less meat would be a big improvement to the standard “western” diet.