Friday, February 1, 2013

Processed Pork–Year two of raising pigs

Ending an animal’s life is never an easy decision to make - it shouldn’t be – but we’d bought the four Berkshire piglets for the purpose of raising them in a healthy environment while they grew to a weight where it no longer was cost effective for us to feed them. At that point, they would become a source of meat for our family and a few friends. It’s a very interesting arrangement we’ve established with these animals, but not really much different than that between the lion and the gazelle or the bear and the salmon or the owl and the prairie mouse. There’s a food chain and we just so happen to be fairly close to the top of it.


Just as other predators will migrate with prey, nomadic tribes 12,000 years ago learned that they could follow herds of animals for a predictable source of food. About 2,000 years later - whether motivated by a desire to cultivate crops or because of migrations of prey out of their area due to changing environmental conditions - they began to contain these animals in proximity to more permanent settlements. Consistent access to hides, wool and bones as well as the use of animals to provide power and fertility (manure) for agriculture allowed for concentration of populations into villages, towns and ultimately cities where surplus food could be stored and distributed. Consolidated agricultural operations and central markets shifted ex-farmers into newly-established, specialized professions like baker, shoemaker and spinster. Unfortunately, it also created the need for bankers, lawyers and soldiers. In fact, the word capital comes from a word meaning “head,” referring to cattle which comes from “chattel” or “moveable property” (as opposed to real estate). This transition, known as the Neolithic Revolution, may well have been the first roots of capitalism.


While it may be understandable that these animals have become a commodity – a dowry. a product that “goes to market” or something that could be traded for land - it’s only in the past 100 years or so that farming practices have adopted some of the same “efficiencies” that were developed in manufacturing plants, treating living things as mere ‘inputs” in the manufacture of a product called meat. Ancient hunters knew that their very existence relied on these animals, and they performed ceremonies to demonstrate their respect and gratitude for their sacrifice. Farmers and homesteaders have known that without the family cow or a market hog, they wouldn’t have milk, cheese, butter, meat or hides, and they took good care of their animals. But recently, populations have become increasingly detached from the source of their meat just as factory farming practices have been increasingly hidden.

To tell ya the truth, I never thought much about it before a couple years ago. I went to the grocery store, found the lowest price and bought some. Ironically, we were all raised as kids on stories and songs of the farm: Old McDonald, Mary Had a Little Lamb, The Farmer in the Dell, The Cow Jumped over the Moon. Heck, This Little Piggy Went to Market even directly references selling a pig for slaughter. And c’mon kids, didn’t it ever occur to you that chicken might come from, oh I don’t know, chickens? But we love the imagery of the farm and had come to terms with the fact that some of these animals were being raised for the dinner plate. Yes, it’s a bit of an unpleasant reality for those who choose to eat meat; A living thing has to be sacrificed to provide the meal. But as more and more information comes out about the typical conditions in a factory farm environment – whether for chickens, pigs, cattle, sheep, you name it – the old reality of knowing that a few animals that have been raised with respect and gratitude would have to “go to market” to provide for my family, seems much easier to accept than the alternative.



On our property, pigs live on grass, root beneath oak trees, drink from a seasonal stream and have free access to organic feed. Actually, the organic feed is the one thing I’d like to change about how they’re raised, removing the externality of transporting the grain to the feed mill from wherever it’s grown (note to self: ask where that is!), but based on what I’ve read, they can’t live on grass alone, and I’m not quite ready to plant an acre or two of corn for them to “self-harvest.” Still, the feed we use is milled and packaged less than 5 miles from us.




After a couple months in an 100’ x 50’ area, about 1/8 of an acre, we decided to give them even more space to run. Using a wall of one of the old chicken houses as part of the fence, we opened up almost 1/2 an acre for them. The first year we got pigs, I had been convinced by the Internet that they would be constantly trying to escape. I’d added a single strand of electric wire at snout level in addition to the electric mesh fencing and checked it all diligently. Maybe these pigs had become conditioned to the threat of the shock from the fence because, in addition to having to be coaxed out of their smaller enclosure, they never really seemed to test the far end of the fence in their new one. In fact, from time to time, I’d take that fence down and let them roam under some other oak trees on the other side that were littering the ground with acorns only to find them back in their shelter at dusk.

By 5 1/2 months of age, they were eating close to 10 pounds of a food a day. With the increasing price of corn and the additional expense of organic, we were paying an average of $0.45 per pound - $4.50 a day per pig and $18 for all four. Based on last year’s weights of 180 and 200 pounds, I guessed the females were 220 and the males were 240 or 250, dwarfing little 100 pound Petunia (upper in the pic). It was time to schedule the butcher. 


We use what they call a “ranch butcher” who works closely with our processor. When we tell people we raise our own pigs, the first question is often “Do you butcher them yourself?” While I know we could learn the skills to do it, I don’t see any reason not to have it done by a professional with the experience and equipment to do it quickly, cleanly and without wasting any meat. I force myself to be present while they’re killed, but honestly, while last year I felt sad – at least until I realized that those two pigs meant two that wouldn’t be raised packed indoors on a concrete slab – this year my emotions went more quickly to satisfaction how they’d been treated and appreciation for the quality of meat we’d soon have in our freezer. I’ve described the process in last year’s post, so I won’t go into the gory details again, but suffice to say that within 20 minutes or so, each pig is transformed into two sides of meat hanging in the butcher’s truck.

A couple days later, I got a call from the processor requesting cut instructions. With each pig divided into two sides, it’s possible to have each side made into a different variety of cuts. Having learned a lot from last year when we opted for a little of everything, this year we asked for a few of the shoulders to be used for more ground pork which we’d run out of making tacos, meatballs, pork burgers, lasagna, spaghetti sauce, etc and more of the ham sliced into 1lb packages instead of 4lb hams that took longer to defrost for a last minute picnic. Below are lists of what we got from three of the pigs. It’s interesting to note that a hanging weight of 70% of live weight is pretty typical as is a packaged weight that is 80% of hanging weight. In the end, that means you’ll end up with about 60% of the live weight of a pig by the time you get it in the freezer.

While we enjoy having the pigs around while they’re here, they’re not really the kind that you get attached to. They’re skittish and wild, the way they should be, instead of being bred for a docile willingness to live in close confinement. We’ll definitely plan to have them again next year, likely a few more given the interest from an increasing number of people to reserve a half or quarter for their families. The plan is to get some access to more local feed including plans to plant a good sized pumpkin patch for Wynne and her friends which should have plenty of extras for them. And, based on how happy they were this year, we’ll probably give them even more space to roam. Hey, it beats migrating with them.