Heidi M Sands has excellent advice on buying your first pigs.

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Many smallholders consider pig keeping and there’s no doubt about it, pigs can be a delightful addition to a smallholding enterprise. Getting the right pigs for your situation and ensuring they are cared for correctly can make all the difference to the success of a first foray into pig keeping.

It pays to have a plan and to consider what you want your pigs for before you do anything else. There are several ways to start out in pigs. Purchasing a couple of weaners and rearing them for pork production or buying breeding stock for breeding are the main ways that smallholders get into pigs.

Weaners

Smallholder:

Weaners are piglets that have just left their mother. They should be feeding well and be healthy. They need not be of a particular breed, unless you require a carcass of a particular size or weight, or have a particular breed in mind. It pays to consider though the area that you are going to keep your weaners in, for they will of course grow over the time they are with you and depending on breed, they may require more space as they grow. Two weaners will need approximately 10 x 10 metres, but the more space you can afford them the better. Pigs being kept for pork production may be kept in or outside or a combination of both.

Outside space

Pigs kept outside will root, that’s to say they will turn the ground up. This can be useful in some situations, especially if you want to follow your pigs on with growing vegetables; pigs can turn the ground up and remove weeds to great effect. However, not everyone wants their ground turned up by pigs in which case there are some breeds less inclined to do so, in this case consider the Berkshire.

Fencing for pigs must be stock proof and one of the best ways to do this is to opt for electric fencing. Various types are available but always ensure that it is buried in the ground as well as being high enough to deter any pigs that may jump. The Tamworth can be particularly difficult to keep in, and remember that a weaner will grow and what may be an adequate fence for a pig of a few weeks old may not be by the time it’s at pork weight.

Welfare

Purchasing weaners in the spring as the weather improves and keeping them through the better months of the year, feeding them on waste garden materials, allowing them to forage for themselves and adding in bagged pig feed where required should have your pigs to the required weight within three or four months.

Ensure that your pigs have somewhere warm, clean and dry to lie. This should be sheltered; pigs can suffer from sunstroke as well as from bad weather. Most pig keepers utilise a pig ark for this purpose and homemade is often just as good as bought in, in this case. If you can provide a wallow; somewhere shallow that you can fill with water so much the better but don’t worry if not it’s not absolutely necessary. Clean water should always be available and a feeding area should also be provided.

Locating a good litter of pigs from which to buy is paramount. Buying from a reputable breeder is probably the best way to purchase weaners; always see the litter and their mother, ensure they are healthy and that all documents are correct and available before purchase.

Smallholder:

Breeding stock

If you decide to purchase breeding stock ensure that you buy the best you can afford and ensure they conform to the breed standard as closely as possible. Breed societies are able to offer advice in this respect and also have sales lists that may be of interest to purchasers.

Breeding stock can be bought in a number of ways. Buying an in pig sow is probably the quickest way of establishing a herd. This also does away with the need to obtain the services of a boar or artificially inseminating her. You can also purchase a good quality weaner and rear her to breed from. This is however a longer route and will mean waiting approximately nine months until she can be served and a further three months, three weeks and three days until she farrows. Whichever way you choose to go always ensure that you are buying registered stock.

As with stock purchased for meat production, all breeding stock should be healthy. Regardless of age, pigs should be well covered; not too fat and not too thin. Skin should be mobile and in good condition, red, raw or rubbed areas indicate problems and problems are best avoided. A healthy pig should walk freely without obvious signs of lameness or stiffness. Temperament is also important as you are going to be working closely with the animal and especially if it is going to come in contact with children. Any pig that shows signs of viciousness or unpredictability should be avoided, as these are not traits to be considered in any breeding programme.

Many of the considerations given to pigs kept for meat production will also apply to breeding stock. A single breeding sow and her litter will need an area of approximately 2.4 x 1.8 metres. Dry sows or those in pig, can be kept together in small groups and your weaners will need their own area until they can be sold. As your enterprise grows so will your requirements, so allow enough room for future expansion if at all possible.

Smallholder:

Ensure you choose the right breed for your situation and expectations. Lop eared pigs such as the Large Black and Gloucester Old Spot are generally considered good types for novice pig keepers due to their docility. The Berkshire is another breed often considered by pig keepers just starting out. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Ladies pig’ the Berkshire is a medium size, good-looking and easily managed pig. Tamworths are to be aspired to; they can be more difficult to keep and require experience to get the best out of them.

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This article first appeared in Smallholder magazine. To make sure you don't miss out, subscribe or buy from your local newsagent.