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Farrow to Finish: To Market, To Market

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The old nursery rhyme says, “to Market, to market to buy a fat pig,” but in the case of our farrow to finish litter it’s more like, “to market, to market because they’re fat pigs.”

Though it’s taken me a bit to put together an update, these pictures were taken about three and a half months after our last check-in. The pigs are pictured at about six and a half months old and weigh between 250 and 300 pounds each. The barrows (boys) tend to be a bit bigger than the gilts (girls), but there are always big gilts and small barrows who buck the trend.

These pigs have been spending their days doing much the same thing they were in the last update: eating, sleeping, pooping, and growing. They’ve enjoyed free-access to feed since they were weaned, and have consumed between three and four times their body weight in feed and at least twice that much in water. Since these pigs were farrowed in the winter they’ve “come of age” in the warm temperatures of late spring and early summer. This means they’ve used more water than the same type of pigs born in the summer and brought to market weight in the fall and winter. Since pigs don’t sweat they need water to cool down when it’s hot outside and drink more to keep cool as well.

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Even the gilts, who tend to be leaner than the barrows at this age, have a nice cover of fat and are considered “finished” at this point. Most pigs, whether conventionally or alternatively raised, are sent to be processed into pork between 260 and 275 pounds. Some will be sent as light as 240 pounds and others as heavy as about 300.* The reason for sending pigs to the processor at a certain weight isn’t because of their size, but their “finish.” The finish refers to the fat cover and marbling of the meat, which is what gives the cuts their flavor and keeps them from drying out too much during cooking. This is also the reason for the relatively wide range of weights at which it might be best to send a particular pig to market. Pigs who are naturally fatter will put on a good fat cover younger and at a lighter total body weight than pigs who are naturally more lean. While each breed or type of pig will tend to be built in a specific way and finish out at a specific age you can have a wide variety of body types and builds even within the same litter — especially with hybrid, or crossbred pigs. (Think mutts in dogs.)

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To get finished hogs from the farm to the processor they have to be herded out of their pens and onto a livestock trailer. For our little farm a small trailer is sufficient, but for bigger farms the trailers are usually the size of a semi-truck or tractor-trailer, depending on what they’re called in your region. Regardless of size these trailers have either slats or holes on the sides to allow airflow to the pigs during transport.

During the loading process alley ways and loading chutes that are solidly built and not much wider than the pigs themselves can be helpful in both minimizing risk to farmers and reducing stress for the pigs. We use hog boards or cutting boards and rattle paddles to move the pigs around and keep them headed in the right direction. Hog boards are solid boards made of a strong, but light weight plastic. Pigs don’t usually try to go through things they can’t see through, so by having a solid board we can move around it’s easy to direct them. A rattle paddle is probably a lot less scary than it sounds. It’s the green and white tool you see in front of the hog boards in the photo below and is basically an oversized baby rattle. The thin green plastic box on the end of the long white handle contains small beads so that it makes a rattling noise when you shake it. The noise repels the pigs and the long handle acts as an extension of the arm, allowing us to head pigs off or turn them around from a few feet further away than we would have to be in order to do it by hand. These tools are common to both conventional and alternative farms, and neither hurts or harms the pigs in anyway.

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With a little pre-planning, the right infrastructure, and a bit of experience virtually all hogs can be loaded onto a trailer with minimal stress. Because most pigs are hauled just once in their entire lives the trailer is new and the loading process is, too. This causes some apprehension in the animals and virtually all farmers and transporters do everything they can to minimize the stress for the pigs, which in turn helps to reduce the risk of injury to the farm and transport workers who must load them. Even on our little farm where most of the pigs are accustomed to personal interaction and trust their handlers however, there can be pigs who have other ideas about whether or not they’re going to get on that trailer. When this happens sometimes we have to be more physically forceful in order to get the hog where it needs to go. There are a number of ways to do this; none of them are fun and all of them have their pros and cons.

One way is with another tool, an electric prod that gives a brief electric poke or shock to the pig, usually on it’s rump. This does cause a brief moment of pain for the pig, but is more shocking than anything and is among the safest ways to handle a particularly difficult animal for farm workers. It does excite the pig which can make them even more difficult to handle, but since a prod is usually a very last resort generally the pig is already excited to the point of being impossible to control. (Remember: these are animals made of almost pure muscle and weighing in at nearly 300 pounds.) We actually do not use prods, but our way of moving difficult and excited hogs (by having to manually force them two or three people against one pig however, is probably just as stressful for the animal and more dangerous for us so I won’t say it’s any better, just different. This, like castration, is simply one of those necessary but unpleasant chores that come with raising livestock for meat. Fortunately, the problem pigs are few and far between.

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*Some pigs may be sent to market outside this weight range as well, but it is a small minority. Lighter pigs are usually not finished and result in poor quality pork. Heavier pigs are usually too fat and also result in poor quality pork. The exception would be pigs for roasting and for making suckling pig on holidays. Hog roasts usually utilize a smaller pig in the 180-240 weight range for ease of handling, and suckling pigs are, of course, much smaller at just 20-40 pounds live weight.

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f2fbuttonIn the swine industry the term “Farrow to Finish” is used to describe farms that raise pigs from birth to the point at which they’re ready to be processed into pork. (From “Farrow” to “Finish”.) Farrow to Finish here is a series of posts following one litter of pigs through that process. Each post is designed with the consumer in mind and offers information about how pigs become pork chops (and so many other pork products). Because we run an alternative hog operation we’ve made it a point to note the instances where differences might exist if these pigs were being brought up in a conventional operation. In most cases however, there are more similarities than differences. You can find more Farrow to Finish posts on the Pigs to Pork Page.

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