It’s that time of year again: feeder pig time! If there’s anything I love as much as raising pigs, it’s getting others hooked on raising pigs. I’m like a drug dealer who deals exclusively in swine.
And it works because the pigs themselves are like potato chips, you can’t have just one. No, literally, you can’t (shouldn’t) have just one. Pigs are incredibly social animals, which is why we sell them in groups of two or more. Not only does having another pig around increase their mental and emotional health, they thrive physically when there is another animal of their kind as well. Being competitive animals, they eat more, grow faster, and are generally both healthier and happier with a little friendly competition.
So what — besides two or more pigs — do you need to raise feeder pigs in your backyard?
When it comes to fencing you have a few options. Hog panels are probably the simplest and cheapest if you have no existing infrastructure and plan to keep your pigs in a small to medium sized pen. Made of 4 and 5 gauge steel, panels are heavy duty enough to keep hogs in without too much extra reinforcement and can be attached to both wood fence posts and metal t-posts. They come in 16 foot lengths and for two feeder pigs a square pen made of four panels will work as long as the ground they’re on drains well. Bigger is fine as well, but smaller won’t work as well. Panels usually cost between twenty and thirty dollars each. Panels come in many heights and designs. Hog panels are shorter than cattle panels and have smaller holes on the bottom to prevent escapee piglets.
For large pens, paddocks, and pastures hog panels can be prohibitively expensive. For these electric or a combination of electric and woven wire or field fencing is best. Like panels, field fencing comes in a variety of heights. For pigs the 32 and 39 inch heights is usually enough, though in some places they can be harder to find. The price difference between these and the taller, 4 foot woven wire fencing of the same design is usually incremental so choose whichever you prefer and can find easily. Because woven wire is not as sturdy as panels on its own you will either want to reinforce it with wood rails or with a strand of electric on the inside to keep the pigs from pushing through or rooting under it.
Electric fencing can also be used alone, but the pigs will need to be trained to it first. Pigs lack a reliable back-up button so when they first get shocked they’re prone to running through an electric fence if there is not anything there to visually remind them to back up instead. By running the electric first through a small corner of a hard pen or on the inside of woven wire the pigs learn what the electric wire is with the reinforcement of a visual fence. Once they’ve learned to avoid the electric wire they can be moved to an electric only set-up. Wherever you use electric you want it right at snout level, this ensure that when they get shocked it’s usually as close to the front of their body as possible, which also helps encourage them to back up rather than run forward.
Pigs love to eat — live for it, really — and they’re not called hogs for nothing. In recent years raising pigs on pasture and the marketing of grass-fed meats has become quite trendy. We, ourselves, give our pigs access to pasture. It’s important however, to understand that the role of pasture in a pig’s diet is not the same as the role of pasture in, say, a cow’s diet. Where cows are built to turn forage into meat (and milk), pigs are not. Pigs are single-stomached animals who have been raised on concentrated feedstuffs for many hundreds of years. They require a protein rich diet and a heaping helping of digestible energy with a relatively little bit of fiber on the side. Pigs will enjoy and appreciate access to pasture if you’re able to give it to them, but they’ll still need access to a concentrated feed to make their nutritional ends meet, so to speak.
Now, understand that you can raise a pig on just about anything, but the further their diet becomes from being balanced, the more feed they require to make the same amount of meat. And this goes in both directions. People often assume that because pigs need protein, for instance, that more protein is automatically better, but that’s not always the case. More protein, if unbalanced, will just be passed through the body and excreted as nitrogen. More is not always better, balanced is best. Sometimes an unbalanced diet can be had for so few pennies that the sacrifice to growth rate is offset by the savings in feed costs, but before you decide to “save money” by feeding an alternative diet, it’s a good idea to be aware that it’s not always the case.
When in doubt a good ground or pelletized hog ration, pre-formulated by a livestock nutritionist for a commercial feed house or your local feed mill is always a good bet. With a balanced ration, in moderate weather a pig will consume an average of 800-1000 pounds of feed to reach market weight, usually at the rate of 3-5% of their bodyweight per day.
Shelter & Bedding.
Because you’re just keeping a couple of feeder pigs over the course of a few months in the summer, very basic shelter will be plenty. A shady place to get out of the sun and a dry place to get out of the rain is plenty. Shelters can be constructed of everything from free wooden shipping pallets to half-moon livestock panel hoops and tarps. Pigs appreciate bedding materials to make their sleeping quarters a little more comfortable. They will go through relatively little bedding material in the summer months. A few small square bales of straw is usually enough.
Pigs love to eat and you know what they say about how things that go up have to come back down? Well, things that go in have to come back out. Pig manure is an excellent source of fertilizer for vegetable gardens and flower beds. Pre-plan a place to compost the manure and spent bedding so you can make good use of it the following growing season.
Chances are you won’t have to worry about your feeder pig’s health. They’ll be with you a relatively short amount of time and the grand majority of feeder pigs make it from birth to bacon without so much as a speed bump in their well-being. That said, before you bring a couple of pigs home it’s a good idea to find out where the nearest livestock veterinarian is located and make a note of his or her phone number. Simply having that name and number handy can be a great comfort if something does go wrong.
There are conflicting opinions about the use of routine worming products in meat animals and we realize that many hobby hog keepers are doing so to limit the use of and their exposure to chemicals and medications in the food supply. That said, we do recommend anti-parasitic treatment. Internal parasites can wreak havoc on an animal’s health and no one really wants to eat pork from a pig that was riddled with worms. Our feeder pigs receive two doses of ivermectin before leaving our farm to ensure they come to you as parasite free as possible. We recommend you worm them one or two more times while you have them. Ivermectin can be purchased right at your nearest feed store or Tractor Supply Company. It is the same drug that is used to treat parasites in humans, especially in third world countries where it is an ongoing problem, and the anti-parasitic drug approved for use on organic operations where their parasite protocols are not sufficient to keep parasite levels under control.
When you pick up your feeder pigs, because they’re roughly the size of a small dog a large dog crate is often enough to get them home safely, but when it comes time to take them to market a much bigger space will be needed. If you don’t own an adequate trailer or pickup truck and a way to load them, start planning early to hire someone or get help from a friend.
A Processor and A Freezer.
I know it sounds silly, but this is one aspect of hog rearing you don’t want to take for granted. There are not as many processors as there once was and many are booked out many weeks and even months in advance. Find a processor and call early to make your appointment if you don’t plan on processing your pigs yourself. Likewise, each pig will produce around 150 to 180 pounds of final pork products (depending on how long you grow them out), you’ll need more than the freezer that comes with your refrigerator to store the bounty.
BONUS: Patience and Resolve.
Don’t forget that pigs are animals and strong, occasionally stubborn animals at that. For most of your experience they’ll probably be a joy to interact with, but there may be occasions on which you and your pig will disagree about what needs to happen. Be patient, remain calm, and try to work smart rather than hard if you can.
Coming Soon: So You Want to Breed Hogs; the beginning farmer’s version of this guide.