So You Want to Raise Pigs

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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?

Fences.

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. All of our feeder pigs come trained to electric because we use it on the inside of our woven-wire fences. Usually they can be put directly in an electric only enclosure when you get them home, but be sure you have time to monitor for accidental shocks and escapes just in case. Also note that this is not often the case with feeder pigs coming from other farms so it’s best to ask your farmer before you plan on an electric only pen. 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.

Food.

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.

Compost.

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.

Health Care.

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.

Transport.

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.

Happy Hogging!

Coming Soon: So You Want to Breed Hogs; the beginning farmer’s version of this guide.

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Farming Hog Farming 101

{ 18 comments… add one }

  • Old Brodbeck Farm March 21, 2013, 3:28 pm

    Good article. What about predation? We have coyotes and feral dogs, and it seems like a 32 inch fence could be hopped quite easily. There are quite a few hog dogs around too. Do you have any issues with predators? Thanks

    Reply
    • Diana March 21, 2013, 6:31 pm

      That’s an excellent question. We do have dogs, coyotes, etc in the area, but we do not have an issue with predation on the pigs. But we have bigger pigs which are quite a deterrent in and of themselves as well as our own farm dogs that patrol the property. If you’re in a heavy predation area and have only small pigs I’d recommend one of two things: either make their shelter such that you can close them up at night or in the case of predators that would be a threat both day and night you could include a strand of electric at the top and on the outside of the fences. Unfortunately, even the taller woven wire and cattle panels are not dog or coyote proof.

      Reply
  • mitch bly December 14, 2013, 9:56 am

    “it takes 2 hogs to make a pig but only one pig to make a hog”

    Reply
  • Kayla January 30, 2014, 2:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Diana. You are an excellent explainer. I am curious, do you have a book on raising pigs that you recommend? I am looking for a bit more detailed information for raising pigs. Thanks, Kayla

    Reply
  • Tim February 21, 2014, 4:40 pm

    I am thinking about getting a breeding pair to produce a re-current source of Pork for my family. I have been trying to plan my pen and I was thinking of using wood pallets inplace of wire or panels. Have you had any experience with this style of pig pens? Also, if you supplement their forage with kitchen scraps and what not, do you have to feed them the manufactured feed?

    Reply
    • Diana February 22, 2014, 7:28 pm

      We’ve used pallets for shelters in the past and so long as they are in good shape and well-braced with proper lumber they hold up well.

      Do you have to feed them proper pig feed? I’m not the boss of you, so no. You don’t have to do anything.

      Do I think you should? Would I recommend it? Absolutely. For a few reasons, not the least of which is that you will be hard pressed to meet their nutritional needs with kitchen scraps and forage. This is especially true when they are growing, gestating, and nursing. And will be important just prior to when you want them to conceive as well. You get out what you put in; poor nutrition begets poor performance.

      Reply
  • Denise March 2, 2014, 10:58 pm

    we just purchased am 8 week old pig. It is a Yorkshire/hamshire cross. He sleeps all of the time – we have even had to go in to wake him from the hay – I know he is eating and drinking because the mash and the water are going away. Just wondering how much sleep an 8 week old needs.

    Reply
    • Diana March 8, 2014, 12:52 pm

      Hi Denise,

      Sorry about the delay. This comment got buried in spam. Eight week old pigs do sleep a lot, but it is not normal for them to completely ignore you when you come out. They should, at the very least, be curious about you. Did you buy just one? Is he living alone, or do you have other pigs with him?

      I refuse to sell anyone just one pig unless I know they are going to join an established herd. They are herd animals and become depressed easily when forced to live alone. Depression causes poor food and water intake, poor growth and potentially poor health. I would recommend getting another pig if he is, in fact, alone. And reconsider the farmer you’re buying from. If they are irresponsible enough to sell you just one, they are likely irresponsible in other ways to the detriment of the animals as well.

      Reply
  • ADAM March 28, 2014, 6:27 pm

    We just bought a pair of pigs to raise for meat. Our local feed store carries and recomends 4-in-1 feed to raise them on and a 9-in-1 to finish them with. They also recommend monthly worming with Safeguard pellets. Just courious as to your thoughts on this recommendation.?

    Reply
  • Vince April 21, 2014, 4:41 pm

    I’m looking for heritage feeder pig in Northern CA and not having much luck. Do you have any suggestions?
    Thanks,
    Vince

    Reply
    • alia May 19, 2014, 11:45 am

      A year or two ago I bought a couple chickens from a breeder in Sacramento that specializes in heritage and heirloom breeds. When I got my chickens, she had just started raising pigs. Can’t remember what breed, they were black.

      Reply
  • Mike from Wantage, NJ June 19, 2014, 12:43 pm

    Hi Diana!

    Thanks for posting this excellent overview. I’m very interested in raising/breeding these little guys for my family consumption and have a couple of questions please:

    1) It’s now mid July; is it too late in the year to start and if so what time of the year should one decide to purchase piglets so that they stand a good chance of making it through the winter?
    2) What price is fair for a piglet so that I know I’m not getting hosed?
    3) What breed of pig should I look for?

    Thanks a bunch in advance and I look forward to your reply!

    Kine Regrads,
    Mike

    Reply
    • Diana June 22, 2014, 2:21 pm

      Mike,

      1) No, it’s not too late. Pigs purchased now would have been born 6-8 weeks ago. And will be ready for the freezer at about 6 months of age, assuming a sufficient diet and care. Which means pigs purchased now would be ready October to November-ish.

      2) Prices vary widely by geography, type of pigs, etc. If you find quality pigs under $100 this year it will be a steal. I would say don’t be surprised to pay $125-$175 or more right now.

      3) Depends a lot on your setup. Crossbreds pigs are always a great choice for feeders; all else equal, they grow faster and are more feed efficient than purebreds.

      Reply
  • Steve July 4, 2014, 3:38 pm

    I’m thinking of keeping pigs as well. I have a 25-acre farm in central Virginia where we keep chickens (exclusively for eggs) and grow vegetables, pumpkins, and shiitake mushrooms. Pigs are supposedly the fifth most intelligent animal (ahead of dogs by some estimates), so I have a little difficulty with the idea of killing them OR sending them out to be “processed.” They are interesting animals, and I like the fact that they tend to stay healthy and not impose huge veterinary bills. Also we could use their manure. I dunno, maybe I’ll get three and keep them as pets (I can and will build them a fine, spacious facilities). Or perhaps the way for me to go is to keep a boar as well, breed them, and sell the piglets. I’m very kind to animals and I hope all of you are as well. Please remember NEVER to slap them on their behinds (or anywhere else)—it might seem playful to you, but they hate that and will hate you for it.

    Reply
    • Diana July 20, 2014, 2:19 pm

      Steve:

      Intelligence is, in every case, relative. A fish is awfully genius at surviving underwater, but rather an idiot at Poker Tournaments and Calculus. Since humans are rather genius at being self-centered, we naturally judge the intelligence of any given species relative to our own. Which means species with the type of intelligence we can either mould or identify as similar to our own in some way are, of course, dubbed more intelligent than other species. This, to me, seems a rather flawed system and makes the opposition to slaughter solely as a function of supposed intelligence a moot point, but to each his own.

      To address a couple things: 1) Swine only “stay healthy and not impose huge veterinary bills” so far as you actively seek to keep them healthy, just as any other species — smart, dumb or otherwise, including humans. And, 2) I’m not sure who is playfully slapping animals on their behinds, but that sounds like an activity for an entirely different type of website. (I joke.) Seriously, though, pigs and other animals have a much different scale of what is appropriate physical contact. In any case, it is a good idea to observe the animals and learn their language. They will show you how to most effectively communicate with them if only you listen. As to their “behinds” specifically, it is a good idea to avoid that area as well as the shoulder as it can compromise meat quality in the ham and roasts. If you should need to tap a pig to get them moving, a tap along the ribs, behind the shoulder will do the trick.

      Reply
  • Steve July 20, 2014, 8:07 pm

    Hi Diana, and thanks for your comment. I certainly understand that the health of any type of livestock is dependent on good care by the human owners. We treat our chickens almost (but not quite) like pets. Even chickens, when cared for properly and given wonderful, natural conditions and loads of space, display complexity of behavior and intelligence that the typical suburban or urban person would never imagine. Most people grow up being taught that chickens are dumb, but this is far from true. They learn things, have personalities, and interact with one another in all sorts of fascinating ways. I never tire of watching them. And when I or my wife sits near them, they come and hop up on our lap. They relate to us.

    Pigs have much larger brains than chickens, and the anatomy is startlingly similar to that of the human brain.

    You state that intelligence is in every case relative but then go on to criticize that sort of thinking.

    I think that there are many kinds of intelligence, that we don’t even begin to understand what it’s like to be another being (animal or human), and that killing animals (or people) is an act that stains our souls but that we are very good at rationalizing.

    I’ve never kept pigs so I’m ignorant about keeping them. I read the warning about slapping them on their behinds, playfully or otherwise, on a website run by a humane pig raiser.

    I’m not opposed to slaughter, as you implied, but I do see both sides of the coin on that. I’m conflicted. What I am opposed to, totally, is the factory farm and the umpteen-thousand-mile supply system. Everybody should try to buy their meat locally from humane producers they check out themselves.

    Reply
  • Jason July 28, 2014, 3:23 pm

    Diana,

    I was wanting to raise about 2 pigs for meat. I live in a township. I know the smell can get over whelming, but what advise can you give me on controlling it. Would a dirt pin be manageable or if I just concrete it. I could just use 12x 12 or would I need to go bigger? Its just for 2 pigs at a time for just early kill like you mentioned 6 months tops. Any knowledge will help, thanks.

    Reply
    • Diana August 1, 2014, 11:22 pm

      Jason,

      The biggest concern with a small dirt pen is water. You don’t say where you’re located, but pigs will make mud very quickly and it will take forever to dry out if they are on a small dirt lot when it is rainy. If your 12×12 is covered or you’re in a dry part of the country I would not worry about it too much. In a small pen just make sure they have plenty of feed, water and bedding to keep them happy. As far as smell if you keep them well bedded and/or the pen cleaned out regularly you will not have a problem. A couple large round bales of straw should do the trick. You can add more straw to the bedding as they grow to help mitigate smell and keep them comfortable.

      Reply

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