Our good old farm truck has been through many adventures over the years—traveling the steep mountainsides of Vermont to intern at a dairy sheep farm, loaded down with bales of hay or firewood, hauling the latest ram lamb from Minnesota, or protecting the turkeys as we bring them in from wintry weather out in the pasture. But this fall the farm truck had a different adventure, all the way to central Michigan to pick up some pigs.
Now, you might be wondering why we found it necessary to drive 12 hours one-way to get a handful of half-grown piglets. These, of course, are a very special sort of pig, and just as it takes extensive research and networking to find the right new breeding ram, so too it has been a process to launch our pig breeding program.
For years, we’ve sourced feeder pigs locally—buying 40-pound squealing porcine mutts to raise out to butcher weight (between 250 and 300 pounds) in summer and winter for our pork customers. These pigs have generally been healthy, vigorous, and very tasty, but the standard meat pig breeds are addicted to corn, bent on destroying everything their snouts and teeth can reach, and can be quite dangerous. An 500-pound sow (mother pig) can really hurt or kill you if she feels her babies are threatened.
A pig that is motivated to root and destroy can be a very useful tool on a homestead farm. We’ve built porcine paddocks where the hogs rooted up and ate the quack grass rhizomes before the land was turned into gardens. The pigs love to do it, and it’s an effective way to reduce weeds and fertilize at the same time. But once the desired garden space has been achieved, the craters and mud holes become more of a problem than a help. And the high corn consumption, while it helps raise pork quickly, is more demanding of the earth’s resources than animals that can sustain mostly on grass (like sheep and other ruminants). So my sister Kara was on the hunt for an alternative breed of pig that would better suit our pasture and management style.
In the sheep world, Suffolks and Hampshires dominate as the breeds of choice—big, fast growing, and built for heavy muscling. But there are a plethora of distinct alternative (heritage) breeds with unique characteristics. Sometimes select breeding strategies can loose sight of other aspects of the animal’s heath—Holstein cows whose feet are too tiny to support the animals longer than three or four years or sheep whose lambs have such big heads that deliveries are labored and sometimes impossible. Heritage breeds of livestock have uniquely developed over centuries to adapt to certain climates and needs that predate the obsession with production at all costs.
What Kara discovered through her research into heritage pigs was the Kunekune (said KOOnee-KOOnee). Originally from New Zealand and currently quite popular among small breeders in the British Isles, the Kunekune is smaller than commercial breeds (easier to handle for small people), furrier (better suited to cold weather), built with a smaller snout that allows for grazing rather than excavation (fewer craters and better utilization of pasture), and has the disposition of puppy dogs. While they take slightly longer to raise, Kunekunes enjoy a varied, predominantly grass-based diet that requires only a pound of grain per animal per day, rather than unlimited access.
Not to mention that the little buggers are the cutest and most personable pigs you’ve ever met. After Mom and Kara’s 36-hour road warrior trip to and from Michigan, I was able to meet our new piggers in the back of the pickup truck—four half-grown sows and a handsome young boar. They rustled in the hay, hoping I would hand them a carrot or an apple, grunting and squeaking amicably. While Kunekunes are a relatively new import to the States, these curious little beings looked quite ready to join the ranks at our farm.
Kara was about to burst with excitement as we backed the old truck up to our homemade ramp. The week before, she had spent countless hours building their new pens next to the garage, so it would be easy to haul food and water through the winter. “Come on out piggies, welcome to your new home!”
Hathaway, the boar, took some convincing, but the ladies Agatha, Tilly, Christi, and Deloris trundled down the wooden ramp to begin exploring their new world. They grunted to the ten eager little feeder pigs next door and then moved on to exploring their straw-filled house, the apples we tossed in for them, and the delicious grass all around. Their little black eyes with bristly lashes blinked at the warming sun, their short, upturned noses snuffling contentedly.
It didn’t take long for the new crew to learn the routines. The first sign of humans heading out for chores in the morning sounds a chorus of eager squealings and gruntings—me first, feed ME FIRST!!! High up on the list of favorites are apples, carrots, and smashed pumpkin. Leftover bits from the Creamery are also met with eager anticipation, including kale and old baked goods. Life is good on the farm!
Climbing into the feeder pig pen, the little porkers woof and run in all directions—wide eyes anticipating or thinking devious thoughts. They grab onto Kara’s pants and tug, racing around in circles. But when she steps into the Kunekune pen, they trot over expectantly, sniffing her boots and tagging along behind like schoolchildren after their teacher on an outing.
Each pig has her own dish for breakfast and dinner. Black-and-white Agatha is bossy, wanting to steal everyone’s food all at once. Deloris, who is smaller, is more demur and cleans up after everyone else has finished, sneaking in when Agatha or Christi aren’t looking. Little Tilly is a royal screamer when she’s hungry—making her small but mighty opinions known. And Mr. Hathaway is above it all, regally chewing on his bit of frozen pumpkin as he surveys his kingdom.
The crew should be big enough to begin breeding in late winter, which means that the first piglets may arrive in late spring. Kara has spent considerable time helping the neighbor with porcine deliveries, so that previous experience will be quite helpful with our own adventures. With less grain, better pasturing, and a good disposition, our hope is that these new heritage pigs will bring our farm another step closer to greater sustainability and good stewardship.
Sounds like those pigs may be getting hungry. Time to find another pumpkin for them. Curious? Kara’s made a YouTube video of her new little friends (also available on our farm’s Facebook page) http://youtu.be/k35ujBRlzAU. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com