“Have you ever been to a hog killin’?” Joel Salatin posed this question to his readers in his book entitled Folks, This Ain’t Normal – A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. I remember reading it and shifting uncomfortably in my chair as he described the process:
Crack! The first .22 caliber rifle shot indicates the start of the day. The oldest and wisest man sticks the hog in the carotid artery to commence the bleeding…
Although I fundamentally understood where meat came from, his description made a previously abstract concept real for me. It wasn’t the killing that bothered me. It was the recognition of how much knowledge, experience, and independence we have lost by relying on factory farmed meat. After reading Joel’s summary, I knew with certainty that I would not be capable of safely butchering a hog. As that idea sank in, I recognized the depth of my “food insecurity.”
Seeking Food Security at Local Farms
When Joel continued on to detail scalding and scraping the pig carcass, the womenfolk directing where the “pancreas, lungs (lights), liver, and kidneys go,” and the preparation that takes place while cuts are made, I determined that these were things I needed to know. So, I headed out to the pasture-raised pig farms in my area to get involved in the process. Although I learned a lot about raising pigs, none of those farmers were doing their own butchering. They were sending live pigs to USDA-approved facilities for processing and inspection so they could legally sell their meat to the public. I am sure those capable farmers could have butchered a pig in a bind, but none of them actually had.
Discovering that the very people who raised my pork answered “no” to Joel’s question reinforced my concerns. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the meat processors went on strike. Or what if there was an extended power outage and we had to do things the old-fashioned way? Would we be able to figure it out and did we even have the tools to do it? At the time, I had to assuage my worries with more canned goods in my basement. But the desire to know how to slaughter a hog at home remained. Two years later, after we started our own small farm in North Carolina, we were finally able to organize our own hog killin’.
Raising Our Own Pigs
In our rural neck of the woods, you can buy ready-to-butcher pigs. However, since we are building our homesteading skills, we opted to raise our own. We found a breeder in our county and put a deposit on four Yorkshire “weaners” (usually 2-5 week old pigs). We asked for females because based on our experience with other livestock, females have been easiest to raise (castrated males are noted for docility as well). We needed extra time to get ready for pigs, so the breeder agreed to keep our pigs with their mama until 8 weeks of age. We learned later that the breeder did us a favor in more ways than one because the longer pigs nurse, the faster they grow and they fewer behavioral and health problems they have.
In mid-April we picked up our four power-packed bundles of cat-sized blubber. They squealed bloody murder as we tried to catch them and it took near Herculean effort to wrestle them into the hatchback of my Honda Fit (a.k.a. my farm truck). Luckily, other than the stench of pig poop, the rest of the ride home was uneventful. In retrospect, picking up the pigs turned out to be the hardest part of raising them.
Creating Habitat for Our Pigs
Initially, the girls spent most of their time hiding under loose straw in their three-sided shelter. We constructed it with salvaged hardwood pallets, plywood, sheet metal, 2x4s, and fixed it in place on our hillside using 4x4s set in concrete. Pigs are notoriously hard on their shelters, so building a solid structure was important. However, having just been separated from their mother and relocated to a strange place, these pigs were so timid and quiet at first that I nudged them occasionally to make sure they were still alive. A few days later, they began to wait at their food bowls as I approached. Shortly after that, they started circling me like sharks whenever I stepped in their pen to give them breakfast and dinner. In the heat of the day, they napped under outcroppings of trees. Mornings and late afternoons they snouted up roots, loosened rocks, and tilled the soil. They created new wallows when it rained. This is pretty much how they spent their time until their final fated day.
We started the girls off inside an electric fence within a fixed fence because we had heard horror stories of weaners burrowing under wire and wreaking havoc or disappearing. Our pigs tore up the entire interior perimeter of the electric fence, but never tried to escape. To make sure they were “wire-trained,” I would set their food down outside the fence and walk away. The girls complained loudly with sorrowful wailing, but never crossed the polywire strands. Soon, I started to move them around our property using temporary fencing. I opted for $2 plastic posts placed 10 – 15 feet apart with polywire lines running at about 6″ and 14″ high. The posts had built-in slots to hold the electric wire, but after a few slots broke off, I started wrapping the wire around the posts for added stability. I used a portable solar fence charger on a grounding stake, that gave such a small electric jolt I still can’t believe it deterred the pigs. I lured the pigs to new paddocks with food buckets. Then I watched in wonder as they demolished large patches of brier and pushed fallen limbs out from under the best shady spots to make themselves at home.
During one heavy rain, a sow slid through the fence and buried part of the polywire in the mud. This stopped the flow of current through the fence. The other girls, sensing the change, tentatively stepped over the fence. Thanks to the wet soil, they cleared quite a bit of new ground before we coaxed them back inside their fence using a food bucket. After that I was careful not to run the fence across overly-steep areas. When I delivered food, I also touched the fence to make sure it was “live.” If the current felt weak, I walked the fence line and freed the wire from debris the girls had pushed against it. Overall, as long as the pigs had shade, food, water, land to work, and a live-wire identifying boundaries, they seemed content to stay put.
Most of the pigs’ drinking water came from passive rain collection. We attached gutters and a rain barrel to their shelter and placed the barrel inside their pen to make filling water buckets easy. When the girls started working as a team to tip the barrel and create wallows, we moved the barrel outside the polywire. That stopped the tipping problem, but the barrel was too small to last us through dry periods. We ended up hauling buckets of water to the pigs on some of the hottest days. Next year, we’ll use a bigger cistern.
How Much Water Does it Take to Raise Pigs?
On the subject of water, there is a lot of concern about the “water footprint” in meat. As clean drinking water is becoming less accessible around the planet, appropriate water use is a very important topic. But this is an area where there is a lot of misunderstanding and misuse of data to support particular views. The Water Footprint Network has a great tool to give you a sense of the amount of water used in agricultural items. According to their data, it takes 5,990 liters of water (global average) to make a kilo of pork. Beef takes about 15,400 liters for a kilo. Cabbage, by contrast, is only about 230 liters of water per kilo. That makes cabbage the clear winner in the water footprint race. Right?
Yes, but not by as much as you might think. A pound of cabbage has about 118 calories. A pound of beef has about 1137 calories. In terms of human energy, you need to eat 9.6 times more cabbage than beef to make a fair comparison. At that rate, cabbage will run you 2208 liters of water. It’s still a “win” for cabbage, but realistically eating 9.6 pounds of cabbage or similar amounts of any other vegetable would be hard. Therefore, most people include calorie-dense foods in their diet. Vegetarians eat dairy. Vegans eat nuts. Pork stacks up competitively with those alternatives. On a per calorie basis, pork beats eggs, chicken, and nuts, and runs a close race with dairy products and fruit.
On our homestead, our pigs drank about 4 gallons of rain water per pound of meat produced. This is more than in an industrial environment because we gave them extra water to wet their wallows. We used about 1/4 gallon per pound for cleaning and processing, which is less than industrial use. We bought some bagged feed which definitely left a wet footprint. But we sourced most of their food from local farms that required minimal irrigation since we get good rainfall here. About 30% of their diet came from our unirrigated garden. We probably beat the average water footprint for pork, but we’ll do even better when our pasture is developed.
Feeding Our Pigs
Pigs can feed themselves totally on pasture… if there’s enough food growing in it. Our new paddocks were too full of inedible rhododendrons and mountain laurel, so supplemental feed was necessary. But the work the pigs did to clear the land and fertilize it with poop will reduce and eventually eliminate feed costs over the next few years. As the pigs tilled, I followed behind them to clear rocks and gather stumps, branches, and roots to use later in small hugel-swales. Pigs don’t sweat, so they need wallows (mud baths) to stay cool. So, I only moved the girls to new paddocks when there was a good chance of rain so they could make wallows without me hauling the water. In the vacated pasture, I raked out pig patties and over-seeded with buckwheat, mustard, hairy vetch, and winter wheat to prevent soil erosion and compaction. The rain also watered the seeds in before the birds could eat them all.
Come spring, I’ll scythe down these cover crops and seed the area with fast growing pig favorites – beets, turnips, beans, radishes, and greens of all kinds. When the plants hit maturity, I’ll move our next round of pigs in and let them feed themselves. When I move the pigs out of each paddock next time, I plan to convert sections of pasture to perennials like comfrey, berries, and black locust and crab apple trees for coppicing to evolve the system to be self-sustaining. I’ll also add more paddocks so I can move the pigs more frequently to reduce disturbance to the soil.
This time we spent about $400 per pig on feed over a 7 month period. The girls hit “market weight” (225-250 lbs) in late August, but we had to wait for cool weather to slaughter. We ended up feeding them 2 1/2 months longer than necessary. They were over 300 pounds by November, even though we reduced feed to limit weight gain. In addition to feed the pigs ate garden scraps and long-producing greens like kale, chard, and Malabar spinach. They ate tulip poplar, red sumac, and black locust leaves like candy. Friends gave us spent beer grains which we mixed with feed at a rate of 30%. We gave them our leftovers (except pork which went to the chickens). Towards the end, we gave them deer apples since those were a cheap pig favorite.
Our feed costs per pound of finished meat product came to $2.05. Including the price of the pigs it was $2.50 per pound. These values don’t include our time or our set-up costs. Pig care took 20-40 minutes per day depending on how much water had to be hauled. Hog killin’ and meat product making took several days and lots of helping hands. Pasture creation is ongoing and will add up to weeks of time when finished. Running electric wire took a few hours per paddock, mostly due to time spent clearing brush. There was also time spent on feed pick-up, but we combined that with other activities for efficiency.
The Cost of Homegrown Pork
With a little ingenuity, you can eventually raise your own pigs at a lower cost than buying pork from the store. For budgeting purposes, a safe estimate on feed is 5 pounds of feed for one pound of meat. If you buy feed in 50-pound bags, just drop the zero on your target pig weight to come up with your number of bags, e.g. a 250-pound pig takes 25 bags of feed, at $16 a bag, that’s $400. Most of the feed expense will occur in the last two months of the pig’s life. You can buy weaner pigs for $45, but $85-$100 seems more typical for quality meat breeds. A 250-pound pig will get you roughly 150 pounds of meat products (more if you use organs, scrape the head, and pick bones clean). In our area, we can buy pork for an average cost of $6 per pound (more for loin, bacon, cured ham, less for breakfast sausage, lard, roasts). So, the market value of 150 pounds of meat for us is about $900.
If you only had to buy feed and weren’t worried about assigning a value to your time, you could save about $400 per pig. But if you are starting from scratch, you may not come out ahead your first year. Infrastructure costs for keeping and butchering pigs vary greatly depending on personal preferences. We spent about $700 on fencing and shelter, but others have found ways to do it for pennies on the pound. As you are making your choices, you may want to plan for: 1) enough fencing to let the pigs do some free-ranging, 2) shelter, 3) water storage and delivery method, 4) feed, 5) pig purchase price, 6) tools for home butchering or costs for professional butchering, 7) supplies/equipment for making sausage, meat cures, and packaging products, and 8) a place to store your 150+ pounds of pork per pig (e.g. freezer, larder, curing shed). Then to be safe, add 15% for the stuff you didn’t realize you needed! I also recommend that you don’t count your pork pounds before they are consumed. If you are hanging a ham, you’ll lose 40% of the starting weight in the curing process and you have to wait 8 months or longer for full flavor.
Final Thoughts on Raising Pigs
Finally, pigs are definitely social creatures, so budget for at least two pigs. If you don’t need that much meat, consider co-raising pigs with friends or neighbors. There are a lot of regulations about selling packaged meats after slaughter, but there is often more latitude if you co-raise animals and butcher together. Make sure you know your local and state ordinances. Your agricultural extension agent can usually point you in the right direction.
Fencing, watering, feeding, and budgeting for pigs is the easy part. Saying goodbye is hard. Despite my efforts at keeping a “professional distance,” I still fell in love with those girls. I couldn’t help but admire the single-mindedness with which they worked the pasture, their pure joy over fresh vegetables, or the hilarity of four giant beasts curled up together under some measly pine trees at noon. But I knew what was coming. As we got closer to the kill date I hovered over our pigs while they ate to acclimate them to my prolonged proximity. I repeatedly touched the “stun spot” (found by making an X between their eyes and ears) where we would eventually shoot them with a .22. I also practiced lining them up and spacing them out as I had seen in the “To Kill a Pig Nicely” video from Farmstead Meatsmith. The pigs even stood still as I measured them from shoulder to tail, and around their girth, to estimate their weight for planning purposes. It sounds so calculating in retrospect. But in fact, my actions evolved naturally because I wanted the events that followed to be as stress-free as possible, for all of us.
My girls were well over 300 pounds and still growing. Their ability to decimate pasture increased exponentially with each pound of flesh. As our first frosts came and went, our garden scraps dwindled, and our feed costs increased. The time had come to do what we set out to do at the start of this adventure.
In Joel’s description, the conversion from carcass to ready-to-eat meat occurs alongside the killing and cutting. Organs are boiled, hams rubbed down and hung in the curing house, and trimmings are converted into sausage along the way. But Joel’s hog killin’ was a regular event, attended by people who knew their roles. We were novices, making this up as we went along. To keep it manageable, we broke the process into a two-day event:
Day 1 – Hog Killin’: kill, scald, de-hair, primal cut, and chill.
Day 2 – Hog Cookin’: make delicious stuff.
If you are undaunted by what you’ve read so far, then hold tight for two more posts on Hog Killin’ and Hog Cookin’.
This article is part 1 of a 3 part series called “Have You Ever Been to a Hog Killin’?” about raising, harvesting, and cooking pigs. You can read the rest of the series here:
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This post was written by Tasha Greer