The pigs are giving me a headache. It’s been fun to produce our own pork over the last few years, but there’s an inherent problem with pigs which takes a little chewing.
Pigs grow best when they’re fattened on a commercial pellet, and this stuff comes with a mucky footprint. The pellet I buy takes most of its protein content from soya beans and soya extracts, and most of it is shipped into this country from South America. I’m not hugely comfortable with this idea, particularly since the production of soya comes at an increasing cost to the environment.
Most people buy their pigs, buy their feed and put the two together as if they were building an airfix model. That’s not to make it sound easy, but it is fast. Fill them up, turn them over, get them to the slaughterhouse and start again. And if you want to make money, you need to power this system with top-flight commercial feed from Brasil. Compare the process with cattle; in five years, my cows have never eaten anything that I didn’t grow myself.
At first I liked the traditional link of killing pigs in the autumn when they had been fattened on pannage and windblown apples. It’s a lovely idea, but pigs eat enormous volumes of food, so you need a lot of woodland/orchards on your side to do it properly. I give my pigs what natural food I can, but the balance always depends upon being topped up with commercial pellet.
I’ve always wanted to have more input in what my pigs eat. I’m not allowed to feed them food scraps, so I wondered if I could grow crops to feed them. I tried to finish weaners on rolled oats last summer and found that it was impossible. The oats were only part of their diet, and pigs eat, grow and reproduce at such a rate that I simply couldn’t turn out enough oats to get them where they need to be. Now I feed them turnips, but again, I can’t hope to keep up with their appetites. The amount of turnips I have grown to feed the bull over the winter would be shredded by two pigs in a month.
They key difference between my pork and stuff from a more commercial farm is that my animals have a happy outdoor life. Perhaps you can taste that, but it’s hard to overcome the thought that my pork is chemically the same as pork produced in a shed for a mass market. People talk about outdoor pork having special flavour, but if we are what we eat, then outdoor and indoor pigs are chemically identical. Perhaps an outdoor pig will eat a few roots and the odd worm, but that’s hardly enough to hang your hat on when the real work is being done by soya protein.
Back in the old days, pigs would’ve eaten all manner of scraps and waste; the pig’s job was turning loss into profit. Now pigs are targeted with high-octane diets designed to fatten them into volume and weight. But I wonder what those old pigs tasted like, and it’s frustrating that we have no real way to record intensity of flavour. People say my pigs are tastier than shop-bought pork, but I bet they’re nothing like as good as pigs reared a century ago on hazelnuts, tattie peelings and crab apples. And I wonder what those hogs taste like which rootle through the slums of Nairobi and New Delhi?
I have two pigs to kill in the next fortnight. There is no way I can get them to a suitable weight or condition on feed which I produce myself. I could give them what I have and ration it out, but pigs don’t grow if you don’t feed them; at that rate, they would never be ready to kill. So I’ll have to buy in commercial pig food, and then I begin to wonder if keeping pigs is a slightly shameful indulgence, far from what it seems to be as part of a quiet rural idyll. It’s no consolation to wonder how any farm could turn out slaughter-ready pigs off the back of their own labour and make money in the process. Soil Association did some sterling work on fattening pigs on silage, but even that still relies on extensive access to land on a very infrequent rotation.
And in terms of efficiency, there’s no way I can compete with a factory farm which monitors tissue deposition:protein input ratios. My pigs are often too fat when I kill them; the extra blubber is waste. If I was serious about reducing my environmental footprint, I would buy perfectly finished pork from a housed unit. But match that against concerns for animal welfare – my pigs live happy and hilarious lives until their final second.
In all this confusion and dilemma, there’s a growing realisation in the back of my mind that small-scale “hobby” pig farmers like me have a responsibility to balance welfare with efficiency. I’m on the horns (or tusks) of a dilemma.