To Cut or Not?

This is a posting I have hesitated to make. It delayed me from making a post yesterday. I have hesitated because I fear that fanatical anti-farming groups like People Eating Tasty Animals, they who shall not be named or something like that, will try and take this posting and abuse my words for their own ends. Undoubtedly I will also ruffle some feathers and spill some soup. This is not a posting to read over dinner.


Down in the lower right of that photo is the east end of a westward boar. He is missing nothing. Adult boars put even the most evangelitical sex spammer to shame. Traditionally in our culture male pigs, which are called boars if they have the balls, are castrated at a young age, that is to say cut, de-nutted, neutered, fixed*, relieved of the family jewels, etc. In a nutshell, they get their balls cut off. This turns the boar into a barrow in two fell swoops of the knife.

The reason for this process is that when boars come of age and start noticing pretty girl pigs as more than play mates, they release hormones that in some cases, can eventually flavor their pork with a rank ‘boar taint’ that people find objectionable. It is also argued by some that cutting the boars will make them more docile and safer to work with. This done for bulls, rams and roosters for the same reasons. No balls, no hormones.

Let’s start by examining the aggression issue. First of all, market pigs are slaughtered before they get far into puberty. Aggression is not an issue for them. Secondly, consider those who do get to puberty: they are to become real boars for breeding who thus must keep their family jewels intact. For these fellows, if you properly, gently handle them when you are raising them they are calm and gentle animals in almost all cases. I say almost because somewhere out there is an aggressive animal to argue the point. We have never had a bad boar. We borrowed several boars which we did not raise and they were all gentlemen. Those that we have raised were even more so. Any that are not gentle should be culled – You do not want to breed aggression into your livestock. We have a firm policy that the mean make meals and right quick. How you raise and handle the animal is the largest determinant in how it will behave.

Getting back to the taste of the matter… How bad is boar taint? Some people swear it is the worst thing they’ve ever smelled, that “it makes the whole house uninhabitable forever if you cook boar meat in the kitchen.” I suspect that is a bit of an exaggeration even in the worst of cases. Some people say the same thing for roosters, rams and other livestock. I differ.

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My own personal experience with young boars and rams, under nine months old, is that there is no boar taint even if you keep them in with the females. I have yet to eat a male older than that so I can’t personally comment beyond that point. Archie, a farmer I know a bit north of us, says that even with a big boar if you just set it apart from the females for a month then the meat tastes fine – he’s eaten three year old boars weighing in at as much as 1,062 pounds(!) and I’m inclined to believe him given that he’s raised pigs for over 30 years. When Archie speaks, I listen – he knows what he’s talking about.

We eat roosters, up to age two or three, all the time and they are delectable. There is no taint nor are they tough. Mean ones get eaten earlier so that is never a problem. They do tend to have less fat than younger birds and hens but the meat is still tender. Since they have so little fat in their lean meat, I marinade them for 48 hours to make them juicier, which is wise with any meat to pass the rigor mortis phase – with larger livestock you hang and chill the meat often for weeks – same thing.

There was a very interesting Brazilian study done on this topic. The report, published in December of 2000 at Conferência Virtual Internacional sobre Qualidade de Carne Suína by Jerônimo Antônio Fávero concluded that boar taint was avoidable without castration. The purpose of this study was to enact new standards in Brazil for the slaughter of “Entire Male Pigs” that is to say boars. You can checkout the original research paper in English if you like (the article is unfortunately gone from that link but I have a copy if needed) but here is a very short summary for those not interested in reading the whole thing:

“The maximum weight of the dressed carcass will be 73 kg without the head (equivalent to approximately 100 kg live weight), with a maximum age of 160 days. Up to these weight and age limits, all carcasses do not need to be submitted to any kind of test for boar taint.”

For the metrically challenged of us here in the USA, 100kg equals 220 lbs, which is a typical market weight pig. The point being that up to a certain age none of the male pigs show boar taint. They also identified the exact cause of boar taint as being “due to the presence of high levels of androsterone and skatol.”

If you’re interested in reading more on the chemistry, check out this Penn State research article “Pigs in Paradise” by David Pacchioli and this European article. It suggests that it may even be possible to breed pigs that have low levels of the problematic chemicals and indeed other research suggests that some pigs are more likely to show boar taint than others. Perhaps there are even differences between breeds. Interestingly, boar taint can also happen in female pigs on occassion. These articles also mentions some alternatives to castration to prevent boar taint such as feeding chicory root at a rate of 25% of feed intake – results are apparent in three days. Some of these articles mention possible vaccination against hormonal development but that has it’s own problems as they discuss.

There are significant costs to cutting for the person raising the pigs and for the consumer. Often the producer is the consumer out in rural areas so the cost does not get passed on but absorbed. Several studies show, and my experience bears this out, that barrows grow about 10% slower than boars on average and they are fattier than boars. Note that the focus is on growing meat, not bone or fat. Likewise down the scale are gilts, young female pigs, who grow again about 10% slower than barrows making them even slower growing than boars. This is not to say you won’t have the occasional barrow or gilt who outgrows a boar, but on average over many animals it has found to be the case that the intact males win the race to market.

This results in more time and more feed being needed bring the barrow up to market weight than if he hadn’t been cut. If you’re feeding the pig commercial grains then that matters since every day it eats it costs you money. It also means that instead of taking 160 days to grow to market weight the pig will take 176 days for example. The time doesn’t usually matter to most of us small farmers and back yard home pig raisers but the added grain cost does mount up. An extra 16 days at 4 lbs/day is 64 lbs or about $10 in feed required for the barrows to catch up with the boars. On commercial operation
s where they only profit $4 per hundred weight that could be the difference between profit and loss.

Just to confuse the matter I have read one study in Australia that said there is no significant difference in growth. I don’t know what the exact reason for that is but it mixes the equation just a little. However this study does point out that the feed intake is still higher for the barrows resulting in a higher piglet to market cost and the meat is fattier as well reducing the actual meat yield.

The cutting also costs the pig – the barrows go through a bit of a traumatic experience having their balls cut off and there is the risk of infection like with any surgery. We use clean instruments and iodine so we have never had a problem with that but it is a risk. Unfortunately you can’t use an elasti-bander or other tourniquet method like you can with sheep or cows since the boar’s testicles don’t hang down from his body like a man’s do. Instead, cutting is required and the term is very descriptive. Think about that image a moment… Worse yet is caponizing which is done to roosters to make them capons. Caponizing requires abdominal surgery which is more akin to spaying than neutering.

Lastly, cutting costs the pig breeder. It is a very labor intensive and an unpleasant task. I’ll tell you right off, the farmer does not enjoy the process. The pigs don’t enjoy it. They are scared, may bite, thrash and get an unpleasant association with the person doing the process. The person doing the holding or cutting can get cut as well, although hopefully not in that place. All around it is not a fun time for anyone involved.

This whole process is very cultural. In some countries they do not castrate their pigs, sheep, bulls or roosters. On the flip side, markets in other countries like Singapore and Germany absolutely insist on castration. In some countries it is even required by law. Other countries have banned it like Norway.

So why do we still do it? Because customers demand it. People are afraid of boar taint in the meat. They’re worried that the boars will be overly aggressive. I understand their fear. They’re buying piglets and want to maximize their chances of success. No balls = no taint. The equation is simple. I hope that education may change tradition.

If you raise boars away from females and slaughter them at a young age then they don’t start releasing large amounts of the tainting chemicals into their blood stream. They’ll grow faster than barrows would saving you money on feed as well as labor. The boars will also be more efficient at putting on muscle so they will have healthier, leaner meat. If you treat them well they should not be aggressive, the last reason given for castrating. The pig benefits – it gets a less stressful life. You benefit – you pay less for feed and get a quicker growing animal that hasn’t been stressed as much. It’s a win-win.

That was probably more than you wanted to know about the annual pig ball. I bring this topic up because I view the castration process as unnecessary and hope that people might start moving away from it to a more humane management of the pigs they raise. This would benefit the pig, the farmer and the consumer.

Also see the article: “Boar Meat”

Update 20150420: We have now been raising intact, that is to say not castrating boars for a decade and sold the meat from thousands of boars to our weekly customers feeding tens of thousands of customers hundreds of thousands of boar meat, repeat customers who keep coming back for more but through our CSAs, piglet sales, roaster sales, direct sales of whole pigs and through local stores and restaurants who buy from Sugar Mountain Farm every week. The market place has proven that boar taint can be controlled without the need for castration. Boar taint is real, the research shows that there is a minority subset of boars who have taint, but with good genetics, diet and management it can be prevented. For more information about boar taint see this page.

*How is that we’re fixing something that is not broken?

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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92 Responses to To Cut or Not?

  1. nathaniel knapp says:

    When do you butcher the boars, at 6 months?

    • Anywhere from two months to eight years. For finisher size they’re typically six or seven months old. Season makes some difference as growth is slower in the winter so they might end up being eight to nine months old depending on when they were born. That is to say a piglet born in October will take longer to get to market weight than one born in May.

  2. nathaniel knapp says:

    yeah but you said you do the boars earlier right? or is 6 months enough to avoid boar taint?

    • We take boars to butcher at many ages. On average boars tend to get picked at a younger age for roasters because I only need to keep back about 0.5% of boars to look for primes while I keep back ten times as many gilts (5%) to look for primes who can become breeders. This means that within roasters there are more boars than gilts but there are both.

      Most boars are raised up to finishers which is about six months to seven months in the warm season. Boars grow faster and more efficiently than gilts so they tend to go to slaughter at a younger age than gilts who take about an extra month or so to get to the same weight.

      We don’t pick pigs to go to market by age but rather by the weight size the customer requests. For customer whole pigs, stores and restaurants this means a live weight of about 250 to 300 lbs live weight typically. For suckling a.k.a. oven roaster pigs that might be 20 to 40 lbs. For spit and pit roasters it means be 50 to 200 lbs. That’s a wide span of sizes at different ages.

      How big the pig is depends on what the customer orders. How old the pig is at a specific size depends on how fast the pig grew which is determined by sex (boars grow faster than gilts), season (pigs grow faster in the warm season than the cold season), feed (fresh pasture is better nutritionally than stored hay), breed (Yorkshire grow far faster than Tamworth) and line (our Mainline grows the fastest of all our breeds and cross lines).

      The youngest we have ever take a boar to market is about six weeks. The oldest is a bit over eight years.

      So to paraphrase Dorian Grey, “It’s complicated.

  3. Pat Pizza says:

    My daughter-in_law wants to know why pig meat doesn’t taste the same as it did 30 years ago. Are pigs today genetically modified? How do you get a pig that is not genetically modified?
    How do you get the same taste as our grandparents had?

    • The change in the commercial large scale pork goes back to the 1970’s when they succeeded in breeding for a very lean pig that lacks the fat which carries the flavor. So yes, it was a change in genetics. You can get the older style genetics from small farmers raising pigs the way we do out on pasture. Flavor comes from the feed and is stored in the fat so one of the keys is feeding for flavor and the other key is having fat to store the flavor.

  4. chipmunk says:

    i wonder why pork taste way different from 30 years ago

  5. Nina says:

    Hello everyone,

    I’m from France, and here piglets are castrated before they’re 7 days old, or by a vet with analgesics.
    I worked in England, where they don’t cut pigs, and raise them quite fast (slaughtered around 6 months old), boar (“teenage” ones !) and gilts all together. They do get one from time to time with boar taint, but it’s rare.

    I’m thinking about breeding an old breed, in which pigs are not slaughtered before one year old (usually between 12 and 15 months), and can get a bit too fat, even living outside in the hills. So thank you for the information that probably, by keeping gilts and boars separated, it might be possible to avoid boar taint (and get a better ratio meat/fat).

    • Nina, read the article about taint for more on this topic. Then read the comments there and the linked through articles as well. Taint is a complex subject. There are three primary chemical forms of taint that have different causes. Taint is influenced by genetics, age, feed (high fiber reduces taint, chicory reduces taint) and management (confinement increases taint, extensive management reduces taint (rotational grazing on pasture)). Taint is real but not common. Breed, feed and manage against it.

  6. Adam says:

    Ignoring boar taint:

    Imagine you’re starting a herd, you are starting with 3 boars, 3 farrows. A,B,C,d,e,f. You want to keep 2 Ad males, 2 Be males, and 2Cf males to reduce inbreeding down the line. Assume each crossing has 2 “leftover” males whose sexual maturity is before the time intended to slaughter.

    What would be the best way to prevent them prematurely impregnating females they shouldn’t? Slaughter them early, castrate them, sell them to other farms?

    • I find that our boars are fertile by six months and gilts by eight months. Occasionally we get a Lolita who gets pregnant as early as six months – no harm. Given this I would separate at four or five months given the above scenario. If you want boars to stay happy and not challenging fences then I would suggest keeping them with females. These can be gestating females. I would still keep open fertile females down wind of the boars and double fenced away by a goodly distance ideally out of sight as well. Strong fences are important.

  7. Dave says:

    Taint isn’t something I’m really worried about after reading everything you wrote. I’ve heard all the horror stories about boars being mean and issues with taint from the old farmers, but knowing how their animals where treated I got the picture pretty quick, I just never thought of it relating to taint, but makes sense. My dad still laughs at me and largely doesn’t understand why I treat my animals so well, but he’s learning, he’s seeing the difference, and tasting it. I do have to admit my pigs are pretty spoiled though, it’s easy to do when there’s only 3 sows. We all live much like your family does, on the same property but separate houses, so… I drive an old loud Ford diesel and my dad telling me, sees everyday how my dogs hear my truck before they see me, and start barking which alerts the pigs; then when my pigs hear my truck they run down to the corner and follow the fence as I drive in. I jokingly refer to my little farm as “home of the friendliest pork” they welcome me home every day. Good food, treats, and horse brush go a long way with these girls! Anyway, I have a question. Castration has always been order of the day here even though I hate it, hate it, hate it; it’s what I was taught to do. I’m raising Tamworth, and being already very lean, if a boar is naturally more lean… What kind of meat would that look like, would there be any flavor or would it just be meat? Have you tried this with your Tamworth, nuts on? I don’t have much fat around here to begin with, my 3 sows are very active on 5 acres, weaners go into other smaller paddocks (80×80) until sold, but whatever I raise for myself/family/friends goes on another 3 acres until butcher= 2 pigs per lush acre.

    • Yes, we do not castrate our tamworth boars. I culled out higher taint boars along time ago. Our pastured pork is a richer red than the confinement corn/soy pork. It looks more like beef, probably because our animals our outdoors getting exercise and eating pasture. I find that the big boars are even more like beef in color and flavor. As you note, they tend to be quite lean. I would suggest doing a biopsy test as described on the taint page. Raised right, fed a high fiber diet and with good genetics the boar taint is not a problem I find and this is backed up not just by my experience here with thousands of boars but with scientific research. However, I would still test him to know.

  8. Josh Martin says:

    A guy has two male pigs for sale that were just castrated last week at 5 months old, I plan on keeping them until September, do you think there’s any way they could get taint. I’ll have a fair amount of money into them hate to see it get wasted sort of speak. Thanks for your time

  9. Jeannie says:

    Thank you so much for this blog post! It was a great read! We’re raising pigs for pork, trying to eat what we grow/raise! Chickens, cows and pigs!
    This is somewhat new to us, I grew up raising pigs and rabbits in 4H and FFA! We cut our pigs for show…. I was told to cut the boy pigs we’re feeding out for pork! I have 2 boys and 3 girls left… They were born Jan 31st, I’m not sure on their current weight, but I do know the 2 boys are bigger than the 3 girls we’re feeding out (1 girl being the runt that I bottle fed for a month)!

  10. Kevin Hobbs says:

    Hey Walter,
    Thanks you for a great article. We just had our first litter of pigs. I was in a quandary about castration, until I came across your article. We have decided not to castrate. I have to say I’m a little nervous.

  11. Kevin Hobbs says:

    Walter,

    What breeds of pigs do you recommend, that has low chance of taint. We have a GOS Large Black bore, We crossed him with a Red Waddle Tamworth. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • The research suggests that the least amount of taint is found in the lighter colored pigs like the Yorkshire and the greatest amount of taint is found in the dark red Durocs. However, the line makes more difference than the breed.

  12. Brandy says:

    I need some help. Someone gave us a pot belly pig to slaughtre but he has not been castrated. He is about 3 years old. Till about a month ago when I got him he was free range. I have been doing a lot of research and keep reading about Taint. He has never been around and female pigs but he does have a habbit of humping anything he can.
    I would love your feedback on what I should do. We are planning on slaughtering him here in about 3 weeks when the waether turns colded. Thanks in advance for your help.

    • Boar taint is real but not common. It is caused primarily by two chemicals. It is based on genetics, management and feed. The first can be controlled by good breeding. The latter two can be even more easily controlled. I have raised and sold the meat from many thousands of boars over the years. I don’t castrate. But, I did not get there in an instant. I tested my genetics, management and feed combination carefully. See the article on taint for a lot of info on boar taint. Click through to the linked articles and read the comments. Testing the boar, as described in the linked article, lets you know.

      • Brandy says:

        thanks for the info. I am very new to this whole thing. I have prossesed deer and chickens before but this is my first attempt at a pig. If things go well I am hoping to get a couple more in the spring to raise. I have read a lot of diffrent articals on this matter and was very confused. I do not take lightley on killing something that I will not be able to use.

        • Farmerbob1 says:

          I understand that even if the pig has taint, a good butcher can mix your pig’s meat with meat/fat from other animals to make sausage with very little or unnoticeable taint. You might not want a whole pig worth of sausage, but you can get something out of the animal that way.

          Also, some people can’t taste/smell taint. Do you know that you can?

          • The taint is in the fat, not the lean. The traditional solution if you have a tainty pig is to use the lean and mix it with fat from a barrow, gilt, sow or cow to make hot spicy sausages like pepperoni.

            In my research on taint I explored what solvents will soak out the taint chemicals. The most common are alcohol soluble so soaking the meat in an alcohol and then draining off the alcohol marinade would reduce the taint. I’ve read some people doing similar things with milk. Chemistry to the rescue. (One of my backgrounds is I used to be a chemist long ago. Fun stuff!)

  13. Farmerbob1 says:

    Hmm. If an alcohol-based marinade can reduce the taint level of meat, I wonder if you could spend a week to finish pigs that were confirmed tainted with beer before slaughter.

    You could sell them as pastured, pre-marinated meat.

    This is only partly a jest. Alcohol does travel the whole bloodstream.

  14. Dave Anderson says:

    I was wondering how pigs are raised and killed. I did not know that if you raise the boars away from females they grow faster. I also did not know that there was so much that went into raising and preparing pigs for eating. It seems like there is a lot more that goes into our foods than we thought.

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