Big’Un & Archimedes
On the recent Fencing article Jeff asked:
Your note of the cross-breediness of your pigs bring up a question I’ve been pondering for a while. We have started with large blacks as our foundational stock, but we plan on doing once a year farrowing and will need to bring in new boars/AI regularly. My tendency is toward experimentation, and I’m keen on bringing in other breeds and selecting the best gilts from the crosses–but I’m also getting some push back from folks that think I should try to maintain a single threatened breed. I have some vague ideas of what I want to select for (vigor, ability to reach sexual maturity in 8 months, good mothering, docility) but don’t feel super comfortable with my skills as a breeder. My main goal is to make things as simple as possible going forward, but I’m well aware of our human tendencies to constantly complicate a seemingly simple task. Any words of wisdom?
I appreciate and respect those folks who are determined to maintain specific pure bred lines. That is a resource of genetics. However, for our needs we cross to produce a breed that does what we need. With each cross we select the best of the best and eat the rest. Over the course of many generations of pigs this has resulted in a gradual, dramatic improvement of our herd genetics, giving us the best traits that fit with our local environment, management style and pasture based farming.
As to the people who tell you that you should be maintaining a single threatened breed you’ll just have to decide what your goals are. If you wish to do heritage preservation then by all means do that. If your goal is to produce a line of pigs that meets your production needs that don’t coincide with preservation then go that way. The basic question is: do you want to be profitable and if so can you do it with a threatened breed that you like?
I have over two dozen traits that I watch for when selecting pigs to be possible breeding including nipple count, body conformation, temperament, feet, ears, wintering ability, pasture grazing ability, gain rate on our pasture/dairy based diet and other things. If you’re going to do breeding, be it with pure bred animals or crosses, you want to have a clear idea of what are your selection criteria and cull hard. At any point a pig can get DQed from the contest. It is then marked for freezer camp as some people like to say.
Privilege of Prime Breeders
Only about 5% of the gilts ever get the chance to prove their ability. Of those, they must then successfully breed by eight months, gestate and farrow a litter by one year of age showing excellent mothering and their offspring must be also be top quality. If not I cull back.
Life is much harder for males on the farm. Pigs are not monogamous. It only takes one boar to service ten to fifteen female pigs. The result is only about 0.5% of the boars get chosen as breeders. Most have chosen as finishers long before they get to prime breeding age of about ten months.
This difference in ratios is similar to what happens in nature. On the farm about 2.75% get a chance to breed overall. Nature is actually an even harsher culler where only about 1.3% of the pigs would get the chance to become long term breeders. Again, the ladies get better chances with herd animals. Sorry guys. The vast majority of pigs in nature get eaten by predators such as foxes, coyotes, ravens, owls, hawks, bears, fishers, lynx, cougar, etc long before they would reach puberty. The males that reach puberty tend to do their best to beat up their competition so they can claim as many females as possible. On the farm the livestock guardian dogs, natural ranchers, protect their charges from other predators and we are the ones selecting rather than nature or competing males.
Are you a breeder?
So, what does that mean for you as a potential livestock breeder? Do you have a keen eye? Can you observe the right traits and pick breeder stock that will move your herd towards improvement? You really won’t find out except by trying.
What it takes is to be a breedsman:
1) Developing a set of breeding goals – A pure bred registry helps there as they have an already established set of guidelines. If you go your own way then you must develop your own goals. Either way, don’t have just one or even a few criteria. That is how the modern CAFO pig breeds have become such a disaster. There are a lot of criteria that must be considered when picking pigs.
2) Having a keen eye – Observe the animals and learn how to judge those that are breeder quality vs those that are feeder quality. This takes time to develop. Look at pictures. Look at animals. Every day study your animals. How do they move? What is their body form? How do they behave? What is the carcass quality? How do they taste?
3) Be able to identify the individual animals – Might be with an ID tag, tattoo or simply by their individual markings. When you meet your first pigs they may look similar or the same even but in time you learn to identify distinguishing characteristics and see them as unique individuals. Same as with people.
4) Keep good records – Once you’ve IDed the individuals, the goals and can judge the animals you need to keep track of who is performing well on the metrics you’ve chosen. Knowing who came out of what sow and boar mating will help you evaluate the parents.
5) Cull hard – Any animals that aren’t fit to be breeders should go to butcher. This doesn’t mean you’ll never breed an animal with a less than desirable trait. It may have some other superior trait you’re trying to bring out. In the beginning your criteria will have to be looser as you work the genetics.
6) Gradually tighten your criteria – As your herd improves you’ll be able to gradually improve your criteria. It’s a work in progress and will take years to decades of diligent effort.
7) Spread your genes – Once you have good genetic lines established sell some of your good breeding stock to other farmers who want the same thing. This creates backup copies should disaster strike and you lose your breeding stock.
There is more to it but that is enough to get started thinking about it and even doing. Educate yourself about genetics and judging of animals. Get good breeder stock to begin with. Be in it for the long haul whether you’re doing a rare breed or your own mix. The more animals you have in your breeding pool, the easier it is to do selective breeding. This is why we typically run multiple herds. Pigs are wonderful this way because they mature so quickly, have so many litters per year and produce so many offspring per litter. This gives you a lot of data fast about their dominant and recessive genes.
Don’t rush into it.
If you’re uncomfortable with the work of breeding, selection and culling to market, then don’t take it on yet. Raise summer weaners while you learn to develop the eye for judging animals and the skills at keeping them alive. Breeding, pure bred or crossed, is a whole other bailiwick.
Lastly, as to the question of maintaining existing breed lines vs crossing, realize that all of the breeds that exist were developed through crossing and selective breeding of other breeds in order to produce characteristics people needed for their local needs. An existing breed may or may not be suited for your climate, feed or management style.
Outdoors: 63°F/49°F Partially Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 67°F/65°F
Daily Spark: Once I was idealistic but then I found realism.