Have You Got the Right Stuff to be a Breeder?

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.

Also see:
How Many Sows Do You Need
Dipping Your Toes into Breeding
Keeping a Pig for Meat
Breeders Page

Outdoors: 63°F/49°F Partially Sunny
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Daily Spark: Once I was idealistic but then I found realism.

About Walter Jeffries

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21 Responses to Have You Got the Right Stuff to be a Breeder?

  1. I finally see what you mean. Last year I only had one sow and bought her bred, so had no control over genetics. I was not able to judge anything at all. This year I have three sows farrowing. The boar that was supposed to breed them did not work and they ended up being bred to the second boar. The first boar is now designated to be butchered. He seems to be sterile or has a problem breeding at all. Too bad, too, because he is a perfect specimen of a Berkshire. The second boar is not as long, but also is good and has a nice temperament as well.

    The difference in the two litters of piglets born is amazing. Tavy is a nice girl and the sister of Sonia, but Tavy’s piglets are calm. When I enter their hut, they do not scatter and hide, like Sonia’s offspring, rather curiously come up to me and see what is going on. I can pet those piglets and cannot pet Sonia’s. Sonia had 14 piglets for a first time mom but 2 were born still from a difficult passage (myconium in the sac) and large, and she laid on 7 so she only has 5 to raise. They are large compared to Tavy’s 10. She had 11 and one died for some reason. They are healthy too, but smaller and not nearly so fat since they are sharing the milk. It is the great difference in temperament that stands out. Tavy herself has no difficulty with me being with her and her babies and was calm from the start, even when they were being born. Sonia rushes over to see what is going on, somewhat nervous, when I am around her babies and that is why they are nervous, I am convinced. I have one more gilt to pop. She is also calm and easy going, not quite as well conformed as Sonia and a few months younger from another farm.

    I would not breed Sonia again, then, because she renested and buried her babies and then laid on them, plus with her nervousness around the idea of motherhood, she has definitely passed that on. I have no idea how you keep track of this with the numbers of breeding pigs you have. For me, three seems hard enough! Thanks for your information, as usual.

  2. Jeff says:

    Thanks for the thorough post, Walter. Your tips are helpful. I particularly like the idea of creating backup copies.

    Any thoughts on how to select for flavor? I’ve read some of your posts on boar taint, which is a related issue, but I’m not sure how to go about selecting for flavor. You can only eat animals that are removed from the gene pool, and you can’t evaluate all your animals because most are going to customers. Something like fat content/marbling you might be able to address during butchering, but taste/mouthfeel seem a bit difficult.

    • By tasting their siblings and offspring. This is how we’ve done it for years and it works very well. It’s a process. You can also do biopsies – Have your pig and eat it too.

      • Jeff says:

        Excellent, I like the biopsy method. Have you ever tasted a boar with boar taint (on or off your farm for that matter). It has achieved a somewhat mythical status and there is lots of misinformation out there.

        • Jeff says:

          Also, is there anyway that us ingnorant farmers can specifically support the great information you provide (I know the kickstarter is an option, but that won’t always be there). I’d like to give you a regular donation based on the awesome info I glean from you. Way more useful than a book.

          • Some people have sent checks for $10 to $50 with this in mind. One very generous gentleman sends us $15 a month and has been doing that for years. A big thing right now is if you can back our project and just as importantly, spread the word about our Kickstarting the Butcher Shop.

            Your question comes with interesting timing as early this morning I got an email from a Kickstarter backer who was asking if instead of getting meat if he could come intern or have a workshop or something. I’m thinking about how to accommodate this. We do not do internships or paid tours for a whole lot of reasons including bio-security, insurance, regulations and the fact that it would make us a public location which in turn brings more regulations and costs. We’re just not setup for that. What has been suggested is perhaps a very long video that spans an entire year so that people would be able to see the farm in action through all the seasons, all sorts of weather and situations. That would give people far more than they could get with a single day’s tour. Give me feedback about what you think of the idea and what you would want to see. Maybe something can be done.

          • David says:

            I love the idea of a long video series sort of thing! I know when I get my property someday I’ll have a ton of questions about the best ways to do things. I know you always are experimenting and discovering things that work better, so it would be wonderful to not have to discover them myself :)

        • Boar taint is real, in a small minority of the boars, more dominant in some lines of some breeds kept under some management (CAFO/pen) systems on some feeds (corn/soy low fiber). I’ve not tasted it, but then I eat our pork and haven’t eaten other people’s boars. However I have smelled it on a couple of boars I saw at other places and it is quite distinct. There certainly is plenty of misinformation.

          • Jeff says:

            I’ve noticed that when my boar is getting interested in breeding, he will sometimes develop an overwhelming odor in his urine. Is this different that taint?

          • That is boar taint. It is normal to have it like that. The problem is only in the few breeds of boars that have too much and store it in their fat thus tainting the flavor of their meat. A boar like yours, kept away from the ladies, may well be fine.

  3. Jeff says:

    I can’t reply to your comment about feedback directly, I don’t think, but here are my thoughts:

    Won’t having a butcher shop make you more open to the public? It seems like the perfect place to regularly sell your wares–or at least this is how I’ve seen every other butcher do it. If the shop is physically separated from the farming operation, this probably isn’t an issue.

    My wife and I do a weekly farm walk and post pictures so our customers/potential customers can see the progress we’ve been making. This is easy, and people really seem to like it. An idea of doing something different would be having a few strategically placed permanent photo monuments where you take a photo every week (or every day). You could then release a slideshow/time lapse video at the end of the year.

    Another idea I thought would be good for your operation is to host a conference. Insurance might be easier for a one-time event and you could charge a reasonable conference fee to cover your costs. I’d be interested in attending, and I’m guessing there are others around the country/in your community that would also. Housing would be a problem, but perhaps there is a hotel near you.

    And I’ll be sending you a check. I encourage others to do the same. I’ll keep sending them based on how much info I get from you and your website. Thanks!

    • Actually, not at all. You see, we don’t do sales from the butcher shop and almost never at the farm even. We sell about 88% through stores and restaurants. About 11% is direct to individuals on our delivery route. The remaining ~1% is people who come and pickup at the farm gate. We don’t have a farm stand or a farm store. It doesn’t really make sense because we are way off the beaten path, high up on a mountain in the middle of a long dirt road. To have people come to us would burn up a lot of fuel. It makes more sense for use to deliver.

      For us the blog has long been our way of offering tours. Literally tens of thousands of photos, video, articles and answers to questions. This way people both near and far are able to visit any time, even when we’re hard at work. I used to do in person tours but it got to be three to five a week and my family asked me to stop because it was taking up so much time that I needed to be doing work. It was later that someone from the government pointed out that if we do tours then it could define us as a public space. We’re not. Our farm is private. It is our home.

      I like the photo a week and I have a series in progress right now that I started recently. The header of this month showing the fencing at the far end of the south field is the beginning of that series. This morning I took more. I would love to have a camera set on automatic in a shelter to do that. Always seemed like a cool idea. Someday.

      Someone else this morning (this is a topic of current conversation) also suggested the conference. That gets into the same complications though as internships, insurance and regulations. I have read about some very bad disasters that happened at other farms where the government came in on the day of the conference and shut it down because it lacked this or that permit.

      Keep coming with the ideas. We’ve thought about this a lot and I am interested in ideas other people might come up with of how to make this work. I’m very interested in sharing what we do so other people can learn, adapt it to their places, improve on the techniques, etc. But conferences, internships and tours – the in-person venues – are fraught with some serious problems. It all sounds nice until the government inspector shows up and says you’re now a public facility or the insurance company cancels our insurance.

      • Adam says:

        I’m reading through this older post to help me qualify selection criteria and this particular discussion thread caught my interest. It’s been over a year since, and you’ve probably already thought of this, but a webinar series can easily replace a conference for the distribution of information. The networking value of a conference is not duplicated but a well done webinar production can be valuable to the participants and profitable to the presenter. I’ve participated in several of these, usually paying $25-50 for a once-a-week evening webinar that spanned 4-7 weeks.

  4. Chad says:


    I have to start by saying the site is amazingly insightful and I have enjoyed being able to research so much of your work and experience in such a short amount of time (for me the reader). My family and I have started a small farm in South Missouri with a goal of self sustainability at first and obvious growth for the future.

    One option that you may or may not have thought about for a conference would be a telecommute conference. Since many laptops and tablets now have the option of an on board camera, a conference like many of the online colleges use would negate any of your concerns for people physically going to the farm and any applicable insurance (and permit) requirements.

    Camera tours (like the one on your fundraising campaign) work well for those that are on an abstract fact finding mission, but a teleconference would work better for those that would like to pick your brain and brainstorm with other parties live. Once the conference has ended, many facilitating conference providers allow archive possibilities, so you can save the conversations for the blog (or your personal use).

    • Interesting idea. We have a low bandwidth connection so it would have to be hosted elsewhere so it isn’t running over our connection or everyone would be getting a jerky, stuttering experience. I have tried participating in a few web seminars but the low bandwidth of my connection makes doing the live version unusable although I can download the archive and listen to that. I do thing that the being able to archive is important.

  5. Johanna Gardner says:

    Walter and Holly;

    Really love your site.

    I am considering keeping one of my girls this winter, she was the fastest growing of my three pigs, Tamworths, and has a good temperament. Very focused on eating.

    My husband thinks I am crazy, but I have a young friend moving onto my land willing to share in the work load. I plan to build a very low to the ground hutch kind of thing (like 10 X 15) for the pigs to winter in, with hay or other wind barriers on three sides and a 10 X 15 outside space for her and a boar…which I still need to locate. I have been told that Berkshires have lovely red meat, voted best tasting many times, so that is what I would like to find.

    I have a brook nearby for water source, and will make the pen with sturdy wood siding…I know how strong pigs are. I have a free source for cheese, bread, and kitchen scraps, available all winter. I have hay for the pen.
    I am working with a butcher shop to have a taker for the end product.

    My husband says I must talk to someone who has raised pigs through the winter and find out how hard it will be, before I definitively decide to do this.

    I know I will have to slog out in the snow to feed and water at least two times a day. I like doing it.

    What am I missing? Will I have to separate the sow and boar before the piglets come, or can I do it at birth (I assume the boar cannot stay with the little family).

    Thanks for any comments/suggestions.


    • Winter is a lot harder than the warm season. I figure it is about six times harder than summer. It is doable. I strongly recommend not farrowing during the cold weather if you can avoid it. Instead setup a spring-fall farrowing cycle.

      You are making good selection criteria for growth, temperament, etc. The next test will be fertility – not all gilts are fertile – and then mothering ability.

      When building a shelter remember to allow two to three feet for build up of bedding to make a good deep bed pack. The composting of the bedding warms the pigs’s bellies and they like that. It also becomes a food factory, filled with earth worms in time and the resulting material will be excellent for gardens, orchards, etc.

      Locating the hut facing the south east sun is good and out of the wind is idea – trees and landscape are important factors in buffering for micro-climates.

      Rather than giving pigs access to the brook or spring, if possible run a 1″ black plastic pipe from the water source to a buried (earth sheltered) waterer. Ideally the waterer is inside some sort of shelter but not their sleeping space. This creates a warm micro-climate around the water.

      Electric fencing handles their strength once they’re trained to it as you probably already know. In the winter start turning off low wires as they get buried in snow so the fence isn’t drawn down.

      In the warm months the sow seeks privacy to nest and farrow. She can’t do that in the limited winter paddocks and the instincts of the pigs are wrong, unmatched to hers. I would suggest providing that privacy late in her gestation onward through to weaning. During the warm months our boars and non-farrowing / non-nursing sows are all together with various other ages and gestating sows no problem but in the winter we do more size and status segregation. Most of all, avoid winter farrowing if you can. The spring piglet market is tempting but there is a reason besides demand that the supply is tight then.

  6. Pat Ross says:

    You mention selecting for two dozen or so traits, “nipple count, body conformation, temperament, feet, ears, wintering ability, pasture grazing ability, gain rate on our pasture/dairy based diet and other things” All of these make sense to me, except for ears. What are you looking for in a pigs ear and what difference does it have on an animal?

    • Large thin ears get torn in fights and frost bite easily in our cold northern climate. Notice that far north wolves, foxes and polar bears have small rounded ears. That is the ideal northern pig ear. Besides, how much pig ear do you want to eat? :)

  7. Travis says:

    Hey there, love your prolific writing on all things pig farm. I have raised plenty of feeder pigs but only recently have been exploring the topic of keeping a sow or two and that has brought me to your website. I found myself wishing I could buy gilts from you but I live way over in Michigan. Have you sold breeding stock to anyone in the Midwest or know anyone else making intense pasture selection out my way?

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