6 months keeping pigs

We started keeping pigs in January. We had often talked about getting pigs, with the usual pattern being that Becky would suggest that we should have some and I would tell her that we don’t have enough space, and we should get something more manageable first. Ironic, then, that pigs ended up being our first animals (not counting cats – they are pets), and that it was me that ended up taking the first steps.

We had realised that our orchard, which had become more of a meadow with some trees in it, would be extremely difficult to clear of grass, brambles and other weeds. We weren’t going to be able to realise our plans to have a large vegetable plot there unless we could solve this problem. We didn’t want to use chemical weedkillers, and Becky’s dad’s rotavator hadn’t proved up to the job of cutting through turf this thick. You can get an idea of how bad it was from the picture below.

Spoiler: we did eventually get pigs.

Spoiler: we did eventually get pigs.

We met Veronica and Jo at a town fete, where they had a stall selling various kinds of meat, including that from their berkshire pigs, and I quizzed them about what was involved in keeping them. We quickly realised that it wasn’t as big an undertaking as all that, and that we had enough land. More importantly, perhaps, the pigs would make short work of clearing the land, destroying any vegetation smaller than a tree. It began to look like a plan.

As it happened, we were able to help Jo and Veronica out in return. Their land had become horribly waterlogged by heavy rainfall over winter, while ours was relatively dry. We took four of their weaners – twice as many as we had originally planned – and kept them on our land for a couple of months. Normally you’d take new weaners at 2 months old, but at 4 months old these were much larger animals, and within a week they had already ripped up much of the turf.

A pig-chewed wasteland.

After just a few days, a pig-chewed wasteland.

Our first set of pigs were with us through a ridiculously rainy period. Going out to feed them was an exercise in desperately trying to keep our boots on our feet as the sucking mud attempted to claim them. Keeping the food dry enough for them to eat it was a challenge, too – normally you just scatter the food on the ground so they can root around for it, but this wasn’t an option here. For much of the time we fed them out of a couple of old bin lids, which just about worked, though in their enthusiasm to get to the food they would frequently tip a fair bit of it into the mud.

Mud, mud, glorious mud.

Mud, mud, glorious mud.

The pigs themselves seemed not to like the rain very much, and were frequently indoors. At the time we put that down to the fact they had been literally brought up in a barn, but we have subsequently discovered with the second lot of pigs that they actually spend quite a lot of time sleeping, and presumably just preferred sleeping indoors rather than in a giant swamp.

One rather charming aspect of having pigs is how sociable they are. They travel around the pen in a group; you rarely see one on its own. A common experience when we come out to feed them or just visit and see how they’re doing is for a single piggy face to pop out, but invariably the other two will scramble to follow. They even like to chase each other around the pen. They follow us around, too (for obvious reasons) and aren’t shy about nibbling on our wellington boots or even (as I discovered this morning) on my trousers. Having said that, it isn’t all rainbows and sunbeams; our pigs fought over food, shoving and biting to get the best spot. That was when they were havig to crowd together to get the food out of two bin lids – perhaps just a side-effect of feeding in a confined space, therefore.

We are now a month into our second lot of pigs. We have expanded the pen in the hopes that they will work their magic on a corner of our garden that has become quite infested with brambles. This time we have a group of three, and at 2 months old they are much smaller than the last lot. So small in fact that I was able to carry them from the car to their pen when they first arrived. (You carry them by the back legs, as otherwise they would easily wriggle free.)

New pigs!

New pigs!

The new gang have got straight to work digging up the expanded pen. They don’t seem to be making a lot of impact on the brambles yet, but they are still quite small and have only been in for three weeks. They are enjoying having the brambles there, though – they have dug a system of tunnels through the undergrowth, and have got so far in that when they go inside you can’t see them at all, prompting occasional panics that they might have escaped. They also enjoy the craters that their predecessors made which, now it’s hot and sunny, make excellent wallows for them, and the logs we left in there for them to scratch themselves on.

The bramble patch makes a shady spot to sleep.

The bramble patch makes a shady spot to sleep.

Keeping pigs really hasn’t turned out to be all that much work. There was a big push at the start when we had to build the house and so forth, and every time we get a new group in we have to strim any plant life around the fence that has grown in the interim (which will otherwise short it out). We feed them twice a day and top up their water; we change the electric fence battery and refresh their bedding once a week. We also need to regularly patrol the fence to check for any grass or other weeds getting tall enough to short out the fence. That’s about it.

It isn’t a cheap hobby. Obviously, you need land, and you need enough money to pay for housing and fencing. We spent about £700 in total setting up, which covered all the components to a pig ark large enough for 8 pigs (we saved a little by assembling it ourselves), fence posts and wire for the electric fence, a couple of recycled car batteries, an energiser and a recharger. We also put in an electricity and water supply to the far end of the garden to save us carrying batteries and water back and forth (not included in the £700). Of course, there’s also day-to-day costs like feed, but because we have so far had our pigs on loan, we haven’t yet had to pay for this. Our pigs eat Dodson and Horrell sow & weaner pencils, supplemented significantly by grazing as well as waste from our vegetable plot (you can’t feed them anything that’s been in a kitchen, but as long as you do any trimming on site before taking it in, all is well – and they love weeds too). We expect that over time these costs will be paid back to us in delicious pork (and perhaps in time money paid by customers wishing to have delicious pork).

I get a lot of surprised reactions from people when they discover we keep pigs, and even more so when I tell them we kill and eat them. Indeed, when we gave away sausages and chops to our neighbours earlier this year one of them almost turned it down, saying “it wouldn’t feel right”. Almost all of those expressing shock at the idea are meat-eaters themselves, who seem content with the idea of eating a battery-farmed chicken or pork chop but shocked by raising an animal yourself in comfortable conditions and humanely killing and eating them after they have had a happy life.

A happy pig.

Wood from our pear tree makes a nice scratching post.

For myself, I couldn’t be happier about it. If you eat meat then I think there’s an obligation to try and make sure that the animals have been well-treated, and I don’t see how you could do much better than looking after them yourself. Our pigs seem pretty darn happy to me, and I’m confident you won’t get a better welfare standard anywhere else.

Looking ahead, we plan to continue having pigs for the forseeable future. We still have land to clear, but even when that’s finished we’ve enjoyed it enough that we intend to carry on. We will probably move beyond the “pigs on loan” way of doing things to buy our own weaners and sell them to paying customers. Perhaps we’ll even experiment with different pig breeds.

I have to admit, I never thought we would get pigs but now that we have, I’ve no regrets. It’s hard to believe we’ve only had them for 6 months. In that time they’ve become quite a fixture. It’s now much harder to imagine not having pigs.

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About Rabalias

Rabalias was born and raised in The Frozen North. Following a decade in more Southerly climes (well, London), he recently returned to wreak havoc upon the Derbyshire countryside. Rabalias has been roleplaying since he was ten years old, when he was introduced to D&D (the red box) and subsequently lost his lunchtimes for good. He grew up on trad games like D&D, Rifts and Shadowrun, and even though he has branched out since, he still has a soft spot for them. Rabalias is a system monkey and cannot quite get over his suspicion of games that do not use dice, despite his atrocious luck. Rabalias has run a number of social LRPs of his own devising. He is currently playing a lot of tabletop games and experimenting with indie stuff. In his non-fictional life, Rabalias is a central Government civil servant (tho' currently on paternity leave), spends rather less time than he should on looking after his garden, is experimenting with raising pigs, is in a relationship with Admiral Frax and is the father of and full-time carer for a small person. Not in that order.

11 thoughts on “6 months keeping pigs

  1. Keely

    To our surprise we found that once they were all set up, our pigs were much lower-maintenance than our chickens! They just need to be fed and watered every day: chickens need to be locked up every night and let out every morning. We’ve since acquired a little solar-powered automatic chicken door (best thing since doorknobs), which alters that dynamic in favor of chickens.
    Your pigs are absolutely adorable in their little bramble nest.
    It really is wonderful the way they clear land and fertilize! we use movable fencing for ours and a nifty solar charger like this http://www.premier1supplies.com/detail.php?prod_id=51616, which makes it pretty easy to clear new garden sites and clean up garden waste in the fall. Sean likes to plant after we move them so that we always have tasty pastures to put them on once they’ve thoroughly muddied up their old digs.
    I can’t imagine life without pigs. We’re planning to move to the frozen north (Alaska!) for a little while, and there may be too much cold and too many predators up there, but we’ve talked about starting a farrowing operation after that. It’d be nice to have a sow or two that we could get attached to.

    Reply
    1. Becky A

      We have adored having pigs and if I’m really honest I’ve really enjoyed having the meat. It has made me look at meat in a very different way but all to the good. I too was surprised at how low maintenance they are… much lower than I was expecting, although they were harder to manage over our Winter (which was the wettest on record) and the mud in the pig pen was fearsome.

      Tell me all about your move to Alaska. The only things I know about Alaska come from watching Northern Exposure (which I LOVE!).

      Reply
      1. Keely

        Haha I’ve never seen it and we don’t have enough internet to stream it: it’s on my Netflix dvd queue, but with an “extremely long wait”
        Honestly, I don’t know much for sure about Alaska, having never been there. I just want to go see the real north before it melts completely, and to be somewhere truly vast and wild and empty of people. It’s a great place (paywise) to be a teacher, and with all of that wilderness it seems like an incomparable place to have summers off. I grew up in Maine and I miss sledding and skating and cold fun, so the climate is something to look forward to, with the northern lights for a bonus. There’s nothing definite about the move yet – We’ll start looking for jobs this coming winter, and let that guide our final choice in location (somewhere coastal) – but it’s fun to dream about it!

    2. Rabalias Post author

      Wow, Alaska. That is exciting. Like Becky, I know it mostly through Northern Exposure, so I’ll be interested to hear if it really is all cow-flinging and naked sprinting. (I expect not… but would be delighted if I was wrong about that.)

      Solar automatic doors sound like a very clever invention, though I guess it doesn’t get you out of having to go and herd them in at night. (When I was a kid we kept one or two dozen birds in the wood at the bottom of our garden; some of them liked to fly up into the trees and roost for the night, and if you couldn’t knock them down then the fox would walk around the tree in circles until they fell down, hypnotised. So I’m slightly paranoid about the idea of leaving them to put themselves to bed!)

      We’re just discussing what our pig rotation plan might look like. We don’t want their pen to just become a mud-pit, but we don’t have all that much land, and the clay soil is hell to dig over once they’ve had their way with it, so planting and rotating feels like a bit of a chore. We’ll see what it looks like once they’ve cleared what’s there now, I guess.

      Reply
      1. Keely

        We had problems with our birds* putting themselves to bed only on the nights immediately after we change their bedding. When our pigs were small, we were able to overload all the critters with food and water and take off for two or three days at a time, thanks to the chicken door!

        *Cappy, our rooster, has earned a black belt in karate or something. He sleeps in a tree every night, well out of our reach, and often goes missing for a few days at a time. I have seen him run by our house, squawking at night with raccoons in hot pursuit on multiple occasions. We’ve given up on him, but he’s sturdier than expected and has lasted weeks this way. Fortunately, his bad habits haven’t rubbed off on the other birds.

  2. alderandash

    They look like very happy pigs…! We’ve been pig keepers for all for 4 weeks – they are great fun to have around and, so far, fairly low-maintenance. My children love going to visit the pigs – they seem to enjoying playing together… We’ve been really open with the children about the fact that the pigs are being reared for meat, and won;t be here for ever. So far they’ve been fine with it – they love the pigs, but also talk about which one is going to provide more sausages! Seeing the pigs wallowing, playing, eating grass etc makes me feel better about eating meat – I feel glad I can give them a good home while they are here.

    Reply
    1. Rabalias Post author

      Our one-year-old is fascinated by the pigs. He loves watching them feed (from the vantage point of my back-carry.) He isn’t old enough to talk about eating them yet, though he has eaten sausages and roast pork from the last lot!

      What breed of pig are you keeping?

      Reply
      1. alderandash

        Hi there…glad your one your old is enjoying your pigs too…We’ve just got two ‘commercial hybrid’ pigs, from a giant pig farm down the road from us. They actually look quite interesting – one is orange and spotted, the other looks like a Gloucester Old Spot – but apparently that’s just because the genetic mix they use to ‘create’ the hybrid pigs throws up a few variants once in a while amongst all the ‘little pink pigs’. We picked out two of the more interesting looking ones! I would like to have rare-breed pigs sometime, but this year we went for what was easily available…

  3. The Zero-Waste Chef

    Your pigs are so cute! My sister has chickens and our mum is horrified that she and her family eat them (unless the foxes get to them first) but she eats factory farmed meat (!). At least the chickens, like your pigs, have a happy life. I refuse to eat factory farmed meat or eggs.

    Reply
    1. Rabalias Post author

      I totally agree with you about factory farmed stuff. We’re lucky in that we have access to a lot of good suppliers who can tell you where their meat came from and how it was treated, but it is incredibly difficult to find out the provenance of most meat (I’m talking supermarket stuff here, but even some butchers can’t satisfactorily answer elementary questions about their meat). I guess for most people they’ll take whatever is cheapest and not ask too many questions, sadly if understandably.

      Reply
      1. The Zero-Waste Chef

        That’s great you ask a lot of questions. The more people do that, the more suppliers will realize they have to change. I agree that for most people, price consideration tops their list of priorities 😦 But I like to think that is changing. It certainly has in our household. I pay MUCH more for pasture-raised dairy, meat and eggs than I would for their factory-farmed counterparts and am happy to do so.

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