Which pig breed is best?

So many people I speak to plan to start their free range farm with rare breed pigs, in particular, the Wessex Saddleback or English Large Black and some, the Berkshire.
What I stress to these people is the need to know the breed first. Make sure you understand the different characteristics of these pigs before you make a purchase and ensure that they are the right fit for your intended market.

Lets first briefly discuss the different attributes of the rare breeds, in fact, the very carcass characteristics that have seen their numbers reduce as their popularity waned and the commercial industry began favouring white breeds.

The Wessex Saddleback and English Large Black would have to be the rarest of of the heritage breeds now that the Berkshire has once again gained some popularity. However, these three most recognisable breeds have the following in common:

  • Very fat pigs
  • Black hairs
  • Slow growing
These are the three reasons that their popularity declined to the point we see now where they are not seen as being commercially viable. The market has demanded that pork become increasingly leaner and as we loose touch with our food sources and how it is grown, black hairs on the sunday roast are a dose of reality most can do without.  Neither is slow growth in line with a commercial industry that is driven to produce faster, bigger, cheaper, leaner.
Free range pigs
So, rare breeds became rare for these reasons. I should also point out that these heritage lines do not do well in confined, factory farming conditions and as the popularity of this production system grew over the past 50 years and we moved away from free range farming, so to another reason the rare breeds lost popularity.

So why am I telling you all this? There are three things that I believe attribute to the wonderful flavour of free range pork - fat, natural growth rates and the environment in which the pig lives.

Turning now to the commercial and white breeds of pigs. These are the faster growing, modern breeds most of which are white but do include a red breed, the Duroc. Without going into great depths on free range production and how to produce a marketable pig outdoors, most successful free range producers have found that they need to either use or incorporate these white breeds into their herds to meet general market specification so the question is often asked - which breeds taste better?
When we grow pigs outdoors without the use of Paylean (growth promoter) and hormones to force unnatural growth rates and to help the animals lay down muscle but not fat, the pigs grow much slower. Not as slow as the rare breeds but at a very natural pace. Slower growth always translates to more fat being laid down on the carcass. I believe that pigs also take on the flavour of their environment so the best always comes from sustainable pasture based systems.
"Any pork grown under a stress free well managed free range based system will produce exceptionally flavoured and textured pork"
Generally, when someone tries rare breed pork it is often the first time that they have experienced free range as well and because the flavour of free range is so different to commercial pork, they tend to attribute that to the breed, not the production system.
Any pork grown under a stress free and well managed free range and pasture based system will produce exceptionally flavoured and textured pork!

Without fat there is little flavour, without exercise there is little muscle tone or texture and without a clean, free range and pastured raised environment we will not have either.

Where to from here?
For further information on pig farming we recommend you purchase a Pig Farming Starter Kit which contains two popular pig farming books. Both books provide a practical guide to the pig husbandry, including health care, breeding programs for sows and raising piglets.
Other articles written by Lee
Lee McCosker - free range consultant
Lee McCosker - brings not only years of experience in farm animal welfare, but also a wealth of knowledge on free range farm operations, regulatory requirements and animal health and nutrition. After spending the last six years as farm animal welfare consultant to the Humane Society International, Lee's focus is now about a balanced approach to farm accreditation, one that encompasses the farmer, and the animals and nurtures both to ensure the best welfare for the animals but also the best outcomes for the producer and the consumer. www.pastured.com.au
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