Updated: Sep 27
Raising heritage breed pigs was the best decision when it came to saving on the dreaded feed & vet bills, which has run many pig farmers out of business. Whether it was the English Large Blacks or the Red Wattles, heritage breed pigs were excellent for low maintenance care while on a budget! In this post, I will share with you 8 secrets I’ve learned while raising heritage breed pigs and why I think they’ll be the best pigs for you as you build a self-sufficient homestead.
Why Should You Raise Heritage Breed Pigs?
When thinking about adding pigs to your homestead, you should take a long look at the differences between commercial and heritage breeds. If your goal is self-sufficiency and you plan to raise the animals outdoors, then I highly recommend choosing a heritage pig breed. Heritage and commercial animals have some pretty significant differences and, overall, heritage breeds tend to fit in on the homestead better. Let’s jump into the reasons you should raise heritage pig breeds on your homestead.
What are Heritage Breeds?
Heritage breeds are breeds of livestock that have been around for hundreds of years. These traditional breeds have maintained survival and self-sufficiency instincts and continue to pass those traits onto their offspring.
8 Reasons to Raise Heritage Pig Breeds
There are many benefits of raising heritage pig breeds in a homestead setting… from their adaptability and survival instincts to the incredible meat that they can provide to your family.
Let’s discuss the top 8 reasons for why you should raise heritage pig breeds.
The first consideration for heritage breed pigs is fertility. In this case, we aren’t talking about whether the animal can breed or not. We are looking more at the number of healthy piglets that the animal can produce.
Generally heritage breeds have fairly good fertility. However, individual pigs within the breed might not. Some pigs farrow (give birth to) 5 piglets while some can go up to almost 18. Litter size is dependent on the breed and quality of mating. Heritage sows will have lower litter sizes compared to commercial sows, but they have more natural mothering. Bigger isn’t always better, especially in litter sizes. Although commercial sows have larger litters, larger litters are prone to high mortality rates.
The only way commercial hog farmers can have control of this high mortality rate is through the use of farrowing crates. Heritage breed sows may have smaller litter sizes, but they have better mothering ability and with the smaller litters, these sows are able to keep most if not all of their piglets alive, without much assistance and housing.
2. Foraging Ability
Heritage breed pigs tend to have strong foraging capabilities. This is because they were bred to forage and survive off of the land, not to be fed grain all day.
They are made to be able to find food for themselves, as well as whatever slop or scraps that they can get from the farmer. Historically, the diet of heritage breed pigs consists more of what is available rather than a constant steady stream of feed.
If you pick any breed outside of heritage breeds, you might experience a lack of foraging conversion, converting those plant materials into muscle or fat. Be warned, although heritage breed pigs are better foragers, that does not necessarily eliminate the need for grain. Even on pasture, most heritage pigs will need a predominantly grain based diet in order to get that right quality of meat and fat from the pig.
Most pigs fed mostly a “grass-based” diet will produce very lean and will grow terribly slow. Exceptions to this rule are breeds like the American Guinea Hog, Ossabaw Island Hog, and KuneKunes. These breeds still take a year to a year and a half to finish growing out for slaughter, but they don't require a lot of grain in their diet, otherwise they will be prone to obesity issues.
Commercial breeds of pigs are not very long lived pigs. Generally a sow is going to last no more than 3 years years at a commercial farm. That’s because these breeds are focused on quick efficiency, not longevity.
A lot of heritage breeds can last six to eight years in production if they are quality breeding stock to begin with. This is particularly true with the sows. That's double the amount of time that a commercial farmer would raise or keep their sow,
Commercial sows can begin to have fertility issues and grow too large for efficient production if kept on the farm too long, so they are culled to keep production up and feed prices down.
4. Feed Conversion
As pigs grow, they require more feed. In a commercial setting, this means that the farmer must provide more and more purchased feed. You will often see many filler products (like muffin mix or candies) added into pig feed on commercial farms to help cut the cost. This is because around 80% of costs for raising pigs is feed expenses.
Heritage breed pigs will also require more feed over time, but their foraging instincts will help to keep the feed bill steady. A heritage pig’s forage conversion (foraged foods turned to meat and fat) goes up as they get older while the grain conversion (grain turned to meat and fat) goes down. This is most relevant to pigs (past market weight) that have been selected for breeding stock.
Watch the Video Interview with Aaron Bradley: "The Ultimate pIG BREED??? | hOW TO sELECT THE rIGHT pIG bREED FOR yOU"
5. Maternal Instinct
Heritage breed pigs generally have good maternal instincts; however, not all pigs (within any breed) will be good mothers.
If you get a sow that's not a good mother the first time, cut her some slack. But if you're doing everything that you can to accommodate the sow the best that you can and you realize that the sow is still not giving you good maternal instincts, then you need to reevaluate her place on your homestead.
If she is flopping over their piglets, not nursing, and generally doesn't seem to care about the piglets, then that sow has to go to the freezer.
6. Natural Mating Ability
Most commercial operations use artificial insemination. Some still use boars for heat checking, but a lot of them are inseminated. That's why you see commercial livestock breeds in general that really struggle to breed naturally.
Heritage breeds, on the other hand, have been breeding in their natural environment without intervention for hundreds of years. Those breeds do really well in terms of natural breeding and natural mating because they know what to do.
You don't have to help them out on a regular basis. Of course, there may be some cases where you will have to help a little, like if the sow and boar have significant size differences, but they will generally take care of business on their own.
7. Disease and Parasite Resistance
We have mentioned several reasons why commercial pink pigs won’t do great on pasture. Another reason for this is because they don't have the best immune system. They weren't bred for high functioning resistance to outdoor diseases because they're not outdoor pigs.
This is why heritage breeds really work better for an outdoor system. They are much more resilient breeds. They have a natural resistance and/or natural tolerance towards diseases, parasites that most commercial operations just simply do not have.
8. Flavor of Meat
Heritage pork tends to have more flavor and color than commercial pork. This is due to genetics, exercise, and the difference in diet. Heritage pigs thrive on a diverse diet of foraged materials, food scraps, and some grain. Commercial pigs are typically fed a diet of grain plus fillers without the goodness of fresh foraged foods. Although the coloration of the pork is influenced by genetics, even a lean and meaty breed like a Yorkshire can have redder colored pork with the opportunity of exercise. The reason most pork at the grocery store is pale pink, rather than reddish, is because confinement pigs do not have enough space for exercise.
This is somewhat intentional on the farmer’s part, because if the pig had large spaces to actively run, they would effectively “burn off” the feed that they are eating, meaning they’d lose money everyday the pig was active besides getting up for water and feed. The redder the pork, the more activity that pig experienced; the redder the pork the more blood circulation that pig experienced.
Each heritage pig breed will have its own meat characteristics. Lard breeds will produce a fattier product while bacon breeds will yield more lean meat. Some breeds are a good combination between the two and produce a dark marbled meat.
Common Breeds of Heritage Pigs
There are many breeds that are considered heritage. Since the term “heritage” hasn’t yet been defined, it is difficult to completely narrow the breeds down.
These are some common pig breeds that have been around for hundreds of years and fall under the category of traditional / heritage breeds.
English Large Blacks