By Heather Benson
I am a part of a lot of small farm/homesteading groups and lately the question of “What do I need to know about raising pigs?” seems to come up quite a bit.
Plenty has been written about pig housing, feed, etc but I don’t see many folks writing stuff down about pig behavior. Understanding how and why an animal acts the way it does is the first part in giving them the best life.
I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, but here are some things I have learned in the last 3 ½ years that I wish had been written down somewhere before I started.
1. Pigs are REALLY STRONG. Like Superman strong. Really, there should be a pig-based super hero because holy hell, they have amazing superpowers. Look at your
average full grown breeding sow and you are looking at animal that stands the height of a small pony but packs 600-700 pounds of weight—how come the ratio? It’s all muscle, that’s why.
And that muscle means they can destroy things in ways no other farm animal can. If they really want something, by jove they will probably get it. They can tip/rip/shove just about anything, anywhere. “Pig strong” fencing is no joke—start with good fence and then keep them happy to be in there because if they aren’t, you don’t want your pig thinking of ways to escape. Which leads me to #2:
2. Pigs are SMART. Like really, really smart—super problem solving smart. This can work for or against you. They can and will outwit you if you let them—finding ingenious ways to escape, get into feed or just come up with astoundingly bad ideas.
On the flip side, they can easily be trained to do things you want them to do. Pigs are “pigs” after all and very food motivated. All of our breeding stock is taught basic “manners” like you would teach a dog—they come when called, they “stay” and they know what “no” means and you know what? They listen ten times better than any dogs or kids that I know.
If you aren’t up for high level training, at least bucket train your pigs (and all other stock for that matter)—a pig that will follow a bucket anywhere is a pig you can always catch/move/load when needed. We train our baby pigs to the bucket before weaning. A simple shake and a few “pig pig” calls means my pigs go where I need them, when I need them to.
3. You don’t TELL, you ASK a pig.
I know a lot of people (men especially) who absolutely hate pigs because you can’t work a pig like other livestock—you can’t bully them around because they don’t necessarily move away from pressure like a cow or a sheep (i.e. they don’t “herd”). Pigs don’t have a strong flight instinct like those animals and are more likely to either shut down and refuse to do anything if you attempt to herd/hit/scare them or, worse yet in several hundred pound animal with tusks, they can go into “fight” mode and you are not going to win that fight.
Pigs are very sensitive to verbal and physical escalation of any kind—my 800 pound boar will pout for days if I yell at him without good reason. I once had to get a favorite sow out of the barn in a hurry and I poked her in the butt with a pitchfork---she didn’t trust me to do anything for literally 6 months after that. They work best when asked or coaxed into the right action. See bucket training above…teach them early that working with you is to their advantage and your whole job gets easier in the long run.
4. Let them be pigs
Pigs are social—make sure they have friends. Never just raise 1 pig, get two and if your family can’t eat the second I guarantee you won’t have to work hard finding takers to buy the pork. Breeding stock thrive in stable social groups—sows and boars make “friends” and will be happier/less apt to tear things up/healthier if you keep their groups stable over time.
Pigs need a mud hole unless you have a million-dollar climate controlled building. Build one for them, where YOU want it, or they will build one for you.
Pigs tip things---if possible, their food (and probably water!) dish will get tipped over. It’s their nature—they explore the world with their noses and just HAVE to find out what is under anything and everything in their world. They will dig and fiddle with things constantly, especially in smaller spaces (see the smart problem above). If you can’t let them graze or dig, try giving them stuff to fiddle (play) with—old bowling balls work great. Another favorite of our pigs in the winter is using one of those heavy 4x6 stall mats and putting corn under it. They will get a workout and engage in natural (needed) behavior trying to flip the mat to get the corn. Happy pigs are less destructive pigs.
Most pigs, even the heritage breeds, will root to some degree. Giving them high quality feed will help a lot (if the pasture gets short, they will go after the roots before they start to starve). Keeping them happy with mud holes, friends, good feed and space will go a long way to stopping excess rooting of any breed. But some will do it any way…and that leads me to my next thing:
5. Genetics Matter-A LOT
Most modern (commercial, confinement) breeds are bred for ultra-lean carcasses and fast gain…good things when you are trying to feed 10,000 pigs for a paltry profit for $3-5 per pig. But ultralean pigs come with other genetic baggage: Ultra weird temperaments.
It’s a pretty well known fact that today’s commercial pigs are much higher strung than pigs of yesteryear. They are highly reactive, “touchy” creatures that are more difficult to handle, house and generally be around. They are generally "busier" and more active which often means more destructive...their urge to root can destroy acres of pasture literally overnight. Their reactive temperaments mean they don't deal well with changes of routine, pen or even the person feeding them. There are several accounts of pigs in confinement barns freaking out and piling up in a corner until they suffocate just because a new person started feeding them.
We tried a few—they were totally nuts. They never calmed down—crawling up walls every single time I entered the barn, freaking out at any change, nearly impossible to move from pen to pen—and to top it off, they starting hunting and killing our chickens like rabid coyotes. Sayonara weirdo pigs! Go read Temple Grandin’s research on the subject—modern pigs are head cases that aren’t probably the best fit for new pig folks.
In contrast, the lard breeds (often referred to as “heritage” breeds) are (usually) naturally more docile, less reactive and the “slow and steady” representatives of the pig world. If you know horses, think of the personality difference between say an Arabian and a Belgian. The Arabian is naturally “hotter”—that is more reactive to its surroundings and the Belgian is the slow to react, “cold blooded” type. Each has their place in the horse world, just as each kind of pig has its place on the farm.
Beginner farmers would do well to get the old style breeds. Not only are they easier to get along with, they typically require less housing (modern breeds need more coddling), they forage better (ie eat grass or hay to gain) and in my personal opinion, they taste a whole lot better (pork should NOT be the “other white meat”—it should be as red and marbled as a prime ribeye!). Talk to your farmer, even if you are just getting feeder pigs to grow for 6 months, about their pigs' temperaments. You want to hear "calm, docile, non-aggressive, easy to work".
I could write volumes on other random pig behavior things we’ve come across, but these stuck out in my head. I love having pigs and they will always be a part of our farm, but they aren’t necessarily the easiest animals to start with. Like all animals, they have their own unique needs and ways of being in the world—learn what those are and you are well on your way to happy pigs and tasty bacon!
If you have some awesome pig behavior stories to share--please chime in!