Once an essential part of any diversified farm, pigs have played an important role in agriculture – providing meat, fat, leather, bristles and more – for millennia. Some experts say pigs were domesticated as early as 11,000 B.C., and you’d be better off asking the question of where domestication didn’t occur than asking where it did. On the farm, pigs were often extensively managed and expected to forage for acorns, glean fields after harvest, consume dairy and brewery waste, and eat windfall fruit from orchards.
Not so long ago, hundreds of pig breeds were kept busy in backyards and on homesteads across the country. However, as the pork industry moved toward ever leaner and longer carcasses, increased production efficiencies, and confinement operations, many historic breeds fell out of favor. Today, fewer pig breeds remain, and many are dwindling in number. However, plenty of these pig breeds are perfectly suited to the small holding or homestead.
In the spirit of summertime barbecues, or “pig-pickin’s” as they’re called in the South, let’s explore some historic hog breeds and the unique histories, flavors and personalities that are influencing the rebirth of the sustainable agriculture movement.
Gloucestershire Old Spot
Noted for its distinctive white coat with black spots, the Gloucestershire Old Spot (GOS) pig looks like the Dalmatian of pig breeds. The breed (pronounced Glos-ter-sheer) originated in Gloucestershire, England, in the 1800s. They often were found on small farms where they were the “pig of all trades” used for cleaning excess whey from cheese making, harvesting windfall apples from the orchards, and gleaning the residue from the cider press. The breed’s reputation as an excellent grazer and forager earned it nicknames like “Cottage Pig” and “Orchard Pig.”
Known for its meat with a flavor to savor, the pig became wildly popular in Great Britain during the first half of the 20th century. Gloucestershire Old Spots were imported into the United States, but their popularity never reached a level as high as the United Kingdom. After World War II and the shift to industrial food production, the breed lost popularity in both Britain and the United States.
Today, thanks to their great maternal skills, friendly dispositions and self-sufficiency, the Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs are making a comeback. Though boars reach mature weights of more than 600 pounds and sows average about 500 pounds, they are good-natured and relatively easy to handle. The breed is an ideal option for the farmer or homesteader looking for delectable meats from pasture-raised pigs.
For the hobby farmer considering raising pigs, Tamworths offer an ideal blend of hardiness, good temperament and great taste.
Historically, Tamworths lived a rugged, thrifty life of foraging for grubs, roots and berries. Years of selection for this outdoor lifestyle have led to a long, lean, athletic hog with strong legs and sound feet.
Today, Tamworths are once again finding their niche. Their amicable personalities are hard to beat, and sows make prolific, terrific mothers. The long, chiseled snout of the Tamworth makes it a four-legged rototiller, perfect for turning the soil and preparing the ground. Despite their large size of 500 to 600 pounds, Tamworths are very active, so be sure you have the proper enclosures to keep them from roaming too far around the farm.
The Large Black pig is just what its name suggests; a large-framed hog with a solid black coat. The Large Black gained “superstardom” in England during the late 1800s, and by 1900, it was the most numerous of the English pig breeds. The breed was valued by small-scale producers for the succulent pork and bacon it produced on little more than pasture and forage.
The breed was imported to countries around the world, but as with most heritage pork breeds, it fell out of favor in the 1960s as the pork industry shifted to more confinement and industrial operations.
Mature Large Black boars weigh 700 to 800 pounds, and sows reach 600 to 700 pounds. When working in the fields, foraging and rooting, these pigs wear their version of safety glasses. The animals have lop ears that fall forward over their faces, protecting the eyes but sometimes causing sight impediments.
Because of the increased interest in pasture-raised pork, Large Black hogs are beginning to be recognized as a great choice in pastured management systems.
An American original, the Hereford is a medium-size hog breed that is unique to the United States. The breed was developed in Iowa and Nebraska during the 1920s from Duroc, Chester White and Poland China stock. By 1934, 100 animals were identified as the foundation stock for the breed, and the National Hereford Hog Record was formed to promote the new hog breed.
As its name suggests, the Hereford hog has a color pattern of vibrant red and white, similar to that of
These pigs are versatile and adaptable. They can tolerate a wide variety of climates, and are often commended by owners for their docile personalities. Because of their gentle nature, Herefords make an excellent choice for 4-H projects. Mature Hereford boars weigh about 800 pounds, and sows reach about 600 pounds. Today, the breeding population of Hereford hogs is increasing, with the breed being most popular in the Midwest and Plains states.
Large yet mild-mannered, the Red Wattle hog is a breed that small-scale producers and homesteaders should consider. The exact origin of the breed is not certain, but the name that graces the pages of history is that of H.C. Wengler. In 1965, Wengler set out to find the red, wattled hogs he remembered from his youth. The pigs were thought to be extinct. Wengler searched high and low, and in the early 1970s, he found some wattled hogs in a wooded area of eastern Texas. After several generations of selective breeding, the “new” Wengler Red Wattle hog was born.
In the early 1980s, Robert Prentice located another line of red, wattled hog that he developed into the Endow Farm Wattle Hogs.
Today, the Red Wattle is waddling back into the limelight. The culinary world’s recent love affair with the juicy, well-marbled, lean meat the breed produces has led to a growing interest in the breed. As the name implies, the Red Wattle is a red hog with a fleshy wattle attached to each side of the neck. The wattle serves no real function. The breed’s color ranges from shades of red, to some with black specks or patches, to some animals that appear nearly black. Sows make excellent mothers, farrowing litters of 10 to 15 piglets. Red Wattles typically weigh 600 to 800 pounds, but may grow as large as 1,200 pounds depending on the line.
Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Bassett Hound and Orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.