Heritage Breed Pigs: Kunekune

Reader Contribution by Kathy Petersen

Over the next few blogs we will explore more in depth looks at the breed, care, farrowing, feeding, housing and fencing of these fantastic pigs. I do hope you will join me again on our next blog.

KuneKune Pigs are a rare, heritage breed of grazing pigs that are extremely unique in their temperament, friendliness, size and characteristics. These little pigs are fairly new to the United States and are growing in many niche markets. KuneKunes serve many purposes from pets, breeding stock to sustainable agriculture.

A uniquely friendly grazer

KuneKunes come in a wide array of colors: ginger, black/white, brown/white, black, brown, cream, and my favorite ginger/black. One characteristic of KuneKunes are the distinct wattles under their jowls. They are called “piri piri” in New Zealand and here in the USA, we call them wattles. They are two pieces of flesh under the jowl of the pig, similar to goats. Some breeders call them tassels.

a mottled black and white kunekune pig and orange piglet

KuneKunes are true grazers who prefer to spend their days grazing and exploring pastures as well as woods. They require very little in the way of supplementation making them well suited for small-scale farmers. They are not prone to rooting as they want to eat the grass and not tear it up. KuneKunes tend to be very clean creatures, mostly pooping along fence lines as they want to save the grass for grazing.

KuneKunes are affectionate, friendly, docile little pigs. They will flop over for a belly rub at just a simple touch. They get along well with other animals and other animals seem to accept them easily. I can let my 1-year-old granddaughter and 3-year-old granddaughter romp in the pastures with our full intact boars, without any fear of harm coming to them. The children even try to ride the pigs sometimes. Even during the farrowing process (delivering babies), moms don’t seem to mind the children watching and being around their newborn piglets.

seven multicolored piglets suckling at a dark pig

Back from the brink of extinction

When I was researching a different venture for our small acre farm, I looked at several different animals. I had considered Alpacas, goats, miniature cattle and pigs. In researching different breeds of pigs, I ran across a picture of a KuneKune pig. I thought these little creatures were adorable. Never once, had I considered raising pigs. Now, I am totally and completely in love with this breed of pigs.

side by side pictures of an adult kunekune pig and a kunekune piglet

Once of the things that intrigued me was the history of this breed. I found very little information here in the US about them and did most of my research through the New Zealand KuneKune Society and the British KuneKune society. That is where my passion began… with the history.

These little pigs were almost extinct. No one really knows exactly how they came to New Zealand, but several theories exist from whalers bringing them over to New Zealand to the Maori tribes bringing them back in their canoes. The Maori tribes used to keep KuneKunes as a meat pig and for their lard. Maybe saying “keep” is the wrong word since they allowed them to roam free, but they stayed close to Maori homes. Some say this is how they became so domesticated and friendly.

closeup of a kunekune piglet facing the camera

Two gentleman, Michael Willis and John Simister, began searching out these little pigs to begin a recovery program when they found out there were less than 50 of them left. They encountered difficulty in finding just 18, and they acquired them through gifts and purchasing them. They were very successful in their recovery breeding program and basically brought the breed back from the brink of extinction.

Kunekune pigs in America and the United Kingdom

In 1995, Katie Rigby imported KuneKunes directly from New Zealand to the US and began her own breeding program. It was a closed herd, and she only sold spayed and neutered “pets.” Most of Katie’s herd no longer exists.

In 2005, another import happened, this time from Great Britain. These imports were to start a breeding program of KuneKunes in the US.

In 2010, there were several more lines added by another import, again from Great Britain, bringing even more genetic diversity to the now expanded breeding stock here.

Now with KuneKunes in several countries, the breed is well established and there are no more fears of them becoming extinct. Actually here in the US, they are beginning to find their way into the hearts and farms across America. They are not yet in all 50 states, but they are well on their way with new herd owners every day.

a large adult kunekune pig foraging

One of the things I have enjoyed is being a part of the KuneKune world and feeling like I can somehow make a difference in sharing their history and information about KuneKunes with others.

Kunekune breed personality traits

It is often said not to believe everything you read. Well, I can tell you that you can believe this! As amazing as it sounds, it is very true!

KuneKunes are a docile, friendly little pig that is capturing the hearts of owners across the United States. They are being used as pets, therapy animals, orchard workers, garden workers (for cleanup, of course) and as homesteading pigs and breeding stock. They are becoming more and more popular for small-scale farmers as they are just so easy to handle. They follow you around like puppies while you are doing your chores. They enjoy human interaction, but they are also independent enough not to need your attention every moment. If you have the time, they are willing to devote their affection to you and if you are busy, they are happy to graze and interact with each other.

I tell my husband all the time that the pigs are easier than the dogs (we raise Australian shepherds as well). KuneKunes don’t bark, don’t get fleas and don’t have to come in the house! Did I mention they don’t bark?

Having three small granddaughters, it was important to me to raise a breed of livestock that I did not have to worry about hurting any of the children. My granddaughters have fed with me, watched piglets be born and even helped clean piglets off when they are born. A mother pig does not seem to mind at all that she has an audience at birthing or even mating. When we give shots to the young piglets and they are squealing, the mother may “fuss” at me verbally but, never does she get aggressive.

It is nothing to see all the children running in the pasture with piglets and intact breeding KuneKunes. Actually their playhouse and swing are in the pasture. The girls go in the playhouse and suddenly the KuneKunes want to come in too. Imagine KuneKunes knocking on your playhouse door? My sow’s gate was left open by accident one day. I was in the kitchen cooking dinner when I heard a loud knock on the door and it kept repeating itself. I dried my hands and hurried to the door as the knock seemed urgent. Imagine my surprise to find Sassy at the door. I guess she wanted to be invited in for dinner or she was telling me “Hey, you left the gate open.”

You would think an intact boar would be one that you definitely have to be careful of right? NOPE! They are just as docile as a piglet. My 3-year-old granddaughter used to try to ride my biggest boar. Of course, he did not allow that, he plopped to the ground for a belly rub instead. What breed of pig do you know that would do that? I have even scratched behind the ear of a boar that was in the process of breeding. That amazes me!

I can move everyone on my property to a new location in 5 to 10 minutes or less and never put a hand on the pig. I bet you wonder how that happens. Well, a box of Honey Nut Cheerios will get you everywhere with a KuneKune pig.

There are many theories on how the KuneKunes became so friendly, but the one that I hear over and over is that the Maori tribes in New Zealand kept them as meat pigs. They did not fence in the animals or make them stay in any particular area. However, they were always found close to Maori homes. Maybe this is where they learned their love for humans.

So, when you hear how sweet, docile and friendly they are — this you can believe. When you hear how easy they are to manage… they are! I invite you to visit a KuneKune breeder near you and experience for yourself this amazing breed of pig. But I should warn you that your life will never be the same until you too can own your own KuneKune Pig.

Fencing and housing for KuneKune pigs

Keeping your livestock safe — whether KuneKunes or other livestock — is of grave importance. We are their safe-keepers. Keeping them in their environment and predators out is a commitment, we, as the head of the herds, must take very seriously. Being able to afford new fencing and buildings can be quite expensive. We have had to be very “creative” in making our environment both safe and cost-effective.

The following is what has worked for us as alternatives to the normal type of housing and fencing. When we were first getting into raising KuneKunes and doing our “homework,” a breeder told me to “Put up the best, strongest fence that you can afford.” Those words have stuck with me from the beginning. It was great advice.

The fencing alone can be expensive but, when you add in the poles, insulators and all the other hardware, it can really add up. I must give total credit to my husband, who came up with fencing using pallets. They are strong and tough. It creates a very rustic look and it appealed to me as we are surrounded by woods and are in the country. You can use regular pallets but you can also get pallets that have a space between the boards to make it look more like a regular wooden fence.

We have also used cattle field fencing in areas that I wanted to be able to see into easily and also for the animals to be able to see out as well. With Kunes, they can push under a fence with their strong snouts fairly easily, and to solve that we have nailed dead trees to the bottom making it impossible to pick the fences up. Other than for firewood what other purpose can these be used for after all.

KuneKunes are grazing livestock animals, and they enjoy pasture and woods where they can forage for plants, acorns, stems and such. Those pallets that were less than pretty going through the woods tend to blend into the surroundings and are not as noticeable. One nice thing is you can nail those pallets to the trees and to each other for stronger fence and less cost. We usually have to add very few poles when including the natural surroundings of the woods. In the areas that we needed poles, it was very easy to break down a pallet and use those strong boards for poles in the areas not surrounded by woods. We have even used the dead trees for poles but, over the years, we have found that they need replacing more often than the boards from the pallets.

So where do you get all those pallets? My husband works near a building supply company where he stopped one day and asked them what they did with all those pallets. They were happy to give them to him and tell him any time the pallets are out there to stop by and pick them on up. They were surprised to hear what we were doing with them. It did take time to accumulate the pallets, but my husband drove by every day and picked them up whenever he saw them. When we use them, we paint them with a barn red deck stain to help protect them.

My husband once built a chicken coop all out of pallets. That inspired him to do our pig houses, which are in every area that we have fenced in for the pigs/piglets. He was able to put up strong, sturdy sides, a roof and a floor. Now the sides do have to have plywood nailed to them to keep them draft-free. We also put a tarp over the top to keep out water. We also hung a runner (walk-on mat used to protect carpeting) over the entrance to the pig house to keep it draft-free in the winter and keep the rain from blowing in the rest of the year. It is bedded down with lots of hay!

We do, of course, have a barn and two nurseries that our farrowing quarters are in as well.

Considerations before buying your own KuneKune herd

We have been raising KuneKunes for over five years now, and I must say that it has been quite the journey. I can honestly say that I never expected that this small heritage breed of grazing pig was going to enrich my life the way they have. They are just so friendly, easy to handle, docile, and comical; what’s not to love?

I will never forget all the discussions I had when I was researching the breed, nor how I felt when I brought home my first piglet. My first litter was also a memory I will never forget. I get just as excited today as I did back then with my first litter. To watch a birth is to experience a miracle right in front of your eyes. Can you tell I am head over heels in love?

small hairless piglets suckling

What you do not hear a lot is the commitment that you make when you are raising livestock of any kind. The hours of work, the loss of sleep, and the 365 days a year that the “job” entails. Most pig farmers — unless you are a large-scale commercial farmer — also work full-time. It is a tireless job to care for the animals, but so worth the joy that it brings. Caring for our farm and animals is very therapeutic for me.

During the first several years of our KuneKune breeding program I managed a Marriott hotel full-time (and then some). My husband also worked full-time. It is hard to stay up all night delivering piglets and then go to work the next day, however we managed to do it. Luckily, two years ago, I left the hotel world to begin my own home-based business. It is a decision I still do not regret, as it gives me the flexible schedule that I need to be on the farm and watch over my animals even better.

The joys of raising livestock are very many! The accomplishments are great! The hard times are hard! I am a very emotional breeder, as I truly love each individual pig for different reasons. When you have a litter and unexpectedly lose a piglet, it is very difficult; I will cry each time. I go above and beyond to save each life that I am responsible for helping to bring into this world.

When you go through a heartache, you question why you put yourself through it. When you work all day and spend three hours cleaning up poop and giving fresh water daily; when you stay up all night delivering piglets while everyone else is sleeping; when you cannot go on vacation or visit with friends/family due to a litter coming or young piglets on the ground you are trying to save; when your friends are inviting you to go places and you can’t — you wonder why you do it. I could go on and on …

So, why do I do raise KuneKunes with all the sacrifices that I make to be a pig farmer? I do it because I make a difference in their lives and they make a difference in mine. I love to watch our pigs out grazing. I love to save a piglet despite all the odds stacked against us. I love to walk out my door and have them all come running for my attention and affection. I love to be involved with the miracle of birth. I love to watch piglets play out in the farrowing yards. I love to watch a mother pig sing to her babies while they are nursing. I love to get photos of our piglets in their new homes and watch their piglets be born on new farms. I love to help my buyers by mentoring them and assisting them on their own journey through the KuneKune world. I love how, if I had a tough day, I can go out and feel renewed after spending time with our pigs.

So the sacrifices are many, but, oh, the joy outweighs them.

Kathy Petersen is one of the founding members of the American KuneKune Pig Society. She retired from breeding KuneKunes in 2021 but her herd lives on in the hands of current AKKPS board member Jeremiah Smith on his Virginia farm, Catlett Creek Acres. Read Kathy Petersen’s archived KuneKune articles at AKKPS President Caroline Malott’s website Red Roof KuneKunes.

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