Raising Pigs on a Small Scale
By Jim Curley
Conventional wisdom says that it is not cost-effective to keep a boar unless you have five or six sows. Based on our experience, however, I propose that this really depends on the availability and price of piglets, the availability of a boar (if you already have a sow), how much food you can produce on the homestead to feed the boar or breeding pair, and how much space you have to keep them in.
In my part of the country, the Midlands of South Carolina, weaned piglets from quality sources are getting scarce. When I started raising pigs for my family a few years ago, 70 dollars could buy a pair of high-quality 8-week-old piglets. Now you are lucky if 70 dollars can buy you one.
If you want to keep a sow and get her bred by a local boar, first make sure you can find a quality farm to partner with. Several people have approached me about using my boar for a stud. I occasionally agree, but only if I know the person and their farm. I am leery about bringing disease from another farm onto my homestead. Most people who have a quality boar don’t want to risk injury or disease by loaning their boar out for breeding or bringing sows in.
Let’s say you would like to raise four pigs a year for your family’s freezer. How much will it cost to keep a breeding pair to produce these four pigs? It might be more approachable than you ever thought.
A boar will require about 2,000 pounds of feed a year to stay healthy and productive. To keep the boar in good shape for breeding, you want him in flesh, but not fat. Two thousand pounds of feed translates into 40 50-pound bags of feed. At 11 dollars per 50-pound bag of 14-percent protein, this is 440 dollars per year. However, if you have pasture, grass, vegetable patches, scraps, excess garden produce, or have access to other bulk feed at a lower cost, you should be able to cut this figure approximately by half: 220 dollars per year.
At our homestead, approximately half of our boar’s feed is comprised of commercial feed of 14-percent protein. The other half is comprised of grass, weeds, hay, excess garden produce, and table scraps. (We boil our table scraps and do not include meat scraps.) Often we rotate the boar between pens which have been planted with pumpkins, turnips, cornstalks, or grass. We are also fortunate that a neighbor sometimes brings us unsold produce or allows us to glean unharvested crops from his fields before he plows them under. This all helps us keep the cost of feed for the boar reasonable.
A sow generally needs the same 2,000 pounds per year, except when she is feeding a litter. While she is nursing, we feed 4 pounds of feed per day, plus 1 pound for every piglet she is nursing. A sow will have two litters per year. Litter size is variable, but if you have a quality boar and sow, weaning 10 piglets per litter is not unreasonable. If you keep the piglets on the sow for 8 weeks per litter, this translates into approximately 1,600 pounds of feed or 32 50-pound bags, equaling 352 dollars. The rest of the year she will need 1,385 pounds of feed (based on the 2,000 pounds per year), which translates into 305 dollars. However, as with the boar, this last figure can easily be cut in half to 152 dollars if you have the same alternative feeds as for the boar discussed above.
Our sow stays with the boar except when she farrows and the subsequent eight weeks until weaning. Thus, for most of the year, she benefits from the same alternative food sources.
During the time a sow is nursing the piglets, it is best, at least for the beginner, to keep the sow and piglets on commercial feed in order that you ensure they get the appropriate protein and balance of minerals they need. However, it is also good practice to feed them some extra items so they enjoy and get used to the alternative feeds you will be giving them after weaning.
Assuming all this, your cost for keeping the breeding pair is between 724 and 1,097 dollars per year, depending on alternate feed sources available.
Fruits of the labor
We live and keep our livestock on about 3 acres. When we had eight sows, we didn’t have the space to move the boar and the sows from pen to pen. Additionally, we couldn’t grow enough excess produce to feed them, because the additional sows were living on potential garden space. Thus, we had to bring in almost all the feed my herd consumed. This wasn’t cost effective. But with only one sow and boar, we now have enough space to rotate them between pens planted with plenty of nutritious greens, and we have space to grow feed. At least half the feed for our breeding pair is not purchased.
If you want to keep four piglets every year for your family, this leaves you with 16 piglets to sell per year. At 50 per piglet — a conservative price — this yields 800 dollars. At 70 per piglet, this yields 1,120 dollars. Even when I had eight sows yielding some 160 piglets to sell every year, I never had trouble selling them. In fact, I never had enough to meet the demand.
In addition, if you had to buy the four piglets instead of farrowing them yourself, they would have cost an additional 200 to 280 dollars. The table at the top of Page 51 gives a conservative summary of costs and savings based on typical prices in our area of South Carolina.
Of course, feed costs and selling price of piglets vary greatly regionally, but they generally, if loosely, correlate with one another. That is, when feed costs are high, piglet prices are higher, usually because less people are raising them, thus demand is greater.
This analysis doesn’t consider the capital costs of obtaining your boar and sow or the fencing and shelter costs. These are one-time costs. The price of a good breeding pair can range from 500 to 1,000 dollars. Fencing and housing costs can vary depending on your materials, area, and access to used materials.
I’m not saying you are going to get wealthy keeping just a breeding pair, but with careful management, it is possible to supplement your income, or at least break even, and have the security of sourcing and producing your own pork for the year.
Raising Feeder Pigs to Slaughter
The cost of raising one pig from weaning to slaughter will greatly depend on how fast you want to get there and by which path you take. Recall that the first 6 to 8 weeks, the cost of the piglet is included in cost of keeping the breeding pair.
Typically 230 to 250 pounds is a good slaughter weight. After 250 pounds, the hog adds fat at a greater rate, so the conversion of feed to meat is not as efficient. Some people do want more fat for cooking or soap-making and will wait until the hog reaches 300, 400, 500 pounds or more.
Based on a 250-pound slaughter weight, a hog will be ready for slaughter 6 to 8 months from birth (4 to 6 months from weaning). The hog will reach 250 pounds faster if free-feed — a self-feeder is installed in the pen and always available. Typically these hogs are ready for the freezer four months or so after weaning.
Alternatively, a steady diet of 4 pounds a day of a 14- to 16-percent protein hog feed will get the hog to slaughter weight six months from weaning. Some or all of the 4 pounds per day can be replaced with the same alternative feeds you may be feeding your breeding pair.
Four pounds per day of commercial feed at 11 dollars per 50-pound bag for four months comes to 105.60 dollars. Your yield from the slaughter should be about 65 percent, or 162.5 pounds. If you now include 1/4 cost of keeping the breeding pair, or 181 dollars, then you are paying 1.76 dollars per pound of pork. If you only consider the four-month cost, then you are paying 0.64 cents per pound of pork. This assumes, of course, that you slaughter and butcher the hog yourself. And why not?
A lesson in animal husbandry: Sometimes it’s best not to meddle, and leave the farrowing to those with good instincts.
Jim and Lori Curley moved to their rural South Carolina homestead with their seven children in 2004. Besides raising and processing their own pork since 2008, they have raised chickens, turkeys, ducks, and goats, keep a milk cow, and grow a small crop of sorghum and peanuts every year. Jim and his sons have helped numerous friends and neighbors in the Carolinas slaughter and process their first hog.