A question I routinely get asked is what is the best breed of pig to raise on pasture (or in our case in the forest). If you have never raised pigs before, this is my answer to that question: If they have four legs, a tail and two ears they qualify and that is the breed you need to start with! I don’t want to over simplify things, but seriously no matter what breed you raise it will be so vastly superior to anything in a supermarket you can’t help but succeed and blow people away with the phenomenal flavor of pork raised the right way, outside where it can graze.
Being a true omnivore, pigs will turn nearly anything into some of the tastiest meat you’ll ever experience. I always joke that they want to do one of two things to anything they come into contact with: Eat or destroy it! What you want to look for are some healthy, happy little piggies who are 30-40lbs and have been weaned from their momma. Personally, I like to have the weaned pigs a little bigger than that because they are less likely to break out of the electric netting we use to train them in. If you can find healthy animals at a reasonable price nearby, you will be hard pressed to go wrong no matter the breed.
Now, all of that said I do have my preferences about what breed of pigs I like to raise. A friend of mine supplied us with most of our pigs for years, and his herd was all at least 50% Berkshire. Berks are great pigs and do really well in a pasture or forest based system. We have had great success with them and I would never pass them up if I had the opportunity to buy them. I’m also really partial to anything black or red in color, and especially like Durocs. The Durocs we have had finished really quickly and had a nice, filled out frame in six months. They aren’t so long where they have to be 325-350lbs to be “done”.
The reason I say red and black pigs are preferable is for two reasons. The first reason is that they are less likely to get sunburn versus a white pig in a pasture situation. The other reason is that the meat from breeds with red or black hair tends to be a heritage breed with a richer, better marbled meat. This tends to provide better flavor in my opinion. But again, we have raised plenty of white pigs and the quality of the meat is so much better than anything a confinement operation can generate that you will not have an unhappy customer or family member no matter the breed.
If your intentions are to raise pork in a production model that is profitable, what I would tell you to avoid are niche breeds like the Large Black or American Guinea. These are not bad pigs, quite the opposite and for homesteaders they are great. But in my experience and speaking with folks who have raised them they are not well suited for a production system. The Large Blacks are supposed to be superior grazing pigs and will do really well on grass, but a professional farming friend of mine readily admits that they take up to ten months to finish! That is a full four months longer than a Duroc or three months longer than a Berkshire. The American Guinea has many fine attributes but is smaller when done. This means your finished cuts are smaller than what the average consumer expects and is looking for. That’s not necessarily all bad but it’s an uphill marketing battle unless you have a very educated chef who wants a niche breed and has deep pockets to pay you for your time. And both breeds can be rather expensive to purchase, lowering your bottom line. If you are raising pigs as a homesteader, then by all means purchase whatever niche breed seems best to you. But if you are in this to make a profit, all of these things I’ve mentioned must be considered. It’s darn hard to make a living at this small scale farming gig, and every decision counts. Many decisions like this add up at the end of day and will determine if you can farm profitably or not, full time or not. Think carefully before getting too idealistic with breed selection on any animal!
One last note on breeds I want to mention is that of the Tamworth. Tams are known for being tough, rugged, great foragers and for not having many health issues. I would agree with all of those assessments. They are also known for being extremely jumpy when young and in my experience that is stating it mildly. I’ve had Tams once, and while they settled down as they got older and finished out very well on pasture, once was enough. Training those little stinkers to electric fence was an experience I did not enjoy and would just as soon forget. They are as jumpy (or more so) than what you may have read about or heard, and we had several issues with them getting tangled in or nearly knocking down our portable fence. Personally, I think there other breeds out there that are much easier to handle. The other negative with the Tam is that their long frames need more time to finish out than say a Berk or Duroc, and you are looking at a 300-350lb pig before they are finished.
Moving forward, we’re working with another young farmer who is custom farrowing hogs for us that will be a Berk-Duroc cross. We’re excited about this cross bred hog as each breed has a lot of great characteristics for raising them outdoors in the forest like we do here. Both breeds forage really well, especially the Durocs, and this cuts down on your feed bill and enhances the quality and flavor of the meat. They also finish in a nice 6-7 month window which means we can turn them around quickly and keep up with our production goals.
If you are just getting started, focus on healthy looking pigs raised by a neighboring farm and try to avoid a sale barn at all costs. If you elect to go with heritage breed, be certain to do your homework and be careful not to overpay for some high end breeding stock if your goal is to produce meat for the freezer. But no matter what breed you end up, if you raise them the right way it is hard to go wrong with the quality meat you will produce.