• Cailtin McSweeney-Steffes

Tell Me More About Your Pork: Our Pigs and Raising Practices



The most common question we get at the market or our Store is a variation of, "Tell me more about your pork." Our response is usually, “What would you like to know?”. But it really should be, "How much time do you have?". We really could talk your ear off about our pigs and pork if you let us.



What Makes Us Different : We are Farrow to finish: What does that mean?

We maintain a breeding herd and all of our piglets are born right here on property. We hand raise our boars and our gilts (females who have not had a litter yet). Our piglets are bred, born and raised to a finishing weight all on property they never leave until they go to market. We know everything about them and can even tell you their favorite snacks, their identification names and everything in between.

Get To Know Our Breeding Herd:

They all have their own personalities, our boar Oreo (Berkshire/Tamworth) enjoys a good back scratch and if you get it just right he will start shaking his bum. Penelope (Duroc), our matriarch, enjoys belly rubs. Abigail (Hereford/Old Spot) enjoys a good scratch behind the ear and our two smallest Becky (Berkshire) and China (Berkshire) enjoy running as fast as they can around the pasture, which is really funny to watch. We continue every year to expand there pasture space and hope to one day have roational grazing practices, we keep pounding more t-posts every year.

Our breeding herd stays together until a month before a gilt/sow is ready to farrow (have her litter) . We then move her into the barn and give her her own space so that she can start nesting and feel relaxed and comfortable. We let the sows/gilts have free movement and build a separate warming box for the piglets so they have the warmer temps and can get away from mama while she resituates and moves around. We feel this is more comfortable for everyone and more humane than the industry standard farrowing box where the sow/gilt is pinned on her side except for twice a day when she is let up to eat and drink. It does allow the easiest access for the piglets to their mama but at what cost to her. So we chose to do things a little differently and maybe a little more old school and give a larger space to everyone and allow free movement.

Why Heritage Breeds:

We enjoy working with heritage breeds, and are working on maintaining healthy genetics within our herd. Heritage breeds are a little slower growing, it takes an average 8 months for our feeder pigs to reach butcher weight rather than the industry standard 6 months. They also do well in our climate and are well suited for pasture life and have great meat marbleization, color and flavor.

It wasn't that long ago that we almost lost many of our heritage breeds as the Yorkshire breed became the dominant breed because of their fast growth rate and being well suited for large industry barn raising. Which has led to some tight genetics and genetic issues within other heritage breeds, though they are making a comeback.

Many of the names in heritage breeds are in relation to the origin of the breed, for example Berkshire has an origin in England, the breed met the standards the farmers there were looking for and did well in that climate. How interesting and great would it be to eventually have a Northern Michigan breed of pig that does well in our climate and on our pastures and has healthy hearty genetics?

How We Care For Our Animals:

We have animals on property year round due to being a farrow to finish operation. Which isn't always easy, we don't have water in our barn yet so we haul it from the house during the winter months when our hoses are frozen. We do deep bedding during the winter months so that everyone stays nice and warm in the barn. They do have access to outside pasture year round but do not always choose to on those cold blustery days. In the hot summer months we make sure that they have wallows and areas to play in the mud. Pigs do not sweat and can easily get sunburn. The mud helps with both of these issues providing sunscreen and a way to cool off.

We also supplement all of our pigs feed with local grain mash from our local granary as well as garden seconds from our farm andFlynn Orchards as well as we work with our local food pantry for any of their unused fruits and vegetables. It is important to have that loop and not let any good produce go to waste and end up in a landfill. We also amend all of our market gardens with their bedding as we do muck outs and let it compost. It is important to keep the poop in the loop and have a loop that adds back into the soil.

We work closely with our vet to make sure we have healthy happy pigs. We use biosecurity rather than antibiotics and never give growth hormones or anything else. We feel it produces a nicer quality and better meat also because we are letting them naturally grow and using heritage breeds it just naturally takes a little longer. We do give piglets iron shots at birth, piglets are naturally born anemic (meaning they are low in iron) and they are not able to get it from their mothers milk. To give our piglets the best chance at life and survival we chose to give them the iron shots. It boosts their survival rate from 25% to 75-100%. It is also one of the reasons we are not organic, we would not be able to give iron shots as an organic farm. We have also on occasion had to give an individual pig penicillin due to issues such as one of our gilts was struck with heat stroke and we had one of our gilts get a cold as the seasons were changing. We choose to treat them rather than let the animals suffer. It does not mean that we are continuously treating or that all of our animals received the treatment. Just the pig experiencing the issue and just for a standard 3-7 days based on the vets recommendations. Animal welfare and happy healthy hogs are our top priority.

We also do not clip piglets' needle teeth or dock tails, this became common practice as pigs were being raised solely indoors and the piglets due to boredom are known to bite each other. We have had no issues, and keep a close eye on the sow's nipples to make sure no one is causing any harm there with their little sharp teeth. We have also found it gives the runts a fighting chance when they have their needle teeth as well. All of our pigs get to be pigs, play in mud, lay in the sun and root around.

Butcher Practices-Regulations:

To be able to sell our pork we are required by law to be licensed through MDARD, resulting in yearly inspections, and we are required to use a USDA Certified Butcher for all of our processing. There are only two USDA Certified Butchers within 2+ hours of our farm, we understand the need and importance for licensing and inspections. It has also led to issues and frustrations. It is not always easy to get the butcher dates that we need because of such high demand. It also means that we are not always able to get back all of the cuts of meat we would like because the USDA has very specific equipment standards. So even if a butcher knows how to provide that cut with the equipment they own they can not because they do not have the one piece the USDA says is required.

We are not sure what all of the answers are, maybe one step would be for Michigan to create their own butcher certification so that we would not have to be regulated under the USDA unless we wanted to sell across state lines as other states have done, making the bar entry easier for more butchers. This is a bigger conversation that really needs to be had by many.

How amazing would it be to have a mobile butcher so that the animals that we spend so much time raising and caring for do not go through excess stress and major changes in their last days?

Labeling:

We spend so much time caring for and making sure our animals are healthy we choose during the butchering process for our smoked meats to not have any Nitrates or MSG added.

Terms like ‘natural’ on labels actually have no agency monitoring the use of the term and anyone can use the label, you can use it even if you do not have natural practices. Here is a link to a great chart that breaks down a lot of the label information. Understanding Labels and Farm Practices Chart

Each certification that a farm has costs money to become certified and participate, we choose instead to be open on our farm, within reasonable hours anyone is welcome to come and walk our farm with us and talk to us about our growing practices. It is why we are so open, we would rather invest the money into the animals welfare rather than organizations so that we can add labeling to our products. As always on a farm money is tight so we are trying to put the money we do have into best use.

We enjoy talking about our pigs and the ways in which we choose to raise them. We really could talk pigs with you all day. Even tell you a few funny stories.


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