Thursday, April 30, 2015

High On The Hog

One of our AGH boars

Some twenty years or so ago, my ex-husband’s grandmother made the comment that we (meaning he and I) really like to eat “high on the hog.” My reply was “But Grandma, we RAISED the hog!” At that time, I was only kidding about the pig itself, but I’ve spent the last (almost) twenty years homesteading and learning everything I can about self-sufficiency and how to put my own food on my own table. I also spent the first seventeen years of my life living on a farm, so I was not new to the idea to begin with. What I have learned in the last year though, is that RAISING a pig or two is well within just about any homesteader’s budget, but BREEDING pigs is a farming enterprise and once you get into purebred hogs and charcuterie, you are looking at a rich person’s hobby and art.

I consider myself a mostly sane person MOST of the time. About a year and a half ago, my sanity must have escaped to the Never-Never when I finally realized my dream of owning my own pigs for meat. My partner and I purchased four little bundles of cuteness and joy with the expectation of finally having our own pork, and a little fun raising them on the side. God only knows I have been around hogs for most of my life; never had any of my own, but I am from rural Texas, and you just do not escape from a small town like that without being constantly exposed to commercial agriculture. But our new additions were unlike any pig I have ever been around – they are American Guinea Hogs and even today, most people have not heard of them in this area or where I grew up.

Now, don’t believe a word of what you hear about how “critically endangered” they are. That may have been true once, but since 2005-2006, they have been breeding exponentially. By that I mean that ALL pigs have fairly decent-sized litters and in nature, a good many would survive what little natural predation is around to keep them in check – which is one of the reason feral hogs are such a problem – they don’t really have many predators. Initially, there were only a few people breeding this wonderful little pig (and probably lots more on small homesteads no one has ever found); but now they are becoming more and more popular as a mid-sized homestead breed of hog and are fairly easy to find.

American Guinea Hogs have so many wonderful qualities for the small farm and homestead. They have exceptionally gentle and even temperaments. Ours free-range during the day right up to the front door and except when the sows are in heat, we have never worried about visitors, elderly people or children visiting us. They enjoy human companionship in much the same way as pets and accompany us just about everywhere on our property. They have fairly small litters (usually around 6-8), so you are not likely to find yourself with twenty piglets to feed or sell if you keep just one sow. We have been able to handle our piglets from birth without worry about the sows attacking us. They farrow easily and usually without human involvement.

Our juveniles hanging out with us after a mud bath

They are excellent foragers in the same way as feral hogs and hogs that survived on homesteads and small farms many years ago. They do not thrive on commercial feeds with lots of grains – that is a convention of modern hog breeds that have been selected for fast growth, lean muscle and subsidized-agriculture’s mainstay of corn and soybeans.  These are pigs that eat grass, hay, pasture, legumes, mast (forest nuts and fruits) and whatever scraps they can procure from the farmer. They are a lard breed and can easily become hugely obese on a grain-based diet. They NEED exercise, which (along with a natural diet) produces a beautifully-marbled, richly-flavored red meat. It does take a little longer to grow them out to a large size than commercial hogs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be eaten at any age. They are small, but not too small and can easily be processed at home. Our sow is around 250 pounds and our boar is around 350, and may still get a bit bigger. Anything larger than that can be a little much for a small family to handle on butchering day.

Wavy-haired AGH piglet grazing
Don’t they just sound fantastic?! Well, they are and I just fell in love with everything about them from a homesteading perspective. There is only one drawback I have found at this time…. there is a REGISTRY! What that means in one word is…. there are POLITICS that one can choose (or choose not) to become involved in when keeping these pigs. It is fine and well and good to simply say “Okay, if the registry is such a pain, then I choose to not be involved with it.” It is not always so simple. This is, in fact, my first experience with modern registries and a LOT has changed from back when I used to raise show rabbits and sheep as a youngster. I have spent quite a bit of time over the last years frequenting Yahoo! groups, Facebook groups and other forums where “purebred” livestock is discussed and have come to the conclusion that “registered” and “homestead” PROBABLY should not be used in the same sentence.  The words are anathema to each other. Matter and anti-matter – in the matter of homesteading (that is subsistence/sustenance farming), one matters, the other can really work against your bank account.

Here is where politics comes in. When one homesteads, there is really no such thing as black or red when it comes to keeping the books. A person needs food to live, and may choose (or be forced) to grow that food for themselves. Money needn’t come into account at all, except in the matter of a bit of land and taxes (which can be vastly different in different areas of the world). In a pastoral economy (as existed a couple hundred years ago in the US), one could trade for most of what one needed to survive. “Accounting” was as simple as a jar of coins one kept from trading furs, eggs or a small crop of corn for salt or cloth. You either had a few coins, or you didn’t and you made do with what you had. Money was for “rich” people. The rest of the world traded in things of real value, like food and tools.

“Homesteading” is very different now in that it is voluntary most of the time (especially in this country). The very essence of “voluntary homesteading” is that you have some money to make your life a little easier so that your existence is not so hard-scrabble. But with money comes a whole new mindset. As a homesteader, your only goal would be to feed, shelter, clothe and provide stability for your family; when one begins engaging in paying money to registries, purchasing animal feeds, housing and fencing – whether or not you have recognized yourself and your farm as a legitimate business, it almost certainly is in your own mind because the money has to come from SOMEWHERE to make all of this financially feasible. Even if you stopped right there and made a capital investment, then said “No more of this nonsense!” you still (most likely) expect to reap the occasional financial reward from your farm. It’s okay to make a little money from your homestead, but if it’s the reason you homestead, then you are a farmer and that is a business and it’s quite different. It is, in fact, a WORLD of difference. Occasionally people manage to do both, but almost always, there’s a job or other income to support the “farm” in case it should not be profitable.

Registries are a scam that really capitalize on financial rewards. They are. Even the ones that were put into place with decent reasons like “genetic diversity” and “critically endangered” and “keeping bloodlines pure.”  Ultimately, those reasons are anathema to the natural order of the world and to simple homesteading economics. Registries are a bit like credit cards – they offer you so many “privileges” but in the end, what do you have to show for them? You have pork that tastes exactly like someone else’s crossbred or unregistered pork, but with debt and very high interest rates. Any database or herd book could show you what stock you have, but a registry is a marketing tool, and it's something you have to pay for.

When I purchased my American Guinea Hogs in January, 2014, registration was simple and inexpensive enough that I really didn’t mind paying for it. The owner of those pigs sat down with me, registered the entire litter for $10, then I paid an additional $10-$15 per piglet to have them transferred to me – just like a vehicle title. All online, all in a matter of a few minutes. Done. On top of that, this super-duper-rare-critically-endangered-only-a-few-people-have-excellent-breeding-stock PIG is fairly common in this area (for the few who want them) and most have never paid more than market price for them, which around here is between $50-$75 for registered OR nonregistered just-weaned piglets. Mind you, this is an area already ripe with commercial agriculture, and an 8-week-old AGH piglet is about the same size as a newborn piglet of any commercial breed.

Imagine my shock when a few months later I start inquiring about non-related breeding stock in other parts of the country and find the going price is closer to $150! And now I’m seeing prices from a few that are in the $250-$300 range for a tiny piglet. Folks, the age of the alpacas, emus and ostriches is long past. I’m not falling for that, and most people I know won’t fall for it either. We do not have the same market in this area for “pastured pork” as exists in the more metropolitan areas and farther away from large-scale farming.

“But, but….” they will say (and here is the difference between homesteading and farming), “I have to get back at least as much money as I put into this piglet, plus a small profit, or it just isn’t WORTH IT to raise them!” Let’s see now, how much money would that be? Let’s discount the fact that you took up homesteading as a means to put food on your table and not throw in the price you paid for land, and maybe for perimeter fencing to keep you and your close-by neighbors from shooting each other over petty issues like which livestock ornaments and pets you each get to keep. Let’s just account for the cost of livestock, registration, housing, equipment, fuel, feed, seed, electric fencing, pasture renovation and incidentals. Was all of that so you could RAISE pastured pork, or SELL pastured pork? Because once a registry is involved, you are more concerned with marketing and selling than raising.

But back to the American Guinea Hog. This is a sturdy little homesteading pig that will provide pork and lard for a small family without much input. It survived on small homesteads and farms for hundreds of years before anyone gave a hoot about its genetic diversity or endangered status. It survived and thrived for all that time on localized genetics and inbreeding, and was none the worse for it. When a few people decided to save the breed from extinction, they inbred the hell out of this little pig. Brother/sister matings, then crossed back to uncles and aunts, cousins, then father/daughter, mother/son matings. And we now have this wonderful, somewhat-standardized little piggy that is STILL perfect for small farms and homesteads. There used to be many wonderful different colors and varieties of this pig, including a silver one (called blue, which is black skin with white hair), a red one, and probably lots in between. In fact, there’s a good chance this pig is not a breed at all, but an amalgamation of breeds where dominant genes have always expressed to LOOK like the same pig.

But then people started BREEDING them! And they started making some money on them – a few people anyway. And then the nuevo-hippie groupies got involved and said “We must SAVE this breed AND keep its genetics DIVERSE!” And that’s when everything seems to always goes to hell in a registry -- any registry, as far as I can tell, from what I’ve seen of various modern-day registries whose members hate them, but feel they have no choice but to put up with them (ya know, kind of like government?). People demand “breed standards” and start arguing over a possible lavender-colored hair on an otherwise chocolate hare, I mean, rabbit. This body type is right, that one is wrong. People get exactly what they ask for when they choose representative government over independent common sense, but it’s usually not what they expect. The “breed standard” or description always ends up sounding like an animal some archaeologist created from fossils to go in a museum or collected to go in a zoo -- not a wonderful, flexible breed that has withstood the tests of time by providing sustenance for families with virtually no effort or input. “Preserving genetic diversity” is taking whatever two animals stepped off Noah’s ark and never improving them, just letting them breed naturally to keep them around.

And then there is the issue of inbreeding. As I mentioned earlier, all of the AGH’s we have now are the direct result of inbreeding (sometimes called line-breeding, depending on if it is intentional or accidental…). But there is this silly little number on the registration for some breeds of animals called a “Co-efficient of Inbreeding” or “COI” for short.  (I am not a geneticist, but I’ve had to do a bit of reading lately to understand it, which I think places me in the upper percentile of most people who make decisions within registries, breed clubs and conservancies.) In any case, people misunderstand that a high number on the COI (recommended at around 12% by the Livestock Conservancy for preserving “genetic diversity”) means that they are suddenly breeding sub-standard, incestuous animals, which couldn’t be further from the truth! Linebreeding (especially father/daughter matings and using cousins as outcrosses) has been used for eons to strengthen the herd lines. There have been entire herds of animals developed by this process. It is nothing new – what IS new is the concept of people who have never been around livestock suddenly thinking they are good breeders because they maintain a low COI! The COI is merely a number that factors how many ancestors a boar and sow have in common – it means nothing else.

And the really funny part about the COI on American Guinea Hogs is that the founding hogs (often highly related) had their COI’s set to ZERO percent at the beginning, so none of our numbers are accurate to begin with! It is an INVALID mathematical equation in this case because the original data was flawed. Which also blows out of the water anyone who THINKS they are staying within that 12% recommended by the Livestock Conservancy.

You also have to look at nature when you think about inbreeding. A wild Russian boar living in Michigan does not wake up one day and say to himself…. “Ya know, I’m concerned my next piglets are going to have 2 heads and 5 legs – I think I’ll send for a mail-order sow with curly hair from Austria just to make sure we aren’t inbreeding too much.” (Nope, it took a human publicity whore to think of that one!) In the case of nature, “genetic diversity” is based on natural selection. A hunter can’t know whether that trophy feral hog he took on the last hunting trip was a “line-breeding” Targaryen or Lannister pig after all – it was just a pig that survived based on natural selection….

I suspect the politics in the AGH Association began long ago, based on the fact that a very large breeder refused to deal with them early on. Entire foundation lines were lost when that breeder refused to register their pigs. (Or maybe they’ve just been “misplaced,” who knows? Occasionally a registered pig thought long-deceased turns up!) In any case, the AGH breed has reached critical mass. They are no longer endangered and they are no longer valued at the same price as Alpacas or the original Boer goats. They are just a simple, great-tasting homestead pig with a wonderful temperament that just about anyone can procure and raise. And suddenly, the politics of the registry have gone into full-swing.

A few months ago, the stupidity began in earnest. I went to pay my first membership fee so I could get my first litter of piglets registered for a buyer coming that week. That’s when I discovered all piglets were supposed to be ear-notched or tagged. An argument was had over that and I was told pictures were later to be required of all piglets, which was later rescinded (as far as I know), along with the mandatory ear-tagging. And then the strangest thing has been happening…. Suddenly, AGH pigs that are all black have been having piglets with splashes of white here and there. It’s pretty cute really – it starts out with little white boots and a white nose, but the more the recessive gene pops up, the more the white is likely to pop up anywhere on the body. The AGHA decided without membership vote that pigs with “excessive white” could no longer be registered. Further, because the Livestock Conservancy (which the AGHA had just paid a large sum of money to become a member) “had concerns” over the COI, it was determined that line-breeding would require special permission. Those issues have been tabled for the time being – I suspect someone rocked the boat and reminded certain members of the AGHA they are a non-profit organization, not a monarchy. I could go on about this for awhile, but iIn any case, politics…… blah, blah, blah.

But it really has me thinking about WHY I started raising pigs. Did I really do it for the purpose of homesteading, or did I plan on making money (or at least break even), in my own subconscious before I even began? I suspect I have let the idea of a registry and purebred livestock suck me in just like some people get sucked into a second mortgage or transferring a credit card balance. ("I feel so much richer now!") It has been an expensive lesson and my plan now is to go back to the original goal – to put a little pork on the table. And I’m going to pay attention to the simple things – like how such a great pig was developed from such a small population of foundation stock. From here on out, my herd is closed. When I bring in other breeding stock, it will be because I like the pig, not the pedigree, and certainly not because the COI is lower. I may or may not register, I may or may not buy registered stock, I may or may not sell any. It is no longer anyone else’s business how I breed and raise my pigs. A database is one thing – I like knowing the lineage of my stock (and I would support a database that doesn’t get involved in breeders’ affairs like with a registry), but I will no longer think of my homestead in terms of registered or purebred stock. That is a rich man’s hobby. And I am just a lowly homesteader.

Our original AGH stock