If you are an agriculture enthusiast or a farmer, just stick with me. Let me serve you with the history of pig farming and help you appreciate pigs in this article. Just sit comfortably and enjoy the ride.
Pigs, including the domestic pig and the Eurasian wild boar, are from the genus Sus, the family of Suidae and sub-family Suinae.
They are considered even-toed ungulates, meaning an animal with an even number of toes (usually two or four, in this case two). And, although even-toed ungulates are usually herbivores (plant eaters), both the domestic pig and the wild boar are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and meat. Highly intelligent, pigs can be found in art and literature, as well as in religious symbolism. In Europe, the boar has been known to represent a standard charge (an emblem emblazoned on a shield) in heraldry. And perhaps the most well-known symbol the pig represents is its place as the twelfth animal in the Chinese zodiac.
Under the Sus genus, Suidae is the domestic pig and common Eurasian wild boar. Some will lump the wild boar (non-Eurasian), warthog, peccary and babirusa into the genus, though this is incorrect. Sus is thought to include 10 living species, along with a number of extinct species. The living species include:
Palawan Bearded Pig
Bornean Bearded pig
Visayan Warty (critically endangered)
Celebes (or Sulawesi) Warty pig
Mindoro (or Oliver’s) Warty pig
Philippine Warty pig
Javan Warty pig
The Origins of the Domesticated Pig
DNA evidence (taken from various teeth and jawbone samples) dating back approximately 40 million years tells us that the pigs native to the Eurasian and African continents originated in the Near East. Found to be very adaptable, the pig was a perfect subject for domestication.
However, the question of when and where the pig was domesticated depends on the source. Some claim that evidence of pig husbandry goes back to 5,000 BC, with evidence of domestication in China going back to approximately 6,000 BC. Others say that the pig was domesticated from the wild boar in approximately 11,000–9,000 bce (despite remains having been found in Cyprus that date back to 11,400 BC). Still others will argue that domestication occurred in approximately 13,000–12,700 BC, at the Tiger Basin in the Near East. As of yet, there is no clear consensus; regardless, it is clear that the domesticated pig has been with us for quite some time.
Pigs with Near Eastern/Asian genes were introduced in Europe and quickly become popular due to their willingness to eat just about anything. Pigs also reproduced well, with multiple piglets per litter, and their meat was easy to preserve. With the availability of dependable, domesticated breeding stock, European farmers were also able to domesticate the European boar, which ironically led to pigs with the Near Eastern gene dying out. By the 1500s, Europeans had already begun breeding pigs for specific traits, related to the meat they produced, creating the foundation for what would later become the “bacon-type” and “lard-type” categories of pigs. Soon, pigs began making their way across the sea, to the New World.
At first, there were only a handful of animals: eight accompanied Christopher Columbus on his famous voyage; Hernán Cortés and Sir Walter Raleigh brought a sizeable number of hogs with them to North and South America; another 13 followed Hernando de Soto to Florida. Within three years, de Soto’s small group of swine had swelled to approximately 700 pigs: a testament to the pig’s ability to breed prolifically. (This number doesn’t even count those animals that were eaten, those who escaped and became feral, or those animals that were given to the area Native Americans!)
As more colonists came and more colonies were established, more pigs were imported from overseas, primarily from Spain, Portugal, and England. (Exactly what types and breeds were brought over remains unknown due to the lack of documentation at the time.) By the end of the 17th century, the typical farm had 4–5 pigs of their own, raised to provide meat, lard/fat, and income (when the need arose). And the trend continued; documentation during the 1800s (more prevalent and reliable than in previous centuries) tells us that most commonly imported breeds at the time were Big China, Berkshire and Irish Grazier.
Early Pig Husbandry
According to the Livestock Conservancy, pigs were historically allowed to freely forage, cleaning up fields after harvests. Later, pigs began to be fed by-products from dairies and bakeries, as well as other waste sources. At this time, pigs commonly consumed spoiled foods and waste; as a result, they were considered valuable for sanitation. But the most attractive feature of raising pigs was their extremely low level of investment; in terms of time, feed and labor, pigs were easier and cheaper to raise than virtually any other livestock.
Traditionally, American colonists would raise their pigs by allowing them freedom to roam, letting them forage freely in the woods. They would then round up many of them for slaughter in early November (in northern and middle colonies), December (in Virginia), and January (in North and South Carolina). Cool weather was necessary for curing, which helped to ensure that the meats didn’t spoil.
Traditionally, pigs fell under two types of classifications: lard and bacon. Animals falling under the lard classification were thick and compact, with short bodies and stout legs. They were bred for lard (rendered fat) production, as well as for the desired flavor of their meat (due to the considerable fat content). Those classified as lard were fattened quickly on corn. Today, according to the American Livestock Conservancy, the Mulefoot, Choctaw and Guinea Hog (all critically endangered) are the only known lard breeds left in the United States.
Animals falling under the bacon classification were long, lean, and muscular. They were fed high protein, low-energy foods such as small grains and legumes, as well as dairy by-products and leftover baked goods. This diet causes the pig to grow slowly, developing more muscle and less fat than their lard counterparts. Two examples of bacon breeds are the Tamworth (a threatened heritage breed) and the Yorkshire.
Regardless of classification, everything was (and still is) used in the pig—except for the squeal. Besides the meat and fat used, the bones, hide, bristles, and skin are all used in various forms, markets, and/or products.
Pig Husbandry in the United States
By the mid-1800s, the breeding and raising of pigs had become more centralized, focused in the areas in the United States that produced the most excess corn. As production became more centralized, many of the different breeds from other areas began to decline, with some becoming extinct as early as the 1900s.
Around the same time, commercial slaughterhouses emerged to answer the growing need for quick, efficient processing of the market-ready pigs. Pigs were herded to market along trails, in a process similar to a cattle drive. It is also estimated that as many as 70,000 pigs were driven each year, going from production areas (in places like Ohio) to the markets along the East Coast. All of this is surprising, given that the nomadic natives did not drive pigs, due to the difficulty in herding/driving the stubborn animals over distances. From my own experiences raising pigs, my feelings are mixed as far as ease of herding.
If only a single pig was out, as long as they were not chased they could usually be put back into their pen fairly easily when the time came.
However, when trying to move multiple animals, it was a bit more of a challenge, and normally took two or more people to do so. (And even then we would sometimes need to round up a few “breakaways”!) I found that the best way to herd pigs is not to chase them, but rather walk with them, subtly guiding them back into their pen.
In 1887, the railroad company Swift and Company introduced the refrigerated railroad car, allowing slaughterhouses to be established right in the middle of production areas, thanks to their ability to ship the pork rather than having to drive live animals to other regions. Terminal markets also developed in Kansas City, Chicago, St. Joseph, and Sioux City, with packing plants opening near the stockyards.
Thanks to these advancements, the lard industry had grown tremendously by the start of WWII. Lard, along with other fats, was used for things like greasing guns and making dynamite. In the United States, national programs were introduced to save unwanted household fats and grease. Once a certain amount was collected, it was taken to collection centers, including local butchers. However, after the war the lard market went into decline. The market for lard pigs collapsed as farmers began to raise a leaner, more muscular animal. Breeds such as the Poland China, Berkshire, Yorkshire, Hampshire and Duroc were favored, while breeds like the Mulefoot and Choctaw went into steep decline.
Today, it is estimated that up to 75 percent of pigs in the United States come from just three breeds: the Duroc, the Yorkshire, and the Hampshire. Not only does this put the commercial pig market at great potential risk, it also poses a problem for the genetic diversity of pigs.
Preserving the genetic diversity of pigs, including heritage (old and/or historic) breeds, is now left mostly to the smaller family farms and homesteads like you!
So, now that you know a little bit more about where these amazing animals come from, let’s take a closer look at some of the breeds you might consider including on your backyard farm in the next article. Don't forget to like, comment and share!