By Kelly Klober
The range producer must place his or her emphasis solidly on can-do animals. Vigor, durability, soundness, and performance need to be rounded into a single type package that embodies that “root hog or die” swine character of old. The good range hog is far removed from those razor-backed hogs of long ago, in so many ways. However, they do have in common a certain amount of grittiness, that natural strength to perform in the presence of an ever-varying environment.
Meat type should, of course, be a concern for each swine producer, but the animal has to be in realistic proportions and have marketable worth. One of the consequences of breeding for extreme type has been an overall decline in pork quality and flavor. Confinement production can produce rafts of so-so pork as a basic commodity, but pork as a meat of distinction and with savoriness that appeals to all the senses is quite another matter.
In order to guide you in the selection of breeders for your farm, I’ve provided below a few thumbnail sketches of the purebred animals now available in the United States. We have raised several types, owned crossbred animals drawn from several of them, and nearly all have been raised with great success in our part of the Midwest.
Of the White breeds, the Yorkshire may represent the greatest option for growth and muscling. They are bred here in greater numbers than any of the other White breeds.
The color for which these animals derive their group’s designation is not exactly true white, but rather the palest of light browns. The Yorkshire has erect ears and good length; it’s noted for foot and leg quality; and some lines have much better body capacity than others. You won’t sacrifice much in the way of carcass quality with a Yorkshire, but be careful to select for a broad base along the bottom of the body cavity, from end to end.
The Large English White, sometimes seen in the United States, is virtually identical to the York in type and conformation, and shares some space in herd books with the York. It is most often seen as one of the breeding components offered in commercial breeding composites, and has been bred in confinement for literally scores of generations. The breed has produced some very large-framed specimens, and some Yorkshire breeders put a strong emphasis on the English breeding in their lines.
Many swine breeds commonly seen in the Midwest were developed in Great Britain. All of the “shire” breeds hail from there. Many breeds continue to be cultivated there that exist only in limited numbers in the United States or Canada. The English White was actually said to have been bred in three different sizes, based in part upon the growing conditions to be found in the immediate area. There is also a Large English Black that now has a following in the royal family there. It reminds me of a Black Landrace or Wessex Saddleback, and the last ones I know of in North America were available from a seedstock firm in Canada, although I have not seen them advertised for several years.
The Landrace is a very long-bodied White breed with the big, drooping ears. They were the base breed for the confinement industry in Scandinavia and Europe and are used largely in that role here. Muscling has been somewhat improved here, but their primary role is to increase litter size and add length. They have also been bred for a smaller ear and more substance in the head area.
The Landrace are a most docile breed, and this can put them at some disadvantage in group situations with hogs of other breeding. They can be easily cowed and pushed back from feeders. A neighbor of ours raised Berkshires and crossbreds to sell for butchers. Several years ago, he bought a group of high-percentage Landrace gilts and, out of necessity, had to drop a couple of younger Berk gilts into the pen with them. The two younger gilts came to dominate the group to such an extent that some of the White gilts rapidly lost condition (vigor and muscle mass) even when being offered a flushing ration (which is a full feeding regimen—3% of body weight daily—for sows just prior to breeding, for at least 2 weeks).
Many swine producers have reported problems with certain Landrace lines out-of-doors and in simple housing. But I can remember that when I was coming up, some of the more rugged old sows in the country showed strong traces of Landrace breeding. Those farmers seeking Landrace breeding stock these days might be best served by using breeding lines that were present in this country pre-1970, particularly animals from farms where at least the sow herd has continued to be maintained outside.
The Chester White is a breed that has always had a special place in my heart. They are a White breed with modestly drooping ears. They grow to a good size, and along with the Durocs, are quite frequent competitors in the Largest Boar class at the few state fairs where such competitions still occur. The first purebred sow we ever owned was a Chester, and she handled herself well and always maintained condition in the group-penned sow herd.
Chester pigs seem to be a bit smaller than others at birth, but this is in part because they tend to be born in quite substantial numbers. Some may even grow a little slower, but I always found the performance of our Chesters to be comparable to that of our Durocs.
I have elaborated on the Chester White above, but I should reiterate here just how compatible they are for crossing with the colored breeds. The range producer hoping to balance mothering and performance will find this type an optimal choice. Chester Whites are also a gentle-natured variety that we found to be very easy to work with in our one-sow houses. We often tended to pigs right there in the house with the sow.
The Red breeds are the hardy breeds, and they’re also among the prettiest of the hogs. The three breeds in this group are very distinct. They all have a long history and a strong connection to the family farm.
The Duroc is an American developed breed that started in the state of New Jersey. One of the breed’s founders also owned the famed racing stallion Duroc, and hence this Red breed’s original name, the Duroc Jersey.
We did 30 plus years with Durocs and found them to be consistent sellers; they were also popular with commercial producers for their ruggedness and good meat type. They have modestly sized drooping ears and hides in various shades of red, from a deep, almost plum colored hue, to a very light shade of red. From a distance, some old lines looked almost black, with slight yellow/gold touches.
Durocs are generally quite rugged in their type, and they’re well known for their feet and leg strength. Lately, they have been bred for greater overall length. They are kind of a complete package when it comes to hardiness and muscling and are heavily relied upon for this reason by commercial producers. They are far and away the most widely available of the Red breeds and may have one of the deepest U.S. gene pools of any pure breed.
The Tamworth is a light red breed with erect ears. They were one of the breeds that were once termed “bacon” hogs and have a very long history for leanness. They are also the Red “mother breed.”
Tamworths milk well and are quite protective and responsive mothers. The nursing sows have a distinctive way of lying down that helps to prevent pig loss due to overlay. They first drop to their front knees and then sidle down slowly, scooting the pigs out and away from their descending bodies. They have a largely undeserved reputation for temper that may be due in part to the fact that many of the descendants of this breed have been left largely to their own ways for so many years.
They were the brush hogs of my youth, and some of the old-timers kept them with little more than a “feed ’em and forget ’em” style. This old breed has always been sustained by a strong breed group and never really slipped in the way that so many other old line breeds did. People who used Tamworths once have always seemed to go to the extra effort to use them again.
The Tamworth is another breed that is building on the quality and taste of the pork it produces. They have also figured quite prominently in a couple of “outdoor composites” trotted out over the last few years. These animals are perhaps the most modern of the heirloom breeds in their type and continue to have a strong presence at a few major swine competitions, such as the Illinois State Fair.
The Hereford hog shares the distinctive red and white color pattern of the Hereford cattle breed. They also have a modest drooping ear.
Like the Tamworth, this breed also has the backing of a strong breeder group, and there is even an annual type conference and auction of breeding animals. Herefords have often been promoted as the world’s most beautiful hog. At times, they may be a bit smaller than some of the other breeds, but they are quite competitive on the rail.
The Hereford is a breed that I believe is really poised for a move upward. The distinctive color pattern should lend itself quite well to marketing programs; I have seen some Herefords compete very successfully in market hog shows right here in the Corn Belt.
The Black breed group includes the Hampshire, Berkshire, Spotted, and Black Poland breeds. These are sometimes termed the “performance breeds,” and they do pack a punch when it comes to carcass and growth.
The Hampshire is a British breed with erect ears and that eye-catching white belt around a black body. That color pattern can be traced back to a fad that swept Europe long ago, which saw all sorts of livestock bred with the belted color pattern. It can still be seen on cattle, rabbits, and two breeds of hog.
With the Hampshire breed, litter size has sometimes been a concern; boars were once used far more often than gilts by the commercial sector. We owned a Hamp female of exceptional merit as a mother, and we found that at birth, Hamp pigs are among the most distinctive as individuals.
Hamp boars are regularly employed to boost carcass yield and growth and have been used extensively to formulate show pigs. The Hamp is another of those breeds once classified a “bacon hog,” and their trim nature continues.
The Berkshire is a Black breed with white points on the head, feet, and along the bottom line. Selective breeding has given this old breed a bit of a rebuild over the years. Long gone is the sharply pushed-up nose once associated with this breed. The amount of white coloring has increased as well.
The Berkshire is a breed long known for length, carcass quality, and trimness. A bit smaller framed than some, it does enjoy a reputation for fairly good mothering. This is another British import; a review of the historical literature makes reference to a Red Berkshire bred in the upper South.
The Berk produces a very desirable pork product with exceptional eating qualities. Berk numbers have tended to ebb and flow over the years, and along with the Black Poland, formed the two dominant U.S. breeds prior to World War II.
Berkshire sows performed quite well back in the day, producing their fair share of ton litters, even when the main ration ingredients were open-pollinated (OP) corn and skimmed milk.
Berks can fulfill much the same role of the Hampshire boar in a breeding rotation and can add remarkable type to show pigs. When fitted, Berks present with a real style of their own and have a whole lot of eye appeal.
The Spotted is just that: a black spotted white hog with drooping ears. These have always been a large outline breed and are considered by many to be the best mothers of all of the colored hogs. They are the ideal breed for those who want variety in their lives, as no two animals are ever patterned the same.
Our Spots were always good natured and produced that old-style, sandy red hide with black splotches when bred to a Duroc boar. This is a breed for which it is important to select for a wide-floored body and to make sure the back legs are out on the corners. To many, the Spot is the classic farmer’s hog, with an extensive history of outdoor production.
The British ancestor of the Spot is the Gloucester Old Spot, which is called the “orchard hog” and has a long history on the small holdings of England and in the simple facilities there. It is no surprise, then, that this is another breed that has been taken up by the British royal family. A few of these animals can be found in the United States, however, and their pedigree has been recorded with the Spotted breed group. Images of Spots frequently grace various livestock literature such as breed preservation brochures and advertisements.
Our Spot sows were good mothers and produced decent-sized litters of distinctly individual pigs. Some say that the Spot was the hog that never crossed the big river. Indeed, it seems to be a genetic resource that is more valued and used in the eastern side of the Corn Belt. The animal brings good length and dimensions; some of the best ham structure I have ever seen was on Spot boars. They are no longer bred in great numbers, but they are a strong Black contributor that should be given serious consideration by the range producer.
Black Poland China
The Black Poland China has been on a very long slide since its high point in the 1920s, when it may have been the most widely bred and highly valued of all pure swine breeds. They were and still just might be the top contender for the title of best all-around farm hog.
Black Polands are durability personified; at one time, the Black Poland herd book documented more sows at eight or more parturitions still active and producing than any other herd book. The Black Polands are black hogs with white points and modest-sized, drooping ears.
The Black Polands I have seen always seemed to epitomize balance, while holding to a fairly lean type. Some needed to be made wider and a bit bigger all over, but they were a pretty complete package. Some really impressive Poland barrows have been driven out over the years, and they do have real eye appeal.
Ag texts from the ’30s and early ’40s list a number of swine breeds that have closely flirted with extinction, if not actually crossed forever into that vale. We can only speculate what might be done now with a breed like the blue-gray Sapphire. What a marketing tool the color alone would be. The Ohio Improved Chester disappeared while I was still in public school, the remnants of that breed being absorbed into the Chester White breed. Some of these breeds could perhaps be bred up again, or remnants may yet be found in some odd corner of rural America. The quest for rare poultry breeds has shown that this can still happen.
The return from the brink for the Mulefoot hog shows just what can be done (I kind of had a ringside seat for this one). Mulefoot crosses passed through Missouri sale barns fairly often into the ’60s, some with two and some with four closed hooves. Most producers chalked them up to just one more thing you had to contend with when trading in rough, Southern hogs. When corn got cheap, ridge-runners would eat it up just like good hogs.
Gradually, even those animals disappeared, but the legend of Mulefoot hogs hung on in the Missouri vernacular, in part because one of the last three Mulefoot breeders to remain was a resident of a town called Louisiana, Missouri, the riverine hometown of the fictional Finn family. (The old gentlemen continues alive today, but asks that his name not appear in print.)
This farmer’s efforts to preserve this venerable breed, one of the oldest of the swine purebreds, came to light about a decade ago, with the early stirrings of the livestock breed preservation movement. Each year, the farmer raised a few as market hogs, with an end-game plan of sending his herd to slaughter upon his death. Also in his possession were some of the breed’s historical documents. His line of hogs continued the breed’s characteristic black with white points, drooping ears, and four feet crowned with hooves like those of tiny ponies.
One bit of lore holds that those solid hooves were valued because no disease could enter there, as might happen with the cloven hooves of other hog breeds. His hogs were raised out-of-doors in all the various elements that make up the Show-Me State’s nearly legendary weather.
Many other breeders have bought hogs from him since then, and these animals can now be found in several small herds scattered about. They have undergone some selection for type, and while none of these will contend in a major barrow show anytime soon, they are again producing some Number 1 butchers. The old literature sometimes mentions red and spotted animals, and a few folks report producing the occasional red-tinged animal. Thus, nothing is ever completely lost, even if just a few viable remnants remain.
Good pork production should be about the animal, and range production is all about the animal. Whereas the confinement producer is cranking out a mere commodity—one that is badly devalued and underappreciated by nearly all who are exposed to it—the range producer is a raiser of hogs, one who sees the animal and all that leads up to and proceeds from his or her point of involvement.
This business of hogs and people has gone on in one form or another for about 6,000 years, give or take a century or two. We have come to a point where the consuming public has a collective voice and the disposable income to make some very forceful statements as to how and what they want to be fed.
They want pork from a family farm, and not some sheet-metal gulag with ties to the corporate world. Thus, the independent farmer must strike out on a course that will lead back to the clearly expressed desires of the consuming public. The methods, resources, and genetics to do just that remain in place for at least a time.
This may very well be the last time we get the chance to do it right, to do it for all time.
Source: Dirt Hog