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Posts Tagged ‘backyard pigs’

In the cow pasture with Justin Pitts
If a fortune teller had at any point in my childhood told me that I would 1. live in the South, and 2. raise pigs, I might have screamed and run. But here I am doing and relishing both.

This time around, my second foray into hog farming, I got big pigs. I loved the guinea hogs and how friendly they were, and the tasty meat and lard they produced. I still think that guinea hogs are the best pig overall for urban farming/homesteading because they are small, mellow, they’re an endangered heritage breed and they thrive on minimal amounts of food. The problem is that I have access to lots of food waste, since I work in a restaurant and cheese shop, and the guinea hogs couldn’t keep up. The guinea hogs tried valiantly to eat everything I brought them, but they couldn’t and they just put on straight fat and not much meat. By the end of March last year, they were definitely obese and it felt wrong, not really fair to the pigs, and I felt like I was practicing slightly irresponsible farming. I think they were happy pigs: they certainly never knew hunger and they got to forage and graze in addition to their rich diet of cheese and bread. They also got daily massages with a metal rake, which I have no doubt contributed to their overall well-being.

While lard is delicious, better for you than butter, and useful for making soap, I want to experiment with pigs who can eat a lot of food waste and turn it into a lot of meat. Which is what led me to Mississippi in the picture at the top.

I bought two feeder pigs from Justin Pitts, a Mississippi farmer of some fame in certain circles because of the heritage breed livestock he raises. The Piney Woods cattle, pictured at top and in the gallery, are a rare breed native to the Gulf region that descends from stock brought over by the Spanish conquistadors. They are particularly hardy, heat tolerant and resistant to parasites. Pitts’ cattle are a prized family heirloom and their lineage can be traced back over 150 years (after 150 years the records are lost). His animals are like a living museum: Piney woods cattle, Gulf Coast Sheep, Spanish goats and Cotton Patch Geese are all breeds that are unique to the United States, and are in danger of extinction. Visit the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website for more information on the endangered breeds Pitts raises.
Gulf Coast Sheep don't have wool on their face or bellies--an adaptation to the hot humid South

Many of the animals are descended from Spanish stock, and the Cotton patch geese have the unique claim to fame of helping families survive the Great Depression by providing meat, eggs, and grease with minimal feed. Most people don’t think of livestock as something that could go extinct, but these are dual purpose breeds that fell out of favor when agriculture became industrialized–instead of using animals that were good at producing multiple products, farmers switched to breeds that produced a lot of just one thing. Justin Pitts himself is a rare breed: a reticent Southern farmer of Scotch and Choctaw descent who continues to raise old breeds and laments the way the world is now.

Last week, on ‘pig day’, as we pulled up to the gate at Pitts farm, we were met by a bunch of beautiful spotted cows out on the road browsing on vines and foraging waist high in the neighbor’s field. We called Justin Pitts and he drove out to meet us and collect his cows.

When he rolled down the window of his truck, he bellowed out a cow-call of some sort and all the cows moo-ed in response–not a typical farmer/cow relationship. In fact, once all the cows were back in the right place, as we stood in the pasture talking about the stock, some of the cows appeared to be listening in on the conversation. I don’t mean from a distance, I mean two of the cows stood a human-distance away, watching us, closing the circle that included the four of us humans. We listened to Pitts’ story of their lineage, while the cows gave their approval of the tale, chewing repetitively.
She is listening

Then we moved on to pig collecting/wrangling. The pigs are a pretty standard breed, a Yorkshire cross. They are currently very skittish–they had never been off the Mississippi farm before and suddenly they were picked up and shoved in the back of a truck and driven for two hours. Pigs have horrible motion sickness (who knew?) and one of them spent most of the ride heaving and throwing up in the back. Now they are settled in, rooting up the backyard, and just generally making my life more interesting: daily bike rides with a five gallon bucket of slop fastened to the back. I feel like my life is back in order.
She's shy

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I’ve spent the past month wondering how to write about slaughtering my pigs. I’ve not only been wondering, but I’ve actually been afraid to write. Rabbit meat/slaughter has been getting a lot of press lately and the reaction to it has been, to me, mostly horrifying. (The New York Times article is titled “Don’t Tell The Kids”). Much of the response to the rabbit-slaughter seminar has been one of outrage: “what’s next, eating dogs?” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because most of the people that find my blog via search engine are entering ‘woman slaughter rabbit,’ and the only negative comments I’ve received have been about my rabbits. But, this post today is actually about the slaughter of my pigs, and while pigs aren’t as sentimental an animal for most people, they are smarter and much bigger than rabbits.

There’s a reason why animals raised for meat are kept in inhumane conditions. A pig in a cramped pen with a concrete floor isn’t going to get a chance to develop a personality, or at least express it. And it’s much easier to kill a pig with no personality than the one that chews on the cuff of your jeans and rolls over to be scratched with a rake. It’s also much easier to send an animal to the butcher than to organize a humane slaughter in your backyard, with guns, gambrel hooks, stainless steel tables and a small army of people early in the morning willing to help with some very dirty work.

For the whole week leading up to Easter Sunday, I had nightmares. I woke up several times in the middle of the night, sweating, my ears ringing with the imagined sound of screaming pigs and blood. Had I given my pigs enough of a life? Were they ever afraid, or uncomfortable? As far as I can tell, they enjoyed food more than anything else in the world and I gave them way more than they actually needed. They also had a good time rooting and flopping in the mud, and I made those activities available to them almost every evening. I gave them the ability to just be pigs, which is, I think what every animal wants: the freedom to express the traits of their species and their personalities. And, in the end, these pigs never even would have existed if there wasn’t a demand for their meat. So, you have to eat them to save them. Again.

Everyone I talked to told me that I wouldn’t be able to slaughter a pig without it screaming, or that a .22 wouldn’t be able to do the job, and there would definitely be a lot of blood. But, after weeks of planning and worry and interrupted sleep, I couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer–everything was in order.
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It’s 7:30 in the morning, and everyone’s nerves are on edge. Our next door neighbor, Mr. George, appears at the chain link fence on the street in front of our house and yells, “They still alive?!” So much for discretion.

Luckily, the neighborhood is still ‘up-and-coming’ (still partially vacant since Katrina) so no one is really suspicious about what we’re doing, just why we’re here in the first place. Once the stainless steel tables were cleaned, the knives laid out, and the chainsaw running (to cover up the noise of the gunshot), there were no more distractions to keep us from the task at hand. Albert revved the chainsaw, Andy loaded the gun, and I grabbed some grain.

Butcher knives

As soon as we approached, the first pig raised his head at the sound of the grain shaking in the can and that was the last thing he saw. The bullet from the .22 hit him point blank between the eyes. The pig convulsed for about fifteen seconds, then was still. The chickens (dirty birds) ran straight to the blood that dripped on the ground and started drinking it. Then we dragged the carcass to a cleaner spot and Andy stuck a knife between the collarbone and the neck and cut the aorta, sending a final gush of blood out onto the grass.

Pig about to bleed out

The cloud of worry that had been weighing me down all week had been lifted, but now it was time to get to work, before the day got hot enough to spoil the meat. We laid the carcass on a stainless steel table, and cut through the tendons on the hocks to hang the hog carcass on the gambrel hook. Once the carcass was hooked, three strong men grabbed the other end of the rope and pulled the carcass upward through the pulley system rigged up. They dipped the pig into a large vat of nearly boiling water, let it sit for several minutes, then hoisted it out onto the table. The rest of us got to work scraping the bristly hair. It was hot, smelly work, and the skin never quite got as clean as I hoped, but we had to move on and get this pig gutted, then packed on ice so we could move on to the next pig.

Scraping the hair off the hog carcass

Half a pig, getting broken down for the freezer

The next pig was the bigger pig and he was harder to slaughter. But, by 11 o’clock, we had two pigs scraped, gutted and cut in half, sitting on ice, and I had a leg of meat in the oven for dinner. There was still a lot of work to do, cutting up the meat in manageable-sized pieces for the freezer. In fact, it took weeks to continue to render the fat, make sausage, and break the larger cuts down. But, for now, it was time to celebrate, because the hardest part, psychologically at least, was over. I broke out the mimosas.

Ham and leg ready for the oven - so much fat!

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The pigs have moved in, and they have chickens for housemates. I set up a corral made out of used pallets in the backyard, so that it also functions as a chicken run. The chickens have been taken down a peg; they have to sneak good food (cheese and bread) when the pigs will let them. At first they seemed puzzled by these weird creatures, but now I think the chickens are enjoying their farm company. They’ve actually been laying eggs more regularly, and have stopped their early morning screeching. They sometimes eat food off the pigs’ backs – maybe one day they’ll ride around on the pigs’ backs like the birds that travel on the back of hippos. Well, probably not, but it’s funny to visualize.

Anyway, the pigs are growing and eating at an alarming rate. They’re getting about a five gallon bucket of food waste every day and I think I’m going to have to find a way to increase their rations. Nearly everyone I know in the food service industry here in New Orleans is helping me save food scraps for them, but I’m going to have to ramp up the scraping. The whole goal in raising these pigs for my own consumption is to take a waste product (leftover or unusable food from restaurants) and turn it into a high-end, consumable product (meat for me and friends).

These pigs are moving beyond the cute phase and moving quickly into the smelly and gluttonous phase. They are quite entertaining to watch rooting around, making snorting/squealing noises, or just sleeping after a rigorous morning of eating. But, I have to say that these are the first animals I’ve raised that I (so far) don’t have reservations about eating. At this point, they may be putting on almost a pound of weight a day, and all I can think about are the chops, ham and bacon that is effortlessly being produced. I can’t help but notice, every time I look at the pigs, that they’re getting nice shoulders, rumps and bellies. They are so stout that they remind me of giant sausages with four legs poking out. I look at the pigs and I see meat.


Now I know that may sound callous to the animal-lover (I do count myself among that group, even though it may be hard to see beyond the the fact that I’m going to eat my pigs). I respect their personalities too, and I’m glad that they have some space to root around in the dirt, nap in the sun, and just in general, be pigs.

They like to be scratched a lot and they like to rub up on anything coarse to scratch themselves on, and they come straight at me with their dirty noses every time I enter their pen. But I had no idea that seriously, the way to truly let a pig just be a pig is simply to give it as much as it possibly wants to eat.

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