By Kay Wolfe – We love raising pigs for meat, so I was excited to try a new pig breed. One bite of that succulent pork roast, and I knew I was on to something. It was so tasty I couldn’t put it down. What I was eating was something so rare that few people have ever tasted; it wasn’t pork imported from China or even the kind from an Iowa packing plant. It was a breed we raised on our tiny Texas ranch, a rare heritage spotted pig called a Gloucestershire Old Spot.
My husband and I have been hog farmers for years and share a passion for great pork. We are also interested in saving endangered heritage breeds of livestock so we’ve experimented with many. With limited space, we are selective in what we commit ourselves to breeding. To make it on our farm, the breed must first have an exceptional taste but must also thrive on a sustainable small grass farm and be family friendly. This breed has proven to be all this and more. When we were forced to downsize and move our farm, our pigs were one of the few animals we took with us. If you want pork with exceptional taste, then you have to have the heritage breeds.
Like most heritage pigs, the Gloucestershire Old Spot was once very common, but no longer. The advancement in commercial hog operations called for a change in the type of pig produced, one that could be raised indoors in close confinement on grain. That’s not what this pig was bred for, so they nearly became extinct. Thanks to efforts by multiple groups, this pig is once again available from a handful of dedicated breeders across the United States.
The Gloucestershire Old Spot is a European swine breed that was bred to be a self-sufficient grazing pig on supplements from the orchards, gardens, and dairies. They can be a large hog, and if raised exclusively on grain, they tend to produce an abundance of lard, but when raised on open pasture with supplemental grain, they produce excellent moist pork with just the right amount of fat. If raised properly on pasture, the meat is marbled with a tender texture and darker color that melts in your mouth. This meat isn’t just heritage pork, it’s great heritage pork!
The breed is a beautiful pig with a white body covered in Dalmatian-like black spots. They have a long deep body, with short stout legs and large ears that hang forward. Their snout is short, so they are one of the less destructive breeds when it comes to rooting. When raised around people they can become very tame and our sows tend to follow me around in the pasture like an old dog, but I’ve trained them not to touch me. Otherwise, my jeans always end up with muddy pig kisses!
The Gloucestershire Old Spots are hardy animals and handle cold weather very well. We are proof they can also thrive in a sub-tropical environment as long as they are provided an adequate mud hole and some shade. They don’t like our harsh southern sun on their white skin, so they completely cover themselves with mud for protection. They have adjusted well to the Texas heat and simply wait until the cool of the evening to early morning to do their grazing. Like any pig, they need a good mud hole but other than that, they do not destroy our pastures like some of the other heritage hog breeds can.
Our sows have been great mothers. They average around 10 piglets per litter with some having 12 or more. Ours farrow alone and do a good job without our assistance. We allow our sows to farrow on open pastures when the weather is cooperating, but then, we live in the Deep South where they seldom get chilled. Otherwise, you will want to provide them with some sort of simple shelter.
Our piglets are strong and active, and grow rather quickly. There is just nothing more delightful than watching a litter of these floppy-eared spotted pigs running and playing. We have a few simple steps for raising piglets on our farm. The growing litter takes very little care, as the sow does all the work for us. They are soon out on pasture following the sow, learning to graze and starting to eat with mom at a couple weeks of age. We keep the sow well fed so she can produce enough milk for such a large litter and we always have cool water available.
We wean our pigs at around six weeks, notch the ears of those to be registered, castrate the males, and place them on clean pasture away from their moms. The sow will cycle again within 10 days and the process starts all over. We get two litters a year from our sows. We have had people ask if they should allow them to rest a season and produce only one litter a year. We do not recommend that. It is natural for a sow to have two litters a year and as long as she is provided with the proper nutrition, there is nothing detrimental to her health by having two litters. On the contrary, if you allow her to remain “open” then she will quickly put on too much weight and her hormones can go awry, causing her to stop cycling altogether or to have smaller litters later on.
We provide the “feeder” pigs with a good mud hole, a medication-free ration of 16 percent protein each evening, and a wide expanse of green grass. When given the opportunity to grow on pasture, these pigs will run and play all day long. This exercise and clean open pasture make for better-textured pork with less waste at processing. A pig raised on grain alone in a confined space is not going to be as healthy no matter what the breed. Unless you live in an extremely rural area with no other pigs, either domestic or wild, you will probably want to vaccinate for common pig diseases. Until you round them up to load, there isn’t much more needed. This pig is perfect for organic farms since they are so healthy they do not need antibiotics in their feed. We have raised them in the mid-west and now in the Deep South without medicated feed, and have had no health issues at either location.
The meat from these pigs is a dark with marbling and a succulent texture. We like to process ours at around 250 to 300 pounds. It really depends on what your customer wants to do with the pork, though. Some restaurants prefer them to be larger so they have more fat to use in specialty cured seasoned meats. As with any pork, flavor and fat will increase with age while tenderness will decrease slightly. But, this is a tender breed so you really won’t lose much in the way of tenderness. In fact, my favorite pork is an aged sow. They make for huge roasts and pork chops with a very well-developed flavor.
By far, the most common question we get asked is how much land it takes to raise a pair of pigs. Generally, one pair of pigs means a sow and boar, with at least one litter of pigs, so two can quickly become 14 or more. The number of pigs is not the only consideration. The forage on the land and the climate is also to be considered. If it is the growing season and you have plenty of rain (or irrigation) and fertile soil, a couple of acres should easily contain the pair and raise a young litter to butcher weight. If you are past the growing season and there is nothing for them to eat, then you may want to move them off pasture to keep them from looking for roots. If you have a forested area, fall would be a great time to turn them in with acorns, etc. As time goes on, you will develop an eye for the holding capacity of your particular farm and will know when you have reached your capacity.
If you have a few acres and want to begin raising pigs for meat with some extra to sell, we recommend you try raising the Gloucestershire Old Spot. These pigs can feed your family or parlay you into a new sideline of selling all natural pasture raised pork. This breed is a great ambassador for your farm; people who see them in person fall in love with them and they will appreciate you raising them in a humane manner. You can face your customers with pride, knowing they are buying the best-tasting pork available anywhere.
Originally published in Countryside January/February 2011 and regularly vetted for accuracy.