For small farms in California, there can be real value in raising pigs.

The animals need less space than most livestock, such as cattle or sheep. Pigs also have two to three litters a year, providing a stable stream of revenue and meat for the farmer. And with proper management, pigs can be easy animals to maintain with other livestock and without harming natural resources.

Pig farms in the state can range from a couple sows on a few acres to much larger operations with hogs being raised intensively and where pork is the primary product.

To learn more, I spoke with Theresa Becchetti, farm advisor for University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR).

From Slop to Standardization

When talking about pigs, it seems natural to start with slop and the move towards pork standardization and modernization.

“Remember in the classic children’s book ‘Charlotte’s Web’ when they fed their pig Wilbur the slop?” recalls Becchetti. “Pigs were traditionally fed from the kitchen. Milk, oatmeal, bread…whatever was left over. It was a good way to get rid of the waste. Small farms typically had a couple pigs that they fed these leftovers, or slop.”

Trichinosis has been an issue with pork meat since the early 20th century and earlier, because people were feeding the animals food that wasn’t properly cooked or pasteurized. Sometimes people would just leave the slop outside in a bucket, and this would increase risks of contamination. Then they would eat undercooked pork meat, the trichinosis would not be killed and people would get sick.

Editor’s Note: Trichinosis is a roundworm infection, which is acquired by eating roundworm larvae in raw or undercooked meat.

“I grew up on a family farm in Missouri, and we had a few pigs that we would feed slop along with some grain,” she explains. “But my mom would always cook the meat until it was very well done to reduce the risk of trichinosis. Of course, the family wasn’t crazy about the overcooked pork, but it was safer.”

By the late 1980s, the industry began to market pork as “The Other White Meat.” Producers changed the process of how pigs were fed. Instead of feeding hogs the leftovers, farmers started feeding the animals with a more balanced ration of grains. They ensured the pigs were provided other nutrients needed for  proper growth, such as complete proteins and all the essential amino acids, building blocks for protein, were part of their diet.

“This led to pork with whiter meat and milder flavor,” says Becchetti. “Switching from the slop reduced the risk of trichinosis and allowed people to enjoy safe, medium rare meat that wasn’t tough or overcooked. That was especially valuable for cuts like pork tenderloin.”

At the same time, the pork industry started breeding pigs to reach the market faster and more efficiently. Three hog breeds – Duroc, Hampshire and Yorkshire – today make up a large part of commercial pig breeding.

“As a result, if you buy a pork loin in the United States, they are pretty much the same size meat, regardless of the store’s location,” says Becchetti. “This happened around the time that raising pigs moved from outdoors to indoor, temperature-controlled settings. Moving indoors to a ‘cleaner system’ greatly reduced the infection rates of pigs.”

During this standardization process, the gamey taste of pork was lost, however, as was the darker meat.

“In the animal world, the gamey meats tend to be venison, elk or bison. They’re out roaming around, eating a wide variety of forages,” says Becchetti. “It’s like grass-fed beef versus grain-fed beef, because you get a different flavor profile from the forages the cattle eat. It’s the same with pigs. One taste isn’t better, necessarily, it’s just different.”

Today, California farmers are raising a variety of different heritage pigs, often for higher price points. Some breeds include Landrace, Hereford, Berkshire and Iberian – which are more suited to being raised outdoors than a Duroc or Hampshire – but perhaps not as you might think.

Pigs and Pasture

Only a portion of a pig’s diet comes from a pasture, even if they live outdoors.

Pigs have a monogastric digestive system, as humans do.  Unlike cattle or sheep, their digestive system limits the hogs’ ability to digest fiber or process a large percentage of forage nutrients found in pastures and rangelands.

Instead, pigs graze on forages such as clovers and young grass shoots to supplement their diet. Sometimes farmers graze pigs under Oak trees so the animals eat the acorns to add nutrients and flavor. The acorn-fed pork is made into the Spanish and Portuguese style cured ham, Jamon Iberico.

Cattle and sheep, on the other hand, are able to utilize the forage fiber as a nutrient. That’s because microbes in their rumen digest this fiber into chemical compounds that are converted to glucose by the animal.

A multi-species grazing system may be ideal to consider for pasture raised pigs. Pastures with hogs alone will require frequent mowing to mechanically break down or remove mature plants to make them more suitable for consumption.

Some Considerations

There are several things to consider when raising hogs.

Their Behavior: “Pigs have a natural rooting behavior, and they can’t control their body temperature very well,” explains Becchetti. “The animals can’t sweat, so they build mud holes or “wallows” to cool off in the summer. Pigs also can’t keep themselves warm, so they need to be protected in cold weather.”

To discourage pigs from rooting around and tearing up the soil, one management technique is to put a ring in the pig’s nose. It doesn’t hurt the animal, but the ring makes it uncomfortable for the pig to dig up the ground and cause erosion.

Other people don’t like to use the nose rings on pigs. “These farmers want the pigs to root around and loosen the soil to help them get rid of invasive plants,” she says. “They then plant something more desirable, once the pigs have come through. This is usually done on flat areas, where there isn’t any risk of erosion near a streambed.”

The Environmental Impact

As more people started raising pigs on pastures in California, there was a scarcity of information on how to protect the natural resources.

“We worked with the Alameda County Resources Conservation District to develop some best practices,” she says. ““We encourage farmers to consider where you’re placing your pigs, troughs, supplements and housing. Make sure everything is away from creeks and areas with erosion risks. This helps you reduce the environmental impacts from your pigs as much as possible.”

Best practices can be found at: 

USDA Sites for Slaughter and Processing

When farmers are selling meat, they must have a USDA federal inspection.

“It’s not always easy to find local spots where farmers can get pork inspected and processed,” she says. “I know a farmer in the Mendocino area, who has to drive three to four hours each way to take animals in for processing. Depending on where you are and where the facilities are, it can be a hardship for some farmers. Hopefully, this situation will change.”

infographic raising pigs in small farms

For More Information

Pig Breed Guide from Grit

California’s Poultry Goes through Big Changes

Cattle Ranching Is California’s Number One Land Use