While I can’t say I’m anything near a regular reader of the magazine Hobby Farms, the recent Sept/Oct issue piqued my interest when I saw it on the racks at McNally Robinson in Saskatoon on a recent weekend get away.
The feature story highlighted on the cover is entitled ‘Heritage Hogs for Pork’.
Growing up on a registered pig farm, anything on hogs still draws my interest.
I can recall when still a youngster doing a display on the wide range of pig breeds actually out there, at a time when maybe a half dozen had a sizable foothold on the Canadian Prairies.
Since those days the number of pure breeds raised here has if not declined, at least seen a big drop in numbers.
Today’s hog industry, beleaguered as it is, revolves around hybrid lines which cross purebreds, predominantly Yorkshire and Landrace, to take advantage of the vigour such crossing provides.
Under current practice for raising hogs, intensive, indoor, operations, such hybrids excel in key areas such as converting feed to pork, and average daily gains.
As a result, at least in Canada, and for that matter many major pork producing countries, breeds such as Berkshire, Tamworth, Large English Black and numerous other breeds have seen numbers decline. Many breeds are at best rarities today, with a number out right endangered.
A few, like the Oxford Sandy Black, may be extinct.
The Canadian developed Lacombe is sadly among the breeds which teeters on disappearing. The Lacombe was developed at the Lacombe Research station in Alberta, being released to the public in 1958. When it celebrated it’s 50th birthday in 2008 a couple of hundred were thought to exist.
Which brings me to a secondary interest I have long had, that of the preservation of rare breeds of livestock.
There is something to be said for genetic diversity within a species, and that includes domestic farm animals.
Some breeds do some things better than others, and if a breed is lost, a trait the industry, or at least a segment of the industry, may one day need is lost too.
The Hobby Farms story looks at a niche market for raising heritage breeds and selling the pork as a premium product.
Such operations are generally old school, with pigs raised as much as possible on pasture. On the Prairies winter puts a crimp in such an operation, although like cattle hogs, at least mature sows, will forage standing forages with some grain supplementation, and a warm place to sleep.
The hogs from the high density farms of today though, are not the best choice to raise ‘old school’. I use the term ‘old school’ because dry sows on pasture, and pigs raised on straw, was once the norm, not the exception.
To look at raising grass-fed hogs effectively, it means seeking out breeds such as Berkshire, Kunekune, Duroc, Tamworth, Large English Blacks and Red Wattle. None of these breeds are going to suddenly take over large-scale operations, but they can have their place.
And, since there is seemingly growing public pressure against intensive livestock, and increasing interest in the idea of a 100-mile diet, the door may be opening to more niche production of a less intensive variety.
That is why rare livestock breeds should be maintained. No one knows exactly what the face of livestock production may look like in the future. There may come a time the traits of the Mulefoot or Mangalitsa are needed, and if we have allowed the breed to disappear, then those traits are gone too.
Hopefully agriculture is wise enough to see the benefits which might be gained by being good stewards of our purebred livestock genetics.
Calvin Daniels is Assistant Editor with Yorkton This Week.