Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pigs in the Woods

When we brought our six Duroc-Berkshire-Mulefoot cross pigs to Tree Gate in May, they were six-week-old weanlings, weighing in at just 40 pounds each, and extremely wriggly. Since our pigs live outdoors, we chose those with the darkest coloring to reduce the risk of sunburn—and ended up with five males, despite a general preference here for females of all species.

Initially, we housed the piglets in a straw-filled nest in the tractor shed with access to a pen shaded by saplings. There we trained them in the way of Tree Gate Pigs. They learned the whistles we use to call them, discovered that a good belly rub can be quite a treat, and decided that since the electric fence bites, it's best to avoid touching it. Those lessons mastered, we introduced them to pasture in late June. Ever since, they've moved to fresh grass every 10 to 14 days. Initially, it took several people to manage the process, because untangling electric netting and keeping six exuberant pigs from running amuck can get a little hairy.

This last move was our most ambitious -- we've been anticipating it for weeks, and despite our fear that it might end with loose pigs roaming the gorge at our property line and wandering downtown, it went like a charm. Once we dragged the pigs' house and feeder a couple hundred yards from the pasture and into the woods, we opened an alley of electric nets to guide the pigs to their new home. Dean had a bucket of apples (their current favorite treat) to lead the way, but they were so energized by the adventure, they quickly outpaced him in their rush to explore. Already, they've discovered all sorts of new tastes and textures in the soft soil beneath the trees and they seem more alert and energetic in this new setting.

In a few weeks, we'll introduce a trailer and start feeding them inside it. Getting used to going up and down the ramp ahead of time makes loading them for their trip to the butcher much less stressful for everyone. In the meantime, we're marketing the meat, which will be available around Thanksgiving, to people intent on filling their freezers with all of the bacon, sausage, chops, roasts, and hams associated with one side (half) of a pig. Our customers get to specify such butchering details as seasoning for their sausage, how thick their steaks and chops are cut, which pieces get cured or smoked, and how it's all wrapped.

Here's the FAQ we wrote for prospective customers:

about the pigs: Piglets on large farms are often prophylactically treated for worms or with antibiotics to compensate for unnatural living conditions and diets. Instead, we keep ours on fresh pasture and make every effort to eliminate health-compromising stressors.

your cost involves two factors: the hanging weight of your pig and the cost of butchering.

hanging weight: This is the weight of the carcass before it is trimmed into individual cuts, the lard and gristle removed, and so on. We aim to send our pigs to butcher at between 250 and 300 pounds' live weight. The number is variable because while our butcher date is fixed, the growth of each pig depends on everything from the weather (weight gain slows as the temperatures drop) to each pig's personal appetites. The actual weight of what goes in your freezer also depends on your instructions to the butcher. If you want bone-in roasts, for example, you'll put slightly more in your freezer than if you have the bone removed. Smoking reduces weight through moisture reduction. Last year, our fall pigs had hanging weights of 128–130 pounds/half (at $3.50/pound, same as last year, that works out to about $450/half). For freezer planning purposes, the volume of meat in a half fills roughly 2 office paper boxes.

butchering cost: this depends on your pig's hanging weight and your instructions to the butcher -- paper or plastic wrap? what gets smoked? do you want the lard rendered? Last fall, the fees at our butcher (USDA-certified Shirk's in Dundee) ran about $100–$125/half; plastic wrap and smoking are pricier options than paper wrap and uncured cuts.

what you'll get (results will vary! In this example from 2010, hanging weight per half was low -- just 80 lb. We anticipate hanging weights closer to 110 lb this year. Cuts were bone in with ham, bacon, and shoulder
bacon: 7-8 lb
sausage: 6 lb
ham: 12 lb (roasts &/or steaks)
chops: 10 lb
butt: 6 lb (roasts &/or steaks)
shoulder: 4 lb (roasts &/or steaks)
ribs: 6 lb
hocks: 3 lb
bones: 1 lb
lard: about 3 pounds, rendered (good for biscuits, soap, salves, or decline your share and TGF will pay for rendering, then make soap)

cut sheet: your instructions to the butcher. We will walk you through this form, but first you'll have to make some choices:
• wrapping: butcher's paper ($.50/lb) or vacuum-sealed plastic (.65/lb)?. We recommend paper; cheaper and very effective for up to a year.
• smoking ($.80/lb): nitrate free or conventional? ham fresh or smoked? additional cuts smoked?
• how many pounds/cuts per package? (ex: 1 ham steak/pkg, 2 chops/pkg, 1 pound sausage/pkg)
• sausage seasoning (pick one or two): none, regular, hot italian, mild italian, breakfast, scrapple (we found these all a bit salty and half-seasoning quite tasty)
• sausage casing (pick one per seasoning): loose, rope, or links
• ham, shoulder, butt: roasts or steaks? for those sharing an order among several freezers, steaks are MUCH easier to divvy up
• thickness: of steaks and chops: 1 inch thick? 2 inches?

hand-off: Because we have two butcher dates, half of the meat will be available just prior to Thanksgiving and the rest just after. Please let us know which date you prefer. We'll give you at least a month's notice and make an appointment for a mutually convenient hand-off to insure that your meat remains frozen during transfer.

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