There seems to be a fascination these days with having our meat as lean as possible. Whether it be beef, lamb, chicken or pork, society has demanded that there be minimal fat to the point that we are losing the flavour that comes with it. The pork industry has chosen breeds such as the Large White and Landrace which produce a low amount of fat while also providing rapid growth for higher profit. The emphasis is all about more meat and less fat with little regard to flavour.
Berkshire pigs have a natural marbling throughout the meat that provides a flavour second to none. The problem is, it is very easy to feed incorrectly and have too much fat with a Berkshire which is one of the reasons big industry don’t use them. We find if you spend the extra time making sure the pigs are fed correctly you can get the right meat to fat ratio and end up with a product that has a beautiful flavour.
We feed our pigs a mix of grains and nutrients that we prepare on farm. Just like us, pigs need certain food groups that contain essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals in order to grow. We have a nutritionist that prepares all our meal plans and we monitor the pigs growth when weighing each week so we can adjust their feed accordingly. Every farm is different and pigs will eat different things in the paddock so we are constantly adjusting their food. While pigs do eat grass it does not provide anywhere near as much nutrition as it does for a cow so it does not affect their feed as much as you would think. Obviously not everyone can have a nutritionist and mix their own feed so there are a lot of premixed feeds on the market that you can purchase to feed your pigs.
We mix 6 different diets for pigs depending on their stage of life.
- Lac Sow – High protein diet for lactating mothers feeding their piglets.
- Dry Sow – Fed to all boars and to all sows that aren’t currently lactating
- Weaner – Very high protein diet and fed as the first dry feed for piglets.
- Grower – Fed to pigs once they reach 30kg. Lower protein than Weaner.
- Finisher – More protein than Dry Sow diet but less than grower. Fed to pigs from 50kg to 70kg.
- Gilt Developer – This diet is in between a Dry Sow diet and Finisher diet and ensures girls that we are growing up to be gilts grow fast but don’t get too fat.
One of the major contributors to changes in feed is the weather. To give you an example when we first started feeding our sows we fed them 2.2kgs of feed per day. Within weeks they noticeably got fat to the point they were getting rolls under their snout. We changed this to 2kgs per day and they starting keeping a good shape. Last week was a very cold one and within the week some of our sows lost a lot of weight so we have had to take them back to 2.2kgs per day just to keep their form. As I said every farm is different so 2kg is not a hard and fast rule.
We often have people say to us that they have been feeding their pigs vegetable scraps and bread but they are still turning out fat. Pigs need a lot of energy and protein to grow but they can only eat so much. For instance when our sows are lactating they are feeding their young so they eat around 12kg per day just to get what they need. While vegetables are certainly very good for you they have a lot of water in them so pigs can only eat so much before they get full. Unfortunately the pig does not receive any where near the essential ingredients it needs to grow properly before it has to stop eating.
The thing we need to mention here with scraps is to be careful of swill feeding. Foods that contain meat or meat products, or that have had contact with meat or meat products (commonly called ‘swill’ or prohibited pig feed), may contain viruses that cause severe disease in pigs. It is very hard to determine if scraps have come into contact with meat products these days. For instance bread scraps from a bakery may seem ok but with things like cheese and bacon rolls being very popular you may be feeding your pig swill inadvertently. Some of the diseases that pigs can contract from swill feeding are foot-and-mouth disease, African swine fever, classical swine fever, Aujeszky’s disease, and swine vesicular disease. These are exotic diseases and we do not want to introduce them to Australia.
So how do we feed our pigs to make sure they have the right meat to fat ratio that produces a beautifully marbled and succulent piece of pork that has a flavour next to none?
It all starts with the first feed. Many people would be thinking the first feed is when the piglet has its first taste of dry food or even when it first suckles on its mothers teat. We regard the first feed as 5 months before it is born. This is when its mother is feeding a previous litter and the piglet has not even been conceived yet. When a sow is feeding a litter it needs to eat enough to provide nutrition for her and her suckling piglets. One thing that is happening here though is her body is already preparing for her next litter and she requires even more energy to do this. When we started we researched how to feed lactating sows and there was a lot of information on litter sizes compared to feed. A lot of information suggested to feed up to 8kg per day. We have found to get the energy needed leave this up to the mother. We have sows eat up to 12kg per day and some that only eat 6. Basically feed them as much as they will eat and this will ensure her next litter is large, strong and healthy. Be aware though that a sow will graze throughout the day so don’t expect her to eat 12kg in one sitting.
Now that your piglet is born strong and healthy you have a big head start toward having a fast growing healthy pig but there is still more to do. The most important thing is to ensure the newborn piglet receives colostrum in the first 48 hours. Piglets need at least 15ml of colostrum from their mother in the first 48 hours or unfortunately the chances of surviving are very slim.
From a few weeks old piglets will start eating their mothers feed as well as her milk. Once this happens you can introduce a creep feed of the Weaner diet. This is a high protein diet that includes all the essential amino acids such as Lysine in high proportions. Piglets should be fed ad-libitum until they reach 30kg. The early stages of a pigs life are the most important in terms of growing and if it isn’t done right then no amount of correct feeding regimes and diets will fix it.
Before we had our own nutritionist we fed our growers and finishers once a day and we found we had to adjust diets and feed amounts erratically as they were getting too fat. We now know that pigs of this size need to be fed twice a day. If it is all given to them in one sitting then they eat it all but their bodies can’t process it that fast and a lot of it goes straight through them. Once we started feeding twice a day it was much easier to control their weight and the end product came out perfect.
We feed our growers 2kg per day (1kg in the morning and 1kg in the late afternoon) of the Grower diet. We don’t often adjust the amount as we want them to grow as fast as possible at this stage.
Our finishers are fed anything from 1.7kg per day to 2.2kg per day of the Finisher diet. Like the grower this is split over two feedings. We base the amount on their current weight gain and our prediction of the coming weeks weather.
As we said earlier this is not a comprehensive way to feed pigs as every farm will be different in terms of needs but hopefully this gives you an idea of what goes into feeding a pig. The more pigs you have the bigger the task becomes. At the time of writing we are currently feeding over 250kg per day by bucket. On top of this we mix an average of 2 tonnes of feed per week.