Some folks view kunekune pigs as impractical for meat production. Here’s why we think they make sense in a sustainable, local, decentralized food system.
I began my pastured pig journey with Esmerelda, a 300 pound Yorkshire/Hereford gilt. We purchased her from a local pastured pork farmer who was downsizing and still saw the value she held for a family looking to get into raising pigs. She came to us with a ringed nostril, and already bred to a very friendly, large, and well put together Red Wattle boar named Mike.
Esmerelda remained gentle and sweet, for most of the time we raised her. After a few months she lost her ring and due to our own ethical, welfare based practices, decided not to apply a new one. Pigs evolved as rooting creatures, gleaning a high proportion of their nutrition from beneath the dirt. We do not choose to engage in animal rearing practices that deprive the beast of its nature. Ringing hogs or raising them in a concrete floored pen take away from a pig its essential behaviors.
However, as Esmerelda and her litter grew, it became apparent that allowing them to gain their entire nutritional needs from the land would leave the place a scarred, ragged, barren mess. While I believe that in some instances, this behavior can be harnessed for preparing large seedbeds for gardens or staple crop plantings, the ecological risks of continuing to raise standard size pigs in this manner were too high for our sloped site and degraded soils. The pigs, in spite of their pasture access, required large amounts of feed. We were selling ourselves and our labor short by paying for it all and trying to keep our product cost reasonable enough for our market. There’s an old adage among swine farmers: “You’re not feeding them to save money, you’re feeding them to make money.” This has never jived with my viewpoint on what makes livestock rearing sustainable.
After two litters, that never lost money, but never quite felt like the work I was trying to accomplish, we finally had Esmerelda slaughtered. While she was a gentle pig, yes, she was a gentle 450 pound sow, and as such was entitled to do what she wanted. And pigs are smart, let me tell you. Esmerelda knew the difference between walking into a trailer for a romantic rendezvous with Mike and walking into a trailer to head to a home butcher. It took nearly two weeks to gain her consent to enter it for her final time. I ultimately gained her trust by lying spread-eagle inside of it. A dozen people could not make her step in. One reason I chose to raise smaller pigs is that I believe transporting pigs to be generally traumatic for all involved. They are social/herd creatures, and fear separation more then death. Smaller pigs are more practical to butcher at home.
I took a season off from raising pigs, almost two year of obtaining infrastructure and investing countless hours and dollars into the pig project. I smoothed and seeded the various craters left by our herd and focused on other projects. It seemed that raising pigs as best I could according to my principles, was not sustainable, emotionally, financially, or emotionally.
Six months later, I purchased two kunekune gilts.
Some pigs are just built different
“Kunekune” is the Maori word for “fat, round”. Kunekune pigs are indeed stocky. Their key physical features are their small stature, flattened facial structure (pug pigs) that make them ill-suited to deep rooting, and hairy bodies. They sometimes have wattles. As a lard type breed, they are metabolically over-efficient, prone to huge fatness, for lack of a better term. This means they can still grow and gain weight with lighter feed requirements. They can thrive on grass alone, under proper conditions, though I believe that their full function as part of a domestic food project should include utilizing food waste such as cull fruits, vegetables, dairy/butchering byproducts and table scraps.
Personality wise, kunekunes are generally docile and good-natured. Three years into my kunekune project I am still working through the ins and outs of my management, pasture designs, and final infrastructure. I hope share my experience with y’all as time goes on, but for now I’d like to outline some reasons why the little pigs have big potential in a sustainable food system.
“You’re not feeding them to make money”
Let’s abandon that old adage, the one about feeding them to make money. In fact, let’s abandon the entire concept that using millions of acres of fertile, arable land to raise livestock feed is long-term solution for how to feed 7 billion (and counting) humans. Let us instead, return to an older concept, one that has been true for the bulk of agricultural history: A pig’s function in human food systems is to convert wasted calories into useful calories. If you consuming are dairy, fruit, vegetables, meat or grain products, there is inevitably some portion of nutrients produced by labor and fertility resources that is under-utilized, or to put it bluntly, wasted. For those of y’all who grow a garden, tend an orchard or work in a brewery, bakery, or restaurant, you know this.
While I do not believe “waste” feeds are appropriate as the whole of our pigs’ diet, it can comprise a large proportion of what they consume. Whey and other dairy byproducts have been a really awesome source of nutrition for our herd. By meeting the majority of our produce needs at home, there is always a supply of cull vegetables like unripe squash and root crops that are too small to bother with, and damaged fruit. We’ve also had success with feeding bean, sweet potato, and squash vines after harvest. By utilizing nutrition this way, the yield of our other food raising efforts is increased, and the pig herd becomes an integrated part of the system, rather than apart from it, their feed imported, grown on vast tracts of land that could serve a higher purpose. Of all the breeds of swine, kunekunes are perhaps the best suited to being maintained in this manner.
Yes, all pigs can eat pumpkins with reckless abandon. Most of them will continue to need imported grain from row crops in order to thrive. Not so for kunekunes. The other feeding behavior that sets these pigs apart is their ability to eat grass effectively, without causing near as much soil disturbance as larger, longer snouted pigs. Too much candy in the form of cull feeds can cause some lack of enthusiasm for grasses, not to mention create overly fat pigs, and so after some early mistakes, I’ve learned to keep them a little on the hungry side. I also feed hay to our pigs in winter when the grasses are dormant and the pastures are fragile. Our kunekunes do an especially good job with Reed’s Canary Grass, a prevalent, low value forage in our parts. Most grazing animals find Reed’s Canary unpalatable much of the year. We’ve had goats straight up refuse to eat the hay in winter, even when nothing else was available. (That was the winter of two-thousand-and-froze-to-death, when my only recourse was to harvest willow saplings and honey locust pods daily to keep the goat herd alive and thriving.) Reed’s Canary takes over wide swaths of land when it’s happy, by spreading runners, suffocating competition from more valuable plants with its thick mats of thatch. We’ve lost many trees in the establishment phase to its creeping, nutrient sapping nature. Our pigs have not only utilized this marginal land for our nutritional benefit, they may be keeping it at bay, hopefully creating the potential to have more succesful plantings in these areas.
Other margins that kunekunes thrive in are along draws and in our wooded areas. At this point I feel it’s important to differentiate between careful, conscientious forest grazing (pannage) and letting some pigs in the woods and hoping for the best. Pigs, in their natural state, are forest creatures. They can derive all their nutrition from fruit, nuts, grubs and bugs, vegetation and roots. While the disturbance they cause can be important in a healthy, climaxed forest, provided their population is balanced and in-check, we have a responsibility as good stewards to manage forest grazing with great care. We allow brief access with careful observation during the heat of summer, when the ground is too dry to harm and the shade has value, and in autumn when the floor is littered with acorns and fresh leaves, so long as the soil is frozen or dry. All pigs cause disturbance. Kunekunes cause far less, and pose a reduced risk to fragile soils.
Speaking of trees, kunekunes have become a major part of our orchard management. The concept of moving pigs through an orchard to clear up fruit drops is nothing new. It is an excellent way to naturally control overwintering pest populations in rotten fruit, and we apply similar principles in our garden spaces by using kunekunes to clear crop residues. Here again, kunekunes have an advantage over other breeds as they are less likely to damage tree roots. Here at Fox Holler Farmstead, we’re taking this tree/pig relationship to its logical next level, by introducing species into our pig pasture that can provide both human and swine nutrition, such as pears, peaches, mulberries, apples, hazel, chestnut, and oak. As time goes on we hope to incorporate a wide range of genotypes that can provide continuous harvests throughout the season. It is important to note that we use principles of rotational grazing to ensure the overall health of our pastures. Our herd generally has grazes 1/4 acre of pasture at a time, typically for up to a week before moving on. When soils are wet or the pigs’ innate need for a waller is triggered by warm weather we are sure to give them access to a central barnyard and sacrifice area, so they can exhibit their full pigness and make some mud. Do not expect to raise pigs humanely without providing a waller.
Kunekune or not, all pigs will create disturbance when raised in a natural, humane manner. It is important that the grower takes a serious commitment to ameliorating all damage to soils and vegetation. I view this as an opportunity to increase my pasture diversity. After the pigs move to a new paddock, I smooth out these areas and rake in a seasonally appropriate seed or seed mix. I also typically follow up with a scythe and use the resultant mulch to retain moisture at freshly seeded areas. We often use poultry to follow up our pig grazing to break up and spread out manure and interrupt fly and parasite cycles. I don’t do this if an area has been recently reseeded, or otherwise needs rest immediately, such as in drought or dormancy.
All pigs can gain benefits both nutritionally and welfare wise from these practices, and I believe all pigs should. Kunekunes, in my opinion, get a lot more mileage from these practices, with the added benefit of causing less damage and leaving a smaller resource hoofprint. As a caveat, pigs need essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other nutrients. I have not entirely ended my reliance on feeding grain yet. I offer some barley and wheat along with hay, milk and squash in the wintertime, and thus far have not found an elegant way to feed nursing sows and little weanlings without some grains and legumes. It is my intention to share with y’all when I do. That said, I especially recommend trying out a few pigs if you are already raising dairy animals and making cheese at home, because the relationship between dairying and hog-rearing is obvious. I also recommend that you get a few milk goats if you’ve already got some pigs and more room for trouble in your life.
Quality nutrition on a sustainable, local scale
So, I’ve laid out an overview on how kunekune pigs can provide a sensible, lighter impact alternative to standard pork breeds, in terms of how we can accommodate their feed requirements in a closed loop system. The flip side is how, at least in our climate and environment (heavy clay sidehill, zone 5b) pork from kunekunes can fill an important niche in our own diets.
Kunekunes are a lard breed. In our recent past, before intercontinental travel became the norm for how our food came to our table, lard has been the most important, prevalent source of fat for a large proportion of the human population. In the our temperate climate, the most likely sources for a different form of cooking oil come from corn, soy, canola, peanuts and sunflower: all crops that require vast spaces, regular tillage, and are typically raised as monocultures requiring heavy imports of fertilizer, pesticides, etc… If you are reading this from the coasts or tropics, feel free to obtain your essential fats from coconuts, olives, fish, avocados, or what have you. As of this moment, my area is something of an icy hell-scape, so those options aren’t realistic. I won’t even approach the problematic nature of monoculture palm oil production. In terms of plant based oils in my climate, I think only tree nuts such as hazel come even close to the potential for sustainable local fat production as lard. There are other animal based fats that can be raised in sustainable manner, but pigs create prodigious amounts of it, and kunekunes were bred to pack it on extremely well.
Lard from pasture-raised pigs is nutritionally superior to confinement lard, or any fat associated with confinement animals. It is rich in vitamin D, one of a few natural sources besides mushrooms, pasture raised eggs, and the sun.
The meat of kunekunes itself is richly laced with flavorful fat. I’m always sure to talk this aspect up to our potential customers. Some people choose to avoid fat in their meat and make up for it with highly processed cooking oils with heavy embodied energy. But if you know, you know. Excess fat within our meat is saved in jars during the cooking process and reused for cooking vegetables, in addition to the glorious, delicately flavored leaf lard we keep on hand for pastries and the savory backfat that we use rendered, cured, or to fill out our leaner goat and chicken sausages. When well rendered, lard is shelf stable, and a preservative in and of itself. On our homestead we use clean rendered lard to exclude air from our jars of cured pork confit and duck rillettes.
While these pigs are plenty chubby, there beneath the blubber they contain some of the most deeply flavored, rich meat you can find on a pig. Between their clean, varied, grass-based diet and their slow maturity rate (We typically begin butchering our pigs at 18 months, 3 times older than standard butcher hogs) the flavor of kunekune is exquisite, the color of the flesh being a deep red. The complex, grassy flavor of the meat combined with the high ratio of creamy fat makes kunekune pork an excellent medium for home charcuterie. While the tiny chops and roasts are as cute as they are delicious, its how well our pork takes to salt, smoke, and age that sets it above anything else I’ve tasted.
For the home butcher, the small stature of a kunekune makes them much easier to process. We avoid the stress caused to ourselves and our pigs by forgoing the traumatic trailer loading, not to mention the risk of not getting what we want from the professional butcher by offering the pig a calm, dignified death at home. At 18 months, our pigs yield about 80 pound of meat on average. We can pick them up without a tractor, transport them in a wheelbarrow, scald them in a bathtub, and handle the smaller amounts of meat quickly and cleanly with minimal refrigeration and infrastructure, if well-planned. I will explore the intricacies of home butchering kunekune pigs in later posts. The smaller hams and bellies make it much easier to succesfully dry-cure for the beginning home butcher. We typically bone out our hams and stitch them inside a casing made from the stomach to ensure a quality homestead cured product.
Kunekune pork is pleasing to both the utilitarian grower and the foodie. While the market for this unique pork is still untapped and unexplored, I hope and expect that it gains momentum as more folks turn to humane and sustainable alternatives to mainstream animal products.
Personality goes a long way.
An aspect to raising kunekunes both technical and emotional is that they are extremely agreeable in nature. They are not just docile, they’re downright sweet. They’ve been much less obstinate than our red wattle crosses, and even when they’re being rude or pushy, they can easily be managed by gentle physical pressure. I’m talking nudging, not even pushing. Most pigs enjoy some amount of belly-rubbing, but kunekunes relish it. They’re even open to cuddles.
While managing and maintaining a boar can be challenging with standard sized breeds of pig, kunekune boars are typically laid back, friendly, and affordable to feed. In fact, their propensity to gain weight is so advanced that our boar really doesn’t require much feed at all. The mothering instinct in the sows is excellent, and so long as a healthy weight is maintained they are less likely to rollover on piglets. I have not found any special farrowing infrastructure necessary beyond a good shelter and a fluffy nest of hay. I sincerely doubt there are many instances of kunekune sows harming their piglets as there are in industrial settings. In fact, we’ve had difficulty keeping our sows from nursing each other’s litters.
Keeping breeding stock is so much cheaper with kunekunes that it really puts it in the hands of small scale growers and homesteaders. I hope that this results in advancing the breed toward purposes of increased sustainabilty, a direction that conventional industrial breeders have little intention to go.
These are just some charming pigs.
End times swine
In my likely unpopular view, I am preparing for two futures: One in which humanity realigns with its deepest values of caring for the earth and everything on it, including itself, or some form of total breakdown of our existing order. And either way, providing food that is light on resources and can be raised with minimal imports of grain and fuel. that can be managed and implemented on the local and community scale, in concert with other practices of equal importance and ecological vigor is a necessity. In the eyes of many, these fine little pigs may not stack up to a big honkin’ hawg. I think that in a global food system confronted with resource depletion, supply chain failures, environmental catastrophe and malnutrition, “feeding ’em to make money” just won’t cut it for much longer. I’m sticking with kunekunes.