Breeders continue to keep the traditions alive
By Colleen Halpenny
In today’s fast paced innovative world, sometimes the slower paced ways can be brushed to the side. However, a growing number of pork producers are making the effort to work with heritage breeds and deliver those old-time flavours to the table.
Better Pork spoke with three business owners to learn what drove them to these unique breeds, how they stand up in Canada’s changing climate, and what they offer to consumers.
Variety of Breeds
“At the time I was starting out, I knew I didn't want to go with the ‘normal’ pig breeds. There's not much normal about me, and I wanted a breed I could resonate with! Good temperament, cold hardiness, lard breed, conservation, and above all produce an outstanding premium product. These were the qualities and characteristics I was looking for in a breed.
When I began my research into the breeds of pig, I stumbled upon the Mangalitsa and soon realized the cultural and historical significance these represented within the Hungarian Empire. After finding out that this breed was on the verge of extinction after WW2, it made my decision even clearer. There are three types of Mangalitsa; the Blonde, Swallow Belly and the Red. I chose the Red because that is what the Hungarian Royals would request at their feasts and if it was good enough for them then I knew it was the right choice. Also, no one else had them in Canada, how unique!” explains Christina Stender who owns Eh Farms, along with husband and two sons in Strathmore, Alta.
After the original import of a sow and boar in November of 2016, Christina and family have spent countless hours learning how to best care for, breed, and deliver a completely unique tasting product.
“At our farm, we firmly believe in keeping the traditional ways of farming and respecting the breed. Our Mangalitsas are bred to grow fat and wholesome over a longer period. They live their best life until they are fully matured, about 24 months of age, at this time they are ready for harvest,” says Stender.
Kendra Harvey, along with husband and children, started farming in 2015, with a move to Nanaimo, BC. where they started raising pasture pork. Over the past two years they have grown from eight pigs to a small farrow-to-finish program, selling to custom cut butchers and the local community.
Harvey says, “over the past two years of raising pigs we have gone through a variety of different breeds, all of which have their pros and cons. When we decided to adapt our pork program to a farrow-to-finish operation, we narrowed down on our current favorites, and in time we will likely adapt further.
“Our breeding boar is a Large Black. They are known for their docile temperament, which is extremely important on our farm as we interact with our animals closely. Another quality that brought us to this breed is their hardiness; they are excellent at foraging and can convert even poor forage or pasture material into meat.
Lastly, they have a long range for fertility, produce large litters, and are considered good mothers. We are planning to eventually get a large black breeding sow into the program as they are a rare breed, with only a few herds presently in Canada.
“When it comes to our sows, we currently work with two breeds. The more common Yorkshire breed typically produce large litter size, and have good maternal instinct. They generally produce a leaner cut of meat, which is what many customers who are buying pasture raised meat are looking for.
“Our newest sow is an Old Spot pig, and she displays the calm demeanor we want on our farm. This breed excels on pasture, has a strong maternal instinct, and we have found they produce extraordinary ham cuts all while staying fairly compact with a good body weight.”
Staying hardy and content on pasture is what led Hilary Moore and her husband to select the Tamworth as the main breed in their organic farrow-to-finish operation, Maplelane Farm in Lanark, Ont.
Moore says, “Tamworth are long and lean, they are known as the ‘bacon breed’. They do grow more slowly than other breeds, which is why they may be a rare breed. We raise our feeder pigs for 7 months. We find that the Tamworth sows have good sized litters and are excellent mothers. We also raise Berkshire-Tamworth cross pigs, and they are just as happy on pasture, eating fresh green grass and hay in the winter. They grow a bit quicker than the pure Tamworth pigs by about a month. We find that the Berkshire cross pork is a bit fattier in the belly, but the flavour is excellent.”
Living with the elements
“The Mangalitsa breed is one of the only pigs left in the world to sport a woolly coat, which makes them well suited for our Alberta cold winters! With free flow access to pasture or the barn, the pigs are great to self regulate to their own needs.
“Luckily for us, heat stress is not much of an issue. We may get two weeks of above 30 C all summer. We give our Mangalitsas big pastures to roam around in with plenty of shade provided by shelters, hedgerows, and established trees. We always make sure they have a mud hole to cool off in and clean water to drink,” says Stender.
Harvey agrees, “we allow our pigs access to pasture and an indoor barn space. This helps them find the area they find most comfortable with temperature regulation. In the barn we have fans to support air flow, and outdoors there is a large three-sided shelter for shade and protection with adequate laying space. We have a constant fresh flow water system set up as well.”
“The pigs adapt well to pasture for the summer and enjoy the barn in the winter. For humid Ontario summers, our pigs always have somewhere shady to go to get out of the heat. We also have wallows. It is not something that people like to encourage the pigs to make, but we cannot seem to stop ours from making themselves a place to get muddy,” comments Moore.
Growing the final product
Harvey says, “with these breeds we have found we are still able to process at the same time we were with commercial style hogs with little difference in end weight, a quality that customers were looking for.
“Our primary source of feed is hay production. We offer hay to supplement their diets, and as enrichment. To increase our production, we fertilize with each cut and have irrigation set up. On a smaller scale we market multiple types of fresh fruits, vegetables, squash, and corn. There is often a fair amount of unsuitable for market sales or plant material which we will use to supplement their diets.
When we rotate pigs to new pasture we seed the previous area with a forage feed mixture of barley, rye, and field peas and allow it to grow well before returning the pigs to the area.”
“Being a smaller scale outdoor and pasture farm, the right quality and quantity of our feed is essential for the health and growth of our herd. We work directly with a few swine nutritionists and a local feed mill to ensure the very best quality ration.
“We practice rotational grazing using an electric fence. Our goal is to move the fence once a week to a new area and then let the land rest to get some regrowth before sending them in again. Two to three months before the Mangalitsas are to be harvested, they are put on a strict barley diet. We work with a local farmer to source this barley.
“Three years ago, we became a member of LOOP, a program designed to reduce grocery store waste going into our landfills. Being part of LOOP not only helps us with cutting our feed costs, but it feels good knowing that we are saving all this food from the landfills. LOOP also helps relieve the pressure on grazing allowing us to extend time before moving them to the new grazing paddock,” comments Stender.
“We do our best to grow oats and pea straw, cutting it at the milk stage not only for bedding, but for extra feed along with our own hay in the winter. In the summer, we rotate our pigs on pasture. We would love to mix our own grain, growing some of the ingredients ourselves, but would need to invest in more equipment to do so. Currently, we buy in certified organic hog grower.
“Both our new and regular customers declare that our pork is the best they’ve ever tasted. We work to allow consumers to purchase our pork in ways which best suit their needs. We offer whole or half animals along with a wide selection of cuts in stock to purchase by the piece at the farm or from the local farmer’s market.” says Moore.
“The Mangalitsa is often labeled as the ‘kobe’ beef of pork. The meat is very rich, dark, and extremely marbled. Not like our traditional pork, the “other” white meat. Some mistake the Mangalitsa pork for beef! The uniqueness of the meat made it difficult to market in Canada at the beginning as not many people knew how special this breed was.
“Since establishing our farm in 2016, we have worked hard to spread the good word of this unique breed and demand has kept our inventory selling out each season,” remarks Stender.
Harvey highlights, “our main priority is having animals that have a docile nature to allow easier handling and a hardiness for our changing weather conditions on the coast; both results in less stress on the hogs themselves.
“We are thrilled with our growth so far and look forward to expanding our herd to meet higher consumer orders.” BP