Pigs have been part of our farming operation at one level or another for quite a few years. After graduating from college, Roy spent a few winters finishing pigs in the old bank barn on the Village acres farm to supplement his winter income. And we partnered with Village Acres over the early years on our own place to provide custom raised pork for our growing customer base. But our real entry into the pig business came in 2009 when we made the decision to purchase four registered Berkshire gilts from Ed Brummer and begin our own swine breeding program to supply our growing market for pasture based pork.
We settled on Berkshires as our breed of choice for a host of reasons. Although not "hyped" as a heritage pig breed, Berkshires are one of the oldest recorded pig breeds. They have been recognized for exceptional meat quality since the days of Oliver Cromwell, and have backed up that reputation over the past century both here, the UK, and Japan with a relentless focus on measuring meat quality attributes within the registered population.
We knew from our years of experience raising feeder pigs for retail market that most conventional pigs need to be raised to over three hundred pounds before they have enough fat to keep from drying out when cooked. Raising conventional pigs primarily selected for growth rate and lean meat yield to a size where they have adequate amounts of taste fat is not an efficient use of time or feed resources. Three hundred pound pigs could also overwhelm some of our customers; it's a lot of pork to deal with for whole-hog customers, and portion-size conscious retail customers prefer chops that don't overwhelm their dinner plate.
The other advantage to Berks is that they are supported both by a very mature and efficient breed association, as well as a robust population of inter-generational family owned breeding programs at both the state and national levels. Better yet, some of the very best Berk breeders are all within an hour or so of our farm right here in South Central PA. People like Ed Brummer, who have been raising purebred Berks in small-scale production systems over multiple generations. The kind of human intelligence infrastructure built around the Berk breed contrasted significantly with what we found built up around the "faddy" world of the "true" heritage breeds -- which was mostly a huge amount of unsupported enthusiasm around the assumed production advantages of swine "selected" for meat quality and productivity in outdoor growing conditions. While the same catch phrases and buzz words were repeated with remarkable consistency across all the breeds we looked at, few of the breeders that we could find had been breeding hogs for more than a decade, and we found little to no direct evidence at either the breeder, or breed association level to indicate that any effort had ever been made to demonstrate or systematically quantify these presumed advantages within the breed to aid in genetic improvement around core breed values. Nevertheless, the prices people asked for purebred breeding stock of the "heritage" was astronomical compared to "conventional" hogs. It clearly wasn't a market we could afford to play in, though we're thankful there are those who care enough to keep these strains of hogs around.
At the other end of the spectrum, most of the other popular breeds have been so completely hyper-selected for lean meat yield, and other CAFO style production econometrics, and are so dominated by vertically integrated corporate ag business interests that it's hard to find a registered breeder -- even the remaining small family units -- not totally dependent on the kinds of technological investments like farrowing crates and climate controlled farrowing barns deemed necessary to showcase the "production efficiency" of their genetic lines.
So in the end, while we acknowledge there are very likely useful hog genetics that would work well on our farm in any breed -- heritage or conventional -- the Berks just felt like the best fit all around; both because we really liked the pigs. . . but probably even more importantly, we really liked the people who raised them and the organization that backed them.
By using sows from Ed's breeding program which is unerringly focused on time tested Berk lines selected primarily for meat quality traits of tenderness and juiciness we knew we'd be able to produce a high quality meat product under our low-input and pasture based growing/finishing system. Ed's pigs show a pedigrees rich in traditional Berk bloodlines often tracing back to renowned Berk meat quality sires greats imported from old English lines like Peter Lad and Abraham Lincoln or their American offspring popping up here and there amidst generations of Ed's own "in-house" matings from retained sons and daughters of purchased boars.
Studying the pedigrees on Ed's pigs is like a walk through the history of the Berkshire breed's fixation on meat quality attributes, with almost no reflection of any of the popular names showing up in modern Berk lines. Since Ed has so consistently also selected for calm, productive momma pigs in a combination of pasture and low-cost old style barn farrowing pens, we also felt that his sows were likely to help us ease into the learning curve we'd face in raising our own pigs "from scratch."
After several years of production from our original sows and boar from Ed, we purchased another boar from him sired by a Conover bred boar, AJC1 Lion Cub 11-1 and out of the same Brummer sow line that had worked best from us in our initial foundation lines. We kept several daughters out of the cross of this boar on our best two foundation sows to continue to fix the consistency and quality of our foundation sow lines. Though we have added additional bloodlines to our herd since then, we continue to keep our core group of foundation sows line-bred back to the genetic foundation we started with from Ed's herd.
Our first experiment with some more modern Berk lines came in the form of a boar we purchased from Jim Parlett Jr. down in York County; another nationally recognized PA Berk breeder. Since at this point, all of our cash flow from our swine breeding efforts came in the form of meat sold in packages, we were interested in trying to pack as much high quality pork onto our 225 lb carcasses as possible; and -- even more importantly -- try to get them to market weight in as little time as possible. We decided to see if we could gain some added production efficiency by using some more conventional Berk genetics on our young and unproven sows for a year or two, then after they had proven themselves maternally, retain the best ones for our continued meat-quality focused line-breeding program and sell the rest. After talking to a number of breeders with boars available, we decided to drive down and look at Parlett's boar. This boar (JTP1 Gusto 15-3, reg # 110593003) featured three top-knotch Berk boarks, A3C9 Gusto 9-1, IASU Contender 47-3, and COR9 Russell 9-2 on the sire line of his three generation pedigree; over some really good sows out of Parlett's Gold Miss sow line which are about as typey and productive as they make a Berk sow. As a six and half month boar, he was already a strapping fellow well over 200lbs, and in the month between the time we looked at him and the time we picked him up, it looked like he'd gained another 100#.
While we selected our "Gusto" boar primarily as a "terminal" sire to add additional growth and meat yield while continuing the strong meat quality base in our animals, the first retained daughter out of our favorite Brummer sow line proved to be such a good sow that we decided to try some line breeding back to the Parlett line to fix some of that boar's traits in our herd to use as an "in-house"outcross on our Brummer line pigs. We are now into our third generation of very tightly line bred individuals with the Parlett boar or his sons on the sire line, and retained two intact boars from this "Triple Gusto" mating to use as future sires for our spring farrowing. . We appreciate the Gusto line pigs for their ability to do just about everything that we've asked of them, if not a little bit more. They finish extremely quickly, provide long, well muscled carcasses, are very sound, and retain exceptional eating quality. The lack of genetic problems and expression of in-breeding depression even under the intense line-breeding we've put this line through affirms the genetic value that this line offers to serious Berk breeders interested not just in generating very good growth, reproduction, and meat quality traits in their pigs; but doing so with prepotent individuals intensively selected through multiple generations of increasing genetic homogeneity for those desirable traits.
We have also tried some bloodlines from Lynn Lazarus' breeding program in Germanville, PA that we purchased from a friend who had to liquidate his herd unexpectedly due to some family health issues. These pigs showed influence from popular Berk sires Major Girth, Different Strokes, and First Class. While we didn't retain a lot of daughters from any of the sows from these blood lines, we did retain one daughter out of the boar crossed on our favorite original Gusto daughter (Gracie 5-1) largely because she was probably one of the typiest Berk sows I've ever seen. She raised eight really beautiful pigs her first litter out of our double bred Gusto son (her full brother) so we kept the two nicest daughters out of her next litter of nine, bred the same way. Those two daughters are bred to our new herd boar to farrow this summer and will be used to add some additional outcross genetics into our "growth and volume" line of sows.
Most recently, we purchased a boar from Greg and Beth Innerst, also from York County. We have long admired Greg and Beth's breeding program -- largely through researching the pedigrees on their swine listed in the Berk Sire directory every year -- as well as the large numbers of their boars sprinkled back through Ed's pig's pedigrees. Their program seems to reflect the same kind of consistent commitment to continuing the heritage of pork excellence the Berkshire breed has spent the last few centuries establishing; while continuing to ensure a balanced, multi-trait selection process for other valueable production traits as well. It is the constant blending of the old and the new offered through Berkshire bloodlines -- along with the periodic creation of a few extremely close-bred individuals -- we see in many of the GBI pedigrees that has informed our own approach as relatively new Berk breeders trying to pay our way through the sale of retail pork.
We are very excited about the young boar we bought from them to produce our spring 2016 pig crop from. He is a WPF3 Whip 99-2 son out of a Fast Lane daughter. He is a sound, docile, extremely virile young boar that should produce a lot of high quality meat and exceptional sows too. We used him on our full sow line for this year's spring pigs, and will use him on our growth and yield sows for our fall pigs as well. We plan to either AI our Brummer line sows or purchase a boar from Ed to keep those good old type Berks coming into the pipeline as well. While we have no aspirations of breeding for the show ring, we have found a ready customer base for those early litters among people looking for project pigs. We found our Gusto bred piggies seem to fit the bill for that market. . .and expect this new boar will as well. This allows us to cover our entire sow herd with one boar over the winter to produce highly productive feeder pigs in late winter/early spring to either sell as project pigs or finish on pasture for our customers. Then we do a much more targeted breeding to replenish both our foundation sow lines with young gilts out of our best mommas to grow through the winter to either sell as open or bred gilts in the spring; or retain as future contributors to our own breeding program depending on how they do during their first farrowing.
While the profit margin of our pig enterprise will continue to be driven in coming years largely from producing and marking high quality pork from a low-input, pasture based production system directly to discerning consumers; we are increasingly confident that the genetics in our herd represent a good investment for other breeders interested in carefully developed Berk bloodlines designed to contribute to the genetic value of their breeding programs as well. So whether you're looking to fill your freezer with quality Berkshire meat, or fill your barn with high quality Berk genetics, give us a call. We'd love to do business with you.