Are all pigs pink? Why diverse livestock breeds matter for our future.
September 12, 2023
If I asked you to visualize a pig, what would pop into your mind?
I’m guessing that for a majority of you, “pink” was one of the first associations you came up with. You might also imagine that they have snouts and happily root into the ground. You may think about their cute, curly tails that wag. You imagine the “oink” sound happy snorts.
But this happy pink pig doesn’t fit well with the industrial standards.
The typical pink breed has been selected to breed out rooting - the work a pig does with their nose.Why? Because industrial pigs spend their days on concrete, inside barns, without ever seeing the light of the sun. And those cute curly tails? They’re usually docked, or removed - because industrial pigs, in their boredom and frustration, often bite them off of each other.
Industrial farming has done all it can to root out the pig’s natural desires, and I think it’s a good representation of the problem in livestock diversity that we see facing agriculture today.
What is livestock diversity?
Livestock diversity refers to the various breeds of farm animals that currently exist. Much like wildlife, many livestock breeds are endangered, threatened, or nearly extinct.
Why? Because diverse breeds don’t fit well into an industrial model. It’s another consequence of the loss of small family farms. As small producers leave the system, so do the number of “heritage breeds”, the term for traditional livestock breeds that have been raised for centuries. You can think of them as the non-GMO version of livestock.
Why is the lack of diversity a problem? First, we’re not breeding for the smartest or strongest animals, or even animals that make good mothers and have natural tendencies. We’re breeding for characteristics that fit within an industrial model - a dumbing down of natural desires and tendencies, a greater tolerance for being enclosed and inactive, and a carcass that grows more quickly.
None of these, as you might imagine, lead to better health, better animal welfare, or better adaptation to changes in weather. Nor do they encourage animals to forage instead of relying on feed. They justify the industrial model, and make it essential to our mode of producing food.
Why diversity matters
When customers visit our farm, I think they’re most surprised by our pigs. I hear it in the gasps or exclamations. They’ve never seen pigs that are active or happy. They’ve never seen pigs with skin that’s deep red, nearly purple. And they’ve never seen pigs that can do the work our hogs do on the farm - clearing our invasives from the forest, as they naturally tend to do.
Significantly, they’ve never had access to pigs that are docile. We often think of pigs as animals that eat anything. In an industrial model, this becomes part of the risk: bored, hungry pigs develop more aggression and are more likely to attack humans. But access to the outdoors and a reliance on natural breeding practices results in pigs that are calm, happy, and gentle - even with our kids.
Beyond these characteristics, however, our breed - the Red Wattle pig - offers a way of farming that is less reliant on industrial agriculture.
Red Wattles are able to access essential minerals as they graze, because they’re excellent foragers. This means that they do not need commercial feed in the same way that industrial hogs do. It’s very much supplemental - an option they can choose to take if they find the area they’re in lacking.
In CAFO operations, where animals are dependent on feed, farming is about control. By putting animals in enclosed environments and only providing them with feed, it’s easier to provide less labor, a lower-cost product, and food without variation.
However, such an approach misses how animals interact with the environment around them. By creating a supplemental feed system, hogs get the nutrition they need while creating a greater ecological impact.
Supplemental feed is beneficial for many reasons. It helps hogs grow at a reasonable rate, so that farmers can offer the best possible price. It helps farmers keep pork accessible year-round, especially in late fall, winter, or times of drought when forage can be more scarce.
And it helps farmers manage pastures and forests responsibly - by making sure pigs have access to enough forage, but not too much to damage the vegetation. This also preserves forage for wildlife, so that they can co-exist alongside our livestock.
Moreover, as pigs spread their manure and deposit minerals back into the land, they make a more nutrient-dense, mineral-rich environment for the life coming after them. This includes future pigs, but also bacteria, fungi, small wildlife, and plants in the forest.
In other words, livestock diversity offers a long-term model of health and sustainability. Choosing animal breeds that are outside the industrial system not only produces better meat, but it also contributes to land that’s more resilient and beneficial for everyone.
It’s not always possible for every animal on the farm - a conversation for another time - but it’s important work for farmers to do where they can.
Want to learn more about livestock diversity - and all the various breeds that small farmers are working to save? Check out our recommendations for learning more below.
Inspired by this conversation? We’d love to hear from you. We hope that what we’re doing on our small farm matters to you!
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Food for Thought (further readings)
Can you imagine nine million Americans being born from just two sperm donors? That’s the case for the conventional dairy system. This article delves into why this has happened - and what we’re losing in this process.
This is one of my recent favorites - Joe gave it to me as a Christmas present.
It explores the journey of Knepp Farm from a conventional farm to one of the most prominent “rewilding” experiments in the world. Isabella Tree explains how they’re building up the population of wildlife as well as heritage breeds, and the amazing results that happen.
Although she lives on a farm, Tree is also a journalist by trade - so this is extremely well-written and readable.