Raising, caring for, and thinking about future 4-H market swine projects is a task that requires a great deal of forward thinking and dedication. Arguably, the most famous swine in our collective pop-culture memory is Porky Pig. Equally famous as the character himself is his sign-off, “That’s All Folks!” As any swine producer will tell you though, when it comes to swine projects, very rarely is it a situation of “that’s all folks.” As much work as raising 4-H market swine projects can be, with careful planning and preparation, many oftentimes find the intrinsic rewards well worth the effort.
There are realities that 4-H members must take into consideration when making plans to raise a 4-H market hog. Some of these considerations are obvious. Some are less so. Examples of considerations 4-H members must make include:
- Housing – having adequate housing for 4-H market swine is essential. Considerations could include whether the animal is housed inside a permanent structure like an enclosed barn or an outdoor lean-to. Additional considerations include the housing size of the lot, flooring substrate, is there enrichment (such as a place to root or an area to wallow), can the pig express its natural behavior. During cooler times (such as late winter/early spring), housing should be dry and warm. During warmer times (such as late spring/summer), housing should provide pigs a cool environment to escape the heat. Providing pigs proper housing not only makes for them more comfortable, it can also help prevent health problems.
- Fences – if the plan is to provide the pigs an opportunity to venture outside, be aware that these animals are naturally very curious (sometimes even destructive) and have evolved with a powerful snout that is capable of digging relatively deep. This natural digging motion with the snout directed at fences, the ground, or other parts of the environment is called rooting. Given the opportunity, pigs will explore all corners of their enclosure. An enclosure should have fences that are secure and allow not only for 4-H members to gain access inside the pen but also contain the pigs within. Be aware that pigs will try to dig underneath a door/gate that permits humans access inside the pen. Pigs will naturally root inside (and if permitted underneath) their enclosure. A stable, wire-mesh panel fencing material is a secure medium for fencing. If using fences, supports should be placed every 4 – 6 feet and, as pigs are explorers, be sure to check bottom two feet of the fence frequently.
- How Many Pigs? – pigs are social creatures and do better with at least one other member of their species. Pigs form their social unit at a relatively young age. For 4-H market swine purposes, it is inadvisable to introduce a new pig to an existing herd. Pigs form close bonds to the other members of their herd and integrating a new pig into the herd is a task that requires patience and diligence. Natural pig instinct is to establish dominance, and in establishing dominance, pigs will fight each other. Although not impossible to introduce new members to the herd, given the amount of work that can go into such a task, the most prudent solution when selecting pigs for a 4-H market project is to invest in at least a pair, if not even three, pigs to establish a small herd. This also provides 4-H members with “back up” projects should their primary project encounter problems.
- Bedding – providing adequate bedding is an important component to any successful 4-H swine project. Both the comfort and health of the animal is increased with proper bedding. Bedding options can include saw dust, straw, and even rubber mats (though they are softer to lie on than concrete, these will very likely be destroyed by the pig). Bedding should always be clean – that is, avoid dusty bedding as this could lead to respiratory issues for your animal. Additionally, make sure that enough bedding is used so as to keep the surface below the bedding dry. If pigs have enough bedding, they will generally appear clean. Dirty pigs may suggest that more bedding may be needed (but, if it is hot out, it is very natural for a pig to wallow to cool off. The mud way also serve as a sort of “sunscreen”). Thermal-regulation is important to the health and well-being of pigs, and providing adequate bedding helps ensure they stay warm in cooler seasons as well as cool in warmer ones.
- Feed – as with any biological organism, pigs need food to grow. The specific type of feed for pigs is a whole other blog entry unto itself (What is fed? How is it delivered? How often is it fed?), but for the purposes of this entry, let us only go so far as to state that a pig needs to consume 4 lbs. – 5 lbs. of feed for every 1 lb. of gain. To ensure a gain of 1.5 lbs. per day, pigs will need to eat a daily minimum of 6 lbs. – 7 lbs. of feed. Feed should be stored out of the elements in a dry location where rodents cannot access it. A metal garbage can with a tight fitting lid might be a great choice. Plastic is not advisable because mice, squirrels, raccoons, and other wild animals can chew through it to access food.
- H20 – perhaps the single most important consideration for pigs, or really any animal for that matter, is making sure they have access to clean, fresh water. Water is essential to life, and your pigs will need access to clean water. As intelligent as pigs are, when you bring your pigs home for the first time, go that extra step to make sure they know where the water is – be it water trough or nipple water system. Make sure they know how to use the watering system, especially if a nipple waterer is a brand new experience for pigs. If they have never seen one before, demonstrate how the water comes out by pressing on the small lever. Make sure you see the pigs successful use of it before walking away. Also, check the height of your waterers – they will have to be adjusted as the pigs grow taller.
If not obvious before, it is clear that Porky Pig didn’t know what he was saying when he told us “That’s all folks!” Although raising 4-H market swine projects is not necessarily easy, it is rewarding. Young people learn life skills including time management, responsibility, and gain firsthand experience in financial management when raising market swine projects. Many 4-H members who raise pigs for one fair season often find themselves taking the lessons learned and applying them to the next, implementing improvements for the next year’s project and always striving to “make the best better.”
By Matthew Newman, Monmouth County 4-H Agent, Rutgers Cooperative Extension