I first encountered American Guinea Hogs at a homestead in my town. They were friendly, cute and squat, with long black hair. I was told they consumed very little grain, were easy to handle, and grew slowly - taking about a year to mature to butchering size. They seemed the perfect fit for a small homestead, but without any good leads on breeders selling feeder piglets at a reasonable price within a reasonable distance, I gave up on the idea of being able to raise this breed.
The Guinea Hog is listed as critically rare by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They were once popular in the American southeast, and confirmation of their importation from West Africa dates back to 1804, as recorded by Thomas Jefferson and other Virginia farmers. It's possible they are also related to an English breed, the Essex, which was common in the southeast in the 1800s. They were crossed with other hogs and ceased to exist as a distinct breed by the late 1800s. Pockets of breeding continued, however, and genetically distinct individuals were eventually discovered, beginning the process of breed recovery.
Guinea Hogs are excellent foragers and were reportedly sometimes kept in penned yards around Appalachian homes, where they ate snakes and provided a safe area around the house. They are also traditional lard pigs. They were an important source of fat for cooking, soap making, and all manner of salves and lubrication. Well marbled meat was also regarded as being more flavorful and more conducive to long-term meat storage, in the form of charcuterie. For a chef's take on Guinea Hog meat, check this out. Chef Craig Diehl has a bunch of posts about his experiences with this pork, so look around if you're interested.
We raised Berkshire pork and an industry standard "white pig" (think Wilbur) one year. The more fatty Berkshire pork won hands down in all taste tests. Diners compared it to steak. The meat was deep red, well marbled with fat, full of flavor and succulent. Our woodland-raised white pig was better than store-bought pork, but not that much better, and it was completely inferior to the Berkshire pork. Boston foodie Helen Rennie describes her experience with Berkshire pork, or Kurobuta, here.
I had become frustrated with aspects of raising standard pigs. They grow very fast, reaching butchering size in six- to eight-months, and in this tight time frame they consume a tremendous amount of feed, unless you are able to provide a substantial amount of nutritious pasture - something we could not create - and a constant supply of free food, like milk or whey. We supplemented with fruits, vegetables, seafood (cooked fish racks, crab and lobster remains) and a little bread, but it did little to lessen the feed bill. In addition to being expensive, the big pigs' size made home butchering complicated. Hanging them would require engineering, and scalding seemed out of the question. Finding chiller space to cool carcasses before making cuts was another issue. The worst part of raising standard pigs was always loading and hauling them to the slaughterhouse, a job I found stressful to both the pigs and their caretakers - but it was their meat that would end up on the plate.
Last year I renewed my search for a more sustainable solution for our small (5-acre) homestead and contacted Sullbar Farm in New Hampshire. A few emails and a couple months later I had two male piglets in a large dog carrier in my Saab. Getting the carrier set up in the back seat was the hardest part of the pick-up, although they did give me quite a shock when they started conversing at high volume in the very close backseat as I was negotiating heavy traffic in fog and rain south of Boston.
We set them up in a large pallet pen on woodland suffering from invasion by bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, wild rose, privet, green brier and wild blackberry. It took them from November, when we brought them in, to April to eat all the above ground forage and start a little rooting. They didn't make great rototillers, but being less destructive than standard pigs could be a bonus in some settings.
I liked the longer, leaner conformation of one of the boys and started pondering the idea of getting a mate for him to breed. Sullbar came to the rescue again, offering a female feeder already seven-months old. She was very fat on arrival, but I had been sufficiently warned. This is not their registered breeding stock.
We have a lot of barnyard action on our land, with the dairy goats and poultry, so I planned to move the breeding couple to a friend's place in another town. One afternoon I glanced up the hill and saw a low dark shape move across the yard. My favored boar was out of his paddock and heading in the general direction of the road, and, beyond that, the regional middle school. My mind raced, having had a very complicated pig capture in the past that I will one day get around to recounting here.
I ran outside, grabbed a bucket and some grain and headed up the road, only to find him wandering in my direction. I tempted him with the food, offering the bucket and shaking it around. He had something else on his mind. He rounded the corner of the goat house and moved forward sure-footed like a dude on a mission. As he approached the door to the female's paddock, I skirted around and ahead of him and opened the door. And he went right in.
He was caught and she was on her way to being bred. I didn't have a solid plan at that moment, other than preventing a car accident, but in those few, quick moments, I figured she was almost old enough, certainly old enough if they had been feral pigs, and I'd get them into their new home STAT.
We watched them but didn't see her "stand" for the boar, pig breeder lingo for letting the boar mount. They were moved to their new digs soon after the honeymoon, and it became less likely I would be able to put a breeding date on the calendar. I used a pig gestation calculator to come up with a variety of possible due dates. This week I noticed her teats swelling with milk and began readying for the imminent arrival of piglets. I may have to set up a tent and camp out near the pigs, though that might impinge on my morning goat milking duty...and my parenting of the human kids in my house.
I have been told the first litter can be dicey. A sow can roll onto the piglets and crush them. Having extra heft seems to increase that risk. No farrowing crates here, I will do what I can to minimize loss, but I am planning to let nature take its course and keep the piglets with their sow. If she starts snapping and biting at them, I will remove them if I am there for the birth. In that case she just might become dinner, but I won't hold rollover accidents against her.
The remaining boar will be butchered sometime this fall. He is a year old this week, the most common butchering age for this unusual breed, but I'm waiting for colder weather. I'd fatten him on apples, but we've been doing so all along, thanks to some great produce from a distributor not too far from my town. As it turns out, too much fruit really can be fattening, so we've cut back on the fruit and provided more vegetables and grass.