Pasture-fed pigs have the right stuff
Demand for pasture-fed pigs prompted farmer Craig Hagaman to try his hand in the business. Hagaman now raises purebred Berkshires, as well as poultry, in the countryside near Berryville, Va. He doesn’t farrow the hogs out, but purchases them from a couple in Berkley County, W.Va. He may farrow them in the future, however, once he builds the infrastructure.
• Purebred, pasture-fed Berkshires are popular among meat customers.
• Virginia operation started small, but the market now extends to several towns.
• That market now consists of farmers markets and high-end restaurants.
He says the Berkshire meat has suited pork enthusiasts for years. “A lot of these heritage breeds were popular before the war [World War II],” Hagaman says, “but after the war they went to a leaner hog, the ‘other white meat.’ They cut back on the amount of fat. The Berkshires have a marbling in their meat kind of like beef does. It has a really good flavor.”
In fact, he has conducted taste tests with customers by comparing other types of pork chops with the Berkshire. “We don’t tell them beforehand,” he says. “They always say that the Berkshires are best.”
Pigs with a purpose
After reading some books on the food industry about three years ago, Hagaman’s interest was piqued. He didn’t start farming right away, however. He finally decided to purchase five pigs, a few meat chickens, 100 egg-layers and several head of Scottish Highland cattle.
In the beginning, he estimates that he invested about $1,000 in his hog operation, not including the price of his pigs.
He remembers paying about $50 a head for his first pig. He now pays a premium price of about $70 a head for his purebred Berkshires.
Today Hagaman mostly raises his pigs in open pasture or small paddocks, where they graze on grass. They are near old fence lines, where they receive necessary shade in the summertime. In the wintertime, he provides small huts for them.
“It’s not a big investment, doing it that way,” Hagaman says. “If I was a big operation, I’d have to put a house up, ventilation, watering system and manure removal. That’s a lot more trouble. I guess I probably save about 20% in feed just by letting them eat the grass,” he says.
Hagaman estimates 21 pigs, weighing about 100 pounds each, eat about 150 pounds of feed a day. He purchases feed grain for the hogs and chickens from Sunrise Farms in Stuarts Draft, Va.
Customers are curious about their food these days. They even question Hagaman about what sort of feed he uses.
“They’re getting pretty educated,” he says. “There are some people who don’t care; all they want is cheap food. But the ones who really know the difference in the flavor do care.”
A movable feast
Hagaman feeds his pigs a ton of grain before he moves them to a new paddock. Usually, that takes two weeks. Of course, the larger the pigs, the more grain it takes, and the more often he needs to move them because they start to root more.
He also feeds his pigs hay, a mixture of orchardgrass and alfalfa. Hagaman says the pigs like the hay a little on the moldy side, especially if rain has fallen on it. For about 21 pigs, he dumps three rolls in the paddock, which he estimates will last about a month.
Hagaman and his girlfriend, Karen Albrecht, move the pigs to different paddocks after they eat most of the grass or stomp it down in mud after rains. The fenced paddocks vary in size, and the fence is about 2 feet tall. Where he has 21 pigs now, the paddock is 60 feet by 100 feet. He plans to install an electric wire fence about 18 inches high. Each lot is about a quarter of an acre.
The couple enjoys raising pigs. Hagaman says, “They’re comical. They all have got personalities. It’s fun to watch them.”
Sometimes, the couple gets into the pens, interacts and plays with the pigs. Hagaman says the pigs are docile animals after they realize you are the person supplying them with the food. He predicts it takes about a month and a half before they start trusting him.
Albrecht, a city girl from St. Petersburg, Fla., says she loves working with the animals because she is a nature lover. She feeds and water the animals and collects eggs. She also assists with building fences and loading the animals for the market or the slaughterhouse.
Because the pigs are in open pasture with a small fence surrounding it, Hagaman says he doesn’t have to worry about predator attacks. Also, because the pigs are in pasture rather than in tight spaces, he has very few animal losses. They rarely become sick.
Hagaman works hard to keep the stress of the pigs low and he treats them humanely, because “a stressed animal can get ill easier,” he says. Also, he notes, a stressed pig doesn’t gain as much weight.
Hagaman says the egg production draws customers in and helps sell other products. Once the customers come in, they usually buy chicken meat and pork.
Filling a need
The market for Hagaman’s pork is growing. He now sells pork to restaurants from Washington, D.C., to Leesburg, Purcellville, and Great Falls, Va. With the widening breadth of his markets, Hagaman now raises about 50 to 60 hogs, about 800 egg-layers and about 1,500 broiler chickens, which he processes himself. He hopes to increase his hog production to 100 head this year because he sees potential growth for his pork products. He believes the pork will become the “mainstay of the farm.”
Womack writes from Danville, Va.
This article published in the August, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.