Autumn traditionally was the time of harvest, and that included hogs. It still is a tradition, especially in a hog-centric area like Missouri, to take the hogs to the butcher in the fall and winter months, and have fresh hams, bacon and sausage for the family celebrations. The loin chops above came from the hogs we brought to the farm in early May. Notice the dark pink of the meat, the marbling in the muscle. This is what raising heritage hogs out on pasture brings to the table. That, and a whole lot of flavor.
These chops were cut to a decadent 2" thickness, perfect for stuffing and grilling and feeding 2 people per chop. The meat, when done, isn't a pallid grayish white like the typical grocery store chop. It is pinkish-red from all the movement and exercise that the hog takes daily and at free will. Different muscles within the chop have different colors. The texture is fine grained, the meat is still juicy, and the fat is sweet.
Our hogs are not industrial widgets. The heritage breed hogs we have on the farm - currently English Large Blacks and Berkshires - were developed years ago with hardiness, foraging ability, fertility and flavor in mind. They love to move about, even run and play, out in the pastures. They grow a little slower than industrial hogs, but they are healthier and more resilient; they know how to utilize the pasture they are raised on, and they naturally will have darker meat that is marbled, juicy and fine flavored.
We take that wonderful hog and raise it out on pasture that has been seeded with legumes, cole crops, turnips, buckwheat and many other tasty plants, each appropriate to the season. The grazing areas are small, and the pigs spend anywhere from 1-6 weeks on a section, depending on the size of the animal and the condition of the grazing area. Then they are moved to the next section. We have six sections that the animals get rotated through, allowing enough time for the pasture to recover and for the parasite cycle to be broken. The hogs get lots of time out in the sunshine (though they prefer a misty day) and fresh air. They are fastidious in their toileting habits, so it is not smelly, and it is a real joy to see them running and playing out on the pasture, exercise that is good for their physical and mental health.
The hogs are also fed some concentrated food, but we have found that, foraging on pasture, the pigs will voluntarily eat less concentrate. The hogs are free fed on this ration (the buffet is open - all you care to eat!) up to 180 pounds, then they are fed 5 pounds per pig per day plus all the forage they care to eat. This slows down the growth a bit, and more fat is deposited in the muscle (marbling) versus on the fat or in the body cavity. We also feed the hogs some fermented feed, which helps them digest the forage more efficiently, and we add crimped oats to the ration to drop the protein percentage. We also fed a truck load of squash and pumpkins and over 100 pounds of acorns that were given to us. All of these things contribute to the quality of the meat.
This allows us to let the hogs stay and graze an extra two months, where they grow to a size of about 285 pounds, providing a better meat to bone ratio with better flavor and marbling. We are convinced that all the extra time, labor and expense is well worth it. We think the animals deserve no less, and that those who choose to eat the meat we provide deserve no less, either.
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.