Case Study for American Heritage Hogs in Puerto Rico

Progress report for FS21-334

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $14,885.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Finca Brutal
Region: Southern
State: Puerto Rico
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information

Abstract:

The goal of this proposal is to assess the practical aspects of raising heritage pigs in a tropical environment, including the cost of production, a breed and management program that will allow small sustainable and regenerative farms in Puerto Rico the ability to raise a quality pork product with a low investment in infrastructure. Essentially leading to the creation of a niche market for sustainably sourced, pasture-raised Puerto Rican pork for chefs, restaurants, and consumers. Additionally, an added goal of this proposal is to follow up on a research proposal and study conducted in 2007, headed by Steve Welker, Principal Researcher with the USDA to propose direct selling opportunities between farmer and lechon (roast suckling pig) restaurants. 

A market survey has been completed by the pork producers cooperating with the University of Puerto Rico which surveyed 30 restaurants. This study has shown that these restaurants commonly need smaller pigs than those imported, would prefer a fresh pig that they do not need to thaw (sic) due to transport logistics from abroad and lack of freezer space in the estimated 400 lechon restaurants on the island. The restaurant owners frequently stated that they are willing to pay more for this product and services. This combination of requirements would lend itself well to a branded product as well as the feasibility of this venture, best practices to operate a farmer-owned processing business, and lastly the palatability of smaller and fresher hogs” (Welker, 2007)

The American Guinea Hog is a true, distinct American heritage breed of domestic farm pig. Genetic testing and lineage suggest it was developed as a landrace breed throughout the southeastern region of the United States more than 200 years ago. Dubbed as the ideal sustainable heritage farm pig, American Guinea Hogs prefer lush pastures with high protein clover, access to minerals, kitchen scraps, and require minimal shelter. Easily suited to a wide variety of environments, these heritage pigs do better than most breeds on low grade forage and are minimal rooters when good grazing and adequate feed is available. Known for its moderate size, excellent foraging abilities, friendly temperament, excellently flavored meat and indispensable lard these smaller breeds complement the lechonera market as it is a good-sized, well-conditioned hog providing a nice, well-marbled carcass and ranging from 150-300 pounds. 

Project Objectives:

Farmers, Chris Ghosio and Celeste Herdeman and their farm Finca Brutal, located in Aguada, will be the test site and data collection for a case study needed to identify best practices for heritage pig farming in the tropics, specifically in Puerto Rico. 

According to a recent study published in Practical Farmers of Iowa, raising pigs on pasture increases the exposure to and intake of forages, which can affect the fatty acid composition of pork (Christy and Arbuckle, 2019). Grass-fed animals have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed animals and human consumption of these fatty acids is known to decrease risks of cancer and autoimmune diseases such as diabetes. Therefore, this research proposal aims to challenge conventional pork production with a sustainable approach to pig farming through a closed-loop system to integrate plant waste such as fruits, vegetables, and spent brewery grains to determine economic factors, benefits, risks and opportunities to supply feed in a small farm operation. 

In addition to documenting type of feed, Finca Brutal will serve as the location for a pilot program to gather data on the following: 

  1. Infrastructure needed to maintain the herd, this includes shelter and fencing methods/alternatives, height and type of fencing material as well as a site analysis of the pasture layout
  2. Observations of daily habits related to their well-being: grazing, breeding, and feeding patterns. 
  3. Assessments of health and disease, as well as outside risks such as predators
  4. Overall documentation on the cost of production, feed costs, land and water use, initial investment as well as market value and variety of pork products produced and offered by heritage breeds
  5. Assessing the palatability of the consumer, an important pastime in Puerto Rico through the Farminar event and pig cook off

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

Intro to Research

The food supply chain for an island is different in many ways and oftentimes presents far more challenges than the continental United States from transportation logistics around shipping to preservation of perishable items such as meat and dairy. Additionally, there is no excuse for an island with a history of feeding its entire population less than a century ago with the same amount of arable land that exists today. Granted, tastes and trends in consumable goods have certainly changed, however, given current events with interrupted supply chains and an ever volatile climate pattern, this study is driven on the curios to see if food grown and produced on the island is sustainable and if there is indeed a market for locally raised pork, a celebrated cultural cuisine and an historic indicator of colonization.

Understanding the parallels between agriculture, economics and policy is more convoluted than simply observing a herd of pigs on the daily. In striving to utilize sustainable best practices within Finca Brutal’s farming operations, observations and research have concluded that a regenerative approach to pig farming with a “closed loop system” approach for feedstocks and rotational grazing have positively impacted this project to investigate the feasibility for cost effective means of pig farming for more farmers on the island. Furthermore, a driver of this research project was to revisit previous research from a study conducted in 2007, headed by Steve Welker, Principal Researcher with the USDA to propose direct selling opportunities between farmers in Puerto Rico with local food products (in this study primarily lechon; roast suckling pig) and consumers. 

Processes & Best Practices

Pigs, like other farm animals simply need two things to survive:

  1. Food (and water)
  2. Shelter (and land)

The breakdown for pig to food and shelter is explained here: To be as cost efficient as possible, rotational grazing with an average of 7-10 days between rotations of paddocks on roughly 22 acres for the course of 18 months provides 70% of feedstocks for the herd in just grazing alone. This can be scalable in a wide variety of ways to meet the herd’s needs and the farmer’s ability to manage the herd. For this example, abandoned land adjacent to the initial seven acres was available for rent and Finca Brutal was able to rent it for a fee to essentially triple their available land for pastures just prior to this study in 2019. As ideally as having 22 acres is for a working farm, the size and shape of land available for pigs relies on the ability of the farmer to institute rotational grazing into the farm’s processes. For example, a smaller herd might require less land, but require a shorter rotation period depending on the amount of native grasses/fruit trees available for the pigs, access to water, and available shade. Regenerative farming is best done by starting small and scaling up to the land that is available for grazing and animal rearing to avoid unwanted deaths of animals and the inability to manage the herd.

To ensure the safety and health of the herd, rotational grazing, and land stewardship, non-invasive enclosures like temporary fencing are detrimental to the management of the herd. All herds are unique as are individual animals themselves and the observations conducted here have found that when applying the “eScape” method, animals who are scared, starved, or in the path of a strong storm, essential, yet temporary, electric fencing will not keep animals confined. This temporary electric fencing allows for a pain barrier to exist, which pigs will learn very quickly (see “Pig Behavior”) but not a physical barrier and observing the herd’s behavior will help to distinguish the size, shape, type, and height of the temporary fencing. There are several types of electric fencing available, the temporary electric netting option from Premier 1 Supplies*, more specifically the Piglet Net Plus 11/30/3 available at a feedstore or online has been the most durable and operational for this research. Electrifying the fence is critical for both the herd to stay together and to keep out potential threats. When run on solar chargers, especially in rural areas with access to intermittent electricity and occasional outages, the electricity to the fence is guaranteed with its own power source.

Shelters come in a variety of sizes and shapes and oftentimes can be as simple as shade trees such as mango, guava, or avocado which double as a food source. Pig shelters in the form of zinc metal attached to a semi-circle metal frame exist as well, but to promote regenerative practices, the foodstuff shelters have worked the best. More than 90 different varieties of bananas (including plantains) grow on the island of Puerto Rico and with a relatively quick growth cycle as well as a hardy plant structure bananas are a great source of shade and food for pigs (they eat and prefer the fruit but will also eat the leaves and stalk when fed to them). When local feedstocks can be grown onsite, the farmer only has to rely on his own land to feed the pigs and rarely has to venture for outside inputs. This also gives the farmer peace of mind knowing where the feedstocks come from and how they were maintained in terms of pesticides or other chemicals, which eventually could end up in the pork meat products.

Water is essential for every animal and pigs are no different. Ideally, land provided with a water feature (stream, river, lake) makes watering pigs easier for drinking as well as “bathing” (see “Pig Behavior” for more best practices). Access to water is important not only for drinking but also for the creation of mudholes which pigs will roll in and coat their skin to keep them cool during summer months. Either trucked in or as a natural feature, water is essential for the herd and research found that on average depending on the time of year, one pig needs at least two-three liters of water each day.

Pig Behavior

Pigs are often deemed as the smelly, fat, and dumb farm animal, but contrary to popular thought, pigs are actually the fifth smartest animal in the world. Sows (mother pigs) often have a name in the form of a unique sound for each of their piglets and the piglets will know their names after just two weeks of life. Although rooting for food is a characteristic of the pig, they are also predisposed to scheduled feedings in exact spots within their paddocks.

Much of the “smelly” part of pig farming has to do with their fecal matter and its content. As a true omnivore, pigs eat both plants and meat products so although their fecal matter is low in nitrogen it is considered a “hot” manure and needs to be mixed in if used in compost for direct application. The next round of research will hopefully include tests involving fecal matter in terms of worm content and the disparity between breeds. In the meantime, we are observing any irregularities of fecal matter that may exist outside the common characteristics.

Pigs also have a great sense of place and have a tendency to create designated areas for eating, sleeping, and refuse. So contrary to popular thought that pigs are just rolling around in their own poop, they are actually keeping themselves cool by rolling around in mud since they are not able to sweat and acts as a skin protectant barrier against the sun and potential pests. This type of behavior is inherent and passed down from generation to generation. Mud to a pig is like a super moisturizing SPF 50 bug repellant to a human in a tropical climate: beyond essential to their survival. Furthermore, the domestication of pigs has caused their skin to change from dark black and brown to pink because of the loss of melanin that occurs with wild hogs. The American Heritage breed gets its name as it was a popular breed during the early formation of the country during the Civil War.

 

Still Learning…

In conclusion, here is a comprehensive list of observations from a non-farmer researcher around pig farming regarding practical applications in the tropics, in case you need another take:

  1. For humans to interfere last, allows for natural processes to run its course. For example, traditional methods of docking piglet tails and cutting eye teeth are deemed unnecessary as the American Heritage hog breed is more docile than other breeds and with consistent rotational grazing which provides ongoing access to food, increased stress, tension, and fighting among pigs is non-existent. Honestly, piglet tails are cute.

 

  1. Rotational grazing makes for happy pigs. Seriously. The first time you move your animals from one paddock to another will take a small amount of training on both parties. Save some feed or toss a few bananas into the new fenced area to get your pigs to move to the new pasture. Since it is an unfamiliar area, they might be reluctant at first, but just like any good pig they are food-driven and will realize that a new restaurant just opened with the shifting of a fence and will learn this “moving day” behavior and even teach it to new piglets).

 

  1. Pig behavior is unique in that they are the only farm animal that has an excellent sense of smell despite some people’s aversion to the very animal itself, wrongly accused as the “smelly” farm animal but really if we all could lounge in the mud all day and have a farmer bring us mangoes and bananas, wouldn’t the world be a better place? For lack of a better description, the fecal matter on a farm is the glue that holds it all together and a constant schedule of rotational grazing by all farm animals, not just pigs allow for varying levels of nitrogen-rich manure to fertilize the land. Pig manure is also the mildest omnivore manure in terms of nitrogen content and yet, also consists of a higher pH level allowing acidic soils to become more neutral. Most of the soil in Puerto Rico is acidic so basically pig manure is the superfood to the health of our island’s dirt and ultimately the condition of the soil for farmers to determine what to grow and how to grow it.

 

 

  1. Although the tropics are humid and rain showers can pop up at any time there is no substitute for fresh, clean drinking water. You will learn how best to maintain your herd’s access to water whether through field waterers (purchased through feedstores or online) or natural water features (ponds, streams, etc.) however, water for drinking is also water for bathing in a pig’s world and you will quickly realize that mud is essential for the overall pig’s social and physical health. Nothing is more satisfying to a nursing sow than a day at the spa. Rubber boots are also essential for the farmer, but that doesn’t make you exempt from the mud.

 

  1. Electric fencing is just that. Electric. And there are really only two ways to test whether your fence is “hot,” checking to see if switch is turned to “on” or coming in contact with the fence. The later is not advised and having a means to communicate with other farmers over the noises of farm animals is highly suggested.

*Premier 1 Supplies is also a great resource for Management Intensive Grazing (MiG) and rotational grazing practices.

 

Research results and discussion:

Finca Brutal began its initial porcine journey in late 2019 with the purchase of four American Heritage hogs that shipped to the island farm from Florida following strict USDA animal health and wellness regulations. Since 2019, (and before the approval of the SARE Grant), the herd has grown by 20 hogs, with the second and tertiary generations grown to full adult. Currently, the farm as 21 hogs, as three were processed for meat consumption.

What the herd is

The herd of pigs is very healthy by porcine standards. There has not been a natural death due to illness of the first, second, or tertiary generations since the initial first four pigs shipped to the island three years ago. The herd is on a meticulously concise rotational grazing schedule and is moved from a 100 square yards paddock to paddock every seven to ten days. The herd roots for food and eats native and non-native grasses as well as local fruits that fall from shade trees planted throughout the pasture. Fruit from a local fruit stand, spent beer grains from a local brewery and surplus poultry eggs from the farm’s ducks and chickens as well as a non-GMO grain all supplement the pig’s balanced diet.

Young adult male pigs (6-8 months old) are castrated. Female and male pigs are separated after the females give birth and again when the piglets grow to six months old. Piglets are treated once for worms.

What the herd is not

The pigs are not solely situated on a concrete slab contrary to conventional systems and are not fed a primarily and constantly available mono-grain diet. The pigs do not rely heavily on outside inputs such as grain, corn, or soy for their feedstocks. The herd itself is not medicated for preventative illness using antibiotics.

The piglet’s tails are not docked, and eye teeth are not extracted. Piglets are not given deworming antibiotics as a preventative measure. Piglets are not separated from their mothers and sows are not kept in cages but are free to roam within the temporary fenced in paddock.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Tours

Participation Summary:

3 Farmers
6 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The following is a list of objectives and performance targets including explanations of each in order to provide outreach and education to future producers, pork purveyors, college students studying agronomy and husbandry, as well as the general public interested in organic and sustainable pork products.

Objectives/Performance Targets:

  1. Site analysis and documentation of pig pasture and structures, additional construction of electric fencing, shelter design, and assess any risks or threats to be used by future pork farmers
  2. Website and social media Provide hands-on educational opportunities in the form of a paid internship for UPR-Mayaguez veterinarian graduate student(s) interested in effective methodologies to promote porcine health and wellness. 
  3. Develop educational materials (pamphlets, articles, informational website) for small farms and farmers regarding best practices for heritage pig management for use at the University of Puerto Rico - Mayaguez livestock extension office as well as the Department of Agriculture. 
  4. Produce and disseminate Pork Carcass Percentage Datasheets on the American Guinea Hog. Strengthen partnership with abattoir in Lares, Puerto Rico to process the pork and work to review meat and lard quality compared to traditional pigs.
  5. Conduct a SWOT analysis on in-house pork processing and production to determine costs, outside barriers, regulations, and possible alternatives/modes
  6. Define economic models (value chains) and demonstrate the development of a niche market in the tropics for heritage pork products.
  7. Contribute research and best practices to build a local and regional food system on island-raised pork. 
  8. Develop Strategic Plans for the Pork Producers. Both a short range 1 year plan long range 5 year plan.
  9.  Annual “Farminar” and pig roast to gauge interest and create community camaraderie between University personnel, Extension Office agents, pig producers, lechonera restaurant owners, and public consumers
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.