Thursday, 18 October 2012

Pork day and thoughts on pig-keeping

Before I tell you anything else, a pleasant surprise this morning. I tentatively opened up the chicken house expecting to find a cold runt guineafowl but, instead, there stood a bright eyed and bushy-tailed keet, fed and warmed up and ready for action. It quickly joined the others and got on with life as if nothing had happened.

Thursday 18th October 2012

Onto today's main business, which was picking up the pigs from the butchers.

I popped in on Monday morning and left my cutting instructions. I still don't understand all the possibilities, but am beginning to learn what my choices are. Every time a visit I ask a few more dumb questions. I don't always really understand the answers!

The last pigs to go off, the two boars, I had cut into small chops and small joints, suitable for two people. However, apart from the sausages I've got quite a lot of those pigs left. The trouble is that it takes a lot of customers buying small joints to get rid of a pig.

So this time I decided to aim for larger joints, plus more sausages, which always sell out within days.
These, then, were the instructions I gave to my butcher:

Pig 1 was basically to be cut into portions suitable for a large family. The loin was to be cut into pork chops and the trotters were to be kept (though I'm not sure if they remembered this last instruction. I couldn't see them in the box, though they could have been hiding at the bottom.) This pig was pre-sold.

Pig 2 was to be cut into 4-person joints or larger. I decided to leave the chops fixed together to produce loin joints.

Pig 3 was to be used for increasing the amount of sausages, so I asked for the belly and the shoulder to be made into sausages, leaving leg joints and pork chops.

When I picked up the pork I was very pleasantly surprised. Firstly, the dead weight of the piglets was perfect, all three between 51 and 53 kg. The fat layer was absolutely perfect too. This is down to the experience I gained from previous pigs, judging how plump they looked. It is surprisingly easy to control. Just cutting or increasing the amount of feed by a fraction results in noticeable changes to the pigs' plumpness within a few days.

I was most pleased with the loin joints. They look absolutely delicious, a classic on-the-bone joint. At the end of the day, they can easily be sliced to make pork chops if all else fails.
The chops too, being from slightly larger pigs, are good slabs of meat.
The leg joints are a very lean meat surrounded by a thinnish layer of fat. These joints are ideal for today's fussier consumer. My favourite cut, though, is the shoulder. Slow roasted and kept moist by the layer of fat which gradually melts into it, there is nothing more succulent. The crunchy, salty, meaty crackling is just the icing on top of the cake

We ended up with 12 packs of sausages from each of the first two pigs and 40 packs from Pig 3. The sausages from our new butcher are truly delicious. It's tempting not to sell any of them!

There is also a lot of liver - pigs have very big livers. Sue is going to have a go at liver pate. Kidneys and heart too. These will go into the freezer, along with those from the last pigs, until I find time to seek out a good recipe for them. I'm not one of those who will eat every part of the pig, but I do think it is wrong to only eat very selective cuts. I may, in the future, experiment and ask my butcher to save this bit or that for us to try, but for the moment anything unused goes into sausages anyway and they are delicious.

One part of the pig which we do get back is the lungs. This comes as a large bag of squishy, red, spongy stuff. It really isn't very appealing and I've not found a good use for it on the internet. Most people recommend it for the dog or there are a few Chinese recipes around which use it.
Until I feel more adventurous, I think there will be a very happy dog somewhere. On that subject, all the bones went to a couple of dog-owning friends who were very appreciative.

In case you're wondering how all this works with the butcher, we basically book the animals in a good few weeks in advance (remembering that December is a no-no) and at the same time we let the abattoir know to expect them. Then, on a Sunday morning, we drop them off at the abattoir to be processed on Monday. The butcher picks up the carcasses directly from the abattoir and has them all processed, to my instructions, by Thursday.
For this I pay £45 per pig for a basic kill'n'cut. Then I pay £1/lb for the sausages. This is to cover the cost of the extra ingredients, skins etc that the butcher has to use.
So for the 3 pigs I paid £208.
Add to this the substantial cost of feeding them, keeping a sow and getting in the boar, occasional vets bills and medication and I need to sell all the meat just to make a very small profit. We get to eat any packs of sausages, chops or joints which are imperfect and if we eat any more then we are eating into our income.

Is it all worth it?

There are other options, such as not having a sow!
Yes, but...

... there are other options, such as not having a sow and buying in weaners. It all depends on how the meat sells and whether we can sell the male piglets as weaners.

There's also the consideration that having animals is tying. A massive pro, though, is that we get delicious slow-grown meat and sausages, unparallelled by any we've ever bought.
We also get the less tangible rewards of keeping animals. The time spent with them, the early mornings, the customers we meet.

We've gone into pig-keeping at just about the worst time. In the past two years feed costs have gone up massively, as have other indirect costs such as wood and metal for fencing. Not only has this increased our costs massively, but it also means there are fewer smallholders looking to buy weaners from us. Add to this the fact that people have got less money at the moment and it makes for tough decisions. We continue litter by litter, all the while assessing whether it remains viable. We don't mind making a small loss, as at the end of the day it is a hobby / lifestyle choice rather than a business upon which we rely.
I just keep thinking, if we can just persist without incurring too much loss, that things have to pick up at some time. As long as people like our meat our customer base should gradually increase and we won't be left with freezers full of meat to eat or give away.

Anyway, let's see how this batch of meat goes. Daisy should be having another litter within the next three weeks and the whole cycle starts again. She'll at least be safe until early January when we wean the piglets off her. That's when the last two of the current litter will go off for sausages and possibly bacon and hams. Whether Daisy goes with them may even come down to whether she manages to have more gilts than boars.

In the mean time, I have a kitchen full of meat to be sorting out and getting into freezers.

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