If you’ve decided to raise pigs, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is what pig breed to choose. There’s a wide variety of pig breeds around the world and many have their own unique characteristics. Below are several factors to consider as you decide what breed might be best for your homestead.
First, consider what interests you about raising pigs. Are you making this choice for meat, to breed them, or to keep them as pets? If they’re for meat, are you interested in selling commercially or just keeping for yourself?
Next, it’s important to honestly evaluate your available space. Do you have outside space for the pigs to roam and, if so, how much? What portion of that space is pasture or forest?
Also consider the time period during which you want to raise these pigs. Do you have the shelter and infrastructure to house pigs year round or does starting with something seasonal make more sense?
Finally, consider how much experience you have. Depending on the pig breed, your experience and environment might shape what breed makes the most sense for you.
In this article, I’ll review some of the most popular breeds in the United States today and discuss a few of my own favorites. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it should be enough to get you started on your swine journey.
You should consider whether you’re interested in a purebred, heritage variety, or a crossbred pig. Both have pros and cons. Single heritage breeds are generally well known for specific qualities, many of them desirable. Whether it’s foraging ability, hardiness, or gentleness around humans, pig breeds can be as unique in their temperaments as they are in appearance. Yet as is true with any pure-bred animal, single-breed pigs may be at greater risk of certain hereditary disorders. Crossbred pigs, alternatively, may benefit from their varied genetics. Hybrid vigor often leads to more resilience, disease resistance, and the potential for faster growth.
Still, many small farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders will argue for the importance of maintaining unique heritage breeds. With the dawn of industrialized agriculture, the “desirable” traits among many animals narrowed to efficiency of weight gain. In the factory farm setting, the acceptance of pig breeds narrowed to a scant few and the popularity of crossbred animals grew. While good foraging or maternal instinct might be important to a homesteader looking to run a small herd of pigs on pasture, it unfortunately matters less to an operation where a pig will be kept in a tiny crate its whole life.
This change meant many pig breeds slipped toward endangerment before people started taking notice and working actively to bring them back. Homesteaders and small farmers have done much intentional work over the years to support heritage breeds that might have otherwise disappeared. You may also take this into account when deciding which breed you want to raise.
Finally, if you’re raising pigs for meat sales, do your research. There are plenty of discerning chefs who are loyal, enthusiastic connoisseurs of specific, single-breed heritage pork. If you live near such a market, this pork can fetch a high price. On the other hand, if you’re selling meat in a more conventional market, cut and poundage might be what matters. Some meat buyers prefer white-haired breeds over dark-haired while some prioritize slow-growing, pasture-raised heritage pigs. Research your market before going all in on one breed.
One of the oldest heritage breeds in the U.S. Generally black with white faces and feet, they’re bred primarily for their specialty marbled meat which I’ve heard described as the Angus or Kobe beef of the pork world. They’re said to be hardy, smart, decent foragers, and easy-going. Their dark hair means they don’t sunburn easily. They have fairly small litter sizes and can be tough to find in the U.S. They’re considered a lard pig.
This breed is especially known for their mothering abilities and long years of fertility, so they’re popular in the commercial world for breeding and in crosses. They’re solid white so they’re very susceptible to sunburn and are smaller in stature than some of the other popular all-white breeds.
These are the second most popular breed in the U.S. They reach market weight faster than any other pig, so they’re often bred in crosses and are popular in the commercial world. They’re generally lean, solid red in color and their thicker hair means they’re hardier in sun and OK to raise outside. They’re generally not known for their maternal ability.
With similar coloring to Hereford cattle, these pigs have red bodies with white faces, bellies, and legs. Popular in commercial production until the 1960s, they’re now more often found on small farms and homesteads. They’re known for their calm temperaments, overall hardiness, and excellent maternal instincts. They’re popular in 4H programs. They do well grazing on pasture and require less feeding and grain than some other fast-growing pigs. They reach market weight quickly, within 5 to 6 months.
This breed is small in stature with short legs and round, stout bodies. We raise kunekunes on our farm and I’ve found them to be friendly, trainable, and curious. They’re extremely social and great with kids and other animals. This makes them easy to handle but emotionally challenging if you’re raising them for meat.
They have thick hair and upturned snouts which means they’re great foragers and their rooting behavior is less destructive than other pig breeds. They’re a true pasture pig (we graze them with our sheep) and require significantly less grain than other breeds. Originally from New Zealand, Kunekunes are smaller and slower to grow than commercial breeds, taking up to 15 months to reach market weight. They’re considered lard pigs and their meat, similar to Berkshire and Mangalitsa, is fatty, marbled and prized in certain chef circles. These are great pigs for beginning pig farmers due to their gentle temperament and small stature.
These large white pigs are popular in the commercial meat market, though they sunburn easily so need good protection from the sun. They’re bred for longer, leaner bodies which means more bacon and loin chops per pig. They’re known for large litters and excellent mothering skills, so they’re often used as breeders. They reach mature weight quickly, within around 6 months.
These pigs are large and black (no kidding!) with distinctive big floppy ears that often cover their eyes. They’re said to be some of the calmest and friendliest pigs despite their size and are known for their hardiness, adaptability, good foraging ability, and maternal instincts. They’re slower growing than commercial breeds, reaching market weight around 9 to 12 months. They’re on The Livestock Conservancy’s “Critically Endangered” list.
Originally from Hungary, these pigs stand out for their unique, wooly appearance. They have long, curly hair which sometimes gets them confused for sheep, though their coats are often black, red or blond. They’re extremely hardy in cold climates. Best known for their fatty, heavily marbled meat which is high in Omega 3s, Mangalitsa has become prized in some specialty chef circles. Similar to Berkshires and Kunekunes, they’re considered a lard pig. Smaller than commercial pigs and slower growing, they usually reach market weight around 15 months. They’re generally friendly and easy to handle, so they make a good addition to a homestead. The breed almost went extinct in the 1990s but has made a gradual comeback.
These are some of the largest pigs in the world. They’re black with white legs, tail tip, and snout. They often have large litters and calm, friendly temperaments. They gain weight easily, on less feed than other commercial breeds. The largest pig ever recorded was a Poland China named “Big Bill” in 1933 who weighed 2,552 pounds.
This breed was developed from feral hogs in Texas and is generally red but sometimes have black spots or even all-black coloring. They’re named for their distinctive wattles. They’re good foragers, hardy, and fast growers with lean and tender meat. With adequate space, they usually have calm and friendly demeanors but if confined, are said to become quite irritable. They’re on The Livestock Conservancy’s “Threatened” list.
These pigs are light reddish-gold with upright ears and long snouts. They’re short bodied and don’t get as big as many commercial breeds. They’re hardy, independent, do great on pasture and are naturally good at foraging, though they can be pushy or even aggressive when not given enough space.
Currently the most popular pig breed in the U.S. They have pink skin and white hair, so they sunburn easily. They’re fast growing but take longer to reach finishing weight than other popular breeds, about 10 months. Their large size, big litters, and general tendency to mother well means they’re often bred in crosses.
Ultimately, the pig breed you choose will depend not only on your goals with raising pigs, your space and experience, but also on the price and availability within your market. Once you choose your pig breed, make sure you have the infrastructure and space set up to give them healthy, happy lives, before you bring them home with you. And regardless of what you choose, I encourage you to bring at least two pigs home. Pigs are highly intelligent, social creatures that always do better with friends.