THE PROCESS OF PICKING OUT A PIG
The process of selecting a market pig can be an overwhelming task. If you are open to any breed, your first focus should be on the conformation, body shape and type. Don’t let color and markings distract you from picking the best available market pig.
With color and breed aside, there are certain key descriptions that point to a good, solid market pig. When evaluating a prospective pig, there are ideal descriptive words that will help identify the top pigs in a pen. If words come to mind that are in the Avoidable Column, move on to the next pig.
The terms thick, round, long and wide all point to the best descriptions of cuts of meat. After all, who ever said “hey, let’s buy that skinny, rump roast or narrow top loin?” Nope! Not me! The end goal is to select a project that will produce a good meat product.
There is a priority in body type characteristics. Always narrow down your choices to the best options available. In some cases, the less developed projects will look plain, boring and non-descriptive. Those with some thickness will look more athletic, muscular and interesting. In all cases, always go for the pig who has longer body. Even in a light weight class, long will usually take the class because long represents the loin (the money cut).
If you are at an auction or at a farm, your challenge will always be to be able to see the pigs. They are usually grouped in pens of 5 and they are usually lying in a corner on top of each other or scampering around the pen because they are spooked. Either way, it will be a challenge. Don’t be shy! Ask the breeder to get in there and move the pigs around for you. It’s not like the Sheep and Goat sales, where they will be quietly lined up on rack stands!
Be sure to ask the breeder questions! The breeder is the best source of how your project should develop and how the specific breeding and lineage has performed at other shows. They should be willing to share why their stock is the one for you. They can speed up the evaluation process.
What can you tell me about your pigs?
Where has this line shown?
What do you expect out of this line? Example answer: “This line really starts a rapid growth rate around the 120 lbs. It’s where they blossom. They don’t have any problems with pasterns or hips and I would recommend…”
Order of Character Preferences:
Unless you are buying for a specific breed class, always look in order for:
- Conformation over Breed
- Boar over Gilt (Boer is a male & Gilt is a female)
- Color Preference – An old wise horse saying is “A good horse is any color!” This applies to pigs too!
Basic Conformation Traits
You are looking for a pig who looks solid, with a rectangular body, who is wide, square on the feet, tapered from shoulders to hip, deep through the shoulder, girth & hip, & wide through the butt and thigh. The pig should look like it has the ability to have volume and capacity. This means the pig should have a long, wide and deep body frame to add muscles and weight. The width of ribs should look wide and well sprung, not tight and narrow. The pig should have style and balance, which is the way all body parts blend together. How the neck blends into the shoulder, the shoulder into the rib cage, the rib cage into the loin, the loin into the rump, and how “eye-appealing” he looks.
- The pig should be muscular, strong & healthy.
- Long in body, especially in the loin & rump.
- The hams should be thick and meaty looking with lines of muscles, not smooth and flat.
- The pig should walk freely, smoothly and easily – not bound up or stiff.
- The pigs stride should be long and not short/choppy stepped (this is sometimes hard to see if the pen is small or if the pigs are sleeping).
- The jowl line should look smooth and clean – not thick and fat.
- The bone structure should look thick & sturdy to support the large frame.
- The Heart Girth should look long and deep.
- The back should be flat and wide. Arched backs, narrow hips or shoulders should be avoided.
- The hips should be wider than the shoulders.
- The hams should be muscular and thick on each side of the leg (inside and outside).
- The legs should be set wide (to allow for more muscling to develop – the Hamp on the right is wider than the Spot on the left).
- The leg bone structure should look thick & sturdy.
- The shoulders should be wide and free moving.
- Avoid narrow chested pigs – they can be prone to respiratory illnesses.
Even at this young age, this pig is standing wide & square on the front end. This barrow went on to win his class and place in the top 15 pigs in a 800 pig show.
Legs & Feet:
TOES – Toe Size is another factor to consider. The ideal foot should include two fairly even-sized toes that are big and slightly spread to improve ease of movement and stability. The outside toe is normally slightly wider and longer than the inside toe, but differences greater than 0.5 inch should be avoided.
DEWCLAWS –The pig should only have two dewclaws on each foot, NOT four as shown. Extra dewclaws are a defect and can cause the pig to walk incorrectly. If the dewclaws are touching the ground, this is an indicator of “downed pasterns” and it too should be avoided as it will cause lameness and the inability for your pig to walk correctly.
LEGS – The leg should have a nice sloping angle. Leg Faults include:
- Buckling of the knees, bowed legs (inward)
- Splayed legs (outward),
- Post leggedness (straight, stiff legs),
- Weak or downed pasterns,
- Uneven toe size,
- Pigeon toes (pointed inward),
- Sickle hocks (inward).
- Swelling – Pigs may also exhibit swollen joints and a general stiffed legged movement.
BONE – The leg bones should be thick. This is a good example of bone thickness. The first pig looks muscular but appears to be straight legged and very narrow in the heart girth. When compared with the big boned pig below, you should be able to see that he looks more stocky and thick from the dewclaw to the shoulder and hip. They should be thick like table legs!
Champions “Before & After”
Most of your class winners will be thick boned, deep from the shoulder to the hip, the rump and hind legs will look round, thick and muscular. Here are “Before and After” examples of champions. It’s interesting to see them as young piglets and then as a show ready market champion! Good solid genetics are always the best place to start. A good quality feeding program, carefully monitored will put the finishing touches on a good swine project.
I like to study the champions as piglets to the finished champion because it helps develop my eye for good conformation qualities. It’s equally important to study poor conformations so that they are easily identified. A quote I learned from a great horse vet Dr. Van Snow, “Every animal is going to have some type of conformation fault, it’s a matter of which fault can you live with?” Some faults are minor and others can cause lameness and other disqualifications. So it is well worth the effort to study the conformation traits.
Conformation Summary – Take time to study the terms and understand what they mean. Then take time to go to the auctions to see a large variety of pigs and apply what you have learned in identifying good conformation characteristics. It will feel overwhelming at first, but if you keep working at it, each year you will get better and better at it…and it does take time, so don’t get frustrated! It’s always good to have a selection to look at, as it can really help to see the body type differences.