This post is the long-promised summary of the costs and yield of raising two pigs for meat. I collected as much data as possible throughout the whole process with the hope of compiling a more complete picture than is often found online. Additionally, I have attempted to presents costs from both a financial and an efficiency standpoint.
Final Meat Yield
Before we talk about costs, let’s answer the most common question: What do you get? When butchering or buying whole pigs, much of your cost will be based on “hanging weight”. This is the weight after the carcass has been skinned and gutted. As has been previously noted, it’s not the final weight of the meat. It is generally suggested that a hanging weight of 200 lbs maximizes the meat produced, so we aimed for that. Even with similar hanging weights, the feed types, husbandry, weather, genetics, and so forth can affect the final yield. The smaller of our two pigs was butchered with a focus on roasts, ham, bacon, and sausage. The final breakdown was as follows:
Interestingly, we bought half a pig last year from a local farmer and gave the same cut & wrap instructions to the butcher. The breakdown for that pig can be found here. Note that last year’s pig was 65% meat and 16% roasts, while the pig in the chart above is 83% meat and 24% roasts. The pigs we raised were leaner and produced much more meat at the same weight. I believe genetics may have played the largest role in this.
The large pig was butchered with a focus on roasts, ham, bacon, and pork chops. The final breakdown was as follows:
I think it’s interesting how similar these two charts are. Choosing to cut pork chops reduces the ribs and sausage, but all other categories remained about the same. The charts highlight something else important. When you buy or raise whole pork you really do end up with the whole pork: ham hocks, tenderloin, liver, and heart. Nobody has yet to create an 80% bacon pig–if they did, I’d be afraid to eat it!
The final cost of the meat we produced was $2.34 per pound. The cost is affected both by the costs of raising the livestock and paying for them to be butchered. The following chart shows the relative costs that went into producing each pound of meat:
I must admit I am proud of our cost savings by raising our own pork. Last year’s half pig cost us $4.32/lb, so by raising it ourselves we saved almost $2 per pound. I would attribute the savings to greater meat yield, lower feed costs in 2010, and sweat equity.
An obvious message from this chart is that butchering costs were the single largest factor in the final meat price. It can be a little difficult to accept this. You spend 4 months buying feed, filling feeders and water tanks, fixing the pig shelter and monitoring their health and on the last day someone stops by for 30 minutes and doubles your costs. Ouch!
So, given that breakdown, I can think of a few ways we might reduce our costs in the future:
- Home butchering/curing – Butchering is a huge hurdle for the novice, but gives you more control over the process and could reduce the final costs by almost 40%.
- Reduce pig stress – Our pigs were off their feed for about two weeks when we changed feeders. If pigs aren’t growing they are still burning weight maintenance calories.
- Better shelter – A warmer shelter would mean less calories burned staying warm. A calf shelter would be ideal.
- Cheaper source of hay – Buying per ton in late spring would be cheaper than per bale from the farm store.
- Cheaper source of feed – Buying supersacks from a local feed mill might save you money, but we couldn’t find an economic source nearby.
On the other hand, there are several factors which could easily raise our costs in the future. Pork production is heavily dependent on grain prices. If feed prices doubled, our overall cost of $2.34/lb would go up by 38%. This would negate any savings by home-butchering. Choosing a better source of feed for our pigs would also increase our costs. We used standard farm-store swine feed, which likely contained GMO ingredients. The closest mill that sold preservative-free non-GMO feed (not organic) required a minimum 2000 lb purchase at $15 a bag. This would have raised our costs by 34% and left us with 600 lbs of past-date feed. Finally, raising heritage breeds, which grow more slowly but can be better at grazing, would also raise our costs.
In addition to the immediate production costs, there are certain equipment costs which cannot be avoided by the first time pig raiser. For us, these included:
I feel like we did very well at minimizing these costs, as someone could easily spend many times more on basic equipment. Also, nothing was damaged during the first season, so the cost (an additional $0.33/lb) should technically be amortized across several seasons of pigs.
If you are a homesteader or an environmentalist, it’s important to look at the overall system costs as well. Even if something is financially viable, does it fit into my overall homestead? Does it consume resources I can produce locally and produce wastes I can deal with effectively? Can I create similar resources through more efficient means? Pigs have historically been recyclers, consuming human food waste, agricultural byproducts, wild nuts, and tubers. They grew slowly, and were valued for their lard production as much as for meat.
Unfortunately, the modern practice of feeding pigs grain is much less efficient. I have attempted to measure efficiency by two methods. First, by the standard livestock producer’s metric of feed conversion. This is a ratio of the pounds of feed to the pounds of meat produced. Commercial pork producers expect a 3.5:1 feed conversion efficiency. Of course, a pound of feed and a pound of meat do not contain the same number of human-usable calories, so I have also attempted to calculate the “calorie conversion” efficiency between the feed and meat.
Compared to a commercial operation, we did pretty well on feed conversion. Our pigs ate 3.8 lbs of feed for every 1 pound of meat they eventually produced. They were thus 9% less efficient than their industrially raised counterparts. Apparently, you can take a commercial breed of pig (Yorkshire), omit the low-dose antibiotics, the crowded living conditions, and the tail docking, and still achieve commercial levels of feed conversion. Many of the cost-saving measures listed in the previous section would act to improve feed conversion even further.
While feed conversion is useful as a general rule, I find the idea of “calorie conversion” efficiency much more compelling. Since our pig’s grain-based feed could technically have fed humans directly, how many calories are being lost in the conversion to meat? If you think humans wouldn’t want to eat ‘wheat middlings’ or ‘brewery grain’, you obviously haven’t looked at many food labels for processed foods. Efficiency aside, it’s useful to know the total input calories so that you can more realistically estimate the advantage of feeding your pigs garden produce or past-date food.
Unfortunately, swine feed bags are not labeled for human calorie content (surprise!) or even for TDN. I ultimately estimated the calorie content of our swine feed using two methods. First, I calculated the calorie content for an equivalent mix of corn, wheat, and soy flours using the nutritional content information from Oregon-based Bob’s Red Mill flours. Second, I sanity checked this estimate against swine feeds analyzed by the 1965 research paper, Energy Value of Various Feeds for the Young Pig. The estimate I arrived at was 1800 kcal/lb for most swine feeds. (‘kcal’ is simply a unit of energy. It is identical to ‘Calorie’ as seen on nutrition labels.) In addition to eating 1350 lbs of swine feed, our pigs also consumed 50 lbs of squash and 380 eggs, foods for which calorie contents are easily found. Similarly, we had already weighed and sorted all the meat for the yield charts, and calorie contents by meat type are easy to find. My final estimates for calories in and calories out are as follows:
And when you divide feed calories by meat calories the result is 6:1. The pigs consume 6 calories of feed for each 1 calorie of meat they produce. One has to admit that producing pork from grain is pretty inefficient. Another useful number is that two pigs consume 2.5 million kcal of feed to reach market weight.
Robin and I were happy that we could feed our pigs a lot of surplus garden produce: tomatoes, lettuce, collard greens, cucumbers, etc. Of the many supplemental feeds, only the squash/pumpkin and eggs contained significant calories. We had hoped these would reduce our feed bill. The numbers tell a different story:
One really gains a sense for how calorie dense grain is when you realize that 380 eggs and 50 lbs of squash represent the calorie contents of just 18 lbs of grain. All our boiling and peeling of eggs and watering of winter squash saved just $4 in feed costs. In fact, if you expect to raise your own pigs and supply a significant portion of their calories from home-grown supplies, think again! Here’s a list of common homestead foods and the quantities required to produce the 2.5 million kcal needed to raise two pigs:
I was shocked by this equivalence table. A successful homesteader really has to look at the numbers behind things instead of just trusting intuition. Intuitively, we should be able to raise a pig on home-grown potatoes and sweet corn. Practically, there is no substitute for purchased grain-based feeds.
Last, but not least, a word about manure. Manure is another useful bi-product of raising pigs (after meat and lard). In a world where fertilizer inputs are increasingly more expensive, pig manure definitely has economic value. I plan to build a huge compost pile with the generated manure intermixed with straw from their shelter. When it has broken down sufficiently, we’ll use the resulting fertilizer on fruit trees, raspberry vines, hops, etc. Pig digestion is too similar to humans for me to risk using their manure on a vegetable garden without much more rigorous composting.
I have mixed feelings about the conclusions to be drawn from this post. On the one hand, it is evident that pork can be produced on a small scale at a price competitive with the store. If you were to spend a little more for all-natural feed and handle the butchering and curing at home, I think the price comparison would work out even better. Furthermore, I assign value to knowing how my meat was raised and exactly what it was fed. Our pigs could run, root in the earth, eat garden snacks, and stand in grass. They were not the tortured victims of a factory farm.
On the other hand, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that pork produced in this manner is a product of cheap grain. Cheap grain is a product of cheap oil. Since the 70s, the American farmer has burned 1 kcal of fossil fuel to produce 1 kcal of grain. To produce the 1368 lbs of grain consumed by our pigs, 70 gallons of crude oil were consumed. As the price of oil rises, so will the price of pork. From this standpoint, pork is a luxury. The era of cheap oil is over. Few homesteads can produce an edible waste stream sufficient to feed a pig to market weight, and if you can’t use a pig for food recycling there are much more efficient livestock you could consider. If you have pastures, sheep and cattle can convert grass into useful human food with few outside inputs. If you have a large garden, you can reasonably grow sufficient field corn for meat chickens. Both of these homestead meat sources would be independent of the global markets for grain and oil.
This is not to say we will never again raise pigs if feed prices remain low. We will. Next time, however, we will keep them longer to maximize the yield of bacon and lard, and we will not delude ourselves into thinking that any amount of garden produce will affect their final cost.
- This post presents data gathered from the two pigs we raised. Your results may differ.
- My discussion of pig feed considers calories but ignores proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. A complete pig feed program would need to meet all their nutritional requirements.
- I’d be glad to provide additional data or debate my calculations in the comments.
- My calorie conversion efficiency numbers omit the feed calories that went into the weaner pig. I have no way to calculate this number, but it would have a significant impact. My guess is that the true ratio is more like 8:1.
- Thanks to Ebey Farm blog for his regular ‘Costs to Raise a Pig’ posts. Also, thanks for his suggestions on how to calculate human calorie counts for pig feed.
- Pork feed conversion rates are from 2009 U.S. commercial meat production data.
- Harpers magazine has published one of the many articles available online which discuss the relationship between oil and our food supply.