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By January 19, 2018 0 Comments Read More →

Can you Keep Pigs and Work

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Michaela Giles, pig keeper and author of The Commuter Pig Keeper, shares some of her tips for getting the work–pig balance right

Let’s begin with the good news ‒ keeping pigs and working full-time can be easy for anyone in a nine-to-five job that doesn’t involve a commute, and whose place of work is near enough to pop back at lunchtime. Equally, if you are working flexitime or part-time, or working from home, you will find keeping pigs very easy. If you don’t have to give much notice for annual leave, then so much the better. But even if you commute or work shift hours it’s not impossible. My daytime job requires a one-hour commute each way (on a good day), but I am living proof that you can keep pigs and work full-time.

Our farm has a nucleus breeding herd of pedigree pigs, numerous piglets, plus growing pigs of various ages. We also have a small flock of Welsh Mountain Badger Face sheep, an increasing-in-size herd of breeding Boer goats, and a flock of Brahma chickens. Throw in a couple of horses, dogs and cats and you have our farm.

We specialise in breeding British Saddleback and Middle White rare breed pigs. Some we retain for local and national showing and breeding, others we sell as breeding stock; the remainder, bar a few to grow on for meat ourselves, we sell on as fattening weaners to other smallholders. From the farm we host pig-keeping courses and pig-handling workshops, and we also offer a pig-pregnancy scanning service and consultancy. It has turned out to be one of the most pleasant ways for us to be able to afford such a fantastic herd of pigs, with every penny reinvested to allow for continual improvement.

Keeping pigs between the spring and autumn is how most people start; with the longer, lighter evenings and sunny early mornings it can seem quite romantic. Popping down to the animals after your 6am coffee, feeding and topping up waters and checking all is well is positively pleasant. You get that ‘no one else is up’ feeling ‒ it is just you and the pigs, and sheer quiet before you have to get the kids up, leap into the car or catch your train to work; there are few other such simple pleasures.

Not us, though! We bought our first three pigs on a complete whim, just before winter set in. We went to collect them in our horse trailer (this was allowed in the UK then, but now species-specific trailers are required), and took them home – not having sorted out anywhere sensible for them to sleep! We tried turning our large compost bin onto its side and packing it with straw as an overnight bed, but every time one got in, the other two pushed it down the pen. So they had to spend their first night in a stable, and we had to spend the next two days fencing a small pen for them and making a pig house.

They were not very friendly to start with, so I used the time in the stable to start making friends with them, and within 24 hours they were happy to stand and be scratched. I was less happy when I noticed they had pig lice, but a phone call to the head of parasitology at work (I am a post-doc scientist for the UK government) confirmed what the parasites were. However, he then asked me to not treat them, but pick them off and put them in a pot, as he wanted them for teaching purposes! Picking off 100-plus lice from semi-tame pigs without killing the lice was not quite so romantic, but on the plus side, by the time they were lice free they were tame, even if I did feel ever-so-slightly itchy.

After a couple of days they went into their new outdoor home. It took approximately four days for the pen to turn from grass and wild flowers to mud. Our farm is heavy clay (never keep pigs on heavy clay), so after each rainfall it turns into a cross between superglue and Velcro. However, the pigs had a warm, dry house and areas in the pen that weren’t quite so like the Somme, and all was well.

Another couple of weeks passed and we had a phone call from our neighbour to say that Starsky, Hutch and Huggy (don’t judge us, you’ll call your first pigs something daft as well) were chasing his horses, and could we please ‘catch them’. Fortuitously, it was the weekend, and a bucket of food soon got them back in, only for us to watch them get out again once the food was eaten. This time they made their way to the chicken house, scared the chickens out, ate four freshly laid eggs in the nesting box, then promptly fell asleep.

We concluded that an electric fence was necessary, and not just something that we had read was good at keeping them contained. We also read that barbed wire at snout level was good, but I didn’t like that idea at all. So, we were another few pounds sterling poorer, but we had a new energiser, battery and an electric-fenced pen for them. A few squeals on and they seemed happy to avoid the ‘biting’ fence and stay where we wanted them.

We were also growing vegetables at that time, and I can still clearly remember eating a meal that consisted of our meat and our home-grown purple broccoli, courgettes and potatoes for the first time. How we managed to eat with such wide, smug grins on our faces remains a mystery.

Since those early days we have now worked out a system that suits us and the pigs, and we have found them to be the easiest livestock animals on the farm to look after. Of course you have to invest a little time to maximise your experience, but the pigs have rewarded us many times over. Some people start off raising weaners once a year, and this is a fine way of trying out the different breeds and flavours that are available before you are experienced enough to commit to breeding, or finally choose what you think is the best meat or easiest breed to handle.



First of all, avoid as many rookie mistakes as you can – they all cost either money or inconvenience, but usually both – by finding yourself an experienced mentor, or attending a decent pig-keeping course. You will easily save more money than the course costs by getting it right the first time.

If you have a house with land attached, or a large garden, then so much the better, as it really does help if you can see to the animals in the morning without having to try and keep clean. If the land is ten miles from your house in the opposite direction to work, then it is going to be difficult – not impossible, but difficult without decent help. So if you have yet to buy or rent any land, set yourself a maximum radius to search within.

Once you have your land, how do you set it up? The land should be organised with time management in mind. This can be almost irrelevant if you only have one pen with a couple of weaners or growers in it, but if you have quite a few it becomes very important. The last thing you want is lots of pigs acres away from each other with no water supply close by. To be a successful commuter pig keeper, time is your most precious commodity and cannot be squandered.

A time-saving tip is to fill your wheelbarrow in the evening with all the sacks of feed you will need in the morning – assuming you don’t have problems with vermin. Knowing how much your scoop holds in weight of feed is useful, too, so you can just throw the appropriate number of scoops into each pen. Fill up every water trough in the evening to the brim, too, even if it’s driving with rain and pitch black, and always leave the open end of your hose in the same place so you know exactly where to find it in the morning (but don’t leave it with the pigs or they will chew it to bits!).

Order more feed when you get down to a certain number of sacks, or if you buy on a smaller scale, make sure you have a routine for when you visit the agricultural store; at the beginning of each month, buy all the livestock feed you need for the month. If you know your feed stocks are accurate to last for a set period, the temptation to give an extra handful to a pig begging for more will be reduced – twice daily those extras can add up quickly! The pigs will also remain at their correct weight and be healthier, giving you better-quality meat for less money.

We also have set days for performing certain tasks. Although bedding is checked every day to make sure it’s dry, Saturday is our preferred day to scrub and refill the water troughs, and while they are refilling we use the time to top up the bedding in the arks. Some of the troughs may need another go during the week, but at least once a week they are cleaned out thoroughly.

Finally, start thinking about how you can design time-saving processes into your pigs’ care because, as an added bonus at the weekend, on those heavenly days off and during the summer evenings, you can use all of the extra time you have made to interact with your pigs, learn their quirks and foibles, and truly enjoy their company.



The Commuter Pig Keeper by Michaela Giles is published by Old Pond Publishing. It covers all aspects of pig keeping, including breeding, housing, handling techniques, and discusses the administrative and business issues involved, and also provides advice on contingency planning for any problems which may occur.

Paperback. 261 pages. £24.95. Web: Telephone: 0114 240 9930.







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