Natasha Kryger is an Urban Agriculture student at Morinville Community High School. This article is part of a series written by students enrolled in the Urban Agriculture course.
Pigs, we all know what they are bred for: ham, bacon, ribs…Yum! We love to eat pigs but we seldom stop and ask, “Where was this animal raised?” “How was it treated?”
On October 20, the students in Morinville Community High School’s Urban Agriculture class visited Belle Valley Berkshires, owned by Ron and Karen Sobeys. Belle Valley Berkshires is a small pig farm operated five minutes west of Morinville. Ron and Karen raise Berkshire pigs, a heritage breed that is raised mainly for the quality of their ham.
The pigs are fed a complete feed from Champion Feeds. The feed consists of barley, wheat, and oats. A nutritionist also helps determine what supplements are needed within the pigs’ diet. The Sobeys also feed their pigs vegetable scraps, and because the pigs are raised outdoors, they are free to graze on whatever is in their pen. I was fascinated to learn that the pigs aren’t fed an all-wheat diet, as this would create too much fat in the pigs. You may think that the pigs would freeze during the winter, but the pigs are given straw to burrow in. The straw acts as an insulator and keeps the pigs warm in the frigid temperatures.
Ron and Karen have three sows and a boar. The sows usually produce two litters per year; this is a fair amount as a Berkshire’s gestation period is about 114 days. Each sow can produce about 10 litters in their lifetime and usually grow to a weight of about 400-450 pounds.
I learned that sometimes a piglet is born with a ridgeling. This is a birth defect in males where one teste remains inside the pig. The procedure to fix this is very expensive so these pigs are often destroyed. Piglets born with defects are ended with a process known as thumping. Thumping is when the piglet’s head is slammed with great force against a hard object. The pig doesn’t suffer because the farmer makes sure to do it right the first time.
Males born without defects are castrated at 2 days or no older than 6 weeks. They are castrated because when they mature, the testosterone would taint the meat and leave a strong odour. At 6-8 weeks, the pigs are weaned off their mothers and begin to eat the feed. I learned that the pigs were raised for about 180-190 days or about 6 months. At that time, the pigs generally weigh 260 pounds and produce a 90-95 kilogram carcass. The pigs were sent to Country Quality Meat Cutting, in Bon Accord for slaughter. I was astounded to learn that not all facilities slaughter pigs with the same process. Quality Meat Cutting uses a bolt that hits the brain of the animal whereas Sturgeon Valley Pork, another facility near Morinville, now out of business, used to use nitrogen to asphyxiate the pigs.
The students in Urban Agriculture bought three of these pigs, creating six half carcasses to butcher. Kyle of Darcy’s Meats, brought the carcasses to the school. On the trip to Belle Valley Berkshires, I learned the important process in going from piglet, to pig, to plate.
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