In case you haven’t heard, October is pork month! This is a great time to try a new pork recipe and get in touch with the pork industry. As with most industries, there are many things to learn about the pork industry. One fun thing to learn more about is breeds of pigs.
There are many breeds of pigs, with many different characteristics. Some breeds of pigs are known for their great meat quality. Others are known for superior mothering abilities. These breeds were domesticated in many different regions for many different purposes. Today, the Pork Checkoff recognizes about eight major swine breeds in the United States. Let’s walk through those, learn about their characteristics, and talk about why those traits are important.
As we talk about these breeds, there’s one cheat you can use to remember what they look like. If the name of the breed ends in “-shire” it will have pointy ears. All other breeds of pigs have ears that flop downwards.
First, let’s talk about the Yorkshire breed. Yorkshire pigs are the most-recorded breed in North America. They are solid white, and have erect ears (did you catch the “-shire”?). Yorkshire pigs are known for being muscular, and for having lean meat.
The second most-recorded breed of swine in the U.S. is the Duroc breed. Durocs are solid red, and their ears droop forward. Duroc pigs have many good qualities, including the quality of their pork, fast growth, and longevity of females.
Third in the list of most-recorded breeds is the Berkshire breed. Berkshire pigs are black with white tips on their feet, nose, and tail. Berkshire pigs are known for high meat quality and flavor, as well as efficiency. The American Berkshire Association is the oldest swine registry in the world!
Hampshire pigs are the fourth-most recorded breed in the U.S. These pigs are black with a white belt across their shoulders and front legs. This breed boomed in popularity from the 1970s through the 1990s largely because of its lean meat. This is also the kind of pig I showed in the purebred classes when I was in 4-H!
Next, we have Landrace pigs in our 5th most-recorded breed spot. Landrace pigs are white and have droopy ears. They are known for being a great mothering breed. They are also fairly long in their body, and can contribute good carcass quality traits to a pig herd.
Chester White pigs are also white with droopy ears. Like Landrace pigs, they are also noted for their mothering abilities. These pigs originated in Chester County, Pennsylvania, hence the name!
Poland China pigs ironically did not originate in either Poland or China. Instead, they hail from Ohio. This breed is notably long of body, and (like Berkshire pigs) is dark-colored with white points on the feet, face, and tail. A good way to tell the difference between Poland China pigs and Berkshire pigs is that Poland Chinas will have droopy ears.
Spotted pigs are easy to “spot”! As the name suggests, they have large black and white spots, and have ears that droop forward. These pigs are known to be feed efficient, as well as productive, docile, and durable.
That wraps up a quick summary of a few common breeds. But why do these breeds matter? For many producers, these distinct breeds will help them build a productive crossbreeding system for market pigs. When two animals of very different genetic backgrounds (in livestock, this means different breeds) breed, their offspring will perform better than either of its parents would suggest. This is a phenomenon called hybrid vigor, or heterosis. Producers want to use this to their advantage to produce the best animals possible.
Different breeds may also be more beneficial in different aspects of production. For example, we noted before that certain breeds of pigs are exceptional mothers, and other breeds are known more for meat quality. If a producer uses one breed of pigs to sire pigs, and another breed to mother pigs, the offspring can benefit from the meat quality of the sire and may perform better as a piglet because of the dam, plus gaining all of the benefits of heterosis.
When we talk about an animal performing better because of heterosis, what do we mean? Will they play better basketball, or be an accomplished dancer? Probably not. With pigs, when we talk about performance, we are largely talking about how well they grow. We want pigs to grow quickly, use their feed efficiently, and grow to a large size – at least in specific muscle groups. We also want our pigs to be physically sound. We want them to be healthy, and able to walk, move, and function without any difficulty.
Crossbreeding animals can have many benefits, from heterosis to genetic variety within a herd, but there are many ways to attain the same goal. Some farmers might use a terminal two-breed cross system with Duroc sires and Landrace dams. Some farmers might use a three-breed cross system, with 50% Berkshire, 50% Hampshire sires and Chester White dams. Other farmers might use a sustaining system, with all animals being the same percentage of the same breeds to maintain a consistent level of heterosis.
Like many things in agriculture, many decisions really come down to what works best for the producer. Some producers value certain characteristics or systems more than others because of their environment, management style, and even local markets.
For more facts about Iowa’s pork industry, check out this resource!