Saturday, January 29, 2011

Impostor Berkshire Pigs

Can you spot the impostor Berkshires above? After reading this blog post you won't have a problem.  Scroll to the bottom for the answer.

I had a very eye opening experience yesterday.  However, the story actually began last week which is where I will start.  I received a lead on some Berkshire pigs that a man was wanting to sell.  Normally, I only buy pigs from one of three farms that I have established excellent relationships with.  Additionally, they have invested in the highest quality stock as well as agree to produce piglets to our humane and natural standards.  So when I called on these pigs this man had, I drilled him with questions.  What kind of feed had they been started on? Where did the breeding pair come from? How had he been treating them? Had he clipped tails and teeth? Had he been using antibiotics?  The man, a farmer, assured me that he had been feeding them grain grown on his own farm, had not docked tails and clipped teeth, and that the breeding pair we were both papered Berkshires.  Everything seemed good and the price was right so I agreed to meet him to have a look at the pigs as well as check out where/how he had been raising the pigs.

We set a time to meet (yesterday).  When I pulled up, I couldn't see any pigs anywhere.  I figured they were in a pen behind a barn or something like that.  I met the farmer and after exchanging greetings he asked if I was ready to see the pigs.  He led me over to livestock trailer where he had the pigs "ready to be loaded".  He acted as if he was offering me a convenience but all I saw was a red flag.  I asked where he kept his other pigs especially his breeding stock as I wanted to see their characteristics.  He mentioned that they were kept at another place and then said he had already sold the sow.  Another red flag.

Next I looked inside the trailer.  I saw ten black pigs and one white pig.  However, not one of the black pigs was a Berkshire.  They looked like Hampshire pigs (a commercial breed of pigs).  The white pig was what is called a "Blue Butt" which is the coloring you get when you cross a Hampshire with a Yorkshire.  I asked about the white pig, and the man laughed and replied, "Can you believe that?  He is out of the same litter!"  I told him that none of his pigs were Berkshires and that I wouldn't be able to buy his Hampshire pigs.  He argued that he had "papers" proving that they were Berkshires.  I told him that he could show me all the papers he wanted, but that his pigs were not Berkshires.  And that perhaps, whoever sold him the pigs had sent him with the wrong pigs to go with his papers.  I pointed out all the distinguishing features of the Berkshire and showed him how his pigs differed.  I then explained that one of the unique things with Berkshire pigs is that nearly all of their identifying characteristics are recessive traits.  For example, Berkshire pigs have six white points consisting of four white "socks", a white tail, and a white face.  Poland China pigs have the same markings but have floppy ears instead of erect ears (additionally, they have a thinner coat than Berkshires).  Berkshires have a short snout and a curved back unlike commercial breeds that have an unnaturally straight back.  They also don't have the defined hams and muscular tone that commercial breeds have.  Many breeders have successfully bred Berkshires to look more like commercial breeds in this regard, but we prefer the old fashioned body type.  Interestingly, the commercial breeds are becoming more difficult to breed naturally as a pigs anatomy isn't designed to reproduce with huge hams and straight backs.  If a Berkshire pig doesn't have all of the above characteristics, then they are not a purebred Berkshire. 

Of course the body shape and appearance isn't the reason that chefs in any fine dining restaurant prefer Berkshires (Kurobuta) over any other breed. The reason their preference is the Berkshire is because of the  incredible quality of pork.  Berkshire pork has three characteristics that set it apart from the rest.  First, is the marbling of the meat.  Berkshire pork is finely marbled throughout; even in traditionally "dry cuts" like the ham and loin.  Second, the deep red color of the meat is unique in appearance and flavor.  It is a reminder that this breed hasn't been bred to look like chicken which has been the goal of commercial producers for decades.  Berkshire or Kurobuta pork is definitely not, the other white meat.  Lastly, is the pH level of the pork.  Berkshire pork has the lowest pH level which leads to all kinds of wonderful cooking qualities and moisture retention that chefs can explain much better than me.  But I will add that this is why commercial pork is injected with brine solution at the stores. These characteristics are also recessive traits which is why cross breeding doesn't give as much of the Berkshire benefits as many would assume.  We know this because of experience and later research (when the pork didn't turn out as well as we had hoped).  : )

I think I finally convinced the man that he didn't have purebred Berkshires, maybe some Hampshires that had been crossed to a Berkshire.  I was frustrated that had already sold the sow and some other pigs as purebred Berkshires.  This means that somebody else is now raising and selling pigs as purebred Berkshires when in fact they are far from Berkshires.  Berkshire pigs take longer to reach a butcher weight, consume more feed, and produce smaller litters.  This adds a significant amount to our production costs.  Of course we feel it is well worth it as I am sure many of our customers do as well.  Part of our farming philosophy has been to ethically and humanely raise premium quality meat at a price that is affordable.  In other words, while we could probably charge more for our pork and beef, we don't because we want average families to have a viable alternative to the meat raised under traditional commercial practices.  Raising cross bred pigs is an easy way to lower production costs.  However, it also lowers the quality and flavor of the pork significantly.  Sadly, I know the person who bought these pigs.  They have been marketing their pork as being the same as ours only at a lower price.  A price that isn't sustainable for long term business.  They are new to raising pigs even though they portray themselves has having been doing this for years.  I am sure that they are convinced that they have purebred Berkshires and are not intentionally being deceitful.  The lower price they are able to charge is simply reflective of the lower input costs of the crossbred pigs they raise. 

There is little I can do about people who advertise something other than what it actually is whether they do so intentionally or not.  Of course it is a little concerning that enough of them could ruin our little niche by offering a hybrid pig as a purebred Berkshire at a price that is lower than what a purebred pig can we raised for.  However, we will worry about that if/when that day comes.  In the meantime, we hope to educate our customers with lots of information so that they know what to look for if Berkshire pork is what they are after.  Hollie reassures me constantly that we have the most loyal customers of any business she has ever seen.  That is certainly true.  Our customers have been so good to us.  Maybe there really is something to that whole Karma thing. : )  Besides there is more to a pig than just purebred or not.  There is also the treatment and diet of the pig that play equally distinguishing factors in the quality of the pork.  For those who would like the real deal and not an impostor pig you can order here.   : )

Answers to the pictures at the top of the page:
First pic: Hampshire
Second pic: Poland China
Third pic: Berkshire


Matt Caputo said...

Awesome post. Thanks for the info. I will be emailing you.

Matt Caputo

Anonymous said...

That is a gorgeous Poland China in the second photo! Another classic American heritage breed becoming ever harder to find

Annie said...

I'm curious about the rounded vs. level back. The UK Berkshire Pig Breeder's Club states that the back should be "level", which is not at all what I'd call rounded. I'm looking to buy some piglets and the dad of the piglets has a level back. (The seller sent a photo.) The seller says that his parents were purebred and I'm sure she's not deliberately lying.

Christiansen's Hog Heaven said...


The level back represents the newer bloodlines. The older bloodlines have the rounded back. If you look up photos prior to the 1960's or 70's you will see that all Berks have rounded backs. We have had some pigs with the straight backs but have tried to breed for those older bloodline characteristics. If your seller's pigs have the 6 white points and erect ears, you should be fine. Just keep in mind that a straight back with extra large defined hams on a female can make natural breeding (live cover) difficult if not impossible.

I would expect a breeding club to promote straight backs as that is what the commercial industry wants. Their breed standards evolve with time, in the name of efficiency. Unfortunately, this also alters the quality of the pork. While the Berkshire is still considered a heritage breed, the newer bloodlines are trying to compete with commercial pork breeds. As this happens, you can easily see the marbling decrease and the flesh color lighten.

The focus of our pig production is on producing the highest quality, most delicious pork possible. This comes at a cost and is not for every customer or every farm. We would rather have beautiful, tender, gourmet pork, than huge even sized loins. Neither option is right or wrong, just a matter of preference. Happy Farming!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi There
It is good to see someone so passionate about the Berkshire breed.

We are dairy farmers in the UK and as a sideline we breed Berkshires and also but in weaners at 8 weeks to sell at 6 months old.

The problem with selling them is the carcus is so much smaller than commercial pigs yet take the same amount of food. Sadly, in todays world they are harder to sell. Although the meat and crackling are better you get a lot less for your money.

I seel to some pubs and fine dining establishments but they buy it because it is rare breed not better qaulity. Other places don't buy it if they are not rare breed enthusiasts even if they agree on better taste it is just harder to use due to the smaller joints - people like a wow factor - bigger the better. Greed is the reason for this!

So the rare breed is the selling point.

We have been thinking of crossing some of ours and I get your point that you would loose the two main factors - rare breed and qaulity.

So you have to love love love berkshires to have them but I have yet to find them commercially a real money earner! But I would love to be proved wrong!

The main reason we have them is they are such wonderful, clever, social animals that are a joy to have around. No sign of agression in them so fab with children. I love to see animals outdoors with plenty of room to forage, root and wallow. The Berkshires are hardy enough to take all the elements.

They offer the best sausage meat by far!

Good luck farming in this ever changing world!