Sheep-like pigs with lots of lard intrigue Fullerton rancher

Farm Forum

Northeast of Fullerton, N.D., Donn Nelson, 24, considers himself a rancher, raising 60 cow-calf pairs along with running a feedlot for 500 animals where he primarily backgrounds and finishes cattle.

But this spring, he’s added some fuzzy animals in a pen just east of the farm. They aren’t sheep, but they chomp their way around the enclosure. The four Mangalitsa pigs are covered with a thick hairy coat similar to that of a sheep. This heritage breed of pigs provides a richly marbled pork product and a lot of lard. The pigs have the potential to fit a niche market.

On May 7, the pigs grazed on the grass in the pen. “They nip grass all day long,” Nelson said. “Last winter the fellow that I purchased the pigs from said they wintered on an alfalfa bale. They will thrive and survive on just grass.”

Nelson has worked on the farm with his dad, Ben Nelson, since high school and while attending college. With the family planting 2,800 acres of crops, Nelson, his dad and a hired man juggle the grain operation and the feedlot chores.

Raising pigs started out as a hobby, a way to make a little fun money, Nelson said. After raising some Yorkshires, Nelson enjoyed the taste of the hogs he raised and decided he wanted to continue the venture in addition to the cattle.

“I bought and raised 25 weaner Yorks last year,” Nelson said. “Fellows around here wanted the meat to mix with sausage. That’s why I considered continuing raising hogs. But the Yorks take more grain and feed and required additional housing preparation. I want to farrow eventually, but I didn’t have $30,000 to put up a building. Instead, I decided to invest in pigs that can be outside and I don’t have to worry about their housing.”

Tough enough

Nelson searched the Internet for a way to utilize the resources available on the farmsite originally owned by his Nelson grandparents.

“I wanted animals that were hardy enough to handle the outside temperatures without a lot of extra work,” Nelson said. “I didn’t want to remodel a building to put in slatted floors and a manure handling system. These pigs are hardy enough to handle being outside, and that was their initial appeal.”

According to the website Austro-Hungarian Archduke Joseph Anton Johann created the breed in the early 1800s by crossing Sumadija pigs with Bakony and Szalonta pigs. The quality of the pork was so high that it was initially reserved for royalty, but by the end of the 19th century it was the most popular breed in Europe. As tastes and demand changed, numbers dwindled until there were only a couple hundred of the animals left in the world. In the 1990s, the interest in the breed revived. There are now about 60,000 Mangalitsa pigs around the world.

In a scientific paper from Romania posted on the Internet, “Nutritional Quality of Pork Produced by Mangalitsa Breed,” the results showed Mangalitsa fat content has 12-16% less saturated fatty acids and 8-10% more unsaturated fatty acids than the modern pig breeds.

“It has a red meat rather than a white meat,” Nelson said. “I tasted some ham, and it was great. I wish I had some to share. I’d like to raise enough animals so I can butcher some. I hope to eventually sell it to area restaurants.”

“I think of the Mangalitsa as antiques, they have a treasured quality and richness in the meat,” Nelson said. “It’s like a craft thing. I’m looking for the quality of the meat, rather than quantity. What meat Mangalitsas provide is supposed to be phenomenal, especially for charcuterie because of the meat’s high fat content. The demand would likely be for hams, bacon, sausage and meats used in French style cooking.”

Longer to market

The animals are docile enough for strangers to walk in the pen with them. The big boar does have tusks. Nelson has the animals close to the house but will soon move three of them to a field planted with cover crops. Once the sow has weaned her piglets, she’ll join the others.

Nelson isn’t worried about the rate of gain. He knows it will take longer than the normal 180-days to finish a feeder pig. The Mangalitsas take twice as long to get to market weight, and that’s how they get their fat. There is less energy in the forage, so Nelson will add a ration of grain to get the right protein mix with barley, rye or oats.

“I have a tough time not feeding them more,” Nelson said with a laugh. ”I’m used to giving feed to pigs.”

The sow delivered her litter of four this week. The piglets are gray with black stripes and caramel colored with brown stripes. Nelson also has a gilt that will deliver her litter in the next few months. So by late fall, he could have about 15-20 hogs in the lot in addition to the four adults. He plans to farrow twice a year, in the spring and fall.

“The sow is super fat, probably weighing 350 to 400 pounds,” Nelson said. “And she has all that fat after grazing hay all winter. The boar may weigh a bit more, and the yearling would run around 180 to 200 lbs.”

As these animals command a high price when ready for market, he wants to be comfortable before getting a bigger group.

“I sold pigs at $1 a pound last year which was pretty high,” he said. “The Mangalitsas bring $4 a pound at slaughter weight in the proper market. The meat has been compared to Kobe beef. There are a lot of other pigs known for their marbling such as Durocs and Berkshires. They lay down a partial layer of intramuscular fat while Mangalitsas lay down an abundant layer.”

“Before I found this breed, I was considering Berks from the meat quality standpoint,” he said. “Once I found these, then it was a no brainer. I was tickled to death to find these at St. Cloud, Minn.”

“My dad always thinks I have crazy ideas, but he’s supportive of me,” Nelson explained. “He knows my interests and agreed that these pigs were a good fit. With the hardy nature of the Mangalitsas, he understood why the animals appealed to me. Watching the pigs is cheap entertainment, too.”

Nelson had also looked into some of the specialty breeds of cattle and has had some at his place. Those Akaushi-crossbred animals had the potential for one calf a year. He compared that to the potential 20 offspring the pigs can provide each year.

“You have to stay curious, “ Nelson said. “Many things in farming are monotonous. I wanted to try a couple of different things. If you aren’t curious, then your mind gets stagnant. I missed having the different types of animals on the farm that my grandparents had.”

Some people, referencing Nelson’s long hair and curly beard, tease him that he has special connection with the hogs. He laughs and says, “Ironically, the Mangalitsas pigs are woolly and I’m woolly, too.”

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Niche pork perfect for high-end restaurants

Personal experience from a former teacher at North Dakota State University provided Donn Nelson with some encouragement in raising hogs for a niche market.

David Newman is an NDSU Extension swine specialist, and his position focuses on meat science and pork quality. On the personal side, Newman’s family has been involved for 20 years in a niche swine operation in southern Missouri where they raise Berkshires. Because of the experience in raising heritage animals, Newman has talked with Nelson numerous times about raising Mangalitsas.

“Mangalitsa pigs, like all heritage breeds, are a pretty big niche market in the United States, with a very small number of producers,” Newman said. “Most are genetically designed for specific uses. In this case, it is sought after in high-end restaurants, where the fat is as sought-after and as valuable as the lean in other pigs. There is a big difference between the commercial animals and the Mangalitsas, which are light-muscled, have much more fat and are less efficient at feed conversion.”

The fat-laden meat, according to Newman, is used a great deal in charcuterie. Newman’s family processes meat into salamis, such as lardo (which is cured backfat packed full of flavor) and cured jowl.

“It’s a totally different side of the pork business,” he said. “As people have more income, they look for specific delicacies. There are limited numbers of customers who will buy one of these animals. The customer will have a plan. The meat would not be used in the same way that a market pig would be put in a freezer. This is at the higher end of the pork game, made popular by a lot of shows such as Iron Chef. Because of the processing involved, it may be years before the consumer gets to taste the end result of some of these hogs.”

“(Raising Mangalitsas) is a completely different world, from my personal perspective,” Newman said. “There are only small handful of people raising Mangalitsa pigs, and it’s to a small niche market which provides meat to white-tablecloth restaurants.”

Newman said he and Nelson have talked about the opportunities within the business, finding a value and not trying to compete with the commercial hog farms.

“It’s all about building relationships,” Newman said. “He will have no problem selling these pigs to a very specific market, and that won’t be LaMoure, N.D. He’ll be getting a premium for the animal, but he’ll have a lot invested in them, too.”

Newman predicts that it would not be uncommon for a Mangalitsa to be worth $1,000, and that’s without the processing or curing costs. Nelson won’t be able to call a buyer and sell the hog. He will have to cultivate the buyers and enjoy building those relationships.

It’s not a competition between commercial and niche hog production, Newman said. These hogs will be raised for a different customer base. There is a clientele who wants this rich meat, much alike grass-fed beef or cage-free chickens, he said.

“This is one of the fastest growing areas of the pork industry,” Newman said. “This is an area that’s really cool and interesting.”

Pork industry reaction

Glenn Muller, executive director of the South Dakota Pork Producers Council, said in an email that he is not aware of any of these animals being raised in South Dakota.

His email said that the swine industry’s objective is to produce animals with an adequate amount of intramuscular fat to maintain a high quality product that provides an excellent dining experience for consumers.

From the Pork Producers Council point of view, he noted that all breeds of swine have specific values, and each breed has to develop a market for their particular product. All swine are required to meet health and handling requirements that assure the consumers that they are buying a safe product that has been raised utilizing scientifically proven production practices.

“There are several niche markets providing pork products that meet specific standards to make their product unique and the producers of these animals have identified a consumer base that is willing to pay a premium for those products,” Muller said. “However, the majority of consumers’ primary concerns are the cost of their food supply, the assurance that the food they purchase is safe and that the animals are being properly cared for. Both the industry and the consumer in the United States are fortunate to have excellent regulations in place to assure a safe and humanely raised product.”

Dustin Oedekoven, South Dakota State Veterinarian said in an email that currently the S.D. Animal Industry Board does not specifically track heritage breeds. All pigs imported into South Dakota must meet animal health regulations, including a certificate of veterinary inspection (CVI or health certificate) and identification as required.