The question often comes up… what exactly is “rare breed” pork?
Simply put, it’s pork from rare breeds of swine. All rare breeds are heritage breeds, but not all heritage breeds are rare! In many cases, rare breed pork is produced by breed conservators working to secure the future of the rare breeds they work with. Animals have traceable pedigrees and parent stock is registered. Sometimes rare breed pork may be a cross of two rare breeds, such as a Meishan/Kunekune or Meishan/Gloucester Old Spots cross.
The pigs we raise are rare breeds. The Kunekune pig, utilized as we are, for pork production, is incredibly rare for pork use- most Kunekune pigs are sold as pets. The American Kunekune Pig Registry has averaged approximately 1000 piglets born annually over the last fifteen years, but of those, only an average of 300 piglets per year were actually registered as breeding stock (source: AKPR Herd Book). If the Livestock Conservancy did place the Kunekune pig under study, these statistics would place the Kunekune under “Threatened” status, which equates to less than 1,000 animals being registered per annum. “Critically Endangered” status is 200 or less registrations per year, which means the Kunekune are much closer to being Critically Endagered, than they are Threatened. Rare breed pork? You bet. Very rare, and in need of our stewardship.
In the 70’s, the Kunekune was almost extinct- just eighteen pigs saved the breed that today, is recovering. As the Kunekune is very rarely used for pork, it isn’t considered on many livestock lists, or pages showcasing rare breeds. The number of producers offering Kunekune pork in the USA is extremely small- a google search doesn’t yield much about Kunekune pork, or where to purchase it. Our farm is one of few offering USDA cuts and value added products. Commercially available Kunekune pork is a rarity, and dedicated breeders are seeking to change that!
The Meishan pig is globally threatened and under study with the Livestock Conservancy. The number of Meishan pigs in the United States is extremely small, and an even more minute percentage is registered.
The moniker “Rare Breed Pork” is often used erroneously. Example (in the USA) Berkshire isn’t a rare breed. Duroc isn’t a rare breed. Or Landrace. Or Yorkshire. Or Spots. Or Poland China. Or Bluebutt (that’s a cross!). Or Hampshire. Yorkshire is the most common breed of pig in the United States. Berkshire is the THIRD most common! (source: Pork.org). The former examples could/would more accurately be “Heritage Pork”in some cases (such as utilization of old lines from breeders raising for old fashioned, non-commercialized attributes), although for all intents and purposes, many of the breeders were “modernized” for muscle, leanness, fast growth, and less fat.
So, what breeds in the United STates ARE rare breeds?
Kunekune (Considered rare in the USA, especially for pork production. Conservation status listed with zoos nationwide as “not studied, considered rare” Kunekunes were originally raised for pork by the indigenous Maori people, but most in the UK and US see the breed as a pet)
Meishan * – Critically endangered as per Livestock Conservancy – Fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 2,000)
Mangalitsa – An imported rare breed from Hungary.
Gloucester Old Spots (not to be confused with “spots” or “old spots”– these latter two are not the same breed as the GOS!)
Red Wattle *
American Guinea Hog *
Large Black *
* – asterisk breeds are listed rare with Livestock Conservancy.
Despite my muddy boots and work-hardened hands, I have an interesting pathway into farming. I worked at a dairy farm all throughout my teen years, and my grandparents were both avid gardeners, but my Mother wanted more genteel things for me. I was classically trained in piano, cello, viola and violin- learning that nothing matters if not for your technique and ability to master the basics. One should walk before they run. Later, I began to study classical ballet, and danced for almost three decades- sometimes spending 15-20 hours a week solely at the barre learning core technique. Again, the basics. The very underlying foundations that one must learn and master to create strong foundations for future success. In college and graduate school at Rochester Institute of Technology, I studied photography and graphic design. My graduate work was under one of America’s great designers- R. Roger Remington. Under his tutelage, we explored the very roots of what makes a design great. And those roots are in the foundation of the design- the exact form and structure, typically well-trenched in the basics of visual Gestalt principles and the golden mean, the Fibonacci sequence.
The golden mean is found all throughout nature, it’s the mathematical perfection whereby harmony is mathematically expressed. Each segment of the sequence is a direct result of the former, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts- but being nothing without it’s parts! This sequence can be applied to anything organic or inorganic. It exists everywhere, naturally. Without it, there is chaos. “The Golden Number” is a fascinating site that compiles all sorts of instances of the golden mean at work in life and art.
While seen as a much overused cliche in the design world, architect Louis Sullivan’s mantra “Form follows function” means that the purpose of a building should be the starting point for its design. In other words, that the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose. This makes obvious sense in nature, as we see a world so perfectly created, with plants and animals uniquely adapted to their purpose by virtue of their design. Things get murky when man’s hand touches nature’s perfection, however. In this I believe that whenever our influence is involved, we should stay true to an animal’s purpose. And for that individual animal, the sum of it’s overall parts maintaining their original purposes.
What does that mean? Well, it means that legs are for support and movement. They shouldn’t be so short that the animal can’t efficiently move or breed. They should be sturdy enough to support the animal throughout all of it’s life. Eyes are for seeing. Don’t diminish sight with folds of skin, or ears that completely obscure the field of vision. Snouts are for rooting, scent, and breathing. Allow them to be long enough for a pig to be a pig. And to be a healthy animal that can breathe throughout it’s life cycle. Mouths are for grazing and eating. Don’t breed for traits that obscure that. Teats are for nursing offspring. Let there be a reasonable number of well-spaced, functional teats. And so on, and so forth! You get the idea, right? Selective breeding is no different than playing a God-like role in an animal’s future generations, so we have a great responsibility to make wise decisions.
Every breeder has their own preferences and things that they work on. We start from the bottom and work our way up. The goal is not so much for form to directly follow function, but for them work in harmony, as Kunekune pigs are a visually distinctive heritage breed. Their form and function are closely intertwined in order to marry their purpose with their appearance. It’s that appearance that is what visually defines a pure & heritage breed above and beyond it’s obvious genetics.
The Kunekune pig has a job to do, while doing it with style. You may have heard the quote “Trends come and go, style is eternal”. It was said by the fashion designer Yves St. Laurent. His designs have stood the test of time and are seen by many as classics. A breed’s standard is the timeless “style” for that breed. It’s the guidebook by which you strive to consistently produce pigs which emulate the correctness of the standard. Things such as color, are merely trends. Trends come and trends go, but underneath it all, the pig is still a pig and has a job to do. That job may be procreation, or it may be pork… but it’s still a job.
AKPR Standard of Perfection
American Standard of Perfection ~ Revised 2018:
Updating of the Standard of Perfection for the Kunekune Pig breed is intended to provide a clear description of Kunekune characteristics for pasture, pork, and progeny.
When Kunekune Pigs are judged in the show ring, these characteristics and how well each pig displays them shall be the basis for awarded points and placement. Consideration of the head is of paramount importance when evaluating the breed. Head type identifies the breed as a grazer not prone to root and is considered unique to the breed. Judges please note the weightiness given to head type.
Form: Relatively long, level, and deep. Boars generally weighing up to 400 pounds and sows generally up to 350 pounds, the result of a thick cover of firm flesh and fat.
Quality: Uniform covering of hair, clean skin, medium/heavy bone, even covering of flesh and fat.
Condition: Overall appearance shall be one of balance. Deep uniform covering of flesh and fat especially in regions of valuable cuts.
Head: Proportionate to body, evenly set on shoulders. Broad. Wide forehead. Short, broad, upturned snout with large, symmetrical nostrils to facilitate respiratory ease and teeth suitable for grazing. Teeth shall be set back inside the mouth and must not protrude when mouth is closed. Medium to heavy jowl, not wasty. Sweeping jawline. 10 points
Objections: Head not proportionate to body size, set unevenly. Narrow forehead – animals with wider foreheads are generally symmetrical and wider in the chest and back. Longer, shallower heads generally correlate with a similar body type resulting in less meat mass. Long, straight snout, uneven nostrils, teeth whose angle is unsuitable for grazing, protruding teeth or teeth set forward, droopy bottom lip. Wasty jowl (excessively fat), or thin, trim.
Eyes: Set well apart and symmetrical, bright, intelligent and kind. 5 points
Objections: Eyes set narrow or at unequal levels. Dull.
Ears: Set wide apart on the top corners of the head. Symmetrical in form and attachment. Pricked to semi-lopped, inclined forward. Under control of the hog. Settling firmly out over the eyes when grazing – ears should have the appearance of a visor over the eye, coming firmly from the head and out. 5 points
Objections: Ears set narrow or not of the same size, set or shape. Ears that roll up or are laterally folded along their length shall be avoided. Ears set on the side of the head, point outward to the side, not inclined forward, lopped. Ears may curb vision but should not obscure forward view. Emphasis to avoid ears that are laterally folded along their length as though “folded in half”. Purpose of ears include hearing, but also protection of the eyes from sun.
Wattles: Two, well-formed and well-attached in the same location on the corner of the jowl on each side hanging freely. Firm and of kidney or thumb shape. Symmetrical in size and shape.
Objections: Less than two wattles, poorly attached, uneven size or shape, unevenly set on jowl. Wattles set high causing wattles to flare out.
Neck: Short to medium, proportionately and evenly set on shoulders. Deep and thick. 5 points
Objections: Long, uneven, thin, shallow.
Shoulders: Level and in proportion to hams, broad, deep, full. Sloping and aligned with legs and sides. Well developed. Muscle extending well down legs. Should not protrude above the line of the back. 5 points
Objections: Shoulders not uniform with hams, thin, shallow, weak, protruding above level of back.
Chest: Moderately wide between the legs. Deep girth. 5 points
Objections: Narrow, shallow, thin. Front legs set too narrow or too wide for chest width.
Back & Loin: Strong, level or slightly arched when grazing. Medium to long length and level to root of tail. Width even from shoulder to ham/rump when viewing from above. Even and smooth, firm not pliable. Rounded at croup, base of tail not flat. 5 points
Objections: Narrow, swayed or highly arched back, weak or mushy. Heritage hogs’ width typically averages the same from shoulder to ham/rump. Pliable feel to back could mean that the hog retains too much fat. Length should not be excessive as this can affect breeding and the productive life of hog due to weakness. Flat croup (area in front of the tail).
Sides & Ribs: Deep. Well-sprung ribs in proportion with shoulders and hams. Symmetrical from front to back. 5 points
Objections: Narrow, thin, shallow, pinched. *Long, deep bodied animals indicate a good capacity for organs and carry a larger quantity of high quality loin cuts.
Belly & Flank: Thick, flat, even underline. Flank smooth and full, in line with the sides, well let down. 5 points
Objections: Flabby, loose, droopy underline. Underline pulled up or thin. Flank out of line with sides.
Teats: At least 10 sound, evenly spaced, well-paired teats starting well forward. 5 points
Objections: Blind or inverted teats in gilts, sows, or boars. *Animals with 12 or more teats are desirable.
Hams & Rump: Hams broad and deep with good width coming well down to the hock. Rump slightly rounded from loin to base of tail. 5 points
Objections: Narrow, thin, long hams not extending well down to hock. Rump narrow, too flat, or dropping off too sharply. Flat croup.
Tail: Curled or crooked expressing movement. Set high. Attached as the hip falls from the back. With no depression at root. Moderately long but not coarse, well tasseled. 5 points
Objections: Straight, short, lack of tassel. *Tail set too low indicates steep rump which can lead to various joint, breeding and birthing issues due to stress on joints, restricted motion, and mal-alignment.
Legs: Short to medium, straight, strong boned, well tapered and well set apart. Pasterns springy, providing adequate cushion, consistent with heritage breeds. 5 points
Objections: Extremely long, short or thin legs. Knock knees, bucked knees, or pigeon toed. Post legged or stiffness – lack of proper shock absorption during locomotion. Legs set too narrow. Legs should be solid, thick and strong, placed squarely on all four corners of the body to provide adequate balance and proper support for the weight of the hog*. Rear legs should not appear to be standing on tiptoes nor be rocked back onto pasterns. Dew claws off of the ground when on firm footing. Weak foreleg pasterns are tolerable in heritage hogs but weak knees must be avoided due to premature breakdown of animals with the anatomical deformity. *Back legs set under the animal is common and true to heritage breeds, therefore, should not be considered a fault.
Feet: Strong with even, short to medium cleys consistent with heritage breeds. 5 points
Objections: Overly splayed. Excessively flat footed. Cleys of unequal size, twisted, or overly long. *Commercial breeds have been bred to stand upright on small, closed toes to improve the appearance of the hams without consideration of comfort for ease of movement on pasture. Heritage breeds often display soft, flexible pasterns with open toes appropriate for their age and weight. Open toes and flexible pasterns are true to heritage breeds and should not be viewed as a fault.
Skin & Hair: Clean coat of fine quality, any color, texture, or pattern except in the case of a true belt. 5 points
Objections: Hair not covering the body evenly. Swirls, cowlicks, hair growing in different directions on the body. Dullness. Lumps, bumps, or roughness of skin. A “true belt” is a disqualification in the show ring, however, the pig is registerable by the AKPR Registered Breeder with proof of parentage via DNA from AKPR Registered parents. “True Belt” is defined as “an unbroken band encircling the body (no spots/blotches and without bleeding) and including the front legs and feet”.
Testicles: Easily seen with each of the same size and carriage. *Points will be awarded under sexual characteristics of boar.
Objections: Uneven size or carriage, not easily seen. Flabby low scrotum. *Testicles that are not apparent may be due to over conditioning (too fat) at a young age and can result in infertility in boars. Testicles can be drawn up and held to the age of 8 to 12 months in some bloodlines/individuals. Testicles in some animals are held close to the body before relaxing and letting down in the aged boar.
Temperament: Placid in nature, active and alert, confident, docile, inquisitive. Easily handled and driven.
Objections: Wild, aggressive, difficult to control or drive. Dull.
Action: Free, firm, fluid and forward in motion. Alert. 5 points
MALE ~ boars should be strong in traits peculiar to the sex. Head may be slightly coarse, the neck full and arched somewhat, with the shoulder heavy. The forequarters are usually slightly heavier than the hind quarters and this distinction grows more evident with age as shields develop. Strength of frame without coarseness is desirable. Body should be deep, long, and low. Strong, short/medium legs with straight pasterns. At least 10 sound, evenly spaced, well-paired teats starting well forward. 5 points
FEMALE ~ after breed type, sex type is of first and foremost importance in sows. She shall have no signs of coarseness instead being feminine in overall appearance, neat, and sharp. The width before and behind should be almost uniform. Length of body abundant for growing litters and easy farrowing. She shall possess at least 10 sound, evenly spaced, well-paired teats starting well forward, none blind. 5 points
No doubt, we have a unique farm model compared to most. Our small farm is based on rare and heritage breed conservation, while most small farms are based on producing healthy & wholesome locally produced food. The rare breed heritage pork we produce is dependent upon how strict we are with our breeding program, and as such it also gives us the flexibility to “cull hard”. In other words, to be able to remove certain animals from our breeding program based on their quality and adherence to the breed standard (and our farm’s goals) without stress or anxiety, as we know the animal will be utilized for breed-specific pork, which will in turn contribute to the breed conservation effort. We tell our pork customers, “Every bite of our pork helps us to continue our work with conserving the breeds we love”, and this couldn’t be more true. Our weekly pork sales keep our animals fed and hayed, and our farm running. Conservation through utilization is crucial for rare & heritage breed animals, because without a use or purpose for them, there is no reason for farmers to continue working with them. For our pigs, that use is pork. This is difficult for many people to understand.
Conservation breeding programs aren’t easy, and they don’t exactly lend themselves to efficient food production (smaller pigs, longer grow out times versus large pigs that grow fast- you get the picture, what we do is very much a niche, premium product). They require one to continually make tough decisions and look upon the animals in their herd with a keen and unforgiving eye. One cannot be wearing “rose colored barn glasses”, in which they see every animal as one that should be registered and sold. It often helps to enlist a second set of eyes, as it can be difficult to evaluate your animals with a critical eye, and it does take time to learn the visual and comparative skills necessary to make such judgment calls. We are, and always will be- learning, and refining our gaze. How we see our pigs will change from year to year, as we learn more and continue gaining experience.
We are several years in to working with Kunekune pigs, and they are our true love, above and beyond all breeds of swine. In wanting to do our very best work with the breed, we’re constantly seeking to improve the quality of our herd, and conducting a yearly herd cull in which we thin our herd and shift our focus based on the previous year. Anyone can breed two registered Kunekune pigs together, produce offspring, sell them as registered piglets, and be part of conserving a breed… but when it comes to this breed’s future, that isn’t enough. The Kunekune breed needs breeders who are extremely serious about the breed, willing to cull hard and make sacrifices (even if it means culling a registered breeder they paid a lot of money for!) and having a meat cull program, whether on site or in partnership with another farm.
To us, Breed Conservation means the following, and more…
– Doing the best you can, with what you’ve started with. Not everyone is able to start off with the best of the best. In fact, most of us don’t start off this way.
– Becoming a member of your breed’s society or registry. Membership has it’s perks!
– Working with registered stock. Papers DO mean everything in terms of breed conservation efforts. Documenting pedigrees and having the option for others to utilize the genetics you are working hard to produce on your farm, is important. Without DNA testing & registration, this becomes futile. Last year, we sold four homestead pairs to people we knew personally, for pork production use. This year and from now on, no unregistered intact pigs are leaving our farm. We don’t believe that working with or selling unregistered stock helps with our breed conservation goals (or anyone’s). This is our viewpoint, it is a controversial topic and others may feel differently. For us, we see our area inundated with cheap and poor quality unregistered pigs. Many are crosses, but people are led to believe they have bought and are working with Kunekunes. Many buy these for pork production and end up with small pigs that never make weight, or there are temperament issues related to pigs not being pure Kunekune. Then there are the aesthetics of conformation, which is a whole other topic.
Did you buy unregistered pigs when you started off? Only in very rare cases will a breeder who sells unregistered pigs be willing to register them for you. Only the breeder can register and truth be told, some people just don’t want to do it even though it is quite easy. In many cases, your unregistered pig probably isn’t registration quality, anyway. If you bought unregistered pigs, you have two choices: use those pigs to produce bacon bits for your farm’s pork production OR process those pigs and start over again with registered stock.
– Learning anything and everything you can about the breed’s history. For Kunekune pigs, this involves learning the breed’s history in New Zealand, as well as in the UK. Becoming familiar with the import history and the imported pigs.
– Retaining pigs and building your own herd. If you’re utilizing your original seed stock over and over again, and not retaining offspring to breed into future generations, then you’re only at the tip of the iceberg of conservation breeding. Conservation breeding always looks to the future and for us, is about developing our farm’s own characteristic lines that suit the needs of our climate, environment and usage.
– Having a cull program. For us personally, this involves registering or retaining for observation, only the best piglets. All others are ear-marked for our meat herd. We make promoting and selling our pork a top priority so that we will always have a market for our product.
– Focusing on your own unique breeding program and pork production, that is geared towards the demographic for your area. We don’t focus on pet sales, at all. This is just a personal choice, as well as a controversial topic. Conservation breeding is not about trying to price fix or control what other breeders do, nor is it about trying to force other breeders to do/see things the way you do. We all have different situations and business models. This blog post is just our opinion- not an end-all, be-all for Kunekune conservation breeding. Everyone will have a different situation, price structure and manner in which they work. The ultimate “seal of approval” is the legacy you leave behind as a breeder. If you’re a bad breeder, people will stop working with you, period. The Kunekune community is small and close-knit. Honesty is always the best policy.
– Making hard decisions, every year. Looking hard at the animals in your herd and what they have produced and deciding who stays and who goes. And by who goes… I don’t mean selling a problem pig to an unsuspecting buyer. I mean pigs that haven’t produced as hoped. These are ones that should be utilized for pork. Last year we culled numerous registered pigs, that we had paid a good deal of money or traded time/labor for. It was painful to do it, but there is no way to make forward progress in a breeding program without culling ruthlessly and making sacrifices.
Yes, they equated to the most expensive pork chops ever… but our herd is better off for it. And each year as we thin the herd for improvement, we will be producing stronger pigs in the future based on those decisions. We just did our 2018 cull and have 8 registered breeders slated for meat production. Four of them were purchased from another breeder and could certainly be sold to someone else, but at this point they are worth more to us in terms of meat sales, and if they don’t meet our goals, why pass them forward to someone else? Another four of them were pigs we had retained and registered, but who didn’t make the cut. Culling hard is the only way we are going to meet our goals. It’s already taking us longer to do it because of pitfalls related to registration mishaps and working with pigs that ultimately didn’t meet our farm goals.
– Making plans for the future, identifying the traits that are weak (and strong) in your herd, and what steps you need to take to improve upon them. This could include retaining more pigs with certain type traits, or planning to add future foundation stock that has the strengths you need to carry on.
What conservation breeding means to us will surely change as we grow and progress in our own breeding program. What does it mean to you?
Let’s talk about COI in relation to breeding… COI = coefficient of inbreeding. In other words, the degree of relatedness that two pigs have. COI is just a number. It’s just a tool- one of many- that you might use when assessing a pig to add to your herd, or two pigs you want to breed together.
There’s a lot of confusion about COI and a lot of misconception that a low COI = a better quality pig. This is not a hard & fast rule and is especially confusing to those that are new to breeding and purchasing their first pigs. It can be overwhelming, and in a lot of cases, new buyers are probably passing up higher quality pigs left and right in favor of purchasing only those with low COI. The truth is that with COI, you have to look at the big picture. Not only all of your breeding pairs, but potentially the pairings of your pair’s offspring as well. Don’t exclude a pig based on COI alone.
Chickie, above- is an exceptional Jenny sow with wonderful conformation and type. She is the product of a line bred dam (with 35% COI) completely outcrossed to an unrelated sire with 0% COI. Her Grandparents were half siblings and cousins all at the same time. Chickie has a low 5.9% COI.
I’d rather have a pig with amazing conformation and a higher COI, than a pig with low COI that should have been a cull. Why? Because I can outcross that higher COI pig to a pig that is unrelated, and have low COI offspring. I can also cross a high COI pig to another high COI pig and end up with low COI offspring! But the low COI pig that is poor quality? It would take a few generations of breeding to improve that pig’s offspring, if it was even worth doing so in the first place. In that case, you’d have to consider other factors- such as, “is this pig a more rare bloodline that needs improvement and population?” or “does this pig have potential major faults that disqualify it from breeding?
Morgana, Chickie’s half sister, is an exceptional piglet who is line bred, and her COI is 26%. She will be outcrossed to a totally unrelated boar in the next generation, our Tutanekai, Lorenzo. He has an almost nonexistent COI of .4%- but it’s not just his COI that is appealing for Morgana, it is his conformation and color, as well. Here is her Morgana’s pedigree, so that you can see the common ancestors on dam/sire sides.
Why would we add a piglet to our herd with higher COI? Because we observed the consistent results that Morgan’s current owner had achieved through two litters of piglets, and we were very impressed by the offspring. These were piglets with exceptional growth rates, consistently strong conformation and type, and a body type well-suited to our pork production goals. Morgana’s genetics will be a valuable tool for us to work with.
At this time, the best pigs in our herd have higher COI’s, or were born out of one or both parents with higher COI’s (outcrossing). The truth is that a breed is both conserved AND maintained through a combination of line breeding and outcrossing. The key word here is MAINTAINED. When you breed two pigs together, you have chosen to breed those pigs for a variety of reasons. Hopefully, one of the reasons was because you chose traits in each one that you wanted to see expressed in future generations. When you line breed, you’re increasing the likelihood that certain traits will be expressed more consistently. On the flip side, you’re also increasing the likelihood that undesirable traits can appear, so you must be prepared to cull if need be (thankfully that is where a pork production program goes hand in hand with line breeding).
Again- breeding two higher COI pigs together doesn’t mean that the resulting offspring will have an even higher COI. In many cases, the COI will be lower, as in the case of Calliope (13.4% COI) and Giuseppe (14% COI). Their offspring would be a reasonable 9.9% COI, lower than both parents. Why? Because while both parents have higher COI, they are also less related when paired. It’s genetics.
COI is not the end-all, be-all indicator of quality in a breeding pig. Consider it, but don’t let yourself be ruled by it. Look at the pedigrees, and look at the pigs that appear with greater frequency in a line-bred pedigree (especially the closer generations). Most importantly, look at the pig itself! Look at it’s conformation, and that of it’s dam and sire.