A Pigpen for the Backyard

Excerpt from Practical Skills 1985

Loose talk about pigpens in the yard will send the blood pressure soaring in the veins of local zoning officials, if not your neighbors. It’s perfectly all right in our culture to keep a dog half the size of a cow in the yard, letting it bark all night and running all over town dropping manure in its wake. But a quiet, clean hog producing something useful like pork chops? Heaven forbid.

People think hogs are dirty because hogs will survive in crowded conditions. Because hogs will survive in crowded conditions, humans have always raised them that way, the better to make a buck. Try raising cats like we do hogs, and you’ll know what dirt and stench are really like.

A neighbor woman has for twelve years raised a hog every summer in a pen in her yard. The pig and its pen are so clean I doubt close neighbors, if there were any, would know the pig was there unless she told them. The pen is simplicity itself. Sometimes she uses a simple V-shaped hut for a shelter. One side is a discarded tub once used for mixing cement in, and the other side consists of three 2 x 4s covered with roof paneling. At other times, she stacks some old hay bales together to make a warm, snug hut. The hay protects against the cool, moist drafts of spring and gives shade in summer, although plenty of shade is now supplied by trees that have grown up and over the pen.

The pen consists of an 8-foot-square platform of fifteen 2 x 6s, spaced 7/8 inch apart. The 7/8-inch crack between the floor planks is critical. If wider, the pig might get its foot caught; if narrower, manure tends to build up on the flor rather than work its way through. The floor sits on a square frame of four 2 x 10s, with a fifth 2 x 10 down the middle. And the frame sits on cement blocks at each corner.

The pen sits on a slight slope. On the front side, the platform is nearly level with the ground, but on the other side it is about 2 feet above ground level, so it is easy to clean out the manure under the floor. To hold the pig in its pen, there are posts set into the ground at each corner of the pen to which picket fencing is wired. The fence is in two sections, 32 feet in all. A horizontal bar of 2 x 4s extends all around the bottom of the fence from post to post to strengthen the picket fencing. When the pig needs to be moved to a truck for hauling to the butcher, always a difficult job on a homestead, the neighbor lady and her husband unwire one of the picket fence sections and curl it around the pig. The pig is accustomed to being surrounded by the fence anyway, and by carrying the fence along as it surrounds the pig, they can move the animal quite easily to the truck. Then they open the fence only enough so the hog has nowhere to go but up the ramp into the truck — or if the truck is backed against a bank (which is a much better way) the hog can walk right on without climbing a ramp. Or they can back a truck up that side of the pen that is 2 feet above ground level. The picket fence can then be opened so that the hog can walk right onto the truck bed. In my own experience, this is the best way to load a hog easily: have its pen at the same height as the truck bed. Forcing hogs or any animal up a ramp is always difficult.

The neighbors pigpen is surrounded by trees and bushes and so is barely noticeable as one walks across the yard toward it, unless the pig should squeal. It rarely does because it is the most contented pig in the world: overfed, shaded by trees, sprayed with water on hot days, and kept warm and dry on cool rainy days.

The neighbor buys her pig from a farmer in April, at weaning weight of about 40 pounds. She feeds it a commercial ration supplemented by homegrown corn, garden leftovers, and table scraps. She gets about 135 pounds of dressed meat and lard, at a cost of a little over a dollar a pound, counting all costs except her labor. But she says saving money is not her goal, and that she wold go on raising her own hog even if it were costlier than buying pork from the grocery, which her husband says it is. Why? Quality. She says buying good lard at a store is almost out of the question, and that her own meat tastes so much better. She also knows it is not contaminated with drugs.


In Japan in the good old days the outhouse used to be connected to the pig pen. The family would do their business and the solids would run down one end and be gobbled up by the pigs. Highly nutritious, very popular and of course, 100% free and organic. Then the U.S. military put a stop to that during the occupation and today’s Japanese are a little too “civilized” to breed their own pigs in that way.

As a pig farmer on a small scale, I agree with promoting the idea that pig farming does not need to be a stinky affair, and that the manure can be put to excellent use in a garden, after a round of composting. I don’t agree that a solitary pig is a fine set up. Pigs are social creatures and seem to get a lot of enjoyment from the company of others. Not only that, they are competitive eaters, and grow faster when they are focused on taking food from their buddies. I also think rooting is critical for a pig to live a piggy life. It would be nice if the set-up described could have a section, say on the uphill side, that’s on the ground, so the pigs can dig in the dirt.

Regarding becoming friends with your stock, it is a tough problem. The only real solution is to avoid eating meat. If I’m going to eat meat, I am proud that the animal sacrificed for this cause lived a fine, piggy life with all good days and one bad, (that’s more than I can say for my life). I’ve been enriched by my relationship with my pigs as well as by the healthy meat they have become. I do often name my pigs (it feels like a way of respecting their individuality, it’s fun, and hey, what’s in a name?) and I weep and whisper a deep thank you on butchering day.

Budd, I think a lot of us have some of that internal conflict when talking about an animal we’ve raised (and sometimes we’ve raised its progenitors for several generations back). And animals absolutely have individual personalities. I got attached to one pig early in our pig-raising days and it was very hard to butcher him; I cried buckets. We don’t name the animals we intend for meat, as a message to the kids that this is not a pet and to prevent us from personalizing them ourselves. Doesn’t always solve the problem, because you run into the situation we have right now where it looks like the heifer named by the youngest is barren, and won’t be good for anything but meat.

But I agree with Roof that they have no such compunction about us humans (or each other). In the wild, the only rule of thumb is kill or be killed, and you’re either quick or dead. We try to kill in the quickest way possible, so that they’re grazing one minute and dead the next. I much prefer to eat that sort of meat over the kind raised in CAFOs and killed in terror, maybe even abused prior to death. I figure if I’m going to eat meat I have a responsibility to ensure the animal has a good life and a fast death.

I still don’t like to butcher and probably never will–although I admit I don’t have that connection with chickens or fish, and butchering them doesn’t bother me. But in all cases, I do say what I can only call a prayer for the animal’s spirit, kind of like the old gralloch prayer my Scots ancestors used in hunting. Diana Gabaldon has a great scene in one of her books when her son-in-law, who was a historian and not a farmer, has to come face to face with the butchering process. They talk about how killing without ceremony seems like murder, but the ceremony acknowledges the necessity and is more respectful of the animal, which gives its life that you may live. I like that. Death and life are inextricably interwound, even though we Americans have in many cases sanitized it to the point that we can pretend otherwise. And I’d much rather have some qualms about killing than be indifferent to it.

I actually feel that I’m a little loony with my feeling like I’m betraying an animal by befriending it and then killing it. I’ve been getting more this way as I get older. I actually passed up an opportunity to shoot a cat last week.
I’ve found over the years that animals have distinct personalities and are much smarter than we think they are. The problem arises when I socialize them and form a bond with them. I have no problem with having a herd of cows and having the mobile slaughter guy come out. I don’t watch but I have no guilt eating the meat.
The worst thing I ever had to do in my life was shoot my faithful German Shepherd. It kind of traumatized me. The next one that had to be put down I called the vet.
I just like animals and if I had a pig in my backyard and it was a nice and friendly pig. I know I could never eat him…

    I actually do name animals, especially hogs that are for butchering. Raise them from a small size, treat them as you would a pet, and grow attached to them some what. That keeps me connected. When I butcher, I know that it was a happy, healthy, and nurtured animal that lived a good life.

    It keeps you human. You know where your food comes from, and I don’t feel nearly as bad eating it as I do buying meat purchased from a store when the animal was housed in a feedlot with thousands of other animals and pumped full of antibiotics because it wouldn’t survive without them. Our animals are cared for and live full and comfortable lives. Butchering isn’t easy (and never should be) but you take more care in respecting the animal if it is yours, in life and in death.

You are not alone, Budd. I can relate a little, but you’re romanticizing our porcine friends. They are omnivores, and while they are intelligent, have personalities, and even, I think, senses of humor, they don’t necessarily agree that you are the top of the food chain. I’ve raised hogs, and if you are alone with a group of hogs, you should have a contingency plan if you are injured. Hogs cannibalize, especially if stressed, and someone has to respect that they are corporate climbers. When I went to college, some of my New Jersey friends wanted to believe they had friends in the Mob (Godfather had just came out), and I told my friends if they wanted to dispose of bodies, they should invest in confinement hog feeding operations. There would be no evidence left. Everything is food to hogs. I just finally rationalized that hogs don’t have opposable thumbs, which is why I’m on the outside of the pen. I agree with what I think American Indians felt in that I respect their life, or spirit, and someday I, too, would be food for either plants or worms, maybe even a bear or a hog or at least a buzzard. The Wheel of Life goes around. I still won’t eat my friends, though. I’ve found that to be a career limiting trait. Like I said, Budd, you are not alone.

I’ve known people to have “house trained” a pig, much like a dog. Unfortunately, the pig became a hog of 400 pounds, so the day came when it had to go outside for good. It wasn’t the smell, it was the size.

@Budd E. Shepherd: why do you eat meat at all? It sounds like, philosophically, you should be a vegetarian.

I hold no ill feelings toward either carnivores nor vegetarians, but someone with your internal conflict troubles me.

If you are going to eat meat, what is wrong with developing a relationship with an animal, giving them a better life as a result?

Conversely, if you’re going to fret about an animal’s feelings, and if you consider killing them a “betrayal,” why eat meat at all? You’re doing your own karma some serious damage with this conflict. If you view killing animals for food as a “betrayal” and a form of violence, it is still a betrayal and violence by proxy if you eat the meat so killed.

I like this idea very much, especially with the neighbors’ dogs in mind. Don’t get me wrong; I love dogs, but I’ve always trained my dogs to be quiet, and only bark when someone’s messing with the house. Consequently, my neighbors were surprised to find out that I actually had a dog.

Keeping the right breed of hog in the backyard seems a good idea to me. My husband has already told me that we will not be doing it.

I too, hate the anthropomorphic portrayal of animals. I think it is degrading to the animal.

I always try to keep a distance with the animals we use for meat. I keep them comfortable, cared for, and healthy, but keep their purpose in mind. My goal is to provide the best life I can for the food animal while it is alive and to make its death low stress. Killing and butchering is done with respect and with thanks.

Excellent post! But you know, its not too hard to butcher at home – we do it with great results. Say, a few of us fellow Ohio folks are talking about the lack of crops in the fields. I’m letting people know to come here and read what you have to say about the price of corn and such. Feel free to pitch in if you’d like. Are you hearing the sound of tractors or still too wet there?
your pal,

Since I was a little kid on the farm I have had problems with our relationship towards livestock. You raise a baby calf and it follows you around like a dog and then you kill him. One hog would be much worse. They can become very friendly. At least the calf joins a herd and becomes more anonymous.
I know this is insane but it bugs me enough I don’t raise animals. I have no problem eating meat that comes from other folks betrayal of their pets, so I trade grain or hay for pork and beef and I look the other way when I go by the hog pen. Sometimes i want to whisper, “it is all a lie, run for it” but I resist.
By the same token i hate to read books to my child that give human characteristics to animals. I have pointed out that those cartoon animals would eat each other in real life. (my daughter doesn’t seem to care)

Please leave your comments...

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>