An Academic (and Organic) Approach to the Mulefoot Hog
Understanding Heritage Pig Breeds
Reading Time: 6 minutes
By Cherie Dawn Haas – When Bill Landon and Sharyn Jones, of Pleasant Ridge Hamlets in Kentucky, chose to branch into the unknown and begin raising the Mulefoot hog in 2015, they began their journey into farming with an area in which they felt right at home: research.
That’s because both Bill and Sharyn are university professors with a passion that is rooted in history. It seems only natural, then, that their textbook and internet reading and conversations with others in the farming community would eventually lead them to the Mulefoot hog, a heritage pig breed that has its own ages-old and meaningful story in world cultures.
Traits of the Mulefoot hog include an independence and ability to survive on its own, partly because of its naturally high amount of fat and even the amount of hair on its body, which keeps it warm through winter. A close relative of the wild boar, it basically only needs food and a water supply; even the mothers can have healthy, unassisted births. Because of these low-maintenance qualities, it seemed the perfect livestock to start Pleasant Ridge Hamlets, a hilly three acres with a breathtaking view in northern Kentucky.
But the seemingly easy nature of raising the homestead hog, the Mulefoot hog specifically, isn’t the only thing that drew them in. “I think the Mulefoot hog is an attractive animal for one,” Bill says. “When you look at the animal’s eyes, it looks back at you with intelligence. They recognize us and they know our routines. It’s really quite interesting.”
Saving Heritage Pig Breeds
Thanks to farmers such as Bill and Sharyn, the Mulefoot hog has a better chance of surviving; as recently as the 1960’s it had almost become extinct. But Sharyn reminds us of a saying in the heritage pig breeds community: “you have to eat it to save it.”
“That’s what we’re trying to do – get the word out and let people taste it,” she says. At the 2017 county farm tour, “people were going crazy for the bacon. It’s kind of a revolution in your mouth.”
Part of the reason for the rich meat flavor is that it’s organic. Bill and Sharyn are able to raise their pigs almost 100 percent free of vaccines or medications because the animals are living in a way that so closely resembles the wild. Although fenced in, the pigs forage for some of their food, eating grasses and even walnuts that fall from a tree that offers them summer shade.
In addition to what their livestock find on their own, Bill and Sharyn have found that when it comes to feeding pigs, learning was a bit of trial and error.
“Initially we were kind of blown away by how expensive it was to maintain the non-GMO feeding regime for the pigs,” Sharyn said. Bill added, “We got worried because we thought that raising pigs for meat the way we wanted to would be unaffordable.”
But after further research and experimentation, they learned that their pigs do well with 12 to 16 percent protein, which is less than the amount recommended by the industry. More than that amount, however, caused their first pigs to balloon up to an incredible 900 pounds, which isn’t ideal, either.
“We overfed our first three pigs,” Sharyn said, “and the females became very mean to the male. Then they wouldn’t procreate, and it was sad to watch because he was so sweet but was mistreated by the females.” Today, Bill and Sharyn mostly feed their Mulefoot hogs corn with local brewery grains mixed in.
An Organic Lifecycle
As with the beginning of their endeavor into farming, Bill and Sharyn continue to do research when new problems arise. For example, one challenge came during an icy and wet November. “When our piglets were born, one of them, our runt named Harry Potter, had gotten a cold,” Sharyn said. “He was sneezing and had a runny nose and runny eyes. He was just the size of a kitten at the time. We knew he wasn’t going to be okay.”
“It was really sad,” Bill said, “because he would just stand in the corner and cough.”
They knew he needed some extra help before either dying or infecting the rest of the pigs, and so they began looking into different options. Their research led them to study farming practices beyond America and across the Atlantic Ocean.
“The Italians, who raise expensive pigs for prosciutto (which ours are very good for) realized that there’s a lot invested in the animal, and their hogs are also free-ranging; they’re not confined,” Bill said. “When an animal gets sick, that’s the only time they’ll administer something — to treat that particular sickness, and then beyond that, they don’t intrude on the pig’s lifestyle. I considered that the Italians have been doing it very successfully, and Italian produce is some of the best in the world. I thought if we took that approach, that seems to be the one that’s closest to nature, but also you do intervene if necessary, but only when necessary, to save a pig’s life.”
Which is what Bill and Sharyn did; they made an informed decision to give Harry Potter (the piglet) and his mother a shot of penicillin to return him to health and protect the other piglets. After just a few more days, he was back to his healthy and happy self.
Because the hogs are free-range, they tend to live a healthier life altogether, which Sharyn explains: “What we found in researching the history of giving vaccinations to livestock in big farming operations — especially in the cases where they’re confined and they’re not getting outside, where they don’t have more than several feet per animal to move for their whole life — antibiotics are essential. If one animal gets sick, they all get sick because of their close and unsanitary confines. That’s why medications are so essential in that context.
“In this context, where they roam freely, they go swimming when they want, they forage, they get a wide diversity of really healthy foods — they’re not getting sick like they do in those other situations. Most small farmers don’t have herds of a size that would necessitate medication, but at the same time the farming industry tells us you have to feed medicated foods to your young chickens and your young pigs and things like that; it has become almost impossible to find foods that aren’t medicated. As a farmer, you’re compelled to go the medication route because there’s this myth that you need to. But in reality, you don’t.”
The organic nature of Pleasant Ridge Hamlets extends beyond the livestock, too. Their grass, gardens, and fruit trees are chemical-free, and so completely safe for both their family and their Mulefoot hogs. “We take some risks because we don’t spray for pests or fungus,” Bill said as he explained that because of this, they sometimes don’t harvest any fruit. “When we had peaches, they weren’t pretty, but they tasted good and the pigs ate them; they eat anything we don’t eat, and then, in turn, it goes back to the land.”
He went on to explain that in the future they’ll be rotating the pigs in three separate areas, one of which used to be a tomato garden that was destroyed by intensive farming. “We let it grow back and started mowing it infrequently and in three years it has returned to a healthy piece of ground,” Bill added. “Nature has a way of restoring itself if you let it.”
Do you think the Mulefoot hog would be a good fit for your farm? Tell us why or why not in the comments section!
Follow Pleasant Ridge Hamlets on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/pleasantridgehamlets.
Cherie Dawn Haas is a writer who manages a small hobby farm in the Bluegrass State with her husband and two sons. https://www.instagram.com/cheriedawnhaas/