Pigs. The Inventors of Bacon

Pop quiz! What is the gestation period of a pig?

That’s right! 114 days. It is easy to remember if you think 3-3-3, that is 3 months, three weeks, and three days.

Question number 2. What is the average number of piglets a sow can have?

Yes! 7.5 is right. Pigs regularly have up to 14 piglets per litter, but the average across all breeds is around 7.5.

We don’t often think about pigs. But every Saturday morning when we pull out that packet of bacon for brunch we can say thanks to pigs for providing us such a tasty treat. We raise pigs in Iowa because it is close to the feed they eat. The main staples of a pig’s diet are corn and soybeans and those are the two top commodity crops grown in Iowa. It isn’t coincidence then that Iowa is the number one pork producing state. But Iowa as a powerhouse in swine production didn’t happen overnight. Pigs as a species of livestock have a history that stretches back over 40 million years!

Pigs were first domesticated around 7,000 years ago in western Asia. They scavenged human garbage for food and this close proximity and regular interaction led to their domestication. Pigs traveled with humans as humans began moving around the globe. By 1500 BCE they were widely used for meat in Europe. They even sailed across the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus when he journeyed to the New World. Pigs are omnivores, which means they will eat most anything (meat based or plant based). The common image is ‘slopping’ the pigs or feeding them table scraps and waste products from human food. While that might have been a cheap way to feed pigs in days of old, that is largely an antiquated idea. Pigs today have carefully controlled diets that allow them to grow quickly and stay healthy. Farmers plan their diets with the help of veterinarians and nutritionists. The pig’s diet will even change as they get older to meet their nutritional requirements.

Pigs were first introduced to America in the 1500s. As corn became the most common feed, more and more pigs were raised in the Midwest. Corn was relatively easy to grow and provides quick energy to the pigs. It also provides most of the essential nutrients needed for the pigs to grow. By the 1850s nearly 70,000 pigs per day were shipped through Ohio to the East Coast. Pigs were produced in the ‘corn belt’ states and then shipped to the population centers along the coasts. The invention of the refrigerated railroad car in 1887 made this even easier as pork (instead of live pigs) could be shipped and the meat refrigerated to keep it fresh over long distances.

By the 1990s farmers had made significant improvements in swine production. Through selective breeding techniques, pigs now have larger litters, less disease, and more muscle growth. Larger litters allow farmers to raise more pigs and meet consumer demand. U.S. pork is exported to more than 100 different countries around the world. The swine industry also changed to meet consumer demand. In the 1950s it was not uncommon to see fat pigs. Consumers at the time liked to see pork chops with a thick rind of fat around them. Today’s health-conscious consumer wants less fat in their diet. Pigs now are raised to be lean and muscular, and not fat.

Today’s modern pigs have come a long way from their ancestor – the wild boar. There are numerous specialized breeds that offer better features depending on what the farmer wants (lean meat, good mothering, long body length, etc.). Breeds like Chester White, Duroc, and Berkshire are just a couple of examples. Why different breeds and different colors? It is based on selective breeding. Imagine a bowl of M&Ms where there were 20 brown M&Ms and one yellow M&M. You are asked to pick just one. Which one do you choose? Most people would pick the different colored one – the yellow one. That is how selective breeding works. When a pig exhibits a different trait (like color) the farmer takes notice of the difference. If it is a positive trait, the farmer will then often use that animal as a breeding animal. That trait that the farmer wants then gets passed on to the progeny.

As we look at the future of the pork industry we can see it growing and being an important part of our food system. There is a lot of science and research that is working to benefit the industry. Scientists are studying things like the gut biome to help pigs more efficiently digest their food. Research is being conducted on swine diseases to help keep pigs healthy and prevent disease. Research is being done on how pork can be a healthy and protein rich part of the human diet. It is exciting to think about the future of pork production.

But for now, I get to enjoy my bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. Thank you, farmers!


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