February 2014 – We’ve a lot to thank pedigree breeders for

Being an old codger, I’m allowed to cogitate and I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Modern technology makes you realise just how far we have come from what some people still call the “good old days”.

When our pig industry took off in the 1950s, most people had pure-bred pigs, mainly Large White, Essex or Wessex, Large Black, Tamworth (deemed the ideal bacon pig), Gloucester Old Spots and a few hardy Oxford Sandy & Blacks. There were also some Welsh herds, Cumberland and Lincolnshire Curly along with Berkshires (noted for their pork quality).

There were many pedigree breeders and it was quite common to have annual sales of the various breeds. Of course, there were breed standards to consider, and if you wanted to sell a pedigree boar, or a bull for that matter, the county livestock officer had to come and assess each animal.

Many of the standards deemed important then would be totally irrelevant today. Did it really matter if the ears weren’t pink, or there was a whirl on the animal’s coat, a black spot on a white pig, or the tail did not curl the right way? Everything was judged on the individual pointers of a particular breed, and didn’t really have a commercial bearing on how a pig would perform.

We had some wonderful names; King David or Field Marshall for the boars, which made them sound like stalwart creatures. There was never any suggestion in those days of developing separate sire and dam lines as we know them today.

In the early 1950s a new breed, the Landrace, appeared and that gave forward-looking farmers an alternative to the Large White for crossing the other breeds. The Saddlebacks provided the Blue & White when crossed with either the Landrace or the Large White, and those sows were the base for our expanding outdoor production. They would be mated to the opposite breed from their sire to produce commercial pigs.

That enabled producers to see benefits in growth rates and feed conversion thanks to hybrid vigour. Prior to that, these hybrids would probably just be described as good-doers or good strong pigs.

So, we have a lot to thank our stalwart pedigree breeders for as they provided the basic genetics for the modern-day pig, and the minor breed enthusiasts still have a part to play supplying their niche outlets – and, of course, as a genetic reserve, just in case.

We really have to take our hats off to the current breeding companies too, for the huge advances they have all made in modern production; none of them could have done that without our former varied breeds.

Since the introduction of Landrace, we have also had the Duroc and Hampshire to further our aims and help us supply the various outlets with the different products they want. How things have changed from the days when the only performance monitoring was “How many has she had, lad?”

> Yorkshire farmer Sam Walton is a former pig producer and the founding editor of Pig World

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