Duroc buying guide

Duroc pig buyers guide

Chris Graham profiles one of the most underrated pig breeds around, and highlights the benefits that so many potential keepers are missing!

The Duroc, it seems to me, is a much-maligned breed. Its name is neither attractive nor informative, and certainly gives no clue to the casual researcher about breed characteristics or appearance. There's more than a whiff of French about the name, but even using that as a guide would be of no help. The Duroc, it appears, was christened simply on the whim of its creator, way back in the 1820s, and on the other side of the Atlantic, in New England, USA.

The story goes that, in 1823, Isaac Frink of Milton, New York, obtained a red boar from Harry Kelsey, from the little town of Florida, also in New York State. This boar was one from a litter of 10, and it seems likely that its parents had been imported from the UK. At the time, Mr Kelsey was also the proud owner of a famous trotting stallion named Duroc and, maybe because it was the same colour, Frink decided to give his new red boar the same name.

Home-grown

Of course, red hogs had been bred in the region for 

a good many years before all this happened, and were already recognised and appreciated for the quality of the meat they produced, as well as their impressive size and speed of growth. The bringing together of the two red hog strains from New York and New Jersey was obviously a smart move; one that resulted in a ‘best of both worlds'-type of outcome.

Frink's oddly random name choice seemed to stick as the years rolled by and, come the start of the 1860s, the descendants from his line started being used more seriously in a careful selection process. The deep body, large ham and broad shoulder combination of his strain was increasingly regarded, as was its relatively small bone mass and general quality of carcass.

The first organisation for the purpose of recording, improving, and promoting the red hogs was the American Duroc-Jersey Association, established in 1883. Then, at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the Duroc gained wide popularity at the first successful Duroc Hog Show. Its early forays abroad weren't so successful, however. The breed made two attempts 

A Semi-lop ears are an essential Duroc requirement; pricked are a real no-no. Ears are getting smaller which is bad news because there's not enough weight to keep them as folded forwards as they should be. Part of the cause of this is the bloodlines coming in from the commercial sector, where ear size isn't an issue.

B Although the breed standard calls for ‘auburn', colour varies a lot with everything from red-brown to a dark brown being possible, depending on the bloodline. Evenness of colour is a desirable feature. Avoid curly-coated examples but remember that hair does get coarser with age.

C Although the back should be predominantly flat, some arching upwards is allowable but, if this is present, it's important that it starts from the shoulder. Humps in the back, found further back than the shoulders, are best avoided. Another desirable characteristic to look out for is a consistent width from front to back, when viewed from above.

D The tail should be set high, although this is a relatively subjective matter. ‘Low' tails are not a good sign. Check the area around the base of the tail for any signs of white hair; the presence of this represents a serious breed fault, and will cause a show pig to be disqualified.

E The Duroc is famous for the size and fullness of its hams. They should be broad and well let down to the hock. The rump should have a round slope from loin to the root of the tail.

F The underline must feature a minimum of 12 (ideally 14), evenly spaced and ‘mirrored' teats. For those looking for perfection in the show ring, this is difficult to achieve. A common failing is for the gap between teats one and two (from the front) to be too large. Odd teats can be a problem as well.

G The Duroc is surprisingly light on its feet and even elderly examples like this multi-prize-winning sow should still move with a free and fluid gait. When standing, it's important that these animals are well up on their toes and that their legs are straight and strong (especially on boars). Avoid those displaying any hint of duck-footedness.

H The Duroc's head should be reasonably small in comparison to the size of the rest of the animal. Snout length does vary with bloodline and a slight amount of dishing is required.

What to pay?

The good news, from a price point of view, is that the Duroc's relative scarcity isn't reflected in over-inflated prices. Typically these pigs will be available at much the same costs as any other native breed, so those looking for weaners should expect to pay about £50 each for them. If you're looking for breeding stock, then a nine-month-old boar is likely to cost about £350 and in-pig sows should be available for about the same.

Worth trying?

Pros

  • Superb meat quality
  • Easy to keep
  • Straightforward farrowing
  • Fast grower
  • Hardy and disease-resistant
  • Simple to manage
  • Useful as a ‘meat-improver'

Cons

  • Stock supply limited
  • Hair removal at the abattoir
  • Domestic gene pool small
  • Smallish litters

to gain a foothold in the UK but the first one – in the early 1970s – was a disappointment. However, some of the animals involved went on to Denmark for further development.

It appears that these were then re-imported in the early ‘80s, for another crack at the UK market. This time a comprehensive trial was undertaken by the MLC Pig Improvement Scheme, to assess the merits of the Duroc as a terminal sire. It was found that in the British, skin-on fresh pork market, the Duroc could not be used as a pure-bred, but only as a component of a crossbred boar. The development of Duroc crossbred boars produced large numbers of crossbred gilts, and a market was found for these due to a resurgence of interest in outdoor pig production.

This has resulted in breeding and selection programmes for the British Duroc, focusing on female line characteristics, rather than the traditional, terminal sire traits associated with the breed. So the Duroc found itself a special niché in the British pork industry, and a unique British version of the breed has been developed.

Oddly ignored

But, unfortunately, the pure breed Duroc hasn't enjoyed nearly the same level of success at a domestic level. At no stage has the breed ever really caught-on as a smallholder's favourite, or a popular choice for the back garden keeper rearing two or three weaners for the freezer.

Duroc piglet

Durocs don't stay like this; they're just about the fastest-growing of all the native breed pigs and can develop into excellent, pork-weight carcasses in under five months.

This really is something of a conundrum, given the many benefits, the Duroc has to offer the small-scale keeper. After all, why wouldn't you want to own and rear such an efficiently productive pig? Its characteristically thick, auburn winter coat and hard skin ensure that the breed is well able to deal comfortably with the cold and wet of the British winter.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in the fact that the breed labours under the misconception that it's difficult to live with; some even regard these pigs as aggressive. 

Then there's the ‘image problem'. Being classed as a modern breed seems to put unwanted distance between the Duroc and the others that perhaps come to mind more readily when people think of traditional, rare breed pigs. Maybe the fact that it's still widely used by commercial pork producers, moves it further still from the quaint, homely perception that the more traditional breeds such as the Gloucestershire Old Sports or the Oxford Sandy & Black, are lucky enough to revel in.

As I mentioned, though, the perceived gap that 

Duroc pigs with keeper

now exists between the Duroc and many of the more popular breeds, does it no favours.

The idea that the Duroc is awkward to deal with could well have arisen from anecdotal accounts of peoples' experiences with those pigs used in commercial situations. Lacking any significant human interaction, these animals are bound to be vastly different from anything that's reared in a domestic environment. The practical reality is that proper, considerate handling and treatment will produce Durocs that are every bit as manageable and engaging to keep as any other of our native breeds.

On the fringe

Nevertheless, the breed remains somewhat on the fringes of things as far as enthusiast keepers are concerned. The knock-on effect of this is that buying stock can be more of a struggle than it is with the most popular options. With only around 10 breeders in the UK producing stock for sale in any appreciable numbers, sourcing animals requires both patience and contacts.

You don't have to go back much more than a handful of years to find a time when fewer than five serious breeders working with the Duroc, so the situation is now certainly better than it was, but there are still concerns. The BPA's 2014 Bloodline Survey revealed that there were 22 keepers with registered Duroc sows, and that figure crept up to 27 in 2015. The keeper total then held steady in 2016 but, by 2017, the number had fallen again, to 24.

However, the overall pig numbers remain disappointingly low, with just 100 registered sows and just 24 boars registered with the BPA in 2017. So let's hope for some increase on these totals in the 2018 survey, to reward all the effort and hard work put in by Jan Walton, the Duroc breed representative within the BPA. Her enthusiasm is infectious and, speaking from a position of considerable experience, her arguments in favour of the breed are compelling.

As Jan is quick to point out, the Duroc provides an almost perfectly developed pig for the British climate. It's hardy enough to cope with all conditions and, thanks to its dark, coarse hair, it's untroubled by the burning effects of the sun that can cause such discomfort for the lighter-coloured breeds.

Reputation re-think

Jan's also adamant that the ‘character flaws' so often associated with the Duroc are totally unjustified. In her experience, Durocs treated to normal amounts of human interaction will be mild-mannered and well behaved.

Duroc sow

There's no special effort or extra attention required, just straightforward care and attention. A commonsense approach to the boars during the breeding season and farrowing sows – the sort of behaviour you should be adopting with any breed – will ensure these pigs retain trust and confidence in their keeper, and remain a joy to own.

Another benefit of the breed's innate hardiness is that they are great breeders. It's extremely rare that an owner will ever need to get involved with farrowing; the sows just get on with it themselves, and make excellent mothers. For big pigs, they are surprisingly agile, and accidental squashings are rare. Complications with piglets are few and far between as well, but some keepers are getting concerned that the UK's relatively limited gene pool is going to start causing in-breeding-related problems sooner or later.

The Duroc has always been a fast grower; a factor that's becoming ever more relevant as pig feed prices continue to rise. But they're not only fast-maturing, they're big, too. Those rearing Duroc porkers for the freezer can expect a typical slaughter weight of between 100 and 110kg.

This compares very favourably with the 60-70kg at which most other native breeds depart for the abattoir. But it's not only the extra weight that Duroc owners benefit from, but the fact it can be reached in less than five months.

All this suggests that the Duroc represents a very smart choice for anyone looking for a hardy, no-nonsense producer of top-quality pork. What's more, these pigs aren't known as characteristic sufferers with any of the typical, pig-related diseases, and their ability simply to get on with life – under virtually any conditions – makes them a thoroughly worthwhile ownership proposition.

The genuine article?

If you want to buy a Duroc pig, make sure you are getting the real thing. Remember that without a pedigree, it's just another pig. If you want to sell Duroc pigs by name, or Duroc pork, then your pigs must be pedigree registered.

Only registered pigs will be included on the Breeds at Risk Register, as part of the national conservation effort to save our native breeds. For advice on buying your Duroc pig contact your breed rep (refer to the Duroc breed page for contact details).

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This article was previously published in Practical Pigs magazine. Back issues of the magazine can be purchased from https://shop.kelsey.co.uk/issue/PGG