Pietrain buying guide

Pietrain pig buying guide

Chris Graham introduces a breed that’s distinguished by its unusually muscular looks, and by the quality of carcass it can deliver.

One snag that many newcomers to pig keeping run up against is over-feeding their animals, and causing them to run to fat. This is an ever-present risk for anyone keeping native breed pigs, and can spoil a carcass and leave lots of work for a skilled butcher if the prime joints are to be brought back into good, usable condition.

However, there’s one breed for which such worries are more or less redundant; the Pietrain (pronounced pee-a-trin or pee-a-train) is the leanest of lean pigs, that delivers a carcass of such quality that it’s earned itself a worldwide reputation as the favoured cross for improving other, fattier breeds.

Largely ignored

However, the Pietrain’s significant advantages in this respect – and its general usefulness to the small-scale, domestic pig enthusiast – have gone largely ignored by back garden keepers and smallholders alike, here in the UK. While the breed has enjoyed a degree of success on the Continent, especially in Belgium, Germany and Spain, it’s never really fired the imagination of enthusiast keepers on this side of the Channel.

This seems odd, given the practical qualities the breed has to offer but, unfortunately, the Pietrain 

It’s not clear which breeds went into the mix when the Pietrain was created in Belgium, early last century. However, face shape does vary from strain to strain and, generally speaking, it’s best to avoid those displaying an elongated snout; ‘ant-eaters’ as they call them in Belgium!

B Most people describe the Pietrain as a prick-eared breed, but the breed standard begs to differ. The suggestion given there is that the ears should be neither pricked nor lopped, but should sit somewhere in between, as here.

C It’s a breed characteristic that the Pietrain should display a strong, muscular neck and shoulders; something that this fine boar does splendidly.

D A good length of back is another important and desirable feature of a good Pietrain. You should avoid those showing any sort of appreciable dip or hump along the back, and you’ll need to be patient to wait for the animal to stand properly before this can be usefully assessed.

E The Pietrain is famous for the size and quality of its hams, so it’s a case of the bigger the better on the male. However, avoid too much development in this region on the female if you’re looking for breeding stock; excess in this department will hinder performance come service time.

F As wit all pigs, a Pietrain should stand well up on its feet and present good, straight, well positioned and strong legs.

G Always look for a good, straight underline and make sure that there are 12-14, evenly-spaced teats.

H The Pietrain really is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the pig world, with good examples displaying clearly defined, rippling muscles. Thankfully, though, these pigs are gentle giants.

What to pay?

With Pietrains relatively few and far between, being specific about purchase price is difficult. They aren’t a breed that crops up too often at sales, so it’s likely that you’ll have to track down a breeder and source stock that way. 

If you’re after adult animals, then expect to pay £300+ for a decent gilt, and about £250 for a good boar. Weaners, as with most other breeds, should be available for about £50 each.

Worth trying?

Superb, lean carcass

Excellent for crossing

Docile temperament

Straightforward to keep

Attractive looks

Hardy performer

No breed club

In short supply

Fertility can be an issue

Spectre of PSS

continues to suffer from the effects of a poor reputation it gained about 50 years ago. Hopefully, though, this article will help redress the balance somewhat, and reassure potential keepers that today’s Pietrain pigs can provide not only a very pleasurable ownership proposition, but also an excellent source of top-quality pork.

The problem that caused all the fuss back in the 1960s resulted from a quirk of the Pietrain’s genetic make-up. Like some other heavily-muscled pigs, the breed is prone to Porcine Stress Syndrome (PSS); an unpleasant condition that can result in sudden death with very little provocation. For example, the stress involved in transporting pigs in a trailer can be sufficient to trigger an untimely death.

Pietrains that carry this potentially deadly gene are termed homozygous recessive, and are susceptible to PSS, and those which don’t are heterozygous, and have no such vulnerability. The trick, of course, is know which is which. Fifty years ago, this aspect was little understood and Pietrain ownership appears to have been something of a lottery.

But it didn’t take long for stories of the sudden death of pigs to circulate among UK pig breeders, and the damage to the breed’s reputation was done. Unfortunately, it’s never really recovered, despite the significant advances that have been made with the understanding and – more importantly – the identification, of this condition.

Pietrain pigs at feeding time

You can see from this group shot of Pietrain youngsters just how much variation there is in a typical litter.

Nowadays, a relatively simple blood test is all that’s required to confirm the presence or absence of the recessive gene, so it’s perfectly possible to source healthy stock that will live and perform just like any other pig. Nevertheless, the image re-building process has proved to be something of a slow grind. People have long memories and the Pietrain remains a bit of an outcast for many; an oft ignored option among pedigree pig breeders and enthusiasts.

Nevertheless, there’s real potential to be found with this breed and the rewards, as we’ll see, 

can be mightily impressive.

Relative newcomer

Another aspect which probably works against the Pietrain is its age. It’s one of the newer breeds we have, and the consequent lack of history means that those individuals who are interested in the conservation aspect of native breed pig keeping, find little to attract them to the Pietrain.

The breed was created in and around the Belgian village of Pietrain, which is about 40km from 

Pietrain piglets

Brussels. Development work appears to have started during the early 1920s, but official recognition of the breed’s existence didn’t materialise until 1956. The creators evidently worked long and hard to produce a pig capable of delivering an extremely lean carcass.

The results were – and still are – extremely impressive, and it’s claimed that the Pietrain, at 83%, produces carcasses with the highest meat content of any pig. But fat levels are extremely low, too, with no more than a quarter-inch layer on the best examples. So, this really is a breed that’s all about the meat, and is characterised by an enlarged, muscular shoulder mass, a fully muscled back and quite exceptional hams.

However, don’t get the impression that the Pietrain is some kind of unhandlable monster, because it isn’t. While some of the stock you may find in Belgium is still massively developed, the sort of animals that have found their way to the UK are all of more modest proportions, albeit still impressively muscular.

The pig itself is a medium-sized animal that essentially white with black spots. The number and size of the spots varies pretty randomly, although all spots should be surrounded by characteristic rings of light pigmentation carrying white hair. The breed is commonly referred to as having piebald markings, and these pigs are typically alert and active.

Great improver!

The Belgian pig breeders who developed the Pietrain also foresaw a market for their creation as an ‘improver’ of other breeds, and this is something that the breed has done very successfully over the years. It’s proved extremely popular as a terminal sire in two of Europe’s largest pig producing countries, Germany and Spain.

The first Pietrains arrived in the UK back in 1964, thanks to an initial importation organised by the Pig Industry Development Authority and, after quarantine, 84 pigs were available for distribution. Six boars and a selection of gilts were retained by the PIDA for crossbreeding experiments with British breeds, as well as the establishment of a pure-bred herd for study purposes.

The remaining animals were sent out for experimental programs run by the Animal Breeding and Research Organisation at Edinburgh, Wye College, in Kent, and T. Wall and Sons. The latter made use of the Pietrain in a synthetic line based on a Pietrain/British Saddleback cross. This was then used by the Wall’s Meat Company, in one of the earliest examples of a breeding program specifically designed for integrated pork production.

Nowadays, though, the situation isn’t quite so optimistic. With the commercial attractiveness of the breed failing to translate into its widespread adoption in the UK, there’s been precious little trickle-down effect into the enthusiast market. Today there are probably not many more than a handful of breeders keeping decent numbers of pedigree Pietrains here although, more encouragingly, it seems that the level of interest in the breed is on a gradual increase.

Worthwhile search?

The comparative rarity of the Pietrain, and the lack of a specialist breed club dedicated to supporting its interest, means that tracking down stock to buy can be a bit more of a struggle than it is with many other pedigree pig breeds. However, those in the know would argue that the end result is most definitely worth the effort.

Pietrain pedigree pig

What you get with the Pietrain is a no-nonsense pig that’ll be happy in virtually any environment. Whether its kept indoors or outside, this breed will simply get on with life in a robust yet manageable manner. 

Known for its essentially docile character, the Pietrain will reward its keepers with reliable if not rapid growth rates. While I have read some suggestions that the boars can sometimes be a little on the feisty side, those I had contact with during the photographic session for this feature, showed no sign of anything untoward whatsoever.

Other advantages – apart from the obvious meat production potential – include the fact that the Pietrain is a hardy breed that isn’t prone to any of the common pig-related complaints, and that the sows make good mothers offering plenty of milk. Litter size is generous, too, with up to 13 piglets being common from a healthy young sow. What’s more, the youngsters are robust little creatures and, once out, will grow and develop strongly and typically without drama.

Breeders will find that weaner size can vary quite dramatically across a litter, although this seems to be more of a point of interest than anything to worry about. Smaller weaners will always catch up with their larger contemporaries, given time.

From a buying point of view, the best advice is to steer clear of sows with very large rear ends, as this can cause problems for the boar; things simply won’t line up as they should! Large males, on the other hand, are no problem at all. The weight and muscular solidity of the Pietrain also means that keepers should give some thought to the surface on which the animals are being kept.

For those enjoying a free range-type lifestyle, there isn’t an issue but, I you’re keeping your pigs indoors or in concrete-floored pens, then make sure there’s a good, thick layer of straw bedding on the ground. Muscle strains and damaged joints can be a problem for these pigs, on slippery surfaces.        

All-in-all, though, the Pietrain is a pig with some extremely useful qualities, a decent temperament and looks that set it apart from anything else around. It’s a shame that the breed isn’t more popular in the UK but, compared to some of the more established native breeds, it’s still early days for the Pietrain.

There’s plenty of time for more small-scale keepers to start appreciating just what a cracking option it can be, both as a pork producer in its own right, and as a carcass improver (20% less fat) when the boar is used to cross with other breeds. The Pietrain should certainly tick a lot of the right boxes for those seeking plenty of bang for their buck! 

The genuine article?

If you want to buy a Pietrain pig, make sure you are getting the real thing. Remember that without a pedigree, it’s just another pig. If you want to sell Pietrain pigs by name, or Pietrain 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 Pietrain pig contact your breed rep (refer to the Pietrain 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