Stuart and Jodie Roberts juggle busy lives with jobs, children, ponies, sheep and cattle to manage, but neither would be without their beloved pigs, as Chris Graham discovers.
Keeping pigs well is all about good organisation, even if you’re only rearing a couple of weaners for the freezer. But if you then progress into breeding and, from there, venture towards the show ring and the exacting business of pedigree pig showing, then attention to detail, careful record-keeping and high levels of stockmanship become essential.
Tackling all this with one breed can be a daunting enough prospect, but doing so with three – and achieving consistent success – is something of a major undertaking. Of course, dividing up the work with a partner makes a big difference, which is why things are working so well for Stuart and Jodie Roberts.
The couple, who both work, have children and a busy house to manage, plus livestock galore in addition to their sizeable pig herd, have been involved with pigs for the past 17 years, and they’re as must a part of their everyday life as anything else.
Stuart owned his first pig while still a boy; it was a straightforward pink, commercial-type pig and he got it simply because he wanted one. “I was only about eight years old,” he recalls, “and the pig wasn’t reared for pork; I really just kept it as a pet.
“As a family, we had no involvement with pigs at all in those days, horses were the thing then, and I was quite involved with those. When I left school, my first job was on a local stud?? which, by coincidence, also happened to rear and sell commercial pigs. It was only a small operation, so I was very involved with everything right from the start, and learned a lot about husbandry and stockmanship early on.”
But, as is so often the way in these stories, we have to fast-forward a good few years before Stuart found himself in a position to get started with his own livestock on a more serious basis. A move to a 60-acre farm near Northallerton, in North Yorkshire, gave him the space he needed to get more hands-on; an opportunity that certainly hasn’t been wasted. He and Jodie began with Highland ponies, both breeding and very successfully showing them for a good while.
But things changed in the Highland pony showing world, more people started trying to buy their way to success and the whole scene became less friendly as a result. Stuart and Jodie, having already won the most prestigious trophies with their ponies, decided to withdraw from competitive pony showing, and started casting around for another showing sector to get involved with. Pigs were to provide the answer.
“We got our first pig here about 14 years,” Stuart explained, “buying an in-pig Oxford Sandy and Black sow that was advertised locally. At that stage, though, we were simply after some animals that could be grown-on for the freezer. It was purely coincidental that it happened to be an Oxford Sandy & Black; that was what we found advertised locally.”
But, as Jodie then pointed out: “The one thing we learned from that whole experience was to steer clear of the lop-eared breeds in future! We just found that Oxford frustrating to live with. She was an aggressive animal all the time she wasn’t in-pig, and we also found her to be stubborn, slow and a handful to manage on a day-to-day basis. All this really coloured our attitude towards the breed, and we haven’t owned a single lop-eared pig since those days.”
The couple’s next move was to buy a couple of Tamworth gilts from a breeder in Carlisle. Stuart said: “I’d always fancied the breed, so when we spotted these two for sale in 20??, I jumped at the chance. The prospect of being able to show them was another driving force behind that decision.
“We’d both really enjoyed our time showing Highland ponies, so were keen to repeat the experience with pigs. We knew the show scene pretty well, and wanted to get involved as soon as possible. However, we also decided to show our own, home-bred pigs, so that meant breeding with our new gilts.
“Rather than get our own boar at that stage, we opted to take the artificial insemination route, and sourced some pedigree Tamworth semen from Deerpark, in Ireland. I already had plenty of AI experience from earlier years, and everything ran very smoothly.
“Eventually, though, we decided to buy a young boar, and found a good, Melody line animal near Penrith, advertised in the Farmers Guardian.
“The Tamworths were a hit with us from day one, and we’ve been breeding and showing them ever since. Just about the only thing that counts against them, as far as I’m concerned, is the racket they make; we find them really noisy pigs. Apart from this, though, they’ve proved to be very easy, friendly pigs to live with and manage.
“I just love the animated nature of the Tamworth, especially when compared to the frustrating experiences we had with the Oxfords. I’d always far rather that a pig moves and we have to catch it up, than stands around doing nothing!
“The only thing we had to watch for at the start with the Tamworths, was the risk of them putting on too much fat. This did happen a few times, as most of my previous pig experience had been with commercial animals or crosses, both of which tend to produce a naturally lean carcass. But it didn’t take long to get the hang of what was required, and to realise at which point the feed had to start being rationed.
“Jodie took one of our January gilts to the first show in 20?? and, apart from being amazed at how friendly and helpful all the other exhibitors were, she came away with second prize! Things have gone from strength-to-strength since then, and we now have eight Tamworth sows and three boars, although one of these is away on breeding duty with another keeper at the moment.
Hard done by?
“Showing has become an ever-more important part of what we do and probably, if we’re honest, it’s the main reason now that we have the pigs we do. But, as far as the Tamworth is concerned, I think that it’s quite often rather hard done by in the show ring, with few judges ever seeming to favour the breed over other alternatives.
“Perhaps part of the problem is that, although significantly better than it used to be, the Tamworth remains a narrowish-looking pig displaying what many consider to be some wild boar-like features. They’re not as pleasingly rounded as some of the other native breeds and don’t present the sort of large hams that many find so desirable. So maybe it’s these aspects that dissuade some judges when it comes to ultimate honours.”
The next breed to arrive was the Hampshire, and Jodie admits that this was all her doing. “I’d always liked the look of them and, late in 2010, we found Sue Hutson, an experienced breeder from Grimsby, and bought a couple of January gilts from her (Judy and Precious lines).
“We showed both these animals in their first season – alongside the Tamworths – and then bought a boar from Guy Kiddy, at the BPA’s Show and Sale. In those days, AI wasn’t an option with the Hampshire as there was no semen held, so we had to have our own boar.”
Jodie continued: “We’ve found the Hampshire to be an excellent breeding pig and, if anything, the sows can produce litters that are too big. We have had 18 piglets out of our Precious sow, with 14 surviving. But they make great mothers; extremely attentive, superb milkers and very careful with the youngsters. Currently we have eight sows and two boars.”
However, the Hampshire might not be everyone’s cup of tea, as Stuart went on to explain. “Although we get on really well with our Hampshires, I don’t think that it would make the ideal breed for all keepers. They can be very determined animals, and tend to use their strength to get what or where they want. They’ll exploit a weakness if the mood takes them and, while we’ve never experienced an aggressive one, they can be a bit bolshy!
“When you go into the pen with food for them, they want it without delay. While a Tamworth will typically stand and wait, a Hampshire won’t show the same patience or self-control. If ever we find holes made in pen dividers, or damaged gates, we know it’ll be a Hampshire that’s to blame. Having said that, we simply love their spirit!”
Most recently, the couple have added the Pietrain to their home herd. Stuart has long been an admirer of the breed, and they bought their first gilt back in the summer of 2013. “I appreciate that it’s not a breed that everyone fancies,” he said, but I just love the fact that they are such an extreme option. The Pietrain really is unlike anything else, and I think that’s why it appeals to me so much.”
Easy to show
“Since we’ve had ours, we’ve found them a delight to own. These pigs are straightforward to live with and the easiest pig you could imagine to show. In the ring they simply stroll around without fuss and very little prompting. However, rather like the Tamworth, the Pietrain isn’t a prolific show winner; I think they probably divide opinion too much for that. We’ve qualified for Pig of the Year with a Pietrain (as we have with our Tamworths and Hampshires), but ultimate success has so far eluded us.
“Our first in-pig Pietrain gilt arrived in 2014, and we now have four sows and two boars. The breeding has gone well, although the sows can be a little clumsy at times. We’ve had a few instances where piglets have been crushed simply because the mother hasn’t been as alert as she might have been. This isn’t a problem we’ve encountered in the past with either our Tamworth or Hampshire sows.
“Another interesting point about the Pietrain is that, despite outward appearances, these pigs never go looking for a fight. In fact, we find them a very retiring breed, and we’re always careful to avoid situations where bullying might occur.” Jodie went on to explain: “We’d never dream of putting a single Pietrain into a pen of Hampshires, but would be quite happy to put a Hampshire in with a group of Pietrains.”
As far as meat quality is concerned, then couple only really eat the Tamworths nowadays, although they have started experimenting with various crosses from within their herd. Jodie explained: “We certainly don’t eat the Pietrain simply because the carcass is too lean for our liking; our Tamworths are a much better bet in that respect.
“The crossing we do started really by accident, when one of our Hampshire boars decided it wanted to visit the nearby Tamworth pen. It hopped over the fence, serviced a sow and was back inside its own pen before we realised that anything had happened. It wasn’t until the Tamworth started showing signs of pregnancy, and then went on to produce a litter of dark-coloured piglets, that we realised what must have happened!
“But this turned out to be a pretty good cross; pairing a modern breed with a traditional one. The youngsters grew-on impressively well, and went on to produce excellent carcasses. So we’re looking at more of this for the future.”
As for the future, it’s clear that pigs will remain an important and integral part of Stuart and Jodie’s everyday life. They’re evidently happy at the moment with the number of pigs they currently have, and the mix of breeds. Although Stuart is an admirer of the Berkshire, I think he’s reluctant to take on another breed at this stage. “There’s nothing that we’re really desperate to add at the moment, especially as there’s always so much else to be getting on with.
“We both have jobs, so split the daily animal husbandry duties between us. I work on a dairy farm, so have an early start which means that Jodie tackles the early-morning feed and mucking-out before she goes to work.
“I’m back home in the middle of the day to do whatever needs doing then with the pigs, and I also have to check my sheep. I have about 100 Texels which produce meat for the market, so there’s lots extra to do at lambing and shearing time. Then, of course, there are the ponies and cattle to be cared for, too…”
What really comes across from chatting with Stuart and Jodie is their heart-felt enthusiasm; they care passionately about their pigs. The showing side of things is very important to the couple, too, and a source of both great pleasure and enormous satisfaction.
Like anyone who keeps livestock, Stuart and Jodie have their pig-related ups and downs but, overall, both agree that the pigs in their lives have been a thoroughly positive experience. They evidently can’t imagine a life without pigs in it, and long may that continue.