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  • by Karen Cummings

Judging Porcine Pulchritude

What makes a beautiful pig? Popular slang usage of the word pig might mean that there is no such thing as beautiful pig--it's just a contradiction in terms. But, in the land of cliches, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and so it is in the new swine barn at the Fryeburg Fair.

Seventy pigs, swine, hogs--whatever you want to call them--from four Maine farms are on display in the area under the newest stands at the fair. There are boars, sows, shoats, gilts, and barrows, each determined by their ages and sexual situation. Boars are male hogs used for breeding; sows are female hogs that have had a litter of piglets; gilts are female pigs who have not been bred; and barrows are males who have been altered. Shoats are in-between pigs that are not quest the market weight of hogs (those over 120 pounds), yet are larger than piglets.

This community of swine is just waiting for the judging to take place. To say they are anxiously awaiting their moment of glory at the swine judging would definitely be editorializing too much. It is evident after just one walk through the barn that these well cared for animals are not anxious about much, except possibly when their next feeding time will be.

Exactly what characteristics will the swine judge be looking for as he gazes into those beady little eyes of the best Maine hog farmers have to offer? Maybe a nice tilt to the snout, a special twist to the tail, a beautiful complexion? Hardly.

To Gerald Smith of Durham, New Hampshire, a professor of animal science at the University of New Hampshire for 32 years and this year's [1984] swine judge at the Fryeburg Fair, beauty is definitely more than skin deep. "I can see what the pig looks like on the hoof," he explained, "and know what it will look like dressed out."

Notice that he said dressed out and not dressed up. Unfortunately for those trusting souls, just eating their lives away, pig pulchritude is judged primarily by what is under their skin. "When I'm looking at what I consider a pretty hog," said Carlton Pinkham from Fayette, Maine, Swine Department superintendent at the Fair, "I'm looking at one a judge would consider good as would a packer on the rail."

"We're all looking for one thing," said Smith. "We're thinking about the yield from the carcass. A good pig should be long, with a U-shaped back and a good arch from nose to tail, showing that there is enough muscle to get the back up."

And what does the muscle mean? Good lean meat, that's what. It may seem crazy to think that pigs are fashion conscious, but they are. As goes Women's Wear Daily, so goes the nation's pig population. There is not question that lean is in throughout the fashion world, and so it is in the barnyard. No more going to market with a fat pig. "It used to be that the best pig as a big, fat one," said Pinkham. "Now all they want are the really lean ones."

To achieve the desired leanness, modern day pigs aren't sent to fat farms to slim down but, rather, are bred for lean characteristics. They still get to "pig-out" on grain and other goodies, but their family background keeps them trim with very little of the fat that was once so popular. "Years ago, an important product from hogs was lard," explained Russell Black, president of the Maine Hog Growers Association. "Now the breeds that yield lean pork chops--the bacon-type hog with very little back fat, are the type that are bred."

Maine hog growers now breed and raise one or several of five different varieties of hogs. These include the Yorkshire, Landrace (the breed from which Danish bacon is made), Hampshire, Duroc, and the Spot variety. Yorkshires, the classic white or pinkish looking pig, are the most common because they are lean, and are consistently good breeders. "If there was only one breed of pig," said Black, "it would be enough to be the Yorkshire." The Hampshire, black with a white belt; Duroc, a reddish-brown pig, and the Spot, which runs true to its name and is white with black splotches, are much more colorful and have other traits that make them desirable.

Although Maine's hog farmers are raising the popular breeds and using the most recommended methods of feeding, they have something in common with Rodney Dangerfield--they don't get any respect, at least from the people who purchase pork. A relatively new industry to the state, hog growing in Maine was once just a backyard hobby, rarely done as a commercial enterprise. "When I started raising pigs in 1968," said Pinkham, "it was impossible to find a registered boar in the state of Maine."

Since that time, aggressive farming and an influx of new ideas into the raising and breeding of pigs have helped to bring Maine's hog farmer up to the national level, yet Pinkham still finds it difficult to find a market for his finished product. "There is no reason for the New England markets to import the great percentage of pork that is sold in the area," he said. "Farmers here could supply enough good lean port to meet the demands."

Due to this Midwest pig preference they have encountered, Maine's hog growers have foregone the more profitable "farrow to finish" raising of pigs to raise "feeder" pigs. These six-to-eight-week-old pigs are sold to individual backyard growers, or to the large farms in Pennsylvania or the Midwest, which then raise them for market.

Being in that end of the business, a beautiful pig takes on a whole different look to the farmer. It becomes the best producer--not of meat, but of progeny. "Getting down to the real fundamentals," explained Smith, "when I'm judging a gilt or a sow, the first thing I do is count the number of teats." It may seem strange that the number may vary, but they do, from as few as 10 to as many as 216. "It's important to have as many dinner plates as possible," added Smith, "so any less than 14 is detrimental."

The swine judge also looks at a litter of pigs when judging a sow, and the more the merrier is the name of the game. "It's good to have a big litter, 12 to 14, with no runts," Smith said. "Having only six or seven is not ideal."

Breeding hogs far exceed the ideal market weight, which is from 200 to 220 pounds, with sows weighing in from 450 to 600 pounds and boars going anywhere from 600 to 800 pounds. Some boars even tip the scales as high as 1000 pounds, they then they have eaten their way out of a job.

"You start using a boar when they are eight to 10 months old, an you can usually use them for one-and-one-half or two years," explained Black, "but then they get too heavy for the sow." The practice of artificial insemination is helping to increase the life expectancy of good breeding boars.

Although pigs have the reputation of being the most intelligent barnyard animal, gazing at them in the swine barn as they sleep or root around for food, they seem oblivious to what their future holds. After their week at the Fair, quite a few of the swine sweeties and swain will be sold at auction--as market pigs, feeder pigs, or breeders. In the meantime, these naturally clean animals are enjoying the primping and special care that is just one part of being a "beautiful" pig.

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