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Posted in Ranch Report

What Does it Take to Raise the Highest Quality Pig?

Article originally published in Edible Aspen's Summer 2014 Issue.

Chef Bill Greenwood knows quality food, and he spends a lot of time sourcing it for the incredible dinners he prepares at Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek, Colorado. He visits local farms, forages for wild mushrooms and grows his own vegetables and herbs in raised beds adjacent to the restaurant. When Bill was asked to perform a pork butchery demonstration at the Grand Cochon event in Aspen during the Food & Wine Classic this summer, we were honored that he requested a heritage breed pig from Rock Bottom Ranch.

What makes heritage pigs so special? Quite simply: the flavor. And to get the best flavor the ranch takes special steps to produce pork for discriminating customers like Bill. A great pig starts with great genetics, and the heritage-breed pigs have loads of history. The Large Black breed at Rock Bottom Ranch has genetic lines that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries in England. In the early 1800s, the breed was further developed and recognized for some of its incredible traits, including a docile temperament and good mothering ability. Most important, though, is the tremendous quality of a Large Black’s meat: Its short muscle fibers are micro-marbled with fat, making the meat especially tender.

All animals should be raised outdoors. Pigs have natural instincts and tendencies to root and dig in the soil, and when raised outdoors they’re able to express this natural behavior. Exposure to sunshine provides natural vitamin D and consuming pasture grasses boosts healthy omega-3 fatty acids in the animal’s meat. By creating paddocks using portable electric fencing and solar-powered fence chargers, a farmer can quickly set up new areas of pasture and keep the animals moving, ensuring that the land has plenty of time to rest. Rock Bottom Ranch erects temporary, rotating paddocks that range in size from 5,000 to 20,000 square feet and we never give each pig less than 500 square feet of its own space. The industrial system, by contrast, offers each pig around eight square feet of space when raised indoors, and never rotates pigs onto new ground.

The pigs at the Ranch receive a diverse diet that starts with what they forage while living outdoors. They are free to enjoy anything that the pasture offers, both above-ground treats like grass and legumes and subterranean edibles like insects, roots and a buffet of other delights. Rock Bottom pigs are offered non-GMO grain, milled by a local family, to supplement their pasture grazing. Finally, seasonal, locally sourced treats are provided and may include unmarketable fruits and vegetables from local farms, spent grain from local breweries or whey from local cheesemakers.

The last component of a quality pasture-raised animal is time and patience. What you plan to do with a pig will determine its desired market weight, but a pasture-raised pig destined for the butcher shop or farmers’ market is generally ready in nine to 12 months. If the goal is charcuterie, a pig can be raised to 12 to 16 months, though some heritage breeds take longer. By contrast, an industrially raised pig has been selected to grow to market weight in as little as five months.

Rock Bottom Ranch’s pigs are Animal Welfare Approved, a third-party independent certification that ensures the animals are raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards in the country. It would be impossible to achieve this certification while adhering to the growth schedule or tight confinement that’s common at industrial hog farms.

What is a heritage breed? Heritage breed pigs come from bloodlines going back hundreds of years to when livestock was raised on multi-use, open-pasture farms. Because of their lifestyle and inherent genes, different breeds became known for a variety of characteristics, including the rich and hearty taste of their meat, distinct marbling, bacon flavors and creamy fat.

Today, these breeds still carry excellent qualities, but many are not suited for commercial farming practices. As a result, they are in danger of being lost forever. As fewer heritage breeds are grown, their gene pool decreases, and some breeds are now becoming critically rare.

~ Jason Smith, Rock Bottom Ranch Director