Longbush Free Range Pork

September 2016

A passion for pigs has inspired a free range approach to pig farming

Naya Brangenberg , a vet with MPI and Jeremy Wilhelm, who was formerly a statistician, have lived in New Zealand for over a decade. They met in Alaska and have named their pig stud Yukon in celebration. Naya is from New Jersey and Jeremy is from North Carolina.

Two pet kunekune pigs were the reason behind the move to the Wairarapa. Once in Longbush, Naya and Jeremy acquired three Large Black pigs, from which Jeremy and Naya’s pig farming business began back in 2006.

“We knew we wanted to grow a pig we could put on a plate. We figured out that the rare Large Black breed would do very well in Wairarapa and found a breeder who had some. We got three Large Blacks including a sow called Nigella.” They have since added Duroc and Hampshire pig genetics to the mix .

The Large Blacks take a long time to finish, and Duroc and Hampshire pigs are faster growing. The only difference is that the Duroc and Hampshire breeds are a lot more active.

The Blackrocs grow to a carcass weight of 75-80kg at around 23 weeks. Because they are a traditional/heritage breed they are still slower growing than some of the pig varieties that are farmed indoors which finish at a similar size at 19 weeks.

“There are unique challenges of free range pig farming and quite a few differences when you free range heritage pig breeds,” Naya says.

Heritage breeds are genetically different and date back to the early 20th century. The Large Blacks are ideal pigs, very placid, good mothers, and they do well outdoors and don’t get sunburnt. By adding the Duroc and Hampshire breeds they have introduced hybrid vigor to improve health and carcass quality.

Naya says the difference from conventionally raised pork from commercial pig breeds is that Longbush pigs are a fatter pig, producing fat under the skin as well as within the muscle. As a result their meat is succulent and tasty.

Naya says pork is always meant to be a like a red meat, but mostly the pork people buy in the supermarket looks pale and pinky-white. Longbush pork is somewhere between commercial pork and wild pork in terms of texture and flavour.

“We like to target chefs because chefs are not afraid of fat. A lot of people are becoming fat-phobic but chefs understand fat, and it’s where we have found the best success with our pork because they turn it into beautiful food.”

Jeremy explains it took 18 months for them to establish who their market was going to be, but 3-4 years to get that market developed into what it is today.

They started selling meat from young stock at local farmers markets and then slowly to chefs, small goods producers and butchers.

“We tried a few different things. It has evolved into selling half/whole carcasses and primals to buyers who have a more nose to tail philosophy. Our pork is sold direct to small goods producers and restaurants in the Wellington region. For years we have been contacted by Auckland and South Island people about our pork, but you can’t transport carcasses by rail, so it is very difficult.”

“Our animals are processed at LandMeats Whanganui as they can handle the larger carcass we tend to kill. Most abattoirs want a 60 kg carcass which is not economic in terms of yield per carcass for the costs we put into it. Also, imported pork is an 80-100kg carcass so we feel that customers are coming to expect cuts with a large eye muscle and larger roasts.”

“One of our customers is Rachel Priestley, a chef and charcutier in Wairarapa. Her business is La Pancetta and she buys pork legs with the hoof left on. They are put into salt for a month then air dried for another 13 months.”

“Our pigs also go to restaurants like Ti Kouka Café in Willis Street where Sheperd Elliott is the chef. He takes a pig a week, he has a nose to tail philosophy and is into slow food. His support and understanding of small scale production got us going,” Naya says.

The couple started with a small home block and then moved to a 20ha block in July 2015. “Until now we have always been viewed as a hobby farm, but now have transitioned into a commercial pig farm.”

Jeremy says they knew if they were going to be sustainable they had to expand. The plan is to be profitable within five to 10 years. They have an eye to bring the entire value chain into the business including killing and delivery.

Jeremy and Naya describe the farm system as 100% pastured system. It isa farrow to finish operation. It runs around 60 free range sows.

The farm has been subdivided into a series of 20 smaller, rectangular paddocks along with a larger lactating sow paddock. The idea of the subdivision is to be able to rotate the paddocks to better manage soil and any run-off issues. Paddocks that have had stock in them are reseeded into crop.

Pig farming has become controversial with animal activists zoning in on two particular aspects of conventional pig farming systems. One is the use of sow stalls which confine sows after they’ve come into heat and in the period after mating or insemination. Industry claims this is a period when sows can fight or be aggressive. Changes have been introduced to phase out the use of sow stalls and they are now illegal.

The other aspect of commercial pig farming that comes under scrutiny is the farrowing system. In indoor systems, pig farmers confine the sow in a crate prior to farrowing and keep her there until pigs are weaned.

Longbush doesn’t use sow stalls and has an outdoor farrowing system where the sows farrow in huts on beds of straw. The huts were imported from the UK. They measure 2.2m wide, 2.6m long and a bit over a metre high. They are insulated. When the sows farrow, Longbush attach fenders to the front of the huts. This means the sows can move outside but the piglets can’t until they’re old enough to fend for themselves.

Longbush also says they don’t ring the noses so their ‘grazing’ includes digging. They also avoid tail docking of newborn piglets.

Having a vet on the farm is a bonus not many farm businesses have. It means that there is ready access to technical knowledge and ability at an affordable price.

A sow at peak lactation can consume up to 14kg of feed per day if they have permanent access to water and feed. Sows are fed via hoppers. Jeremy tries to group no more than six sows to the hopper. The feeding is ad-lib.

Feed comes from a feed company in Carterton called Sharpes Stock Feed. There’s a range of diets depending on the stage of development of the pig.

The target for the business is pigs that are 100 -110kg lw.

“To save these breeds you have to eat them – just not all of them. You have to eat them to conserve them,” Naya says.

Large Blacks came from England and were brought to NZ in the early 1900’s. They used to be common on NZ dairy farms.

There are less than 10 breeders in NZ raising registered Large Black pigs, and Naya and Jeremy have their animals registered under their Yukon stud.

A lot of lifestyle block owners may have a pig but they are not registered, so to all intents and purposes the genetics are lost to the industry.

“You need people like us to farm them commercially to keep numbers up to avoid inbreeding. It’s important to support people who choose to breed from them. It’s a type of conservation.”