What Is Heritage Breed Pork? Sorting Out The Confusion

Berkshire pigs on pasture

Heritage pork and heritage pig breeds are hot topics! Everyone is talking about heritage pork, but everyone seems to have their own definitions.

The information is confusing, at best! Now to the big question, what exactly is heritage breed pork?

Heritage breed pork is pork from a traditional breed of pigs. 

Actually, that definition looks pretty straight forward to me. A heritage breed is a breed that has been established over many generations from a specific area.

This means the heritage breed will have specific traits that it has been selected for to suit the conditions of the area it is from, those are the traits that make the breed unique.

Best Breeds Of Pigs To Raise For Meat goes over my recommendations for the best pig for beginners.

No argument there, so what’s all the fuss? The next point is where people start to get their hackles up.

The biggest difference in opinions I can find centers on this question: are traditional breed pigs that are raised in a traditional way (non confinement farm) called heritage breeds?

Where this definition gets murky is when you consider that certain breeds that have been established for hundreds of years, something that I would easily call a heritage breed, can and is used in large volume commercial agriculture.

Berkshire and Yorkshire are both traditional breeds

The Berkshire is the prime example here.

Berkshires are very popular for herd sires on both small and large farms and rightfully so since they are renowned for intramuscular fat (marbling) and wonderful flavor.

Berkshire boar
My Berkshire boar, Toby.

Berkshire is the breed most commonly used as breeding stock on the farms and in the companies selling heritage meat. My Berkshire boar, Toby, is pictured above as an example.

Yorkshire, called Large White in England, are also a heritage breed. Yorkshire pigs have maintained popularity with small and large farms alike, yes, even confinement farms.

The Best Breeds For Pig Breeding Stock goes over the things you should consider when buying your starter herd of pigs.

Traditional breeds can be heritage pork

Yet, if you are defining heritage as a traditional breed, no one that I have seen ( I look around for this information all the time) is raising Yorkshire pigs and calling them a heritage breed.

However, it only makes sense that Yorkshire would qualify as a heritage breed if Berkshire qualifies as a heritage breed.

Both breeds have a long history as a purebred and both breeds are currently used on commercial farms.

I just picked Yorkshire as an example.

Multiple breeds that are commonly used commercially are also listed as producing heritage breed pork. (Two breeds that quickly come to mind here are Duroc and Hampshire.)

Rare breeds can be heritage pork

Another side to consider is the implied necessity that the the breed of pig that the heritage pork is originally from is a rare breed.

This is the main concern of the rare breed conservationists.

The rare breed advocates think that pork can only be called heritage breed pork if it is exclusively from breeds that are rare (based on low population numbers) not just breeds that are traditional.

I have found this to be the main point of confusion regarding heritage breed pork.

There are multiple rare pig breeds

Check out The Livestock Conservancy for a list of rare breeds in the U.S.

They have a great site with plenty of information on all of the American rare breeds, including pictures and details on where to get them if you are interested.

Not in the U.S.? No worries, many rare breed conservation societies are established around the world, look them up.

Heritage pork can be large farm

Consider that the conditions in which the pigs are raised is also an important aspect of heritage pork.

A heritage breed, however that is defined, can still be raised in a confinement farm style.

berkshire cross sow with newborn piglets
This is Marta. She is 3/4 Berkshire and her piglets were sired by a Berkshire boar.

Small farm heritage pork is available

If you are wanting to support small scale, hands on farming, animal husbandry, and regenerative farming practices make sure the meat you buy is from farms that “walk the talk”.

By “walk the talk” I mean, they are doing what you think they are doing. Ask about pasture or woodlot raised, bedding, freedom to roam, shade and diet of the pigs before you buy.

You want pork from pigs that were able to be active and act like pigs, rooting is key. When the pigs can root around and eat some forage, now you are getting somewhere!

Please note: sometimes (in the winter, for example), it is appropriate to have pigs in a building. As long as the pigs have rooting opportunities and plenty of room, they will be happy, healthy pigs that will make great pork.

Want to raise your own pork? Consider reading my article When To Get A Feeder Pig for more details regarding raising your own pigs.

Shopping for pork? Be sure of what you are buying

Once something easy, like putting the word heritage on meat packaging to get shoppers to pay more, you as a shopper will see heritage stamped on near everything in the meat department.

Common sense says this is just advertising talk, not really what you are wanting to buy. Small scale, lovingly cared for heritage breed pork can not be found in a chain store.

For this article I have grouped well established pig breeds that most people would consider heritage breeds into two groups: traditional heritage breeds and rare heritage breeds.

Traditional Heritage Pig Breeds

  • Berkshire
  • Yorkshire
  • Duroc
  • Hampshire
  • Poland China
  • Spotted
  • Landrace
  • Chester White

Traditional Heritage Pig Breeds  are the long established breeds of pigs currently popular enough (at least in the U.S.) that they are pretty easy to find if you just look around a bit.

For instance, these are breeds that I normally see at the local weekly feeder pig auctions.

Generally speaking, these are breeds of pigs that have maintained their popularity through the years.

Traditional breeds continued to be used as breeding stock in the U.S. because they have specific traits that transitioned well to larger more confinement oriented farming operations.

Not all pig farmers chose to get really big. Some farmers kept to a smaller less industrial system and continued on raising pigs as always.

Either way, the traditional breeds are well represented in the U.S. pig industry because of their adaptability and taste.

Rare Heritage Pig Breeds

  • Tamworth
  • Red Wattle
  • Large Black
  • Mulefoot
  • Gloucestershire Old Spot (GOS)
  • Hereford

Rare Heritage Pig Breeds are breeds of pigs that are very low in total population, at least in the U.S., so much so that these pigs require some research to find.

These breeds are around, but not something I normally see at the auction. It can occasionally happen, for instance I saw a pen of Red Wattle feeder pigs at the sale a few months ago, but that was unusual.

Rare heritage pig breeds started out just like any other breed-a local population of farmers breeding for specific traits and selecting the best pigs over time.

For some reason or another, usually being too fatty or not preforming well in a confinement system, these breeds did not transition well into modern pig farming therefore declined in popularity.

Interestingly enough, many of the rare heritage breeds are popular show pigs at the state fair (at least here in Ohio) -Tamworth and Hereford specifically.

Resources: The Livestock Conservancy website

Related Questions

What is the difference between ham and pork?

Ham and pork are both meat from a pig. Ham is the thigh area of the back leg that is cured and usually smoked. Pork is the name for uncured meat from the pig.

What part of the pig is bacon?

Bacon is cured and smoked pork belly. Pork belly (uncured bacon) comes from the long abdominal muscles and fat layers that run from the ribs down the front of the pig to the back leg.

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