|The six pigs, sometime in mid May, 2007.|
(Note that 5 of them sleep comfortably in the old sink used for feeding.)
|The first gravity fed whey delivery system using an 18 gallon plastic barrel and nipple valves.|
|20 Lbs of Acorns from Chestnut Oak, Quercus prinus.|
|The six hogs about mid September. Those are acorns in the sink.|
The Short Answer: I'm raising pigs instead of throwing the whey away when making cheese, thinking I can do better than waste this high protein byproduct.
The Long Answer: At a friend's creamery, they make about 3,000 lbs of cheese a year. Every year, when the cows freshen up and they start making cheese, my friend comments that the whey sure would make good hog food. Usually the whey is discarded by draining it to a food drain and pumping it across the river to a waste lagoon where it smells pretty bad. In 2007 I decided to try to utilize this waste product.
Two friends, Tim and Cricket, born and raised in the Appalachian mountains, and their fathers, Leamon and Homer, whose families have been raising and hunting hogs here for generations, are my mentors. Following their advice, a movable pen was built on locust skids from oak we sawed at Tim's sawmill. Six pigs were purchased, the plan being to recoup all my costs by selling four when they wouldn't fit in the pen anymore and to keep two for my efforts. In addition to their advice I searched the web for more information.
My web journey started at North Dakota State University, took me to Italy, back to Seattle, then to the Dry Lands Research Institute, University of California, Riverside, CA. and finally back to North Carolina.
Our first stop is at North Dakota State University. Thanks to the Dickinson Research Extension Center's study FEEDING LIQUID WHEY IN SWINE FATTENING RATIONS, I learned about nipple valves and that the pigs can be fed only whey in lieu of water. In their study, pigs receiving whey were not allowed water after the second week, their entire liquid intake coming from the whey. Occasionally I run out of whey, and switch to water for a few days. As of late September, the 6 pigs drain 20 to 30 gallons of whey a day but when "forced" to drink water, drain only about 5 gallons a day. ("Drain" because some pigs are neater than others when sucking on a nipple valve.)
More web searching revealed a post by Sergio Piccinini, in Italy, where I learned that whey is used to fatten hogs for Prosciutto. Parma and San Daniele hams provide for an average slaughtering weight per lot of 160 kg (353 Lbs) +/- 10%; lots with average weight of less than 145 kg (320 Lbs) or more than 176 kg (388 Lbs) are heavily penalised by the market. Such a high live weight must be reached in no less than nine months of age. Interesting. So instead of bacon, ham and ribs, perhaps we will make prosciutto.
Two friends independently warned us to take the pigs off whey 30 days before slaughter or they would taste funny. Their pork was edible but deemed not fit to sell.
Searching the web for prosciutto led to me to Seattle where according to Fred Carlo, "The whey is great for giving the meat a smooth, fine taste. But the lactic acid in the whey would break down the proteins in the muscles after the pigs are slaughtered. So, for the last month, the pigs are fed acorns." OK, so now we need to learn about acorns. Back to the web...
An excellent article, Use of Acorns for Food in California: Past, Present, Future by David A. Bainbridge, at the Dry Lands Research Institute, University of California, Riverside, CA, reinforced my suspicions of the food value and ease of harvest. Reportedly, premium Spanish ham comes from purebred Iberian hogs fed acorns from the evergreen encina, or holm oak (quercus ilex). Their diet is acorns, grass, roots and tubers - but no whey.
Fortunately, the Appalachian Mountains are blessed with an abundance of oak trees. The primary species being Red Oak, White Oak and Chestnut Oak. Red Oaks bear acorns every other year, which lay dormant during the winter and sprout in the spring. They have higher levels of tanic acid presumably to preserve them through the winter. White Oaks bear every year, have less tannin, sprout in the fall soon after they drop, and are the preferred food of dear. Acorns from Chestnut Oaks, a member of the white oak family, appear to have low tannin levels and are quite large. About 65 lbs. can be picked up in an hour.
Although the Chestnut Oak acorns appear to be low in tannic acid and "can be eaten from hand", efforts are underway to measure and leach the tannic acid and to dry the acorns for storage.
More searching about acorns and pigs revealed claims of improved timberlands and better pork: North Carolina research indicates managed pig grazing can actually improve hardwood timber stands while producing an artisanal pork product. In addition to better taste, the fat from these acorn-finished pigs may be largely unsaturated and high in healthful oleic acid.
While trying to track down the underlying research done by Dr. Charles Talbott at North Carolina A&T, I have found out about the Ossabaw Island Hogs, decended from Iberian pigs the Spanish explorers brought to America in the 1500s.