The 1900 Farm welcomed a new animal into our herd earlier this year: a boar who has been given the farm name of “Harvey”. Harvey is an 18 month old purebred Berkshire boar who comes to us from Dr. Pete Hoffman and his operation, Phenotypic Acres, south of Ames, IA. Dr. Hoffman has been in the Berkshire business for 29 years and has implemented intensive breeding selection using the most extensive testing procedures available to the swine industry. Harvey demonstrates all the classic characteristics of the Berkshire breed: black body, white face and legs, and erect ears. He also has the personality of a puppy – he loves to follow us around his pen and often plays a game of hiding his water pan when it’s empty!
Hogs have always been an important staple on Iowa farms. As the leading pork-producing state, Iowa’s swine population is currently around six times the human population of the state. With the growth of Des Moines and its suburbs and urban sprawl, it may be hard to imagine now, but in 1900 there were actually more pigs than people right here in Polk county.
The average 1900 farm had about 30 pigs, and they were often referred to as “mortgage lifters” due to their ability to turn field corn used for feed into higher profits. Corn was worth $0.27/bushel, and pigs were selling at $4.86/hundred weight. Productivity was measured on a corn to hog ratio, which more often than not tipped in favor of hog production. This ratio was measured on a baseline of 12 bushels of corn per 100 pounds of live weight, and at $0.27/bushel, this translated to $3.24/hundred weight, making pigs a profitable commodity.
The type of pig raised in 1900 was also changing. There had been a previous dichotomy in pigs, split between “bacon type” hogs raised for quality of pork, and “lard type” swine bred for rapid rate-of-gain and acceptable amount of finish, or meat to fat ratio. Where a bacon hog finished slowly and was allowed to reach maturity, it could take 2-3 years for a pig to go to market. Lard type hogs began to take favor with packers in 1900 because of their propensity for lard production, and gained popularity with producers since they reached a market weight of 185-225lbs in as little as 9 months. With corn yields around 40 bushels/acre, the packer demand for lard hogs, and the usefulness of corn as a means of rapidly fattening livestock, lard hogs were the predominant type of hog being raised in Iowa in 1900.
The most common breed of lard hog in Iowa was the Poland China, but Berkshires were a close second. The Berkshire breed originated, according to legend, over three hundred years ago when Oliver Cromwell’s army discovered them in their winter quarters at Reading, the county seat of the shire of Berks in England. After the end of the English Civil War, the veterans brought news of this swine, larger than any other at the time and capable of producing hams and bacon of exceptional quality and flavor, to the outside world. This is also said to be the beginning of the Reading Fair as a renowned market for pork products of the highest quality.
The original Berkshire hog was a red or sandy colored hog and sometimes had spots. This original stock was refined with crosses of Siamese and Chinese swine that account for the typical black and white coloration we see today. These crosses also brought a more efficient rate of gain and are the only outside blood that has ever gone into the Berkshire breed in the time of recorded livestock history. As far back as records are known today, the Berkshire breed has been pure for over 200 years.
Based on the best records available, the first Berkshires were imported to America in 1823. Due to the impressive improvement they created when crossed with common American stock, they were well received and quickly absorbed into the general hog population. Offspring of Berkshire-improved hogs had increased size and an ability to finish at any age. In 1875, a group of Berkshire breeders and importers gathered in Springfield, Illinois, to discuss a method for keeping the breed pure. These breeders and importers felt it was important for the Berkshire to remain pure for further improvement of the swine already existing in the United States, rather than let it become merely a contributor to the “common hog” of the time. The American Berkshire Association was founded on February 25, 1875, and became the first swine registry to be established in the world. This swine registry was received with enthusiastic response from both English and American Berkshire breeders, and the first hog ever recorded was a boar by the name of Ace of Spades, bred by Queen Victoria.
The import and registration of Berkshire hogs truly paved the way for improved hog production in the United States and Europe. Over the past 100 years, Berkshires have had a continued influence on the swine industry, and the breed association has been able to increase awareness of the importance of purebred animals. At the turn of the century, as types of hogs were changing from bacon to lard due to economic needs, the Berkshire played a distinguishable role in aiding in this swing. The ability of the Berkshire to bring traits of great economical importance – namely fast, efficient growth, efficient reproduction, and suitable finish – cannot be overlooked.
Today, if you can find it, I highly recommend you give Berkshire pork a taste. The quality and flavor is truly like no other pork you’ve eaten. This premium pork is as respected as Kobe beef around the world.
In the Des Moines area, you can find certified Berkshire pork produced by Eden Farms at:
I had the pleasure of tasting some of their bacon at the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival this year, and I can assure you, it really is THAT good. – Kelly