Story: Pigs and the pork industry

Page 3. Pig farming

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Early farms

Until about 1886 most pig farms were in the South Island, where pigs were mainly fed grain. Pork was included in the first shipment of frozen meat from Dunedin to Britain in 1882. As dairying developed, the pig industry became concentrated in the main dairying regions – Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Manawatū, Southland; and to a lesser extent in Northland, Canterbury and the West Coast. In these areas it was profitable to feed pigs the skim milk and whey which were by-products of butter and cheese manufacture. In 1949–50, 88% of pigs were on dairy farms, with the others in larger piggeries near cheese and casein factories.

A pig by any other name

Barrow: castrated male pig.

Boar: male pig of any age.

Gilt: female pig from birth until bearing her first litter.

Farrowing: the act of giving birth.

Sow: female pig that has had at least one litter.

Porker: slaughtered pig weighing between 40 and 50 kg.

Modern farms

In the 1950s and 1960s, as technology developed and whole milk began to be collected, the number of pigs on dairy farms rapidly decreased. Pig farming became specialised and no longer relied on dairy by-products for feed. The places where pigs were farmed also changed. In 2007, 60% of pig production was based in the grain-producing areas of the South Island.

In the past, pig farms were farmed in sties, which were usually muddy and smelly. Typically, today’s indoor pig farms are regulated by the Animal Welfare (Pigs) Code of Welfare 2005. They are ventilated and air-conditioned, with slatted floors or organic bedding to manage manure and odour. Outdoor farms are suited to areas with free-draining soils, low rainfall and a moderate climate, such as Canterbury, where large numbers of pigs are farmed in this way.

Environment and welfare

Farms must comply with resource consents controlled by district and regional councils through the Resource Management Act 1991. The pork industry has developed a code of practice, which considers such things as welfare, feeding, indoor and outdoor conditions, cleaning, manure collection, drainage, aesthetics, noise and odour.

Bring home the bacon

Baconer pigs are heavier and leaner than porkers, and the meat is cured in brine to make bacon. Additives may give it different flavours. Bacon has 3–4% salt content, but a century ago it had up to 7%. A side of bacon is made into a range of different products. Most rashers are either back, middle or streaky (fatty) bacon. Bacon is a source of protein, vitamins and iron.

New Zealand’s pigs have less disease than those overseas, partly because of the country’s geographical isolation and strict biosecurity at the borders. However, there is still concern about environmental and animal welfare practices. For example, sows may be kept in crates so small they cannot turn around. There is an increasing interest in free-range and organic farming methods.

Production and consumption

Most of the pork produced in New Zealand is eaten locally, with small amounts of specialty product exported to the Pacific and Asia. In 2006, New Zealanders ate on average more than 20 kilograms of pork each, 40% of which was imported. In the mid-1960s annual consumption was less than 15 kilograms.

The industry, especially the production of porkers for export, expanded after the New Zealand Meat Producers Board was set up in 1922. The National Pig Industry Council, which provided a national advisory service, ran from 1936 until 1952. In the late 1930s, pig-meat exports to Britain peaked at over 28,000 tons. But by the mid-1960s only a few thousand tons of fresh pork were being exported, mainly to Pacific markets.

In 2007 the pork industry contributed over $1 billion to the New Zealand economy through local sales, exports and employment, and servicing related expenditure.

Pigs help diabetics

Some 11,000 New Zealanders have type-1 diabetes and cannot produce the insulin needed to process glucose. They need regular injections of insulin. Insulin can be synthetic, or it can come from the pancreatic cells of newborn piglets. The cells are coated with a seaweed-based gel, and injected into the patient’s abdomen. The gel protects the cells from the body’s immune system, but allows glucose to enter, which stimulates insulin production. The pigs used are descended from those left on the Auckland Islands 200 years ago, so they are free of viruses.

Fewer farms

The number of specialist pig farms more than halved between 1990 and 2002. In 2007 there were about 40,000 breeding sows on some 360 pig farms. Most of the farms were family-owned, and produced about 770,000 pigs for slaughter each year. Herds of over 1,000 accounted for 56% of New Zealand's total pig population. About 49,000 tonnes of pig meat are produced annually.

Pork Industry Board

The industry is co-ordinated through the Pork Industry Board, which is involved in promotion, marketing, research and development, and finding ways to improve productivity and sustainability.

How to cite this page:

Allan Gillingham, 'Pigs and the pork industry - Pig farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 March 2023)

Story by Allan Gillingham, published 24 Nov 2008