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Pigs and the pork industry

by  Allan Gillingham

Stout kunekune, with their tasselled jaws, were among the first pigs to be introduced to New Zealand, and now live in the wild or are kept as pets. Domestic pigs introduced from Europe are bred for their meat, and end up on the table as bacon or ham.

Early farming and feral breeds

Early pig farming

Kunekune and Captain Cookers were the first pigs to be introduced to New Zealand. Captain Cookers were domesticated and bartered by Māori, and there was also a large wild population. Pigs were greatly valued by Māori, who helped their spread by making gifts of them to other Māori. They were kept in households to use up scraps of food, and this diet was supplemented with grain. The pigs were eventually killed for meat.

Polynesian pigs

A 2007 study analysed DNA from ancient pig remains and concluded that Polynesians and pigs did not follow the same path to the Pacific. It is traditionally believed that Polynesians and their pigs originated in Taiwan, but the study suggests that the pig came from Vietnam, and may have been collected by people migrating down through the Philippines to New Guinea and then to the Pacific.

Feral breeds

Feral pigs are those that are no longer farmed and have gone wild.

Captain Cookers

It is thought that Captain Cookers were introduced by James Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand, in 1769. Originating from the old English breeds of Tamworth, Berkshire and Large Black, Captain Cookers are the most prolific wild pigs in New Zealand.

Captain Cookers are bigger than kunekune, and similar to the wild pigs of Europe. They thrived in the New Zealand bush, their numbers increasing rapidly between 1840 and 1880, but dwindling once food became more scarce. Captain Cookers damaged pastures and crops, killed lambs, and destroyed the habitats of native species such as kākāpō (flightless parrots) and land snails. Thousands of these pigs were killed in the 1880s by hunters and farmers. Numbers rose again during both world wars, when there was a shortage of hunters, ammunition, and petrol for transport. However, they have decreased since, as a result of bounty schemes, forest clearance and hunting. Since the late 1950s, Captain Cookers have steadily declined nationwide – hunting them has remained popular.

Kunekune pigs

There is debate over the origin of the kunekune pig. Kune in Māori means ‘fat and round’, and these pigs are short-legged and sturdy, with a blunt, turned-up snout and two tassels hanging from the lower jaw. The only other pigs with such tassels are Polish breeds, and kunekune may have come to New Zealand with American sealers as the breed known as Poland China – a combination of Polish and Chinese pigs. There are no kunekune fossils dating from before the late 1700s, so they were probably introduced by Europeans rather than by early Polynesian settlers. The Polynesian ancestors of Māori brought pigs in their canoes, but it appears that none survived.

Kunekune are friendly, they learn quickly, will eat anything, and come in a range of colours, including black, tortoiseshell, ginger and smoky blue. They are becoming popular around the world as pets.

Year of the pig

The Chinese year of the pig happens every 12 years. To celebrate it in 2007, NZ Post issued a stamp series showing three early pig breeds: the kunekune, the Arapawa and the Auckland Island pig, introduced in 1807 to feed whalers and shipwrecked sailors.

Arapawa pigs

The true origin of the feral pigs of Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds is not known. They may descend from animals released there by Captain James Cook in 1773 and 1777. It is more likely, however, that they were introduced by whalers during the first half of the 19th century. In 2007 there were thought to be only about 100 remaining.

Domestic pigs

Early breeds

The main early breeds of pig imported from Britain from the 1840s were the Berkshire, Tamworth and Large Black. The Berkshire was a black pig, considered an excellent porker, although rather fatty. Imports in the late 1920s of Canadian Berkshires improved the New Zealand strain of Berkshires and made them suitable for bacon. The Tamworth was red and, being leaner than the Berkshire, was popular as a baconer pig. The Large Black was heavy and lean, essentially killed for bacon.

The Large White, considered to be the world's best bacon pig, was introduced into New Zealand in the late 1920s. However, although it produced well indoors, it was not suited to outdoor farms, and so became less popular. In the early 1940s, P. G. Stevens at Lincoln College, Canterbury, crossed the Large White and Tamworth to produce the Lincoln Red. This breed was popular for a time in Canterbury, but disappeared when the breeding herd died.

In 1959, Landrace pigs began to be imported from Australia. They were white and had floppy ears – unlike the pricked ears of those breeds which had until then been predominant in New Zealand.

Modern breeds

The Berkshire pig has almost disappeared. In the early 2000s the favoured breeding combination was a Large White–Landrace female and either a Berkshire, Tamworth or Large Black, or one of the newer ‘terminal sires’ (used to produce the animal that will be sold to market). The main terminal sires used in New Zealand are boars of the Duroc and Hampshire breeds.

Individual breeds are becoming less important as the world’s major pig-breeding companies develop hybrids that grow faster and bigger on less food, and bear more live piglets.

Pig farming

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.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Allan Gillingham, 'Pigs and the pork industry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Allan Gillingham, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008