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A herd of Red Wattle hogs move down their pasture toward a feeding area June 12 at Heritage Farms Northwest near Dallas.
June 20, 2012
DALLAS -- Watching 125 Red Wattle hogs feast on their daily dose of grain at Heritage Farms Northwest near Dallas gives new meaning to the phrase "eats like a pig."
Every day around 2 p.m. owners Jim and Wendy Parker, with the help of their son, Daniel, load 25 five-gallon buckets of grain into a Gator and haul it over to the pigs' pasture.
That's like ringing a dinner bell. Soon the entire herd makes its way to the feeding area in a quick-moving mass.
Wendy, Jim and Daniel place the buckets about 15 feet apart on the ground just outside the pasture's electric fence, which stands only waist high, but still keeps the pigs at bay.
To say the daily feeding is a noisy ritual would be putting it mildly. The hogs squeal and tussle for the best position in front of the nearest bucket.
This only intensifies as the Parkers begin dumping the buckets over the fence.
"We feed them 25 buckets of the same stuff, but every time you dump a new bucket, they all think it must be better than the last so everybody runs from bucket to bucket to bucket," Wendy Parker said, describing the antics of the couple's reddish, bristly-haired charges.
As the pigs in the main pasture feast, a gang of young pigs, about 8 weeks old, put their game of chase on hold to converge on a pile of spilled grain.
The younger ones are a constant source of entertainment as they run under the feet of the older hogs.
Wendy Parker tosses out a bucket of grain for the pigs' afternoon meal. The market animals are fed only once a day to supplement their grazing, forcing them to "get off their duffs."
The vast majority are being raised for their meat, but the Parkers' family-run farm is doing its part to save the rare hog.
Red Wattle Hogs, once common on farms, are now critically endangered, mostly due to a sharp decline in the hog market in recent decades.
It's ironic, but the Parkers believe operations like theirs may be key to helping the breed escape extinction.
"This is the way you save these rare breeds," Wendy said, adding that most people couldn't afford to raise the hogs without selling them.
"That's what we tell our customers -- that when you buy pork from us, you are contributing to the recovery of this breed," Jim added.
Before the hogs' date with destiny, however, they live a fairly charmed life on the farm. The Parkers pasture the pigs, leaving them to graze freely, roam at their leisure, and even wallow in the mud if they like.
The Parkers say pasturing allows the space for exercise, which makes for lower-fat -- and tastier -- meat.
When piglets, they are allowed to have their fill of protein-rich food, but once the pigs reach about 125 pounds they are placed in the market pasture. There, they are fed just once a day to supplement their diet. The rest of the time, they have to graze on grasses and clover.
Red Wattle hogs are named for their reddish hue and a fleshy wattle on each side of their neck. The breed is considered critically endangered, with the Parkers' herd being the largest on the west coast.
"We feed them once a day and that encourages them to get off their duffs and go look for food -- to do what they are supposed to do," Wendy said.
Watching the piglets play and their older counterparts nap in the shade, it's hard to argue they aren't happy animals.
Some have earned themselves names, mostly descriptive of their appearance or personalities. Grazing in the fields are Marshmallow, named for her affinity for marshmallows, and Little Pig, a runt of one of the litters that has since outgrown her name.
Jane Doe, Scratchy, Banshee, Big Mama, Lucky and Bubbles occupy the sow pasture. Homer, a 1,000 pound bulldozer of a beast, is one of the farm's several boars.
"They've got to have a good life," Jim said. "These animals are raised with a lot of care."
The venture started with Wendy just wanting to raise a few pigs on the farm. They already had cows and chickens, so why not pigs?
At about the same time, Jim read an article about the near-extinction of some heritage hog breeds.
They did some research and decided Red Wattles, named for their red hue and fleshy wattles on both sides of their neck, were the best fit. They bought three weaner pigs, with plans to raise and breed them. Wendy soon found a pair of sows already bred and had them delivered.
They were supposed to give birth in two months after their arrival.
"Well, it was actually more like two weeks," Wendy said.
In a matter of months, the barnyard went from having five pigs to 21.
At the time, Jim worked for a company installing giant LED signs -- like those on the Las Vegas Strip. Once the recession hit, the market for the huge signs plummeted and he was let go in 2009. Jim contemplated a career change, but the prospects weren't great.
Wendy and Jim Parker are surrounded by inquisitive animals when they enter the sow pen, including big Mama, center, and others with names like Scratchy, Jane Doe, Bubbles and Banshee.
"The economy in the Dallas area in 2009 wasn't good," Wendy said. "We said, `Well, we've got the pigs in the field.'"
They crunched the numbers and decided to make a go of it.
Now they are developing more time- and cost-efficient ways to care for the pigs. They are also phasing out their cattle and American Guinea Hog operations to focus solely on Red Wattles.
The farm is a lot to keep up with -- Wendy also runs a horse hoof-trimming business -- but seeing a long line of adorably curled tails at feeding time makes it all worth it.
"A curly-tailed pig is a happy pig," Wendy said.
What: Heritage Farms Northwest.
Where: 5585 Liberty Road, Dallas.
Of note: The farm sells pastured Red Wattle pork by the side or individual cuts. Sides are usually available all year, but it is best to reserve ahead of time. Meat weaner piglets also are available, but often subject to a waiting list. Orders are available for pick up at the farm.
For more information or to order: heritagefarmsnw.com or call 503-606-9883.