Friday, June 3, 2016

And then there were none.......

The three herds...

In 1989 after years of contentious negotiations the USDA ,The University of Illinois and Iowa State University received the only direct importation of Chinese Meishan hogs( along with a small group of Fenging and Minzhu hogs) to ever reach the United States. Under agreement with the Chinese these hogs were for research purposes only.None would be released into commercial or private breeding stock until the experiments were concluded. The actual number of pure Meishan pigs was very small. Here is an excerpt from the Illinois Extension web page

"The University of Illinois Imported Swine Research Laboratory received 21 Meishan (Ms) females in July 1989, as part of a joint University of Illinois - Iowa State University - USDA-ARS importation of 65 Ms gilts and 30 Ms, 24 Fengjing (F) and 21 Minzhu boars from the Peoples' Republic of China. The Ms pigs represented 10 distinct families which were unrelated back to their grandparents "
In talking with some of the actual researchers every care was made to divide the genetics equally. If three pigs came from one liter each research facility got one pig each. Once divided the herds would never genetically interact again. Different experiments,natural inter group rivalries and the simple disconnect of physical difference sent each herd along its own path.I know for a fact that in at least two cases the Fengjing and Minzhu genetics were never interbred with the Meishan Genetics. Everyone I talked to assumed that was the case for all three research herds.The Meishan was selected because at the time plummeting US pork prices had slammed hard against a need for higher breeding efficiency. And the Meishan was one of the most prolific pigs in the world.Averaging 15-18 piglets per liter when US breeds at the time were mired in the 10-12 range at best. And Meishans reached sexual maturity faster.On average 105 days(over 3 months) faster than a common Yorkshire or Duroc. Meishans were also great mothers featuring 16-18 teats or more and exhibiting a higher wean to farrow ratio than the typical commercial piglet squasher. So here was a pig that could breed sooner,have more piglets,have more milk and raise more to weanling size Studies would show that with as little as 25% Meishan in a cross all of those benefits would at least partially transfer to the progeny. The "super pig" had arrived. Or had it?At just about the same time the Pork Industry was adjusting to new American consumer demands. One might argue those changing demands were driven by false premises on pasture raised fats but thats another blog post. In any case pork was well on its way to becoming "the new white meat". And that is where the Meishan fell short.Because the red, highly prized in the Orient , meat of the Meishan was fatty.Why not? Most heritage breeds had a higher fat content. But alas USDA pork grading was changing literally every few months to place the highest grading (and therefore the highest per pound price for producers) on the meat with the LEAST fat in it.And since every benefit of meishan Genetics also brought with it higher fat content the economic advantages of  prolific liters was offset buy lower pork grading standards.
    Picture of some of the original imported hogs. From top left to right and then bottom left to right. Meishan, Fengjing, Minzhu and a USDA Duroc cross (control comparison). Photo courtesy of Gary Rohrer Geneticist USDA ARS US Meat Animal Research Center Clay Nebraska
  So the Meishan began a long journey as probably the most experimented on, dissected and observed breed of hog that nobody had. And at the rate it was going nobody was going to have.The pork industry recovered from the disappointment of the Meishan. Confinement systems cured the piglet crushing issue. As predicted over 25 years of selective breeding raised the liter sizes.America learned to happily munch down on dry tasteless wallboard pork(excuse the authors bias here) . And what happened to the Meishan? Well the Meishan languished in obscurity a few leaking out to zoos but the rest became pudgy anachronisms in their respective research herds. Then sometime between 2008 and 2010 the Department of Animal Sciences at Iowa State determined the benefit of the pudgy pig no longer outweighed the cost . They began to disperse their herd. A few got  out to exotic animal dealers who saw potential in this unique docile "foldy face" pig., A few went to small independent breeders intrigued by the potential to return flavor to American pork . The boars found a unique niche as "heat check boars". Their docile nature made them the perfect candidates to alert confinement operators which sows were ready for artificial insemination. Anachronism, pasture ornament and confinement "fluffer" it was an ignominious stage for one of the oldest domesticated breeds of swine in the world.
Probably the most published Meishan picture ever. Gary Rohrer from US MARC with two USDA Mesihans in the early 90's.
But it really was such a good pig. People coveted the few that were out there.Cooperation was not the hallmark of the breed owners.Livestock people and pet people dont often mix. Hoarding genetics to keep a revenue stream probably played a role in the prevailing attitudes. I am not here to judge.The Iowa State herd was gone and the genetic pool was incredibly thin. But there were still the pigs at USDA and Illinois. So breeders asked.Exotic animal dealers asked. And yes even I asked.Requests were ignored or simply declined. The breed was in a genetic death spiral outside of the research herds. 
And then there were two.
In February 2016 the last two gilts(two year old sisters) left the University of Illinois . The Illinois research herd had succumbed to the same budget pressures that Iowa State suffered over six years earlier. Twenty seven years of Meishan genetics were ended.
And then there were none
In early 2016 the last great reservoir of US Meishan genetics fell to the budget ax. The US Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Nebraska determined their Meishan herd was excess inventory.All the remaining females would be slaughtered in a final experiment in which some cell or another would be harvested,analyzed and cataloged. The last five boars would be euthanized. 
Sounds like a bad ending for a good pig in the US. Without these genetics the sustainability of the remaining Iowa State pigs was questionable at best. Lets toast the Meishan long live the next hot pig breed.
 But maybe there is a different future for the Meishan in America. By one of the most fortuitous/ridiculous/ blessed series of eventsI found myself standing at the back door of both facilities as someone was reaching for the Meishan light switch. So instead of going to a meat locker or a  animal compost site the two girls from Illinois and  five boars and two gilts (all unrelated) from the USDA ended up in the back of my van and the back of a borrowed livestock trailer respectively  headed for my farm with me at the wheel. 4000 round trip driving miles later they are here. The detective story that tells that tale is another blog post.
Just in case somebody ever asks you "How many adult Meishans can you fit in the back of a 2003 Chevy Astro Van?"  now you know
 I went looking for one more boar to go with my Iowa State breeding trio. I ended up with the most genetically diverse Meishan herd outside of China. I wasnt ready for that. It was the all in or all out poker hand.I am now all in.And now I have to make decisions about them. I have had these pigs long enough to firmly believe  there is a real niche for them in the US.Not just as a pasture ornament,not just as a beginner pig, not just  the next get rich quick LLama/Alpaca flash in the pan. I just resigned from the board of directors of another endangered heritage pig registry to focus on this project. I know that once that breed had only seven boars(some related) and I have 6 unrelated Meishan boars. And that doesnt count what is still pure out there in the meishan community.Last year the breed  registry I served on registered over 1100 pigs. I believe that if the Meishan can find a legitimate role as meat animal in the US craft pork movement it can flourish.I believe if raising Meishans is profitable for small land holders it can flourish. I also believe if it is pimped out like the pot belly pig or the Alpaca it will collapse under the weight of its own prolific nature. So there will be decisions I will have to make be they  popular or otherwise. And probably some people will disagree and get angry. I thank those in the scientific community at USDA and elsewhere who have given me words on encouragement. My greatest hope is that nobody will ver say this about the Meishan breed in the US. And then there were none. Be blessed all prayers appreciated feel free to come along for the journey.
You can learn more about our herd at

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