This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Brad's Firm Pork Primer

In bacon production, a common source of trouble arises from the softness of the sides. There is a certain firmness to the fat, a freedom from greasiness and softness which is absolutely essential in No. 1 bacon. In the production of bacon the feeds entering into the ration must be carefully chosen. The use of corn in the proportion of more than one third of the ration is certain to produce softness. The feeds used most largely and successfully are barley, peas, oats, shorts and skimmed milk. — Cyclopedia of American Agriculture, 1917

The lack of creativity in modern agriculture can be shocking.  The current prevailing wisdom is that you can’t raise pigs without corn and soy.  Barley, wheat or triticale will yield a much firmer pork than corn but it is very difficult to source from local feed mills in sufficient quantities because their bins are all full of corn and soy.  Years ago I called a local feed mill and asked the woman if they had any triticale for a custom feed mix.  She replied simply, “We carry feed not seed.”  “Yes, I understand that, but I’m looking for a custom hog feed made primarily from triticale.”  She responded simply and louder, “FEED not SEED.”  You see, hog feed is made from corn and soy.  It makes you wonder how pigs were raised in Europe for thousands of years without corn (domesticated in Mexico) or soy (domesticated in China).

The answer is that pigs were raised on a variety of feeds, including grains, pasture, forest mast (acorns) and human food scraps.  Grain mixes given to the hogs were composed primarily of barley, wheat and peas.  This is still true in Northern Europe, where the seasons are too short for warm weather crops like corn and beans.  In Iceland today the only grain crop that is grown is barley (we’ll come back to this fact in the series).  Denmark is a major exporter of pork to other European countries and the primary grain crops grown are wheat and barley.

The same thing is true of the Northern Canadian plains and traditionally the US Pacific Northwest.  For climatic reasons barley and peas are predominant.  That’s why historically Canada was known for having the firmest, best slicing bacon. That is why I’ve always promoted “barley finished pork”, and by barley what I mean is wheat, triticale, rye, peas (when I can get them which is almost never) and yes, sometimes, actual barley.

Why does barley make firmer pork than corn?  If you’re following the series you’ve probably guessed it has to do with the linoleic acid (Omega-6 PUFA, vegetable oil) content of the grain:

Feed Linoleic Acid Content
Corn 2.2
Barley 0.8
Wheat 0.8
Triticale 0.8
Peas 0.5

As you can see barley has less than half the linoleic acid content of corn and peas have 40% less than barley!  Pigs are not ruminants like cows.  Ruminants have a whole colony of critters in their rumen that will turn vegetable oil into more stable monounsaturated or unsaturated fats.  Pigs, however, are to a large degree what they eat.  If you feed them vegetable oil their fat will be composed of vegetable oil.  It’s that simple!

Recently, the problem has worsened.  Industrial meat processing technologies have advanced to the point that large commercial processors can now slice soft bacon effectively.  In addition, research showed that hogs given a small amount of whole roasted soybeans grew faster than hogs using only soybean meal.  Soybean meal is what is left over after the oil has been extracted from the beans and is therefore low in oil.  Whole soybeans are about 20% vegetable oil.  The extra fat in the ration makes the hogs grow faster.  Commercial producers starting adding whole soybeans to hog rations and recently that trend has trickled down to the local grain mills!  Any amount of whole soybeans added to a hog ration will provide soft pork.

It’s my job to enforce that farms are feeding their pigs correctly to provide firm pork but also to work with them to find feed sources and mills that work for their situation.  It is nuanced.  Feed mills think that what we want is weird.  I think sometimes when I tell farms what I need they either don’t understand or don’t think I’ll know the difference.  Believe me, I’ll know.  Instantly.  Nothing gets me on the phone faster than a batch of soft pork.  I think the farms and mills are sometimes surprised how quickly I can tell.

The good news is that if you’re a reliable customer people will ultimately work with you.  I was recently able to work with a mill that was supplying one of our partner farms who had sent us a load of feed that was softer than I prefer.  The feed was a GMO free mix containing mostly corn with a fairly oily type of soybean meal.  We talked a lot, I made it clear what my expectations were and a few weeks later the farm got it’s first batch of a new low oil feed that swapped out more than half of the corn with barley and used a very low oil GMO free soymeal.  The next batch of pigs from that partner farm should be great!

A more recent trend that is softening Midwestern corn is distillers grains, often referred to as DDGS.  This is what remains of the corn grain after the starch has been removed for ethanol production.  The ethanol industry is currently using about 30% of the American corn crop so there’s plenty of the stuff to go around.  By removing the strarch, the amounts of fiber, protein and oil are all enhanced.  Distillers grains make very oily pork.  An analogous situation happens in a smaller way to farms that use spent grain from brewery and distilleries to feed their hogs.  I’m all about reusing a waste product, but I think hog farmers should take it easy with distillers grains, probably no more than 10% of the diet.

Pork fat composed of vegetable oil is bad for pork processing, which is one of the many reasons I avoid soft pork.  The texture is greasy, the bacon is flaccid and hard to slice,  fresh sausage looks smeary and tons of fat cooks out when the meat is heated.  But there’s more reasons to avoid soft pork than just that!  Vegetable oils are also hard on your liver and therefore on your metabolism.  If you stick with me for the series you’ll learn why!

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