What makes a champion hog?
I’d guess that good breeding, high-quality feed, and plenty of fresh air would be some of the requirements for raising a prize pig.
When I’m evaluating a hog to buy, I look for one that’s spry and alert and carrying a few extra pounds. You know, something that would look good on a dinner plate.
As regular readers of this column know, the annual 4-H auction at the St. Mary’s County Fair is something I look forward to every September. It’s always a pleasure to roam the livestock barns and check out the animals and chat with their young stewards.
I’ve learned so much over the years from the 4-Hers. If you want to feel good about the future of our community, spend a few minutes with some 4-H kids. You’ll be impressed as you listen to what they know about livestock, and also gain an appreciation for their poise and maturity.
The 4-H auction plays a big part in what my family will consume ever the next few months as well as the gifts we will be giving to our family and friends at Christmas. This year, I decided we couldn’t go wrong with the reserve grand champion, a robust rust-colored pig that weighed in at 302 pounds.
I knew the pig was exceptional by the way it trotted around the arena with its head held high. It carried itself like a winner.
It must take a lot to raise such an exceptional pig, but what does it take to raise two champion pigs?
I sat down with Wyatt Mast, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in Loveville and member of the Wild Things 4-H club, to find out. His two market hogs earned the two highest honors at the 2019 St. Mary’s County Fair, both grand champion and reserve grand champion.
Wyatt is no stranger to winning. Last year, Wyatt won grand champion market hog too, along with reserve grand champion market goat. This year, he won reserve grand champion market steer as well. Clearly he’s got the magic touch when it comes to raising fine livestock.
This year, Wyatt raised four hogs destined for the show ring — two he planned to take to the Maryland State Fair held in Timonium a few weeks before the St. Mary’s County Fair and two for the county fair. Wyatt has been the only hog exhibitor representing St. Mary’s County at the Maryland State Fair the past two years. Two of his hogs had the unique designation of going to both the state and county fairs this year, and one was a winner in both.
Hogs qualify to be exhibited at fairs. The reserve grand champion pig, a breed called Duroc, didn’t quite meet the “rate of gain” by the state fair to be included in the market hog division, so Wyatt showed it in the exhibition class. It took first place out of 15 hogs.
At the St. Mary’s County Fair, hogs must weigh between 200 and 325 pounds to be eligible for the auction. A half-pound over or under and the pig cannot be sold.
Wyatt said, “The judge announced he usually doesn’t pick a heavyweight hog for the champion or reserve champion spot, but the Duroc was the leanest 300-pound hog he had seen in a long time.”
Most of us think of the fair as a four-day extravaganza of funnel cakes and rides on the ferris wheel, but for the kids who show their animals, preparation can begin more than a year in advance.
Pigs are started in November. It takes 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days for gestation. The piglets are usually born in March, meaning the pigs shown at the fair are about 6 months old.
During those six months, the pigs are carefully monitored for weight gain. Wyatt’s hogs are raised outside. (He said it’s an ancient rule that pigs must be raised on dirt so they can supplement their diet with minerals from the ground.) Hogs that spend too much time on concrete can develop structural problems, so it’s better for them to be able to walk around and get some exercise outdoors, too.
He does have secrets
What’s Wyatt’s secret to growing champion hogs? He said, “It’s the special high-quality feed I give my pigs.” And, yes, it is an actual secret — an exclusive family recipe that I can’t divulge in this column that Wyatt calls simply “hog finisher.”
Wyatt feeds his hogs separately to make sure each is getting enough, because a dominant pig might hog all the food. His pigs eat twice a day and Wyatt rations out exactly what each pig needs.
But there’s more to it than that, Wyatt explained. A show hog needs to be a “high-headed hog” when in the ring. He practices with his hogs. Their natural inclination is to root around in the dirt looking for something to eat, which doesn’t really present the pig in the best light. So, he practices presentation with his hogs to keep their heads up. And, Wyatt explained, “You never show an empty pig.” If a pig is full, it won’t be looking for something to eat. Judges are looking at the hog’s muscle definition, how well it walks on its feet and legs and if it’s calm in the ring and doesn’t need a lot of prodding from its owner. And there’s nuance to it. There’s the show ring aspect of raising a champion.
Wyatt said, “The judges like a hog that walks with its head up, which levels out its top line and makes it more eye-appealing.”
Wyatt plans to raise four more hogs for next year’s fairs. He will use the proceeds from the animals he sold this year at auction to pay for new animals. Last year, he was able to use some of the money he earned to purchase a hog scale, an expensive but helpful piece of equipment and buy his very own Palomino horse named Trixie (registered name: Gold Cookie Dust). You see, Wyatt has big plans to be a champion barrel racer. And he’s already off to a good start—at the time I interviewed him he was leading the speed division.
It’s true, you’re not going to get a deal on fresh, right-off-the-hoof meat at the 4-H auction. You can get cheaper meats at your grocery store, but that’s not the point of the auction. Besides, it’s hard to even compare a 4-H show pig to what is produced by modern day factory farming.
The kids are raising these animals as part of a project to learn what it takes to be a farmer. The point of buying an animal at the auction is to support the kids, their ambitions and their futures.
I asked Wyatt what he wanted the public to know about the 4-H auction. He said, “It helps you raise money so you can afford next year’s projects.” His father Danny added, “It teaches the kids self-reliance.”
4-H is a significant part of Wyatt’s life. It provides a lot of fun activities as well as a peer group of like-minded kids and families. In fact, without 4-H, Wyatt probably wouldn’t even be here. His parents, Danny and Beth, met 21 years ago through 4-H at the county fair when they were high schoolers.
Danny said: “4-H keeps the kids out of the opioid crisis keeps them off video games and off the couch. That’s the value I get out of it as a parent. It keeps him outside. I try to steer him the right way, and 4-H does that.”
We talked a little more about what breeds of pig makes the best pork (Berkshire) and the best local butcher (we both agree that the Alvey Brothers make the best sausage). But, we had to wind up the conversation as Wyatt had plans. He was busy preparing for a barrel racing competition the next day, hosted by the “Mounted Wanderers” 4-H club.
It takes a lot of hard work to be a champion, and he had a first-place ranking to defend.