Snyder, TX (AP) — Sure, feral hogs cause their share of trouble. But if you like bacon and pork chops, Texas' pig problem has a swine solution.
"I would say if it's prepared properly, the taste is almost exactly the same," said Jason Bond, comparing the meat to domestic pork.
The rancher operates a hog station just west of Snyder. Some he traps himself; others he purchases from other trappers. On a good week, 100 pigs will move through his holding pens.
Bond sells his pigs live to Southern Wild Game, a processing company in the San Antonio area.
Piggy goes to market
"We buy live hogs from all over the state of Texas," plant manager Rusty Spannagel told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in a phone interview. "... I think it's a way that we can take a product that is actually a problem for farmers and ranchers and make it into something that's constructive instead of destructive."
Operations are comparable to those in a domestic pork plant. Pigs wait in holding pens, then enter a standardized, assembly-line-style slaughter and processing system.
A typical day sees between 250 and 400 pigs in the slaughter line. Last year, the company slaughtered 17,000.
Southern Wild Game leaves final steps such as grinding and seasoning to its retail market. Most of those customers are in Europe.
Spannagel also takes pride in his company's near lack of waste products — hog parts not fit for human consumption can have some purpose. Hides, feet, ears and bones go to factories that make dog chews; hearts are harvested for a company that uses the valves for human hearts.
"We try to use every part of the animal — there's very little of the animal that we don't use in some productive way," he said.
Texas is home to 100 or so buying stations similar to Bond's. Southern Wild Game and other processing facilities contract with those stations, or in some cases are affiliated with them.
All pigs undergo a pre-slaughter U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection. Billy Higginbotham is an East Texas-based wildlife specialist with particular expertise in feral hogs. The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service researcher considers Texas' feral hog arrangement fairly unique.
"As far as I know, we're the only state that has that system," he said in a phone interview.
Quality of meat
When you buy a cut of pork chops from the supermarket, you're paying for an overwhelming likelihood of its safety. Not only was the meat processed according to USDA standards, but the pigs it came from were fed a controlled diet.
With feral hogs, you don't have that guarantee. In fact, the creatures are notorious for devouring nearly anything they can find.
Bond advises eating hogs trapped only in colder months, when they're less likely to have consumed harmful insects.
"I wouldn't recommend it in the summertime, but in the wintertime there's less parasites," he said.
He also prefers younger hogs, preferably under 200 pounds. Older means their muscles have started to deteriorate and their meat is tougher.
Southern Wild Game emphasizes its processing facility is subject to the same federal standards and inspections as at livestock plants.
"We use USDA-approved methods and follow humane handling practices," Spannagel said.
The most noticeable difference about feral hogs compared to their domestic counterparts is their hair. Wild pigs are typically covered in a mane; their snouts often appear longer and thinner.
They are not native to Texas. Instead, the creatures can trace their time in the U.S. to 1539 in what is now Tampa Bay, Florida. Then, Higginbotham said, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto brought about two dozen of them with an exploration crew.
Now, an estimated 8 million wild hogs are roaming the U.S. countryside. About 2.6 million are in the Lone Star State.
They're known to devour corn and sorghum; AgriLife estimates they cost Texas agriculture $52 million a year.
"The crops, they just wipe 'em out," Bond said.
Then there are dangers of vehicle collisions, along with damage to the ecosystem. Higginbotham is particularly concerned with a diet overlap in which they compete with deer — and typically win.
"Their introduction into the United States has resulted in competition for food and space with native wildlife species, and in some cases, predation upon native species," he said.
The pigs can be found in 35 states. In some of those, Higginbotham suspects humans are at fault: A few decades ago, hunting enthusiasts illegally moved the pigs to new locations for other hunters. And while hunting is generally praised as a control method, Higginbotham partially blames it for the population explosion. He appreciates hog-hunting bans in Kansas, Nebraska and certain other states.
"If wild pigs were not popular to hunt, we would not be in the shape we're in today," he said. "I think it was absolutely brilliant because it took away the incentive for people to make those illegal releases. If you can't hunt 'em, why turn 'em loose?"
But like trapping, it's only a partial fix.
Various studies indicate control efforts are removing about 21-23 percent of the wild pig population each year, Higginbotham said. But to keep the population stable — much less drop it — hunters and trappers would have to take out 66 percent.
That makes it hard for the researcher to be optimistic: "They are still increasing, despite our efforts."
Bond recommends being proactive — a recreational hunting trip once a month isn't enough.
"If you don't take 75 percent of a population, they're gaining on you," he said. "It's gonna run out of control if you don't trap 'em and shoot as many as you can."