Meishan: Translation from Mandarin Chinese, “Virtuous Beauty”
Meishan pigs are part of the Taihu group of Chinese pigs (so named for the lake in that area) . The Chinese have been selectively breeding domestic swine in this region for over 5000 years. It is truly a heritage pig, if not one of the oldest domesticated breeds of pigs in the world. The line drawing used in the American Meishan Breeders Association logo is taken from a Charles Darwin book published in 1861.
Taihu pigs are prized in China and Japan for their succulent marbled meat and superior lard and fat quality.The Meishan a medium sized lard carcass hog .
Meishans are some of the rarest pigs in North America and one of the most genetically significant pigs in the world. Meishans were first imported into the U.S. in 1989 (after 10 years of negotiations with China) as part of a joint study between the USDA, Iowa State and the University of Illinois.Only 99 Meishan pigs were imported and they were equally divided between the three participating research facilities.This marked the third , final and largest exportation of Meishans allowed by China in modern times. The other exportation’s were to France and England. Meishans were imported to be studied for their hyper productivity. In addition to their large litters they also enter puberty at approximately 90 days which is significantly faster than domestic hog breeds. Meishans typically have 16-18 teats allowing them to easily raise such large litters of piglets. They are a very sedentary and docile pig which allowed them to be raised in smaller areas with minimal environmental impact on pastures and woodlots. Meishans also thrive ,unlike most pig breeds, on a diet higher in fiber and roughage .Under the agreement between the USDA and China the Meishans were restricted to use in research facilities or zoo’s until the prolificacy experiments were concluded.
Photo via USDA USMARC
These three research herds then spent over 20 years in total genetic isolation. None of the three research herds were inter bred. Between 2008 and 2010 Iowa State terminated and dispersed their herd. Until 2016 all of the pure Meishans that were being bred by a very small number of farmers and exotic animal brokers were descendants from that herd. In 2016 of the University of Illinois herd and the USDA herd ,which was housed at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center Nebraska (USMARC) ,were scheduled for dispersal. In February of 2016 the remainder of the Meishan pigs in the University of Illinois research herd were sold . In May of 2016 negotiations with the USMARC were completed and the last Meishan Hogs in their research herd were sold also. Today none of the original research herds remain.But the genetics were not lost. The stock from both of these research herds were acquired by a member breeder of the A.M.B.A. It was for the purpose of preserving a sustainable Meishan herd in the US that the A.M.B.A. was formed.The A.M.B.A. believes the Meishan pig is highly adaptable to many different small and medium holder farm models in the United States.
But the Meishan breed is not only rare here in the U.S. In its native China verifiably pure Meishans are becoming alarmingly less common also. The UN Food and Agriculture Report of 2006 listed 10,000 Meishans in China.However through contacts made available through the A.M.B.A. advisory panel verifiably pure Meishans today in China are limited to government conservation farms. Estimates of that population in 2017 were set at 1500 total animals. Of that only 10% are boars. While Meishan influenced pigs are still commonly raised on small farms in China they are mostly hybridized or crossed. In China the sale of pure boars is restricted to the conservation farms and tightly monitored. The Meishan consevation effort here in the U.S. is important to this breed and has world wide implications.For this reason the A.M.B.A.has officially petitioned the Livestock Conservancy to take the Meishan breed under study.The A.M.B.A. is hopefule that a decision will be forthcoming in the spring of 2018 in regards to this request.
For the first time since being imported all three research are now in the hands of private breeders and are now able to be interbred.This is extremely significant because of the conclusions from a 2014 USDA study of the Meishan pig population in the US. Click here to read that study .USDA senior geneticist Harvey Blackburn from the USDA Plant and Animal Genetic Resource Preservation Service in Fort Collins Colorado conducted an extensive study (Blackburn et al 2014) sampling DNA from both the USMARC herd and the Iowa State herd. These samples were compared to the DNA samples from the original Chinese Meishans that were imported in 1989. Over the twenty plus years of genetic isolation the herds in the US had not only experienced “genetic drift” from their Chinese cousins but had even become genetically differentiated from each other. That genetic drift had effectively resulted in each research herd becoming a genetically unique sub species of Meishans . This “drift” may even have resulted in DNA gene pairings,or alleles, that were unique only to the US examples of the breed. Each herd had become genetically differentiated from the original importation of Chinese Meishans and from each other. The USMARC pigs were found to be genetically closer to the original Chinese Meishans than the Iowa State herd. While the University of Illinois pigs were not sampled the primary researcher has confirmed to the A.M.B.A. that it is safe to assume they have “drifted” also. Our member breeders observations of the different characteristics of each bloodline(from the respective research herds) confirms this. Today there are truly three distinct “bloodlines” (one for each of the three original research herds USDA, University of Illinois and Iowa State) of Meishans in the hands of private breeders. A.M.B.A. management has had extensive conversations with several of the co-authors of the Blackburn study. They confirmed that to truly breed a hog most similar to the classic Chinese Meishan ,and to assure the broadest genetic base for the breed, a coordinated effort to interbreed the bloodlines (but still preserve pure examples of these bloodlines) would be in the best interest of the breed.