The Chinese have been selectively breeding domestic swine in this region for over 5000 years. The Meishan is one of the oldest, if not the oldest domesticated breed of pigs in the world. Taihu pigs are prized in China and Japan for their succulent marbled meat and superior lard and fat quality. The Meishan is considered a medium sized lard carcass hog. Meishans were bred for hyper productivity and prolificacy and to thrive in smaller areas and on rougher diets than other pig breeds. In conjunction with these traits, Meishans have been bred to be extremely quiet, docile and sedentary making them easier to manage than larger or more active breeds. Meishan litters by their third litter are typically in the 14-16 piglets range with litters occasionally hitting 20 or more. A sow in the USDA research herd once farrowed 28.
Meishan pigs are part of the Taihu group of Chinese pigs (so named for the lake in that area). Originally there were three sub-types known as the “small”, “middle”, and “large.” Of the three types, only the small and middle remain today. The two types are managed as separate breeds on conservation farms in China. In the U.S., only the middle type exists.
Meishans were first imported into the U.S. in 1989 after ten years of negotiations with China. They were brought in 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 (both by sex and genetic profile) between the three participating research facilities. This marked the third, final, and largest exportation of Meishans allowed by China in modern times. Other exportations were significantly smaller and those went to France and England. Meishans were imported specifically 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 most domestic hog breeds. Sows typically have 16-18 teats (and sometimes in excess of 20) allowing them to easily raise large litters of piglets. They are excellent mothers and in study herds had higher weaning to farrowing ratios than conventional breeds. Meishan piglets are interestingly born with more highly developed digestive systems than conventional swine. This is believed to make the piglets more resistant to digestive diseases of piglets and allows for earlier weaning of piglets.
Unlike most pig breeds, Meishans thrive on a diet higher in fiber and roughage. They are known to be an extremely docile and sedentary breed. They are thought to have a lower environmental impact on pastures as compared to other heritage and commercial breeds of swine.
Under the agreement between the USDA and China, the Meishans were restricted to use in research facilities or zoos until the prolificacy experiments were concluded. Iowa State then dispersed their herd between 2008 and 2010. USDA and the University of Illinois dispersed their herds entirely in 2016. Today none of the original research facilities maintain Meishan herds. It is important to point out that the three research herds spent over 20 years in total genetic isolation from one another and none were inter bred until pigs were in private hands beginning in 2016.
An association was developed for the breed and is known as the American Meishan Breeders Association, incorporated in Tennessee in October of 2016. The herd book was developed by Mountain Niche Web services and recognizes foundation pure stock by using a documented chain of custody back to one of the three research herds. It also allows for grade “pure on appearance” females only. Percentages of bloodlines are tracked and COI is available on animals with at least a three generation pedigree. The A.M.B.A. utilizes a breed description and tracks litter sizes as a performance criteria.