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Yesterday I took the bike and a rucksack and made a couple of foraging trips, picking up black walnuts and enough acorns for my annual experimental acorn bread. This does eventually lead to guinea pig farming, but only in a gradual way. This hasn’t been a banner year for acorns, and neither was last year. Oaks don’t produce a heavy crop annually. Every three or so years all the oaks in the country set more acorns than anything could possibly eat. In a mast year, most of the seedlings take root for that reason. Everything gets sick of eating acorns, so many of the seeds survive.
This year, the sweet acorns from the white oak down the road disappeared into the ground squirrel burrows, and I didn’t find many other acorns anywhere. About a mile farther along, I scared three squirrels out of one oak tree, which was a pretty good indication of acorns worth picking. I stopped and gathered about a half gallon, but the squirrels actually looked more interesting than the nuts did. When I was a kid, we ate quite a lot of squirrel meat, and I’ve been surprised that people from other parts of the country do not. Cultural prejudices are fascinating.
I, for instance, would not think automatically of lunching on a guinea pig. The last time I saw a guinea pig was in the mall in Bloomington, in a pet store, and it didn’t inspire recipes. I’ve read that guinea pig meat is deliciously sweet, that it’s often found in the form of dried carcasses in the luggage of travelers from South America (not allowed, though), and that Indian people in the high Andes depend on them for protein. It seems odd that such a small animal would have that much economic importance.
Indian traditional ways nearly always turn out to be profoundly practical, and guinea pig farming holds true to that. You can raise them nearly anywhere, with a minimum of space and equipment, and feed them kitchen scraps. You don’t even need fences and pens other than a six-inch high barrier across the front door sill. In the Andes people let them run around inside the house, or pen them in cardboard boxes under an apartment bed.
Some Facts About Guinea Pigs,
- 3.2 to 5.7 kg of vegetable matter produces 1 kg of guinea pig, better than mainstream agriculture’s primary livestock.
- Most guinea pigs weigh about half a kilo, but some reach 2 kg. Peru’s “Super Guinea Pig” breeding program hopes to restore individual average weight by saving the biggest rodents for breeding stock. Farm families in Peru usually put the largest guinea pigs in the pot, unintentionally selectively breeding for smaller size.
- Although guinea pigs survive in the high mountains, they originated at lower altitudes and can’t survive freezing temperatures without protection.
- Guinea pigs eat the stems, leaves and peels that make up the vegetable part of our kitchen garbage. Indian families supplement the scraps with weeds pulled from garden plots. Barley and alfalfa hay, cut green and dried, supplements the scrap and weed diet.
- Guinea pigs reach sexual maturity at three months of age and produce litters of two or three new guinea pigs four times a year. Theoretically, you could start a herd in a box under your bed in New York City, one buck and ten does, and wind up with 3,000 at year’s end.
Other than the “Trouble with Tribbles” scenario, what could go wrong? It’s the perfect livestock — loves people, doesn’t bite, jump or climb, and its shit doesn’t even stink. Well, there are some problems.
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The more green food you feed guinea pigs, the more they pee, and their pee does stink. You can’t paper train a guinea pig, so some control of the herd is required. You have to feed them greens, because like people, they get scurvy unless they get their daily vitamin C.
You need both males and females to build a herd. This might not seem like a problem, but like the males of many species, male guinea pigs don’t get along well with other male guinea pigs once they reach sexual maturity. There will be horrible fighting and lots of guinea pig screaming and yelling. Even in peaceful situations, they talk all the time. You can’t select litters of only females, so the battle of the one sex is the constant battle. If you’ve ever raised chickens, you know the drill. There can be only one rooster per flock, even if it’s a flock of guinea pigs.
You have to eat the guinea pigs to keep them under control. This may be the hardest part. Even in Peru where a national herd of 20,000,000 guinea pigs provides up to 17,000 tons of meat every year, the government has not succeeded in popularizing the consumption of guinea pig meat outside the Indian community. Except in ethnic communities in the U.S., you’ll only find guinea pig meat in the confiscated aisle at your local international airport. In other countries like Nigeria or the Philippines, where rodent bushmeats or field rats were already considered delectable, guinea pig farming caught on and many farm families now maintain their own household herds.
Hmm, I suppose I could save money next year and start my own herd here under the computer desk, they’d probably like the warmth of the backup power supply and maybe they wouldn’t be too rowdy. I do have a very successful crop of weeds. But I probably won’t herd pigs, not even guinea pigs. I grew up raising animals for meat and although I do remember the flavor as exceptional I never truly enjoyed eating the “people” I knew. My last livestock venture involved chickens, ended tragically but tasty, and I think that will be my last. Next time I’m in Bolivia, however, I’m stopping at the nearest guinea pig barbeque stand. Those squirrels made me hungry.