Thousands of hog producers and others involved in the swine industry gathered in Des Moines last week for the Iowa Pork Producers Association's annual Iowa Pork Congress. They heard from livestock economists speaking on the program that a return to hog profitability is predicted for 2013 but a lot depends on the weather and how large of corn crop is produced this year. It's still quite dry in Iowa and the western Corn Belt this winter, looking ahead to the 2013 crop growing season. Iowa has approximately 8,000 hog farms in the state.
"Hogs are currently losing about $5 per head, but hopefully by summer the situation will return to profitability," says Bill Tentinger of Le Mars, who has served as president of IPPA for the past year. Greg Lear of Spencer took the reigns as the new president at the meeting in Des Moines last week.
The U.S. pork industry is being supported by strong exports of pork, particularly to Asia, says Tentinger. Demand was strong through the recent Christmas and New Year's holiday season and is expected to stay strong this year as beef prices remain high, due to cattlemen reducing their herds. "We expect more demand to switch from beef to pork this year," he adds.
Despite the drought in 2012 and falling hog prices, Iowa still leads the nation in producing hogs. Iowa's inventory in the latest USDA survey released in late December shows the same number of hogs in the state through all of 2012 and Tentinger expects that number to stay there in 2013. "Sure, feed costs are high," he notes. A typical hog will eat 9 to 10 bushels of corn during its six-month life to reach a 270 pound market weight. Ten years ago those 10 bushels would have cost $300, today they cost $700.
Iowa's hog industry generates $5 billion to $6 billion in sales each year and supports a number of pork processing plants around the state. Plus there is economic benefit from the wages and sales paid in the allied industries such as hog equipment manufacturing and seed stock genetics companies.
Gestation crate issue an on-going discussion among consumers and producers
Incoming IPPA president Greg Lear, who produces pork and runs a feed business at Spencer in northwest Iowa, spoke about some of the challenges the hog industry faces in 2013. The major issue pork producers face is gestation crates which are used by many hog producers. The crates house the sows that give birth to more than 35 million hogs annually in Iowa.
Producers say the individual crates are necessary to keep sows from fighting and biting each other, which is what occurs when sows are kept in pens. Animal rights advocates say the crates are cruel because sows can't turn around in them. Animal rights people have persuaded several grocery store chains and restaurant chains to announce plans to quit buying pork that is produced on farms where gestation crates are used. Several major corporate pork producers, such as Smithfield Farms, are already beginning to phase out the use of crates for gestating sows.
Public needs to know how the food they eat is raised, how hogs are produced
"We must teach the public how their food is raised," says Lear. "Fifty years ago every farmer in Iowa raised hogs and most people in the state were only a generation removed from the farm. Today, we're three generations removed from the farm. People need to understand that livestock production is designed to get the best product for the most affordable price. We need to get the public involved in the discussion, one person at a time."
Another issue needs attention from livestock producers, says Lear. That is the changing dietary guidelines for school lunch programs, administered by USDA, that reduce the amounts of allowable calories. Most school lunch programs have cut back on red meat servings to reduce the calorie counts. The new guidelines have generated protests from livestock producers, not to mention hungry kids, when they went into effect in the current school year. USDA seemingly changed its stance in late December when it announced schools could add more meat to school lunch menus, but USDA didn't change the requirement for reduced calorie counts. "So really, this situation hasn't changed," says Lear. "This issue will be back and we'll have to address it again."