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Pork industry rebounding from scary spring

Farmers changed feed ratios to slow growth in thier hogs

This graph shows the loss per head of hog Iowa farmers have suffered this year. The loss dipped to as much as $80 per head in June, and is now between $30-$40.
This graph shows the loss per head of hog Iowa farmers have suffered this year. The loss dipped to as much as $80 per head in June, and is now between $30-$40.

The swine industry suffered a punch to the gut earlier this year when the coronavirus caused a huge backlog at slaughterhouses. But Iowa State University Extension swine specialist for Southeast Iowa Matt Romoser said the industry is up off the mat and optimistic about the future.

“We had a scary six-week period for producers,” Romoser said. “Now everyone is in better spirits than a few months ago, and looking forward to a better 2021.”

Romoser said problems arose in late March when outbreaks of the virus caused packing plants to reduce their staffs and in some cases close completely. At one point, the nation’s pork processing capacity dropped to 40 percent of its average, resulting in about 1 million hogs ready for slaughter but nowhere to go.

The beef industry suffered a similar fate, but cattle farmers have an easier time slowing down their animals’ growth by putting them out to pasture, so it didn’t cause quite the headache for them. But in the pork industry, the backlog meant the hogs had to remain in their barns, which meant there wasn’t room for the new hogs that should have taken their place.

Some hog farmers did what Romoser called “double stocking,” where more animals are fitted into the same barn. For instance, he said that if a barn holds 2,500 pigs, a farmer might try to squeeze another 500 to 1,000 pigs into that space.

Another thing some farmers did was to put their hogs on a “holding ration” to slow their growth as much as possible. A hog typically eats a ration of 80 percent corn and 20 percent soybeans, but a holding ration consists of 97 percent corn and just 3 percent soybeans. That meal gives the animals energy from the corn to keep going but not the protein in the soybeans that adds weight.

What happens if a farmer waits too long to take their hogs to slaughter?

Romoser said that as a hog goes beyond the ideal market age and weight, the value of their meat goes down. Packing plants will still accept it but at a lower price, and it will be destined for low value uses such as dog food.

Packing plants are close to returning to their normal capacity, with Romoser estimating they’re operating at more than 90 percent capacity now. To make up for the lull this past spring, many are staying open for Saturday kills.

Consumers noticed an increase in the price of pork over the summer, because the supply of meat had taken a hit while demand stayed high. At the same time, the demand for hogs fell among packing plants because they couldn’t process as much, which hurt hog farmers. Romoser said pork belly, which is responsible for bacon and other items commonly sold in restaurants, took the biggest hit, with a 70 percent drop in its price.

“It was extremely tough on hog farmers, and we were concerned the market could bottom out,” Romoser said.

Romoser noted that the pork industry was in good shape before the virus arrived. Disease pressures were low at the time, and total hog numbers were up. The coronavirus has cost Iowa’s pork industry about $2.1 billion in lost revenue. But fortunately, Romoser said most hog farmers were able to weather that storm, and he said the industry has been able to rebound.

Romoser encourages the public to continue to support their local hog producers, and to remember to cook their pork to 145 degrees Fahrenheit.