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An Overview of Pork Production in the U.S.

Pork is the most consumed meat in the world.

Pork production in the U.S. has an estimated $23.4 billion of gross output per year, with around 26% of the nearly 2.2 million metric tons of pork and pork products produced exported to other countries.

Pigs consume billions of bushels of grain and oilseeds, and provide income for more than 60,000 pork producers, primarily in the Midwest and North Carolina.

Here’s more information on pork production and pork producers in the U.S.

Successful Farming Highlights Pork Powerhouses

Of the 60,000 U.S. pork producers, a handful lead the vertically integrated industry.

Successful Farming’s Pork Powerhouses ranks the 40 largest pig producers in the U.S. Those producers account for roughly two thirds of the U.S. swine breeding herd.

Smithfield Foods, owned by Chinese company WH Group, leads the list, followed by Seaboard Farms, Pipestone System, and Iowa Select Farms.

The U.S. pork industry is still expanding, despite tariffs, labor challenges, and global disease risks. The nation’s largest pig producers added 66,000 sows in 2019.

Daryl Olsen is the senior veterinarian and one of 12 partners in AMVC (Audubon-Manning Veterinary Clinic) Management Group located in western Iowa. The company accounts for around 145,000 sows in seven states. Olsen says their success is based on providing farmers with an avenue to maintain financial independence with the advantage and security of working within a larger system.

Companies and Leaders That Changed the Pig Business

When it comes to pork industry icons, no one tops Wendell Murphy, founder of Murphy Family Farms, number one on the original Pork Powerhouses® list published in 1994.

In a sit down with Successful Farming’s Besty Freese, Murphy reflected on his challenges and successes.

From humble beginnings in North Carolina he grew a pig empire with annual production that topped the entire production of some ag states. Murphy Family Farms sold to Smithfield Farms in 2000.

Murphy started a small feed mill, shucking corn and selling it to local poultry producers, while working as a vocational ag instructor. His inclination for innovation took hold and he began grinding and bagging the cobs and shucks in a custom mix. The mill made more feed than it could sell, so Murphy began buying feeder pigs to eat the excess. Six years after the mill opened, it closed to public business in order to exclusively serve the Murphy hog enterprise.

By the late 1970s, Murphy could not buy enough pigs to feed his business. To grow they would need sows and infrastructure. There was no turning back.

While economies of scale have their limit, and can reach a tipping point where transport of inputs and outputs outweighs efficiencies, Murphy recognizes consolidation as a natural evolution of agriculture and lauds the efficiency of pork production today.

In 1895, John C. Clemens was raising hogs in Pennsylvania and hauling pork products via horse-drawn wagon to Philadelphia. Today, Clemens Food Group is a major industry player.

With the reputation of previous business incarnations Hatfield Packing Company and Hatfield Quality Meats, Clemens Food Group was approached by a group of Michigan hog producers in 2014 wanting to partner on a new plant.

Unlike other producer/packer arrangements, the Coldwater, Michigan, plant is a coordinated system. Rather than owning everything up and down the system, Clemens utilizes independent producers in the supply chain. The Coldwater plant, at 10,000 head a day, is supplied by about 12 producers. It was the first new packing plant built in 10 years and set off a wave of new construction.

Bill Prestage is known as the gutsiest guy in the pig business.

He is head of Prestage Farms, started in 1983, and one of the largest pork producers in the U.S. with 185,000 sows and a vertically integrated turkey line. The company is in the process of opening a new pork packing plant in Eagle Grove, Iowa.

Prestage began by following his father into the wholesale beer business, then taking his sales acumen to agriculture. He partnered with Otis Carroll in Carroll’s Foods from the late 1960s till the early 1980s, redesigning hog houses with slat floors when others still used concrete or dirt.

Part of his success is due to cooperation within the North Carolina hog industry. Prestage has been part of a supply-purchasing co-op with other producers, and joined with industry partners to maintain access to rail transportation.

The new plant under construction in Iowa will feature the latest innovations, like an air scrubber to reduce odor and a completely enclosed offal plant. It takes its cues from the poultry business in bio-security with all trucks and trailers thoroughly washed before they leave the plant.

It’s this type of innovation that keeps the U.S. pork industry growing and thriving.

African Swine Fever and Sow Health

Diseases like the current outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) in China can have serous affects on worldwide swine production. Experts estimate 10 million sows and 100 million pigs have succumbed to ASF. The disease is spreading across East Asia, with reports now coming in from Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, and Laos.

There are no effective vaccines for ASF, and no effective treatment. Infected pigs must be euthanized.

Research at Kansas State University is looking at the potential for the disease to spread through infected feed. Although transmission requires a high does of the virus, it can have a cumulative effect if fed over time. Feed production methods in countries affected by ASF may be adding to the problem, such as in China where grain is sometimes dried on roadways – the same roadways traveled by trucks traveling to and from infected farms.

Millions of kilograms of feed ingredients are imported from countries where ASF virus is currently circulating.

In recent years Sow Prolapse Syndrome has become a growing concern for U.S. pig producers. The vaginal and uterine prolapses result in sow, fetus, and pre-weaning mortality. The exact cause and treatments for the syndrome are unknown. Some operations have seen sow mortality due to prolapse increase 2-5% in recent years.

More Farmers Opt to Contract Feed Pigs

Much of U.S. pork production involves contract feeding. The most popular model involves row crop farmers building hog finishing barns. The hogs provide cash flow and grain producers like the manure as a natural fertilizer, decreasing input costs of chemical fertilizers.

Kent Mowrer, Senior Field Coordinator for the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers, says the first step for a potential producer is to get to know the company and make sure they are a good fit.

Producers need to make sure they can meet labor, land, bio-security and financial needs. Each company has a preference for building style, and its own payment system.

The International Swine Industry

The U.S. produces a lot of hogs, but not as many as China. China produces as many hogs as the rest of the world combined.

That makes them a country to watch as they modernize production, and move large, industrial-type operations away from cities into rural areas. Like U.S. producers, feed and labor costs inspire increased efficiencies.

Pig health remains a top concern for China’s producers, with African Swine Fever stealing headlines. One of the challenges faced in China is a lack of routine testing of herds and limited diagnostic laboratory access by its veterinarians. Inadequate diagnostics leads to overuse of medication and thus antimicrobial resistance.

Improvements are occurring in the country’s top producers, but that still accounts for only a small portion of China’s pigs.

JBS, a Brazilian owned meat processing company, processes a good share of U.S. hogs, including $78 million worth of contracts granted through a USDA program designed to help U.S. farmers weather the trade wars. JBS won the contracts by undercutting the competition by as much as 33%.

JBS USA owns more than 300 live hog operations in the U.S. and has expanded its holdings with purchases of Swift & Co., Smithfield Beef Group, Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Poultry, and Cargill’s pork business.

Global assets, combined with consolidation of the U.S. pork packing industry, allowed the move, according to industry insiders.

The USDA purchase of JBS pork does not change the individual farmer’s ongoing contract arrangement with the packing powerhouse.

Showing Pigs is a Popular Pastime

Farm kids like to show livestock at the county fair, and pigs are easy subjects.

Along with learning the responsibilities of caring for livestock, kids benefit from the vote of confidence parents and 4-H and FFA leaders place in them. It can also be a time of family bonding.

Kids with autism may find showing hogs as a way to bond with an animal, but the sights, sounds, smells, and judge’s questioning may be daunting to them. Some judges are becoming more aware and adjusting their techniques.

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