You are here

Pork Powerhouses 2013: Disease Hits, Growth Continues

The biggest issue for the nation’s largest pork producers at this moment isn’t an international merger, but an international virus.

In May, a deadly viral disease never before seen in the U.S. broke in farrowing barns in Colorado, causing up to 100% mortality in newborn pigs. “I went in the barns and saw healthy pigs being born and 24 hours later, they were dead,” says Terry Holton, president and CEO of Seaboard Foods. “We hadn’t seen anything like it.”

The disease was identified as porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), caused by a virus earlier reported in Europe and Asia. By summer, it had spread across the Midwest and into North Carolina.

The disease hit the Oklahoma operations of Prestage Farms in June. “For four weeks we lost 100% of baby pigs,” says Zack McCullen, vice president of swine production. “I’m scared to death of that virus. I’m worried about what happens when it cools off and winter comes.”

In August, Garland Farm Supply was hit hard by PED on the company’s sow farm near Plains, Kansas. “We are out in the middle of nowhere, but that didn’t matter,” says owner Alfred Smith. “We lost four weeks worth of pigs. It’s similar to TGE [transmissible gastroenteritis], but worse.”

No exact numbers exist for how many pigs have died from PED, but the National Pork Board says there are positive tests for the virus in 17 states, with most of the confirmed cases in Iowa and Oklahoma. There is no cure or vaccine yet. The disease is the top-of-mind topic for the nation’s largest producers this fall.

Sow numbers up; China is in

The annual Pork Powerhouses ranking by Successful Farming magazine, now in its 19th year, shows a growth of 132,600 sows by the largest 25 U.S. hog operations in 2013. This is more than twice the growth in 2012, when producers added 62,000 sows. More telling, 17 operations added sows this year, vs. nine in 2012.

The total number of sows owned or managed by the nation’s largest 25 producers, seven of whom are also pork packers, stands today at 3.18 million. That’s about 55% of the total U.S. breeding inventory reported by the USDA in September.

Smithfield Foods, at the top of the Pork Powerhouses list with 868,000 sows, dropped a bombshell on May 29 when it announced plans to sell to China-based Shuanghui International Holdings Limited. Smithfield shareholders would receive $34 in cash per share of common stock owned. On September 24, the shareholders approved the $4.7 billion acquisition by Shuanghui, making the transaction the biggest purchase of a U.S. company ever by a Chinese firm.

“We are marrying up with the largest pork customer on the face of the earth,” says Joe Szaloky, vice president of procurement and business development for Smithfield. “This should be really good for U.S. pork.”

Smithfield will continue to operate under its existing brand names as a wholly owned subsidiary of Shuanghui International.

The deal does not mean Chinese pork will enter U.S. markets. “They [Shuanghui] came looking at us as a source of meat for China,” says Szaloky. “There is no opposite flow. They are not experienced with raising pigs.”

Szaloky says for the next few months at least, the new ownership won’t affect Smithfield sow numbers. “We are not interested in adding more sows; we’ve got plenty of sows. Our focus is on being more productive, stable, and reliable.”

One change Smithfield has made is to quit feeding Paylean (ractopamine) on its Eastern farms. The company’s packing plants in Clinton and Tar Heel, North Carolina, are completely Paylean-free. The feed additive makes pigs grow lean meat faster, but it's banned in China. The export market demanded the change, says Szaloky.

There are no immediate plans to eliminate Paylean on Smithfield farms outside of the East Coast, he says. “It does have an advantage to growing pigs.”

The move from crates

Converting from crates to group housing of pregnant sows is another of Smithfield’s priorities. By the end of the year, more than 50% of the company’s gestating sows will be in pens, a type of housing preferred by animal welfare activists and demanded by some food retailers.

“People think we are making the switch kicking and screaming, but it’s turned into an opportunity to make our business better,” says Szaloky. “We had a lot of 20-year-old facilities. Now they are remodeled into new, born-again assets. We are very pleased with it and happy with the performance we are seeing.”

All Smithfield sows should be in group housing by 2017, says Szaloky. “We are still on target and don’t see an issue. It’s an investment, but sow productivity is strong and consistent.”

Many of the largest producers do not share Smithfield’s enthusiasm about group housing of pregnant sows. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states there are advantages and disadvantages to any sow housing system. “Group housing systems are less restrictive, but allow aggressive and competitive behaviors that could be detrimental to individual sows,” states the AVMA.

The National Pork Board (NPB) does not recommend one type of sow housing over another, stating, “Regardless of the system, what really matters is the individual care given to each pig." Producers should be able to decide for themselves the type of production system that is best for their animals, and for them, given their resources and markets, says the NPB.

Market hog numbers dropping

In September, hog numbers at slaughter were running 3% lower than the previous year, something that surprised and concerned many of the largest producers. Chris Hurt, agricultural economist at Purdue University, says he expects pig losses from the PED virus to reduce slaughter numbers by up to 2%, but we won’t see that effect until later in the fall. He suspects the drop is simply because the head counts a year ago were unusually high.

“Last year at this time we were heavy into the drought,” says Hurt. “We had really high corn prices, which caused people to advance marketings. This year they are delaying marketings. Last September head counts were 3% to 7% above the year before that. There was a rapid movement of hogs to market.”

Potential for profit

Hurt has a positive outlook. “The pork industry is finally looking at the potential of multiple years of profitability,” he says. “Pork is well positioned to fill the beef demand gap. The beef industry just can’t get numbers up, and pork is in a position to gobble up the demand.”

As for the Smithfield sale to a Chinese firm, Hurt says, “Overall, that is positive for the pork industry. It gives us access to the word’s largest market. The gates are open.”

Alfred Smith, who owns 22,000 sows with Garland Farm Supply, headquartered in Garland, North Carolina, blames high feed costs over the past year for market hog numbers dropping. “Liquidation is more severe than you think, mainly by smaller farms,” says Smith. “This is an unintended consequence of $8 corn. What we’ve seen for the past 12 months are severe losses.”

All of the Pork Powerhouses are concerned about the effect PED will have over the winter. Seaboard has locked down its sow farms, trying to keep them as self-contained as possible. “We are looking at every aspect of our business – trucks, maintenance, people,” says CEO Terry Holton. “We are reducing truck traffic and trying to have as little movement as possible. We are building additional truck washes and extra segregation at the plant.

“There is quite a large reservoir of virus still out there.”

Send comments to

Read more about

Talk in Marketing

Most Recent Poll

Have you started preparing for planting season?