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World Pork Expo kicks off with overview of pork industry issues

The World Pork Expo, held in Des Moines, Iowa, June 8 to 10, brings together pork producers from all over the world to discuss issues facing the industry. Bill Even, CEO of the National Pork Board, kicked off the Expo with a panel discussion previewing topics that would be covered at the seminars throughout the event.

National Pork Board Priorities

Even began by sharing the five priorities of the National Pork Board. 

  • Build trust and value through a positive image of U.S. pork
  • Keep African swine fever (ASF) out and prepare for a foreign animal disease 
  • Establish U.S. pork as a global leader in sustainable agriculture
  • Strengthen grassroots engagement
  • Diversify international portfolio

“We want to see more of our dollars supporting you as an industry, rather than promoting pork as just a food,” Even says.

Two priorities Even focused on were ASF and sustainable agriculture. He says when China announced it had an outbreak of ASF in August 2018, the news sent shockwaves through the industry. The world lost about a quarter of its pork production, and it became apparent how necessary it was for U.S. producers to be ready for ASF. 

“We cannot do that without you,” Even says. “Someone like me standing in the front of a room with a microphone is not going to improve your biosecurity. The hard work that needs to happen occurs at a farm-by-farm level.”

Working alongside state and federal officials is critical to containing ASF – or any disease. State veterinarians and those in animal health need producers to be as transparent as possible to ensure hogs that have been given a certificate of movement aren’t accidentally spreading illness.

Even says pork producers only produce one product: pork. It’s a farmer’s responsibility to ensure that product is being raised as ethically and sustainably as possible.

Consumers want to hear about a farm’s sustainability, regenerative agriculture, and other ethical practices, Even says, and they want the data to back it up.

“Frankly, you shouldn't be afraid of any of this,” Even says. “These are things that you do every single day.”

Economics

Intertwined with all the other issues facing the pork industry, says Steve Meyer, an economist with Partners for Productions Agriculture by EverAg, is the need for your operation to be profitable. He addressed some of the key factors currently influencing the market.

At the top of the list are production costs, which Meyer does not project to improve soon. Many states have caught up on corn and soybean planting, and despite being behind in growing, planting time does not usually have an impact on yield size. Regardless of crop, Meyers says costs will stay high. He expects about a dollar per pound for this year’s break-even cost.

“This is due to a shift in crop demand, which is a result of public policy decisions and renewable diesel that has driven the value of anything with fat in it, including soybean oil, higher. In turn, soybean prices were pushed higher, which dragged corn prices higher. We are in this situation for the foreseeable future,” Meyer says.

Another market-driving issue Meyer discussed is Proposition 12. Currently, the case is at the Supreme Court and will be heard sometime in the fall. California has written rules for Proposition 12. If published, they cannot be enforced for six months, so producers have time to comply. As it stands, Meyers says, approximately 600,000 hogs would need to be converted to be compliant. Only 300,000 are currently compliant. 

Hog supplies, operational packing capacity, and price discovery are a few of the other topics Meyer covered. During the pandemic, there was nowhere to send hogs and producers had to depopulate them, effectively shrinking herd sizes. Now with more of an operational packing capacity, there is room for producers to retain more of their hogs and grow their herds.

Labor

Victor Ochoa, the director of SwineWorks, talked about the deficit of labor in the swine industry. It’s no surprise there is a shortage of workers, he says, but the United States has not seen a labor shortage like this since World War I. With corporations like Walmart and Amazon paying a starting wage of $22 an hour, how does the pork industry compete?

One of the issues Ochoa points to is the “Great Retirement.” Baby boomers made up about 25% of the workforce, and once COVID hit, many of them retired. To make up that deficit, the industry has to become more attractive to the younger generation. 

Another point is immigration. Ochoa says about 30% of the U.S. population growth is due to immigrants, and about 60% of immigrants participate in the workforce. COVID shut down many visas, leaving a large gap. 

Ochoa suggests a few ways to help operators boost their labor force and maintain the labor they have.

  • Take care of your current staff
  • Update your benefits
  • Be attractive to a new generation
  • Explore other visa programs

Sustainability

“The United Nations’ definition for sustainability, roughly, is providing for today's needs without sacrificing the needs of future generations,” says Sara Crawford, president of Sustainable Environmental Consultants. “That pretty much sounds like what farmers have done for millennia.”

Crawford says sustainability and economic prosperity can go hand in hand on a farm. She calls it the “comma and” thought process, where a producer thinks about a sustainable practice, and what it can help with economically on the farm.

For example, replacing water nipples that reduces water usage and cost, and improves the barn’s environmental footprint.

Sustainability has been looked at as a buzzword, Crawford says, but it is here to stay. Consumers want and are willing to pay for ethical, sustainable products they trust. Being able to give them data to back it up builds trust in the pork industry.

“People want that transparency,” Crawford says. “They want to know where their food is coming from, now more than ever.”

Foreign Animal Disease

State veterinarians have learned a lot from previous infectious outbreaks, says Jeff Kaisand, the state veterinarian of Iowa. With ASF on the minds of many producers, there are a few things he says are good to remember in case your operation is affected.

“If you look at all the foreign countries in recent years that have had an outbreak of ASF – they have not gotten rid of it right away,” Kaisand says. “Thinking back in time when it hit Spain, years ago, it took the country roughly 30 years to get rid of it.”

The most important thing, Kaisand says, is to remember that you are in control and the only one that can prevent infection. Stopping the illness from getting in your barn is the best way to stop the spread of ASF. 

If you suspect you have a case of ASF, the first thing to do is get a certified sample sent for testing. Your state officials will run the sample to determine if the disease is present, so a correct sample is critical. 

Discussions should begin before a positive result comes back, Kaisand says. Indemnity paperwork, depopulation strategies, and quarantine radiuses will be in the works as soon as the call is put in alerting officials of a possible foreign animal disease.

“You are going to be faced with a lot of very serious questions in a short amount of time,” Kaisand says.

He stresses the importance of having a plan in place so your farm is prepared for these questions should you have to deal with a disease like ASF.  

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