National Hog Farmer is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


Articles from 2007 In March

Moderate Growth in Pig Numbers Projected

The results of Dow Jones' quarterly survey of market analysts regarding their estimates of the key numbers in USDA's Hogs and Pigs Report due to be released this afternoon appear in Figure 1. The watchword for these expectations as we consider industry growth relative to recent profitability is, again, "moderation."

Of course, there is probably little that will squelch a desire to raise more hogs as effectively as $4-plus corn! Note that the largest numbers in this table are for December-February pig crop and the under-60 lb. inventory. Those estimates indicate larger slaughter than did the December report through mid-April and again during the fourth quarter. The predicted increase through mid-April (roughly 28,000 head/week) is not nearly as large as recent slaughter over-runs have been.

If exports continue strong and the actual numbers come out near the level shown in Figure 1, these figures should not drive hog prices significantly lower. Lower chicken production and, thus, higher prices and what presently appears to be very good beef demand should support prices as well. Watch your e-mail on Monday for my review of the actual report numbers.

All Eyes on Planting Estimates
The other report that is garnering huge attention is Friday morning's Prospective Plantings report. Consider that this report is being discussed beyond the agricultural press. That doesn't happen too often for corn, but it sure does now that ethanol is part of the collective interest.

By the time you receive this letter, the actual numbers will be widely distributed. If planned corn plantings are close to the 88.06 million acres and historic harvest rates apply, we will harvest 80.13 million acres of corn next fall. Depending on how one constructs a long-term trend, we can expect a trend yield of 148 to 154 bu./acre. Those give a total crop of 11.86 to 12.34 billion bushels. Those numbers are 1.3 to 1.8 billion bushels larger than last year's crop -- but many believe that ethanol usage will increase by about 1 billion bushels.

The bottom line is that carryout stocks at the end of the 2007-08 crop year may not be much larger than the 752 million bushels predicted at the end of this crop year. It will take a huge crop to do much more, so don't expect any big breaks on feed costs.

BK Joins Welfare-Friendly Bandwagon
Burger King fired the latest shot in the welfare-friendly battles this week when they announced their preference for product from non-caged layers, non-stalled sows and chickens that are gas stunned instead of electrically stunned. While they will prefer these products, they acknowledged that there is presently a short supply. Burger King estimates that they will buy 2% of their eggs and 10% of their pork from such sources. They expect those levels to increase by the end of the year. That appears very ambitious to me -- especially for pork. This product segment is growing, but identifying that much product will probably be difficult over that short time horizon.

This announcement underscores my belief that the pressure from Smithfield Foods' move to eliminate gestation stalls will come from downstream pork users (restaurants, retailers, etc.) trying to keep up in the perceived rush to satisfy consumers' animal welfare wishes.

It reminds me of everything I have read and heard about Britain's animal welfare regulations of the 1990s. British food retailers basically forced the regulations on British producers because they thought consumers wanted it -- or feared animal rights' group protests. But after producers were forced to adopt lower-productivity and higher-cost methods, British consumers and retailers widely opted for lower-cost product from Denmark and other European Union suppliers that had not been forced to adopt the "welfare-friendly" methods.

Should this trend continue, it would erode our competitive advantage in export markets and possibly provide opportunities for Canada and other countries to sell more product in the United States.

Editor's Note:
Due to a problem getting data this week, the weekly data tables are not available. Those tables will be updated and included in a Hogs and Pigs Report special edition next Monday.

Click to view graphs.

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.

Slaughter Levels Perplexing

One of the big questions in recent weeks is how much of a challenge is being posed by recent slaughter levels? It's a very good question as we approach USDA's March Hogs and Pigs Report, due to be released on Friday, March 30.

Large slaughter runs (Figure 1) the past two weeks and, a slaughter run that is another 1.8% larger through Thursday of this week, have many wondering just where the hogs are coming from. We all know that some marketings have been delayed by weather in recent weeks. But 5% year-over-year increases are just a bit out of the norm these days. And, should that 1.8% week-over-week increase hold for the remainder of this week, Federally Inspected (FI) slaughter will be 11% larger than one year ago.

I'm not alarmed yet. The fact is that we have seen slaughter below the levels expected from the December Hogs and Pigs Report for most weeks this year. That report said that slaughter should have been about 0.6% larger than last year. The cumulative totals for the year were still below that level (0.4%) until last week and is now at 0.9% - and apparently due to grow this week. But larger imports of market hogs from Canada (up 11% YTD from last year) have added about 0.2% to slaughter thus far in 2007. Had those been flat, the total increase in FI slaughter would have been 0.7%, very close to expected levels.

The next few weeks will be critical. Should slaughter remain significantly higher, it will imply substantially improved productivity and that could have important implications for supplies the remainder of this year. A key factor will be how quickly the porcine circovirus associated disease (PCVAD) vaccines become available. All reports indicate that the vaccines are very effective and will significantly reduce death losses. The rate of adoption/availability will be very important.

Meat Stock Supplies Down
Thursday did see some positive supply news for all meats, as the inventory of frozen meat and poultry as of Feb. 28 were 2.3% smaller than one month ago and nearly 15% smaller than one year ago.

Leading the decline on both measures were chicken stocks, which fell to 626.4 million pounds, their lowest level since March 2004. That number is nearly one-third less than the 923.7 million pounds in inventories one year ago. The largest reductions were in legs, leg quarters and thighs that usually enter export markets. These cuts, though, can have significant negative impacts on pork prices when they become very cheap, as they will enter least-cost formulations on many processed meats such as hot dogs and luncheon meats. Leg quarter prices recently went above $0.40/lb., nearly double the price of one year ago.

Chicken breast stocks fell again in March and are now nearly 20% lower than one year ago. These reductions in inventories and the year-to-date reductions in broiler output have pushed boneless/skinless breast meat prices back above $1.50/lb.
That price is nothing to write home about, but it is far better than prices near or below $1.00/lb. that we saw on two occasions last year.

Lower chicken stocks, lower chicken production and higher chicken prices will be positive for pork demand.

Pork inventories were virtually unchanged from last month and 9% lower than one year ago. Belly inventories came in just less than analysts' pre-report estimates and were actually smaller than at the end of January - where the January to February change is normally positive. The draw down was a main reason that trade observers prediction on Thursday afternoon was that the report would be supportive to Pork Belly and Lean Hogs futures.

Stocks of bellies, loins, ribs and butts were all significantly lower than one year ago, with their percentages ranging form 78.3% to 89.7% of last year. In addition, inventories of bellies, loins and butts were down from Jan. 31 levels. These are noteworthy because these four cuts usually enjoy a good deal of seasonal demand strength as spring and summer arrive. Lower stocks bode well for the need for product from daily slaughter in coming weeks.

To Hedge, Or Not
Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) Lean Hogs futures price are still higher than I had predicted based on the December Hogs and Pigs Report, so I am still saying that hedges appear to be a wise move.

Will better hedging opportunities arise? Good question. Producers must now weigh the higher slaughter totals of recent weeks and the negative price pressure that continued high slaughter may exert against the long-term tendency of June, July, August and October futures prices to rise in April.

Click to view graphs.

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.

World Pork Expo New Product Tour

View the Nomination Form (Word)

For the past 18 years, National Hog Farmer magazine has sponsored a program to draw greater attention to the new products and services introduced at World Pork Expo. Each year, exhibitors are invited to nominate new products and services they have introduced to the pork industry since last year’s Expo. National Hog Farmer commissions an independent panel of four experts to review all nominations.

The week before Expo, each panel member receives a packet of all nominations. Each independently gleans through the slate of nominations, selecting those that strike him/her as “the most promising.” On the opening day of World Pork Expo, the four panelists check out those products/services that interest them most, then meet to compare notes and discuss the merits of the various products on their lists. They agree on a slate of products/services they want to discuss with company representatives the next day.

As a group, the foursome sets out on a tour of the trade show to gather more information. At the end of the day, they agree on a slate of “Most Promising Products at World Pork Expo.” Their selections are featured in the July issue of National Hog Farmer.

Because this new product feature has grown in popularity with producers and exhibitors alike, we expanded our coverage of new products slated for introduction at World Pork Expo. Again this year, we are committing to this broader coverage to ensure that all new products have an equal opportunity for exposure to all National Hog Farmer readers, as well as pork producers attending World Pork Expo. Here’s the plan:

  • Each exhibitor at World Pork Expo may nominate new products or services introduced to the pork industry in the last 12 months (see attached form for details). More than one nomination may be submitted.
  • Nominations should include a brief description of the product/service and supportive photos, sketches, illustrations. Submit six copies of all information, including nomination form.
  • A packet of nominations and supportive materials will be sent to each panel member charged with selecting the 2007 class of “most promising products.”
  • Information from each nomination will be condensed into a standardized 2-1/8 x 5-inch new product announcement that will appear in a special insert of the May 15, 2007 National Hog Farmer
  • A complete list of all nominations will be posted on our web site,,where an electronic link to each company’s web site will be provided. Pork producers will be able to gather more information about your product, easily and quickly, via the Internet.
  • Pork producers attending World Pork Expo can bring the special insert from their May issue to serve as a guide to new products, or they can stop by the National Hog Farmer booth (Varied Industries building) to obtain a copy.

To help cover our costs for this extended coverage (printing, postage, web site production, press over-runs, etc.), we are asking for a nominal fee of $650 per entry. (A 1/6-page ad is $1,890 value; see enclosed sample).

Keep in mind, we will write the new product announcement for the special insert, it will be distributed to our full circulation and at World Pork Expo.

To be included in the special insert in the May issue, we must receive your nomination no later than April 10. Remember, only nominated products can be considered for the panel’s selection of the “Most Promising New Products at the 2007 World Pork Expo.” All forms are enclosed.

If you have any questions, please call your sales rep:
Wayne Bollum 952/854-1090
Bill Heffron 952/854-1090
Lisa Peterson 952/851-4705
Jan Ford 805/783-2476
Bill Pullen 405/767-9090
Bret Kealy, Publisher 952/851-4660

View the Nomination Form (Word)

Pork Exports More Robust Than Ever

The performance of the U.S. pork industry in terms of pork exports got off to a blistering start for 2007. January pork exports were up 20.8% from one year ago. Shipments to Japan were record large at over 105 million pounds carcass weight equivalent, an increase of nearly 43% from last year! And Japan was not the only market that saw robust growth in January. Shipments to Russia, South Korea and Hong Kong/China grew by 44%, 35% and 72%, respectively, from their January 2006 levels.

The only real disappointment in January was our business with Mexico, which declined by 12.5% from last January. Mexico is our second-largest customer for muscle meats and in total value, but I don't see this decline as a problem at this time. Mexico appears to be a price-sensitive market. Cutout values were about 5% higher, on average, during January of this year, so that might be the reason for the slow start. We will get a good test of that theory when the February data are released in April, as February cutout values were more that 14% higher than last year.

I know I have over-used the word "remarkable" when talking about the industry's export performance, but it is really a most appropriate descriptor. The past three years have seen year-over-year increases of 27%, 22% and 12%; 2006 exports, representing nearly 15% of our total carcass-weight pork production, were 75% larger than 2003, for example. That means the pork from nearly one in every six pigs slaughtered by U.S. packers is shipped to another country. Further, 91.4% of those pigs are born in the United States and 97.4% of them are fed here.

Exports Boost Value
Just what does this mean in terms of dollars and cents? Professor Glenn Grimes at the University of Missouri has answered that question for many years with the data shown in Figure 2. These are the results of asking the question: "What would hog prices have been if production had remained the same and we had not seen a gain in our net export position?"

Many of you will see an apparent problem in that question and say: "Wait a minute, had we not been increasing exports, production would have not stayed the same!" You are absolutely correct. But one of the benefits of increasing exports is the simple fact that they allow for growth. With the U.S. population growing by less than 1% annually, that is an important aspect of the U.S. industry's focus on exports; 96% of the world's people live in some other country. That's a big market. We need to provide opportunities for U.S. pork producers and those who depend on them.

Note that in Professor Grimes' table, I have boldfaced the years that our net export position increased. It is those years that provide a positive impact on hog prices. Years in which our net exports fall actually result in negative price pressure. Also, note that prior to 1995 an "increase in net export position" was, in fact, a decrease in net import position. The U.S. was the world's largest importer of pork in 1987, the first year shown in the table. For the past three years, we have been the world's largest exporter. Remarkable. (There's that word again.)

So, would hog prices have been $43.99/head lower last year had we not increased our net exports by nearly 5% of total production? That is the sum of the gains of the past three years. The answer is "yes," if we had produced the same amount of hogs. That is unlikely, had prices been lower, but it brings us back to exports providing profits and growth opportunities. Both are important.

What's Ahead with Feed Prices?
I don't believe the U.S. industry will be hurt badly with respect to exports as long as the U.S. corn sector can remain an exporter. U.S. grain prices will be lower than world prices as long as we export, even though the magnitude of that advantage for grain buyers has fallen as basis relationships have changed. Should corn exports ever cease, though, interior U.S. prices will go above world prices and our cost advantage will vanish. Then our entire meat export position becomes vulnerable.

Will that happen? It depends on how many of our crop acres we are willing to plant to corn and the job that seed companies, input suppliers and corn producers do in increasing average yields. And it depends upon time. All of those factors will eventually respond to increase the amount of corn available in the United States, but getting through the next 2-3 years may still be very painful for U.S. hog producers.

Click to view graphs.

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.

Iodine Research: Slicing the Fat

A number of pork processors are concerned about the quality and cutability of fat in pork for domestic and export markets.

Adding fat in the form of soybean oil to the diet of grow-finish pigs increases pig performance, but it also contributes to the softness of the fat, even if removed from the diet up to 56 days prior to marketing, according to researchers at Kansas State University (KSU).

Soybean oil or choice white grease (CWG) is routinely added to pigs' diets to improve growth performance and help reduce dust levels in hog barns.

But a new KSU swine nutrition study, led by Extension Swine Specialist Mike Tokach and graduate student Justin Benz, has found that added fat could compromise pork fat quality.

And some pork packers, including Smithfield Foods, have already taken steps to firm up the backfat and belly fat in their hogs by reducing levels of unsaturated fat in the last finishing diet fed before slaughter.

View the accompanying table in a new window

Study Results

In the KSU study, 144 barrows and gilts (PIC genetics) weighing about 97 lb. were evaluated for the impact of fat source and feeding period on growth performance and fat quality.

Nine treatment regimens were tested: a control, corn-soy diet with no added fat; a diet plus 5% CWG fed from Day 0 - 26, Day 0 - 54, Day 0 - 68 or Day 0 - 82; or a diet containing 5% soybean oil fed from Day 0 - 26, Day 0 - 54, Day 0 - 68 or Day 0 - 82. Pigs were fed the control diet after feeding the 5% fat diets.

At the end of the study, jowl samples were collected at the packing plant and tested for iodine value.

“The iodine value is used to predict the softness of the carcass fat and whether there will be problems in processing bellies,” Tokach explains. A value of 73 or below is being used by a growing number of plants as the cutoff level for acceptable carcass fat.

Data is depicted in Figure 1. It clearly shows that when pigs remained on the control corn-soy diet for the entire 82-day experiment, iodine value levels for fat averaged 67.1, well within the range sought by packers.

The iodine levels for pigs fed diets with choice white grease stayed in an acceptable level below 73, rising only slightly as days fat was removed from the diet before marketing decreased.

“Some people argue you can't feed CWG all the way to market without fat problems, but our data from midwestern plants says you can,” Tokach remarks.

The results for soybean oil were not as positive. “The big thing that this study shows is that even if you take out the fat (soybean oil) 28 days before marketing, you don't change the fat composition very much. It drops some, but it is not where it needs to be,” he observes.

The iodine levels for pigs fed soybean oil ranged from 73.6 when withdrawn at 56 days before marketing, to 82.0 when not withdrawn at all from the diet (Figure 1).

Soybean oil is often fed (at levels of 1-2% in the diet) because of ease of handling. “You don't have to heat it to put it into the diet. But producers need to be careful about using it in late-finishing diets to make sure they don't go over the limit their packer has set,” comments Tokach.

Benz also indicates that barrows in the trial had lower iodine values than gilts for both sources of fat. As iodine values increased with feeding duration for fat, the differences between sexes became greater. This could play a major role for producers marketing to plants monitoring iodine values, he notes.

Why Use Iodine Value?

Benz points out that the majority of iodine value and fat quality research has been conducted using backfat and belly samples, with very little testing of jowl samples.

KSU researchers decided to test jowls instead because “that is the fat that plants are using to monitor iodine value,” explains Tokach. “It is an easy sample for the plants to collect, and it doesn't lower the value of any of the cuts. More research needs to be done with the jowls for these reasons.”

What iodine value actually refers to is a laboratory test that determines the relative saturation or unsaturation of the fat, Tokach explains. “Basically, the more iodine that attaches, the higher the iodine value becomes, which means the softer the fat or the more unsaturated the fat is; that represents a bad thing for pork bellies and slicing.”

A Quality Issue

Tokach sums up: “This is a meat quality issue from the bacon side, but it really is a fat quality issue as well. For the Japanese market, only a hard, firm, white fat is acceptable because they judge quality by both the lean and fat appearance.

“But it becomes a practical issue as well in determining whether you can cut it and have it firm enough to market.”

Results of this trial will be presented at the Midwest Section of the American Society of Animal Science meeting in late March in Des Moines, IA.

Related Nutrition Trials

KSU researchers have three other related swine nutrition studies underway of interest to pork producers:

  • Evaluating the fat level in corn vs. milo grain sources and adding CWG to the ration.

  • Analyzing extruded-expelled soybean meal vs. regular soybean meal and adding CWG to the ration.

  • Testing gradient levels up to 20% of dried distiller's grains with solubles in finishing diets to determine the iodine value response.

View the accompanying table in a new window

Strep Suis: Problems For Pigs and People

This zoonotic disease agent rarely affects people.

Although most producers and farm staff would quickly recognize Streptococcus suis as a significant health problem for pigs, they may think of it only as a pig disease.

In fact, Strep suis is a zoonotic disease — one that can be transmitted from animals to humans, albeit rarely reported.

But in 2005, a case from the Sichuan Province in China received considerable attention and concern from health officials and veterinarians. In this case, there was high mortality in pigs (640) and people (39). Overall, 198 people were affected with the disease; all had contact with the diseased pigs.

Disease Symptoms

Strep suis causes a host of problems in pigs: meningitis, arthritis, heart valve infections, polyserositis, pneumonia, vaginitis and abortions.

The bacteria can reside in the tonsil and/or genital tract of pigs; 35 types of Strep suis have been identified.

The most common clinical signs are meningitis (nervous signs) and arthritis (joint swellings) in nursery pigs. Strep infections are a common problem in today's production units, even in some of the “high health” herds.

Case Study No. 1

A production system producing 1,000 pigs/week from two sow herds and a comingled nursery experienced reoccurring strep problems over seven years.

Nursery pigs had done well and were moved to the finisher at 8 weeks of age. One week later, seven pigs died at 9 weeks of age, and nine pigs died at 11 weeks of age. Pigs showed few lesions; brain and spleen were positive for Strep suis Type 2, and microscopic lesions were consistent with septicemia.

Pigs were treated with sulfadimethoxine in the water. Few pigs died.

Case Study No. 2

The second case, from this same farm, was a much more chronic strep problem in the more usual age range, 2-4 weeks postweaning. Pigs showed nervous signs (recumbency, paddling) typical of meningitis and swollen joints (arthritis). Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome was present but didn't cause this infection.

The owner also felt strep was triggered by the stress of mycoplasma vaccination. However, changes in the vaccine timing didn't alter the problem. Average nursery mortality was 2.38% for 2004.

In the spring of 2005, problems increased and mortality on closeouts increased to 3.3%. Traditional treatments for strep had been amoxicillin-dexamethasone injections and amoxicillin in the water.

A switch was made to a different amoxicillin product with higher availability. Because prophylactic water treatment had not seemed to stop strep in the past, treatment was initiated at the onset of clinical signs for three days. Individual injections of affected pigs were continued as usual. If signs or mortality reappeared, pigs were placed back on water medication for 24-48 hours.

The idea behind this medication scheme was to reduce clinical signs while providing exposure to stimulate natural immunity to strep. The changes reduced the mortality back to acceptable levels.

Case Study No. 3

A farrow-to-finish farm in Indiana weans 750 pigs every two weeks to double-stock wean-to-finish barns. Mild strep problems have occurred occasionally in the nursery. Individual treatments are the primary response. Water medication has been used to reduce individual treatments.

On one occasion, a group of 15- to 16-week-old pigs had a higher prevalence of thin, fall-behind pigs. Two pigs were euthanized and posted. Both had lesions indicating severe damage to the heart valves. Culture of the heart valves revealed pure isolates of Strep suis Type 2. It is likely that this infection was initiated by early exposure to strep after weaning.

It was useful to have made the diagnosis, avoiding unnecessary treatment for conditions that might mimic this problem clinically, such as ileitis.

This case demonstrates that another manifestation of Strep suis can occur and reinforces the need to make an accurate diagnosis.

Although strep can survive in feces and dust for 104 and 54 days at 32°F, respectively, it cannot survive longer than 24 hours in dust at room temperature and are easily inactivated by soaps and disinfectants.

Thus, the risk of strep becoming a zoonotic concern can be minimized by good sanitary practices, such as washing hands and covering open skin wounds promptly. Use gloves when performing obstetrical procedures.

Florfenicol from Schering-Plough Animal Health is the only approved water-based antibiotic for strep. A feed-grade product should be on the market soon, providing another tool for strep control.

Focusing on Biofuels, Well-Being Issues

Two burning issues led producer's priority lists at Pork Industry Forum — the impact of biofuels on feedgrain prices and animal welfare.

In all, 42 resolutions were brought before the delegates to the annual meetings of the National Pork Board, charged with the management and allocation of pork checkoff funds, and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), the public policy outreach arm of the U.S. pork industry.

Seventeen resolutions fell under the broad umbrella of alternative fuels and their impact on feedgrain prices.

Pork Act delegates passed a resolution prioritizing checkoff funding for research and education aimed at more efficient uses of the biofuel byproducts. The Illinois resolution was amended with a plea to “expand research in the areas of nutritional efficiency and feed costs in swine diets.”

High on their list of priorities for byproduct research included refining diet recommendations, getting a better handle on byproduct quality and consistency, their impact on pork quality, and the handling and processing challenges that accompany them.

Several of the 14 state resolutions presented to NPPC delegates reinforced those identified in Pork Act resolutions. Focusing on public policy issues, the NPPC delegates voted to:

  • Support the early release of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres back into crop production (without penalty).

  • Support the findings of a Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) study analyzing the impact of corn-based ethanol production on the livestock industry, requesting that the results be considered in the writing of the 2007 farm bill.

  • Request federal research grants to study the use of co-products from biofuels in swine diets, including the impact on meat quality and animal health.

  • Support the extension of the blender's credit and the development of a counter-cyclical blender's credit system tied to oil price.

  • Support the expiration of the 51¢/gal. ethanol blender's tax credit on Dec. 31, 2010, and, support the expiration of the 54¢/gal. tariff on imported ethanol set for Dec. 31, 2008.

  • Support incentives aimed at capturing and digesting methane from swine manure as an alternative energy source. The Illinois Pork Producers Association filed the methane digestion resolution, but it was the pork producers from North Carolina who were most excited about this initiative.

In mid-February, the North Carolina Pork Council approached state legislators, asking them to fund a seven-year pilot program aimed at testing the feasibility of capturing methane from hog waste to generate electricity. Progress Energy, a Raleigh, NC-based utility company, signed on in support of the program, pending funding from the legislature.

The utility company said it would purchase the electricity at 18¢/kilowatt hour — considerably more than the 4.5 to 5.5¢/kwh normally paid to non-utility generators of electricity. The higher rate would help producers justify the capital investment needed to cover operating costs.

Former Congressman Charlie Stenholm, addressing Pork Forum delegates, perhaps said it best: “There's no such thing as animal waste. What we have is surplus animal nutrients that can be converted to energy.”

Animal Welfare

Sharing top billing at Pork Forum was animal welfare. Several resolutions encouraged participation in the Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) certification program, the widely accepted program emphasizing good management practices in the handling and use of animal health products.

The National Pork Board announced plans to merge PQA with the education and assessment program centered on the care and well-being of pigs outlined in the Swine Welfare Assurance Program (SWAP). The new combo, entitled PQA Plus, will be rolled out at World Pork Expo in June.

Sow Housing Forum Unveiled

It was apparent that Smithfield Foods' announced plan to eliminate the use of individual stalls throughout the gestation period was fresh on the delegates' minds. Many attended a special producer update session focused on the topic.

Recognizing that many producers are in the throws of making decisions about sow housing in gestation, we invited Pork Checkoff staff and others to join in the planning and presentation of a Sow Housing Forum set for June 6, the day before World Pork Expo. The forum will be held at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Des Moines.

The conference program is being finalized and the full slate of speakers and registration information will be available soon via meeting brochures and the sponsors' Web sites — and Watch for more details in our April and May issues.

Sow Stall Ban Dominates Tour

Producers in the European Union (EU) discuss sow housing alternatives and welfare compliance.

Not many U.S. pork producers probably know it, but the ban on gestation stalls scheduled to go into effect in the European Union (EU) in 2013 actually grew out of a debate over a different sow housing system, says Sherrie Niekamp, Director of Animal Welfare for the National Pork Board.

Producers in the EU commonly used sow tethers in an open-backed stall system until welfare concerns led to its ban in January 2006.

That's when sow stalls popped up on EU legislators' radar screens, which eventually led to the upcoming ban.

Sow gestation stalls won't actually be outlawed, clarifies Niekamp. In general, the EU regulation allows stall use during the first four weeks or so after breeding and also a week or two prior to farrowing.

EU Regulations Differ

Representatives of the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council, which toured Germany and Denmark in early November, learned there were differences in regulations.

“While the EU has set regulations, countries have their own rules that may or may not be more strict than the EU regulations,” Niekamp says.

For instance, the United Kingdom (UK) passed its own version of the sow stall ban back in 2003. It specified that the ban is not in effect “for the period between seven days before the predicted day of farrowing and the day on which the weaning of her piglets (including any fostered by her) is complete,” according to the Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock from the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Niekamp says most EU producers they talked to made it clear they didn't intend to convert their stall systems until the 2013 deadline.

Sow Systems

The U.S. producer groups visited the Laake Company in Germany, which manufactures the Free-Access Sow Gestation System, recently purchased by Chore-Time Hog Production Systems (See: National Hog Farmer, Feb. 15, 2007, page 38). With this system, sows can manipulate the back gate to move in and out of the stall to spend time in a loafing area, then return to the stall at will for feeding.

U.S. producers expressed interest in this free-access stall system and visited three farms in Germany where this system was employed. Two other farms used an electronic sow feeder (ESF) system similar to the group sow housing system offered by Schauer Company, and one other producer utilized a trickle feeding system for sows.

“I think the number one take-home lesson that everybody learned, regardless of housing system, was that management was the key,” Niekamp recalls. “Every system has the potential to be successful as long as it is managed correctly. There are certain advantages and disadvantages to each system, but that is something the producer can adapt to.”

Niekamp stresses that this was borne out by the enthusiasm and competitiveness that each German producer displayed in talking about his respective sow housing system.

“It became apparent that there are different management practices associated with each of the different housing types, and those differences in personality, labor force and willingness to adapt need to be matched up with the type of sow housing system,” she says.

Article continued on next page>

German operations included an 1,100-sow free-access system, a 500-sow ESF system and other systems that averaged 300-500 sows.

The Denmark tour consisted of three farms, two with 400-sow ESF systems and a third, 600-sow farm with indoor-outdoor gestation facilities.

Other Danish producers who visited with the U.S. leaders said they had already made the switch to group sow housing, while others were waiting until the 2013 deadline.

Farm Inspections

The U.S. pork producer leaders met with Danish government officials and learned that farm inspectors visit 5% of Danish farms annually. Inspectors review standards for animal welfare, worker safety, manure management and use of antibiotics.

Of the 5% of farms that get inspected, a certain number are pre-selected based on size and ownership, while the others are selected at random, Niekamp says.

While the EU created agricultural regulations, they don't maintain an enforcement division, leaving it up to each of the 12 countries that comprise the EU to implement and enforce EU regulations.

Packing Plant Visit

The U.S. producer group had an eye-opening experience when they toured the Danish Crown plant at Horsens, Denmark, dubbed the world's most modern pork plant.

The plant slaughters and processes 77,000 pigs a week using state-of-the-art technology that starts with automated arms guiding hogs through lairage, and continues through much of the processing areas. The technology eliminated a number of jobs, but provided better pay and working conditions for the remaining staff.

Niekamp says 2-3 full-time employees provide guided tours of the plant using large viewing windows that showcase the brightly lit, highly modernized facility.

The tours are not just for farmers, but are very popular with average sightseers, apparently proving that some consumers actually do care where their food comes from, she notes.

Housing Decision Surprises Producer

Elma, IA, pork producer Max Schmidt admits the moves by Smithfield Foods and Maple Leaf Foods to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls caught him a bit off guard.

“Our current gestation stall barn only holds 700 of our 1,300 sows. We have been considering building a new gestation and farrowing barn and were planning on using stalls,” he explains.

All sows are bred in gestation stalls. Some are grouped in pens and some in outside lots.

“Originally, when we began moving sows to outside lots, we waited until they were confirmed pregnant and then moved them. We experienced 30% abortion rates,” Schmidt says.

The Iowa producer says he soon learned to move the sows shortly after breeding. “But the return to estrus rate is still higher than the sows left in the stalls,” he adds.

With the Smithfield decision to phase out gestation stalls, Schmidt is rethinking his building plans.

If Smithfield's decision was made to accommodate consumer demands, and since they harvest a large percentage of the nation's hogs, he wonders if this sow housing change will become a market access issue.

Schmidt suggests packers could use this issue in an attempt at market differentiation with pork from “humanely housed sows.”

But he warns producers face a couple of big challenges before considering a move to group sow housing. “The first is developing a much higher level of skilled management for working with the sows. The second is developing genetics that will thrive and produce in group housing,” he notes.

Schmidt reminds producers they haven't had to select for temperament when sows were individually stalled. “The mean sows will have to be culled. How long will it take to get the genetics that produce lean meat consumers expect, and provide sows that are gentle in their temperament?” he questions.

European Experiences

Schmidt wasn't part of last fall's producer group that toured Europe to learn more about sow housing trends. But he was in Europe a couple of years ago and visited two Dutch producers' sow barns, where sows were housed in groups.

The sows were kept 10-12/group and were fed in stalls where they could be locked in. While the sows were locked in their feeding stalls, the manure alley was scraped and bedding was replaced. The manure was handled as a solid material.

Schmidt recalls: “The system was working fine. However, the facility cost/sow was quite high because of all of the space. Because of Holland's milder climate, there was no need to heat the barns.

“I'm not sure that system would work well in the Upper Midwest with the -20° F weather we experience,” he notes.

North Carolina Seeks Hog Waste Conversion Program

The North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC) has asked state legislators to create a pilot program to test the feasibility of converting hog waste into electricity.

Progress Energy, a Raleigh, NC-based utility, said it would participate in the program if legislators approved it.

NCPC is working on the bill's language and securing bill sponsors, says Deborah Johnson, NCPC chief executive officer. Murphy-Brown LLC, the Warsaw, NC-based subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, and others developed the technology to capture methane gas from the farms' anaerobic treatment systems and convert the gas into electricity, according to the NCPC.

“This pilot program will help us see if it will be possible for producers to sell energy at a rate that allows them to justify the capital investment and cover the operating expenses for these projects,” says R.C. Hunt, NCPC president and contract hog grower.

Under the program, Progress Energy would purchase the electricity generated at about 18¢/kilowatt hour — significantly more than the 4½ to 5½¢ usually paid by other non-utility generators, according to the utility company.

The proposal would call for a seven-year pilot period, in which Progress Energy would start buying no later than late 2012.

The program “will help the hog industry determine if converting hog waste to electricity is economical and feasible, and will help us develop reliable and safe systems for connecting renewable generating sources to our grid,” says Gene Upchurch, a vice president with Progress Energy.

Hunt says he hopes the process becomes more efficient with time.

“From an environmental standpoint, this program makes good sense because we're providing a renewable energy source and, by capturing the methane gas, we're lowering greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.

Circovirus Vaccine Performs Well

A federally licensed vaccine for porcine circovirus provided excellent results in recent trials.

Last June, a team of Kansas State University (KSU) swine researchers was searching for the right commercial herd to test a federally licensed circovirus vaccine. The goal was to determine vaccine efficacy and provide some hope to frustrated producers in the state.

An isolated, 300-sow, farrow-to-finish operation in northeast Kansas fit the bill. The family-owned operation had a recent history of severe porcine circovirus — and it was negative for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), says KSU's project leader Bob Rowland, a virologist and associate professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology.

Another key factor in selecting this farm for vaccination was because it was infected with a different strain of the virus known as PCV2B. The strain that nearly all pigs in the United States carry, which is perhaps less pathogenic, is known as PCV2A.

Mortalities Reduced

Overall, vaccinated pigs demonstrated significant reductions in mortality, dramatically increased growth rate during finishing and fewer lightweight market hogs, explains Steve Dritz, DVM, KSU Research and Extension swine specialist.

The KSU team of Rowland, Dritz, Dick Hesse, Jerome Nietfeld and Kyle Horlen conducted the wean-to-finish trial on 485 pigs, randomly divided into six groups at weaning. Pigs were vaccinated at 3 weeks of age (weaning), and a second dose was given three weeks later, according to label directions.

Results were impressive, adds Rowland. In the finisher phase, the mortality rate for vaccinated pigs was 50% less than for their unvaccinated counterparts. Mortality was 7% for vaccinated pigs, compared to 17% for non-vaccinated pigs. Vaccinated pigs grew about 10% faster.

“Results from this study suggest that the tested vaccine is effective in controlling porcine circovirus type 2-associated disease in pigs,” he says. The USDA-licensed vaccine offers safety and efficacy.

“In addition to demonstrating the effectiveness of this vaccine, this study really highlights the devastating impact the infection with this virus can have on swine production,” Dritz says.

Biosecurity Concerns

Disease transmission of porcine circovirus has been especially troublesome, reports Steve Henry, swine veterinarian from Abilene, and an adjunct professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at KSU who is working closely with the research team. He said disease outbreaks have occurred rapidly, yet randomly, in hog operations with the highest levels of biosecurity.

“The ineffectiveness of biosecurity makes control strategies like quarantine practically irrelevant if the virus can bypass the barriers,” Henry notes. “With porcine circovirus, we are not experiencing classic disease outbreaks, in which the initial occurrence is followed by the ripple effect, spreading out from a source point.”

“We've worked with herds operating with very high biosecurity and it has just not slowed this virus down,” Rowland adds.

While the KSU trials show the effectiveness of the commercial vaccine, product availability remains a question mark, Dritz comments.

Henry adds: “Federally approved vaccine supplies have been totally inadequate thus far, with little or no supply in the face of an acute national problem.”

Additional Research

“The next steps are to continue to evaluate the vaccine under different field conditions to ensure that it is broadly applicable across the industry,” Dritz continues. “We're looking for more herds that have a less significant rise in mortality, but do have infection with the virus, to see if it is still economical to vaccinate.”

Also underway is the development of diagnostic tools to help characterize the virus to aid in the investigation of how it spreads from herd to herd, or how the infection develops into severe forms of the disease, he says.

Circovirus is shed through nasal and oral secretions, urine, feces, colostrum and semen. Symptoms of disease include rapid weight loss, lethargy, anorexia or loss of appetite, skin discolorations or lesions, respiratory problems and diarrhea.

A next-generation diagnostic test would help not only in timing of vaccination, but also in establishing prevalence of specific strains of circovirus in Kansas herds, adds Rowland.

Financial support is being provided by the National Pork Board and affected Kansas pork producers.