Think of China and you think of swine.           

Pigmeat is the country's most popular meat. In 2007, consumption totalled 83 pounds per person, and it comprised 61 percent of all meat consumed.

The hog is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese calendar, and there’s even a special letter in the Chinese alphabet. It means that a family should have a house for shelter, but also that it should house hogs for wealth and happiness.

There's still a huge backyard swine industry, with each family in a village having its own hogs. The hogs  feed the family, then any surplus is sold. China still has a large rural population, but it has declined significantly in the last 10 years as the urban population grew by 90 million.

That means the traditional source of pork has declined over the years. Meanwhile, China’s rapid economic growth has created increased prosperity, which has stimulated pork consumption. So, in order to meet this demand, the country’s pork output has had to increase during the past 30 years. (See accompanying graph.) Some larger production systems have developed, and pork imports have increased but mostly on an as-needed basis.

Geographically speaking, the Yangtze River valley, Central China, Northeast China and the Guangxi/Guangdong are the main pork-producing areas, with 80 percent of the output. Within these regions Sichuan province, Henan province, Hubei province and Shandong province specialize in hog production.

While most production remains in the hands of small herds (less than 500 hogs produced annually), a shift is occurring.

In contrast, there also are several large integrators in the country. These include:

Imports and exports of pork and slaughter hogs are relatively small. At the end of third-quarter 2008, China imported 163,000 tons of pork, mainly from Europe and North America. It exports some slaughter hogs (1.8 million head) to Hong Kong, and a limited amount of pork heads to Russia.

According to Zhang Baowen, president of the Chinese Animal Agriculture Association, “It is not possible for us (China) to rely on imports to satisfy China’s pork demand; therefore, we need to resolve problems in hog farming.” The Chinese government has many initiatives to support pig production, such as encouraging operations to grow larger, giving tax breaks and promoting disease control. The industry is improving efficiency through increased sow productivity, pig flows and improving feed conversion.

In the past two years, pork prices in China have risen considerably, which has worried government officials because it's such a staple in the Chinese diet. Part of the increase is due to feed prices, as corn prices rose 29.4 percent and soybean meal increased 55.4 percent.

Disease also has been a major problem. The industry was hit hard by porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome outbreaks in 2006 and 2007. Other diseases include: classical swine fever, pseudorabies, porcine circovirus, swine influenza, Japanese encephalitis and porcine parvovirus.

Consequently, the Chinese government has implemented measures to combat swine diseases, such as establishing a detailed disease reporting system from township level to the central government; improving swine-disease monitoring; and implementing a compulsory vaccination program, where applicable.

These measures did help the pork output recover in 2008.

At the farm level, biosecurity is a new priority in terms of site selection and unit planning to minimize disease spread. More production systems are practicing segregated-early weaning, multiple-site production and all-in/all-out pig flow.

According to Wang Aigo, of the China Agriculture University, many of the techniques and technologies used in the United States and Europe are now found in China. For example, buildings are similar, using controlled-environment systems.

Genetic improvement is underway. At the village level there is a wide variety of local backyard breeds, capable of existing on food scraps. All feature short body length, with lots of backfat.  The Meishan is just one example.

The new breeding pyramids are generally comprised of Yorkshire and Landrace purebred lines, crossed to produce a F1 Yorkshire/Landrace parent female which is then crossed with Durocs to produce a slaughter hog that is 50 percent Duroc, 25 percent Yorkshire and 25 percent Landrace. American, Canadian and European breeding companies have established joint ventures in China in the last four years.

Feed is formulated to National Research Council standards on a digestible-energy basis, plus specific essential amino acids such as lysine and methionine, which are listed individually in formulations. According to Lu Nan, general manager for the China division of the French company Olmix, “Mycotoxin contamination is a big problem. The pig industry is spending a lot on mycotoxin inhibitors.”

Three-week weaning is most common, with some farms weaning at four weeks. Slurry treatment is a growing priority to minimize pollution. Computer software programs such as PigChamp, PigWin and PigTales provide data analysis.

Given China's population size and pork demand, its leaders are well aware that empty stomaches lead to discontent, and that's not a welcome notion. Increasingly, the government will make every effort to ensure that there is a vibrant, efficient, expanding pig industry in China, which will produce the pork that its citizens need.

China's 30-year Pork Evolution

China’s economic growth and the expansion of prosperity among households have increased the country's pork demand. As a result, production grew from 10 million tons to 50 million tons over the last 30 years, for an annual increase of 7.54 percent. During the same period, slaughter-hog numbers grew from 160 million to 565 million, or a 6.16 percent annual increase.


Small Operations Dominate, but Changing

Traditionally, every household in China would have a hog or two. But there’s no question that China has changed dramatically in the last few decades. As more people continue to move from the farm to the city, pig production needs reinforcements as well.

In 2006, 66 percent of China’s hog farms sold up to 500 hogs annually. As the government places increasing priority on a self-sufficient pork supply, more large production systems can be expected to surface.