Most things improve over time and advance with technology, so pork productivity’s upward arc is no surprise. But that arc has shot considerably higher in the last decade.

Increases in pigs per litter, litters per sow per year, earlier weaning ages and fewer days to market have all added to the gains. In addition, rising market weights have added even more pork to an already crowded market.

Kelly Zering, North Carolina State University agricultural economist, believes much of the gains are due to the increased numbers of pigs being produced on very large farms. The large-producer group tends to produce more pigs per litter, due to specialization and technology adaptation, says Mike Brumm, University of Nebraska, extension swine specialist.

While a boost in productivity can be profitable to an individual producer by cutting his or her production costs, it is not always good for the market as a whole.

Chris Hurt, agricultural economist at Purdue University, says productivity growth is outpacing the growth of aggregate pork demand, which includes domestic demand and exports. Productivity is increasing at about 3 percent annually, while aggregate demand is increasing only 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent.

If the productivity pace continues, the United States could produce 105 million hogs as early as 2002, without expanding the breeding herd.

However, can U.S. producers maintain these tremendous growth trends? Zering believes the industry is returning to a normal productivity growth curve after accelerated gains in the 1990s. He doesn’t expect to see great additional gains until there are significant improvements in genetics. He says the industry has reaped most of the sow management benefits.

But sows productivity is just one piece of the puzzle; hogs reaching heavier market weights in fewer days is another. Hog market weights have been increasing about a pound per year, says Zering. This tends to depress live hog prices by about 0.5 percent per hundredweight. That’s assuming packing capacity isn’t challenged.

You need to account for overall productivity levels when estimating the number of pigs– and pork– that will hit the market. That information is worth just as much consideration when you develop production and marketing strategies as the number of sows in the U.S. breeding herd.