According to the USDA Livestock, Dairy and Poultry report, the full set of data that is now available for the first quarter of 2012, is useful in explaining important hog and pork market dynamics of the quarter, as well as in indicating potential market direction as the markets move into summer.

As a whole, the data suggest that of all the players in the pork market chain—hog producers, packer/processors, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers—the only ones left smiling by the price and demand/supply metrics of first quarter may be pork retailers. First-quarter retail pork prices finished at $3.49 per pound, 6 percent higher than a year ago and the highest first-quarter retail price on record.

Record retail prices reflected, in part, robust first-quarter U.S. exports, which were 15.8 percent higher than a year ago. Strong exports—23 percent of first-quarter commercial pork production—left U.S. per capita disappearance almost 1 percent below the first quarter of 2011. Tighter first-quarter domestic supplies and higher prices for competing animal proteins likely supported record retail prices. At the wholesale level, the situation remains quite different.

Wholesale pork prices have lagged year-earlier prices from late January to the present. First-quarter USDA wholesale primal cutout values were 5 percent below first-quarter 2011. Strong retail prices combined with weak wholesale values to yield the widest firstquarter wholesale-retail spread ever: $2.03 per pound.

While it is possible that soft wholesale prices reflect slower forward bookings for export, it is more likely that retailers are defending their spread by favoring strong returns over sales volumes. Higher first-quarter retail prices for beef (+9 percent) and for chicken (+5 percent) would accommodate a retail strategy that places less emphasis on maximizing pork sales volume. Such a strategy could lower wholesale pork demand.

Second-quarter 2012 commercial pork production is expected to be 5.5 billion pounds, 2.8 percent higher than a year ago. Increased April-June pork production derives from year-over-year larger fall and winter pig crops and heavier estimated dressed weights. Second-quarter prices for live equivalent 51-52 percent lean hogs are expected to average $62-$64 per cwt, 8.4 percent lower than a year ago. Prices for 2012 are expected to be about 6 percent lower than a year ago.