U.S. hog futures were trading sharply higher early Friday amid expectations for strong world demand for animal protein to extend through the year and support from a firming near-term outlook for cash hog prices.

April, the front month futures contract for lean hogs futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, hit a one-month high and was last up 1.20 cents, or 1.3%, at 91.52 cents a pound. June hog futures, the most active contract, was last up 1.42 cents, or 1.4%, at $1.1260 after hitting a five-week high.

Forecasts of seasonally tighter supplies of slaughter-ready hogs through the spring and early summer are also supporting gains in futures, analysts said. But the biggest push in the market is coming from exports, which will take more pork off the domestic market and result in higher prices, they said.

Demand in Japan for pork remains strong in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, said Robert Manly, chief financial officer at Smithfield Foods (SFD) at a Barclays Capital conference in Orlando, Fla. The company doesn't expect declines ahead and foresees even more sales to Japan as it recovers from the earthquake damage.

Traders await the government's quarterly hogs and pigs report to be released Friday afternoon. The average of analysts' pre-report estimates were at 100% of year ago for all hogs and pigs, females kept-for-breeding at 99.8% and the kept-for-marketing figure at 99.9%.

In the cash markets, prices are expected to be flat to higher for deliveries next week. The cash market may be generally quiet throughout the day since the plants are full for this week and participants may wait until after the hogs and pigs report to renew negotiations for hogs to be shipped next week.

Wholesale pork prices Thursday were up $0.44 per hundred pounds to $93.22, the highest since Aug. 30. The latest quote was up 29% from a year ago. The record high was $96.74 hit Aug. 24, 2010.

The terminal hog markets were called flat to possibly higher with top prices expected from $56.50 to $59 on a live basis.