The nation’s pork producers are on track for a second consecutive profitable year thanks to high hog prices and robust exports, but show little inclination to add to herds with corn costs up sharply.
A key gauge of the pork industry’s expansion prospects, the breeding herd, rose slightly early this year and probably rose again this spring, albeit barely, several analysts said.
Animals kept for breeding as of June 1 rose about 0.1 percent from 5.79 million head a year earlier, based on a survey of analysts conducted by Dow Jones Newswires before the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Quarterly Hogs and Pigs report June 24. As of March 1, the breeding herd rose 0.5 percent.
While record-high hog prices fueled profits earlier this spring, producers are still shaking off the effects of the 2008-09 recession that led to deep losses, said Rich Pottorff, an analyst with Doane Advisory Services. More recently, the corn market’s rally near $8 bushel drove feed costs higher, squeezing margins and curbing expansion plans.
“The financial condition of hog producers in general will remain precarious for a while,” Pottorff said in a June 22 e-mail. “Recent gains in hog futures prices offer the hope that profits will continue through the rest of this year, but the very low corn supplies make the future uncertain.”
During May, producers in Iowa, the nation’s top pork state, turned an average profit of $11.73 on each hog sold to meatpackers, according to Iowa State University economist Shane Ellis. Per-head profit averaged $5.07 during the first five months of this year, down from $14.44 for the same period in 2010, Ellis said. Producers lost an average of $26.04 per animal in 2009.
Prior to the March 1 increase, the U.S. hog breeding herd declined 11 consecutive quarters beginning June 2008 and last September dropped to 5.77 million head, the lowest figure since at least 1963, the farthest back the USDA tracks the data.
Any breeding herd expansion “will be very slight at most,” Ellis said. “The cost of feed is still keeping these margins tight.”
Other closely-followed figures in the USDA’s quarterly report also suggest producers are playing conservative. Farrowing intentions for the June through August quarter are expected to be down 2 percent from the same period in 2010, while September through November farrowings are expected to be down 0.8 percent, according to the Dow Jones survey.
The total hog herd as of June 1 is projected to be up 0.1 percent from 64.65 million head a year earlier.
“Steady as she goes” appears to be the mindset of the U.S. pork industry, livestock analysts Steve Meyer and Len Steiner said in a June 22 report.
Hog prices are down from the all-time highs two months ago but remain up so far this year.
In trading June 22, July lean hog futures on CME Group in Chicago fell 0.725 cents to 98.275 cents a pound, while December futures fell 0.5 cent to 86.5 cents.
Hog futures averaged about 89.7 cents so far this year, up 18 percent from the first half of 2010, and reached a record $1.042 on April 14, based on the front-month contract. The CME hog contract is based on carcass values.
With little increase in the U.S. hog herd coming in the foreseeable future, consumers likely will continue to face higher supermarket prices for bacon, chops and other cuts, analysts say. U.S. retail pork prices rose more than 10 percent on average during the first five months of 2011, compared with 2010 levels, according to Labor Department data.
Though the herd numbers may not reflect it, the pork industry has been in an “expansion of sorts” for some time, Iowa State’s Ellis said. That’s because producers have become increasingly efficient, generating more piglets per sow amid improvements in breeding, feed and medicine, he said.
The average number of pigs per litter has increased every year since at least 1993, reaching a record 9.78 in 2010, according to USDA data. From December through February, pigs per litter averaged 9.8.
Additionally, heavier animals have more than offset herd declines, putting this year’s pork production ahead of last year’s pace. Through last week, U.S. pork production so far this year totaled nearly 10.3 billion pounds, up 1 percent from the same period in 2010, even as the number of hogs slaughtered fell 1.5 percent.