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The Swine Industry Evolution

Date: 
Author: 
Kent Bang
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Swine, Young, Beginning Farmers, AgriBusiness
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There is no question that the swine industry has evolved a great deal over the past 30 years.  The changes have not only made U.S. pork a better and safer product for consumers, but has reduced the resources used to produce it. Efficiencies in swine production and the entire agriculture industry, has meant that increasingly more consumers are removed from the world of food production; we likely have not done a good enough job of reaching out to the public with facts, causing a bit of public uncertainty to remain.  I thought it might be useful to discuss some of the changes that have revolutionized our industry and what that means to the future of pork production and demand for our product.  In addition, looking into the future, the changes that are likely to continue.

The evolution, driven by factors like producer innovation, consumer demand, and economic forces, have changed the swine industry. Well at the same time have allowed us to be more competitive on the global market, which has left some production methods and producers in the wake of change.

Genetic Evolution

A key driver of change has been Genetics and the continuous evolution of the pig itself.  In the early 1990’s the drive to meet consumer demand for a leaner product drove the industry to leaner pigs.  The consumer was willing to pay for leaner, healthier product; and the packer in turn devised carcass merit programs that paid the producer to deliver.  Producers benefited not only from carcass merit programs for lean pigs, but also from the efficiencies of lean gain versus putting fat on pigs.  The change to leaner genetics was rapid and effective.  Based on today’s pig we likely don’t need leaner pigs, and we have a great product (boneless loins) that aren’t very forgiving when overcooked due to the low fat content.

Higher prolific sows have been one key to improving pigs weaned per litter from 7.76 in 1987 to 10.63 in 2017.  That is a 37% increase in 30 years!  Management, health, nutrition and housing are all important to make these gains, but genetics has been one of the key drivers.

Management Evolution

Production has become extremely specialized over the past 30 years; from a time when family members and perhaps an employee or two did all the jobs on the farm.  Today, specialized breeding, farrowing, nursery and finishing technicians do an effective and efficient job of managing the production and well-being of the animals.  The dedication to do the right thing and drive better pig performance through people comes down to strong management teams running a large share of production in the U.S.  The ability of owners/managers to instill a vision within the team of doing the right thing for the pigs, their co-workers, and the communities they live is inspiring.

The challenge we have today is with a tight labor supply, the drive to continually improve the labor efficiency is paramount.  The processing industry is utilizing robotics at a higher level, egg production is highly mechanized, the dairy industry is beginning to employ milking robotics, and although the pig production tools today are much more efficient, we will find ways to improve pig care with tools that will also save labor.  I am not sure what they are, but our industry can and must find those tools in the future.

Health Improvement Evolution

Management of pig health has always been a concern.  One of the first improvements came decades ago when we reduced the co-mingling of pigs from a variety of sources through feeder pig auctions.  We still co-mingle some pigs but generally when the source farm health status is known.  The next evolution came with all-in, all-out production technology.  Managing pigs of the same age and health status allowed us to more effectively prevent transmission of disease and control the outcome. 

In part, due to the health management and all-in, all-out production; contract finishing has grown to become the norm.  Today, the trend leans towards moving sow farms into sparsely populated areas or using filters on incoming air to control disease that can enter the building airborne.  This technology is proving to be quite effective, but requires significant initial investment and ongoing maintenance.  As the industry continues to face pressure for reduction in antibiotic use, developing and employing technology will be crucial for future success.

Housing Evolution

The changes in pig housing over the past 30 years has been astounding.  Today’s facilities feature large farrow to wean facilities designed to provide the best environment possible for the pigs, while making it safe and efficient for the herdsmen.  Recent changes in facilities have signified a move to group housing for sows in late gestation and larger farrowing pens to accommodate larger litters weaned at a later age.  This provides value to both the sow in terms of reproductive performance and to the pig through production..  Controllers, inlets and fans used to manage the inside environment have been improved to provide more consistent air movement with minimum drafts and better control of the temperature throughout the day.  Modern facilities are designed for pig care, reducing stress on the animals which also improves performance; a fact we need to educate the consumer around. 

We still use a substantial amount of individual maternity pens for sow housing.   I remember when the move was made to that type of housing from outdoor sow housing.  The move was made for the welfare of the animals and the herdsmen, but in the move we left the consumer out of the discussion, knowing we were doing the best for the animal if it could be justified from a cost standpoint.

Results

The results from the evolution has been global competitiveness.  This is evident by the growth in exports from being a net importer of pork in 1994 to exports of 5.4 billion pounds of pork (25.7 million pigs) and nearly $6.5 billion ($53.47 per head).  We have also increased pork consumption domestically from 17.7 billion pounds in 1994 to 20.2 billion pounds in 2017.  Value is not only gained by the increase in pork exports but by the specific products that are exported to provide the needed products to the domestic market.  Hams to Mexico, loins to Japan and variety meats that have minimal value in the U.S. are shipped to China.  These exports make the products consumed in the U.S. more economical.

The U.S. industry produces the safest pork on the planet and does it with a higher standard of animal welfare than ever before.  At the same time productivity increases are achieved from genetic improvement, better housing, nutrition and management.  

We have a great story to tell regarding sustainability, in reducing the natural resources used, feed grains, land, and water to improve the carbon footprint of pork production.  We just need to continue to tell it.
 
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