The News & What it Means – Improving genetics make for more corn – and pigs

By John DePutter & Dave Milne – January 21, 2020
The News:

“The US hog industry has achieved a third consecutive quarterly litter rate of 11 or more pigs per litter.”

USDA Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook, January 16, 2020
What it means:

A sign of improving genetics and management techniques, increasing productivity in the livestock industry mirrors the gains being seen in crop production.

One only has to take a quick look at a graph showing the average U.S. corn yield over the past number of decades to understand what a dramatic difference technology has made. Indeed, since 1955, American corn yields have increased at a fairly constant 1.9 bu/year, sustained primarily by continued improvements in genetics and crop production technologies. Compare that to the 70-year period from around the 1870s to the mid-1930s, when U.S. corn yields were basically stagnant at around 26 bu/acre. Today, plenty of Midwest corn growers are consistently getting yields above 200 bu/acre.

It’s been a profound shift, and one that has included virtually every other crop as well, including soybeans, wheat and special crops. In short, with better tools, research and management practices, crop farmers in the U.S., Canada, and all around the world are typically producing at a rate that exceeds global consumption, with the exception of the occasional weather problem.

US litter rates on the rise

Although perhaps not as dramatic as the production gains seen in crops, the livestock barn is getting in on the action as well. As the graph below shows, U.S. litter rates chopped mainly sideways through the late 1990s and early 2000s, before starting to trend consistently in the mid-2000s. The only blip on the radar was in late 2013/early 2014, when Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) caused major losses in American barns and set the stage for the record high hog prices later in 2014.

Litter rates from December 1999 to November 2019, by quarter. The data points in green correspond to the three quarters from March 2019 to November 2019. Data source: USDA.

In its most recent Hogs and Pigs report, released just before Christmas, the USDA pegged the average number of pigs saved per litter for the September-November period at a new record high of 11.09, up from 10.76 for the same period a year earlier and the third consecutive quarterly litter rate of 11 or more.

(It’s also interesting to note that litter rates of 11 or more have been commonplace in Canada – particularly in Manitoba – and in Europe for quite some time).

According to the USDA Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook, the reasons for the rising U.S. litter rates are varied, including “innovations in pre- and postnatal sow and weanling management and care, sow nutrition, weather adaptations, and management of disease occurrences.” However, it said the biggest factor is likely improvements in genetics that are gaining traction within the industry.

More pork

Regardless the reasons, it’s clear that U.S. pork farmers – like their cropping counterparts – are becoming more and more productive. If past results are indeed an indicator of future performance, and as long as African Swine Fever can be kept at bay, it may soon be that the bulk of future pork production comes from increased productivity rather than a simple increase in the breeding herd.

For this year, U.S. pork production is estimated at about 29 billion pounds, almost 4% higher than in 2019.

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