The reference, of course, is to the benchmark of 20 pigs/sow/year (p/s/y) being updated to the lofty goal of 30 p/s/y.

A recent news release from the USDA’s Economic Research Service reinforced the march to greater sow productivity. U.S. pork producers “broke through the 10-pigs-per-litter barrier,” states the March-May quarterly report.

As the saw-tooth trend line in the graph below shows, the linear trajectory has been mostly upward for the last two decades. USDA attributes this litter size growth to “widespread adoption” of technologies that have improved how we handle, breed and feed sows and litters.

“Technological innovations contributing to larger litters, superior survival rates, and improved weaned-pig numbers are both a cause and a consequence of the hog industry’s move from a very large number of small operations to a relatively small number of very large, specialized operations,” states the USDA report. The use of the word “consequence” sounds so negative in that context. Headquartered in Washington, DC, I guess USDA would know a thing or two about the consequences of burgeoning bureaucratic malaise. Ah, but I digress.

I’m not convinced that size is the driving force here. More likely, the steady improvement reflects a growing pool of knowledge and the collective efforts of producers of all sizes to master the arts of breeding, feeding and farrowing the nation’s sow herd.

Much as a highly focused marathon runner trains to shave a few minutes off his/her time to the finish line, pork producers have been chipping away at the things that have kept them from achieving their pigs-weaned-per-litter goals.

As I studied the graph, I began wondering where the pigs-per-litter gauge stood in January 1973, when I came on board here. To jog my memory, I grabbed the bound volume for 1973 and began flipping through the pages. In the February issue I found the latest USDA Hogs & Pigs Report, which noted the litter-size average was 7.26 in the last half of 1972. In a later report, the average slipped to 7.16 pigs/litter for the Dec. ’72-May ’73 period, but then dropped to the lowest point in 2½ years, landing at 7.08 pigs/litter in the USDA’s fall report.

Some producers were doing better, of course. Sprinkled throughout the bound volume were feature stories about producers who were weaning 8.7 to 9.3 pigs/litter.

With my curiosity wetted, I fast-forwarded to the 1983 bound volume. There I found a USDA report noting the pigs-per-litter average for the last half of 1982 was 7.41. Later, USDA reported the 10 major hog states averaged 7.61 pigs/litter in the spring quarter of 1983. Still a ways to go to hit 20.

Jumping another 10 years, I grabbed the 1993 bound volume and commenced paging. Not very far into the January issue I read this headline: “By the year 2000 — More Pigs from Fewer Sows.” The university economist began: “The pork industry is quickly changing from a friendly game of slow pitch that everyone can play to major league hardball where only serious and efficient producers make the cut.” And, later: “The cost of producing them (the pigs) will separate the spectators from the players.” Sound familiar?

This little trip down memory lane is little more than a snapshot of how pork producers set their collective minds to improve a key production indicator. Starting on the next page is a feature story on one of the best-managed farrow-to-wean units I have seen in some time. You may find some of their methods a bit unconventional, but you can’t argue with the results — over 30 p/s/y.

Going forward, I have no doubt that a focus on reducing feed costs, improving feed conversion, and improving pork quality will be the success stories in our future bound volumes. Once producers set their minds to it, they’ll “git ’er done.”