While compiling a list of issues facing pork producers in 2007, the lyrics of a children's song suddenly popped into my head.

The song about old McDonald, his farm and his critters — in my rendition — serves as an acronym, of sorts, for five challenges looming over the North American pork industry.

In my rhyme, “E” is for ethanol, “I” is for immigration and the policy challenges it presents, another “E” is for energy alternatives (that is, energy sources that can be substituted for corn), and the second “I” is for integration, an ongoing trend.

Finally, the “O” in this lyrical rhyme came to mind from the abbreviated reference to circovirus — often simply called circo. We Minnesotans accentuate the “O.” (I'm told we do the same when we enunciate the name of our state).

The O could also serve in an abbreviated form, such as: “Oh, darn! It's circovirus!” Although “darn” probably isn't the expletive most often uttered when porcine circovirus-associated disease is diagnosed!

In turn, then, here's how I see a few of the key challenges ahead:

E is for Ethanol

Livestock producers have been on this collision course with ethanol production in recent years, but it came faster than most predicted.

The push for energy independence has redirected millions of bushels of corn from hog feeders and feedlot bunks to ethanol production, leaving many shell-shocked producers in its wake.

The pressure on automakers to offer more vehicles that burn E-85 fuel will likely drive corn bids to modern-day highs and set pork producers' breakeven costs at a higher plain than we've seen the past few years.

I is for Immigration

Undoubtedly, the immigration challenges facing the United States will be front and center in 2007. This is a delicate issue. We're reminded that nearly all of us can trace our family heritage to another country. Yet, politically, the influx of illegal immigrants impacts communities well beyond the job market.

A 2005 Pew Research Center study estimated over one-fourth of the meat cutters and food-processing workers are illegal immigrants. This is a huge issue for the packing and processing segment of our industry and a sizable concern on the production side, as well.

Registered or not, immigrants have filled a void in the American workforce. In the big picture, immigration reform will have an impact on the overall economy.

E is for Energy

This second E stands for energy in a slightly different context. This energy component fuels pig growth and maintenance. With so much corn currently aimed at relieving our dependence on foreign oil, pork producers in particular will be searching for alternative energy sources for swine diets.

Corn conservation may even come into play. A swine nutrition consultant recently shared this thought: If we reduced the average weight of every market hog sold in the United States by 20 lb. in 2007, we'd lower the amount of corn needed to finish a pig by about a bushel. That's 100 million bushels of corn!

I is for Integration

Some of the biggest news in 2006 revolved around the opening of the new 8,000-head/day (single shift) Triumph Foods packing plant in St. Joseph, MO, and Smithfield Food's announced intentions to purchase Premium Standard Farms (over 220,000 sows and two packing plants).

As 2006 drew to a close, the East Moline, IL, city council approved tax increment financing, which would allow Triumph Foods to proceed with permitting efforts for another new pork processing plant.

If both of the acquisitions and construction plans advance, the two largest hog production systems will represent at least one-fourth of the U.S. hog production.

Integration is bound to continue.

Oh, Darn! It's Circo

Circo is short for porcine circovirus-associated disease (PCVAD), a particularly nasty virus that, when combined with some other maladies, has wreaked havoc across the United States and Canada — and continues, unrelenting.

Not only have substantive answers to the PRRS virus (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome) eluded us, we now have another mysterious disease riddle to solve.

Year of the Pig

Closing on a light note, here's a tidbit that you may have missed — in the Chinese calendar, 2007 is the “year of the pig.” (Other such years include 1911, 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983 and 1995). It is said that those born in these years are good parents, intelligent, honest, courageous, gallant, sincere, tend to be popular, make lasting friendships and are good neighbors.

So, I will close this first editorial for 2007 by extending my best wishes for good health, happiness and much success in this “year of the pig.”