As this year draws to a close, how did your New Year's resolutions and expectations for 2006 pan out?

The annual ritual of sorting through free calendars, deciding which will grace your office or kitchen wall in 2007, offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the past 12 months.

This can be a helpful exercise when setting new goals. Here's my take on the past and coming year:

The strength of the hog market was certainly a pleasant and welcomed occurrence. Twelve more months of black ink is a good thing; 2007 will be leaner.

Higher feed costs will send you searching for alternative feed sources and better buying strategies. Squeezing every bit of efficiency from your production system will serve as a high challenge next year.

As the corn market bobs around the $3.50/bu. mark (depending where you live), pork producers are feeling uneasy. For each dollar added to the price of corn, the cost to produce a newly weaned pig jumps about $2; the cost of finishing a market hog climbs nearly $12. If you're pushing pigs to the 300-lb. market weight some packers prefer, those later, less-efficient pounds in the finishing period will be a break-even proposition, at best.

A $3-plus-corn market may be the new norm, and it will change many of the economic and production targets for the latter half of this decade, at least. Redoubling efforts to maximize the nutrient value of every pound of feed will be a much higher priority.

Ethanol Fever

Ethanolmania is a runaway train. We saw it coming, but misjudged its speed.

With new ethanol plants coming on line — and more projected — the by-products of this process offer real challenges and some opportunities to pork producers. Nutritionists are still sorting through distiller's dried grain with solubles (DDGS) nutrient values and quality issues, while livestock producers clamor to get dibs on this by-product.

Some pork production systems will be able to take advantage of this alternative protein/lysine source, but the cost of drying these by-products, 20-30% of the energy utilized in an ethanol plant, could drive plants to become more efficient through fractionation or burning DDGS to reduce their own energy needs.

On balance, feeding DDGS levels much higher than 10% in swine finishing rations slows gains and reduces feed efficiencies — and that messes up finisher throughputs. Marketing DDGS-fed pigs at lighter weights is an option. The upside is that it would take some pounds of pork out of the marketplace.

I still question whether the ethanol-from-corn phenomenon is sustainable. Corn was the convenient and politically correct crop to move toward greater energy independence, but I still think there are better alternatives in this revolution. Apparently, the government thinks so too, because federal monies are being poured into examining many other renewable energy alternatives.

I suspect the writers of a new farm bill will take a long, hard look at federal support programs. There will be plenty of political posturing, but I'd expect deficiency payments and non-productive, set-aside acres (environmental advantages acknowledged) would be scrutinized very closely.

If we were serious about energy self-sufficiency, the option of growing and harvesting cellulostic materials (switchgrass, tree pulp) on these acres would make a lot of sense. Doing so would accomplish many of the same goals — protecting erosion-sensitive lands, providing wildlife habitat, generating a crop that can be converted to fuel — all the while reclaiming some of the cost of the program.

When ethanol production shifts to cellulose (note I didn't say “if”), corn producers could be scrambling to regain their “real” and most dependable market — livestock production.

We're in relatively new territory here, and it will take a while for the marketplace to sort out the best, most economical methods of producing ethanol.

The Circovirus Circus

Then came circovirus (porcine circovirus-associated disease, or PCVAD). This dreaded disease has edged out porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) for the “most baffling, most dreaded” swine disease title.

A year ago, concerns were focused on keeping the virus from creeping across the U.S.-Canadian eastern borders. The swiftness and breadth of circovirus spread has everyone grasping for answers, waiting not so patiently for vaccines that apparently work, but still aren't readily available.

All The Best

Every year brings new challenges and opportunities. When you flip to Jan. 1 on that new calendar, count your blessings for being able to live and work in a free society where food is plentiful, and where the pursuit of goals and dreams is encouraged.

Best wishes for a wonderful Christmas season and all good wishes for the New Year — whatever it brings.