There was a time not so long ago, when it was generally accepted that all corn is created equal. It was a time when more “seasoned” veterans impulsively grabbed their trusted edition of Morrison’s Feeds & Feeding and turned to the standard composition and digestible nutrient tables in search of values for No. 2 yellow dent corn.

Then, searching the recesses of their memory cells, they called up the tried-and-true Pearson Square to formulate a simple diet. The National Research Council (NRC) and, more recently, the National Swine Nutrition Guide have updated nutrient values to serve as a better resource today.

The 2009 corn crop changed how we viewed and used corn, as pockets of light-test-weight and mycotoxin-laden corn curbed pig performance at several levels. That, and recent concerns about corn reserves, sent producers and nutritionists searching for dietary energy alternatives, such as wheat midds, sunflower oil, bakery byproducts, etc. It soon became apparent that our knowledge about these corn substitutes is pretty thin and quite variable.

Good and Bad

As we see the glimmer of better hog markets ahead, the stark reality of higher feed costs stares back at us.

Anymore, it’s a daily mental exercise to tally the good and bad news affecting our livelihood. More pork to Korea (good). Lean hog futures climb past $100/cwt. (good). Land prices and rental trends reach new highs (sure to lead to higher feed costs). Ethanol chases corn; distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS) values climb (both push feed costs higher).

Ethanol mandates, sanctioning of 15% ethanol blend rates in gasoline, and corn reserves dwindling to modern-day lows create more uncertainty. Low-cost pork producers are challenged to replace a portion of the corn in swine diets with non-traditional feed ingredients.

Quality, Consistency

Pigs are amazing animals, capable of utilizing the nutrients from a wide range of feed sources. However, as research on DDGS has shown, we must be vigilant about examining the impact the byproduct has, not only on pig performance, but also on the quality of fat and lean in the primal cuts.

At a winter trade show, a swine nutritionist mentioned a client had bumped DDGS levels to 60% in his finishing ration.

Recently, nine universities collaborated to study how 30-45% DDGS inclusion rates affected carcass processing and pork eating quality. Although the carcasses of pigs fed higher DDGS levels had more unsaturated fat and softer bellies, researchers reported no impact on carcass processing or consumer preference. Some packers disagree.

As we test the limits and search for alternatives to corn, it is imperative that we keep a watchful eye on the meat quality traits that drive consumer acceptance. To be sure, now is not the time to mess with the taste buds of our good pork customers.

The quality of pork today is more consistent than it’s ever been. Is it consistently better? I’m not so sure about that. For many reasons, including ease of preparation, more pork is pumped, marinated, pre-formed and pre-cooked for the convenience of busy families. But let us not sacrifice the true flavor of pork for a less savory meat protein that, dare I say it, requires the grand potentate of all condiments — bacon — to save it. That would be the grandest irony of all.
We are keenly aware of the primary indicators of pork quality that help ensure a “good eating experience.” However, in recent years, the research buzz from our land grant schools and research laboratories has paled in comparison to the efforts and research dollars afforded meat quality traits in the ’70s and ’80s. It is a trend I would like to see reversed.

Next month at the National Pork Industry Forum in Phoenix, the National Pork Board will roll out a brand new pork promotional program. The stated goal is “to build on the strengths of the Pork — the Other White Meat” program that has resonated so well with consumers and remains the envy of beverage companies, automakers and many others. I am anxious to see the new program.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say the U.S. pork industry is at a turning point. Our ability to produce a quality product, efficiently, is unmatched. Let us not be lulled into thinking the pork we offer to the world is as good as it can be. We need only look to popular carmaker Toyota as an example of a supplier that, perhaps, got a little too comfortable i