Just 10 days into the New Year, I received a press release announcing the ethanol industry had overtaken livestock as the largest consumer of the nation’s corn supply. The release, citing data from North American Risk Management Services, Inc., explained that ethanol production had nearly quadrupled between 2005 and 2011, now gobbling up 5.02 billion bushels, more than 40% of last year’s harvest. Corn use for livestock and poultry feed fell 22% during that period and now accounts for about 4.79 billion bushels of the 2011 crop.

Before ethanol, corn prices mostly bounced around between $2 and $3 a bushel. In 2006, corn-use graph lines began to diverge, setting a trend that persists today. The added competition for corn naturally drove prices skyward, while pork producer margins turned red, sending them scrambling to find alternative energy sources.

A portion of the 22% drop in usage was made up by substituting distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS) as an energy source in cattle, hog and poultry diets. In the pork industry, it took a while to get a handle on how much DDGS could be fed, for how long and whether it affected pig performance, carcass quality and/or sow productivity.

Depending on the source of DDGS, fat levels generally ran between 10-12%. Gestating sows got along quite well with diets containing 30-40% DDGS, as did grow-finish pigs. But swine nutritionists knew that high unsaturated fatty acid levels created a less desirable carcass fat.

Soon, packers began checking carcass iodine values (IV), the most common measure of fat softness. High IV levels drew warnings. Some suggested DDGS levels be lowered or completely withdrawn from finishing diets the last 4-6 weeks before marketing. If high IV persisted, future loads would be scrutinized more closely and carcass value discounts could be levied.

Producer Dilemma

I believe every pork producer in the land wants to deliver a top quality product. But as high corn prices cut heavily into margins, alternative feed ingredients, such as DDGS or bakery byproducts, were needed to trim the highest portion of their input cost.

Here’s the rub. In the past couple of months, I’ve bumped into frustrated producers and nutritionists wanting to know what target to shoot for. “Tell us what level you want and we will give it to you,” they say. One industry veteran noted, “It’s not that different from when packers wanted leaner hogs. They set weight and backfat criteria and producers responded.”

Packers Survey

I figured the packers deserved a chance to weigh in on the subject, so I drafted a short survey and e-mailed it to a couple dozen packers. The questionnaire asked mostly “yes” and “no” questions. Do you measure IV? Where on the carcass is the sample taken? What is the maximum IV considered “acceptable”? Do you recommend maximum DDGS guidelines in finishing diets? Do you recommend withdrawal periods prior to slaughter? Do you see seasonal differences in IV? Are you testing new technologies that will allow more sampling, possibly at line speeds?

Just four packers completed and returned the survey. Now I’ve never known folks in the packing business to be particularly shy about expressing their views on matters dealing with carcass value, so I deduced they simply did not want to go “on the record” with their answers. I’m told they prefer to handle the issue on a case-by-case basis.

Their prerogative, but one response to the survey laid out the issue quite nicely: “Soft fat and thin bellies present challenges in fabrication, in pulling the spare rib. Soft fat has had a detrimental impact on international sales where firmer fat is a highly desired attribute in the belly. The integrity of the shoulder and ham muscles is also impacted with higher levels of unsaturated fat.”

This packer also noted his company is testing several new technologies that will enhance their ability to obtain more IV readings on more carcasses. “We believe technology is advancing rapidly on several fronts which will allow the industry the capability to quickly and accurately analyze (carcass fat) for IV,” he stated.

We’ve spent a fair amount of time and energy digging into the fat quality/iodine value issue in this edition. While the response to the packer survey was disappointing, our discussions with many industry sources make it clear that carcass fat quality will remain on the packers’ radar screens. With 26% or more of U.S. pork sent to foreign lands, it is not a quality issue to be taken lightly.