Have you tried the mapping sites on the Web? They're great. You simply plug in a starting point and your destination, and the computer spits out detailed maps and driving directions, turn for turn, in fractions of miles. I wish we had an interactive mapping site for the pork industry.

Whenever we hit a straight stretch of road, it seems someone sets up a detour. Often those detours are marked with signs of the environmental zealots, animal welfare activists and low hog markets.

Springtime hog market lows are fairly rare, so when prices slipped into the $20s, producers and economists were sent scrambling to find answers. Checking the rear-view mirror, the market prognosticators offered these explanations:

  • The earliest Easter in 11 years put a bigger-than-usual gap between ham demand and the popular summer grilling season.

  • Total meat supplies reached record highs. Beef and broiler production was up nearly 5% in the first quarter; pork trailed with a modest 1% increase over the previous year. Birds and animals gained faster and were fed to heavier weights throughout a mild winter with cheap feed prices. A Russian embargo on U.S. chicken became a drag on other meat stocks.

  • Canadian-born feeder pig imports climbed from 60,000/week last year to 73,000/week in the first three months of this year — setting a course for nearly a million more Canadian pigs finished in the U.S. this year compared to last. Canadian-born feeder pigs, plus imported slaughter hogs, will claim over 5% of the U.S. slaughter capacity this year.

Canadian Pigs, Aye?

Canadian pigs are sent south because the American dollar is strong, feed quality in the western provinces is poor and the demand for these pigs is high in the U.S. heartland.

Environmental restrictions, labor shortages and disease loads in hog-dense areas have many U.S. pork producers rethinking the high-investment, high-labor commitment inherent in breeding, gestating and farrowing sows. Many are midwestern operators who know hogs, like hogs, but are opting for a simpler life of stocking, feeding and emptying finishing barns.

The Canadian sow herd has recorded annual growth of 4-5% since 1998. Sow numbers have grown 8% so far this year. Meanwhile, for the last 10 quarters, the U.S. sow herd has stabilized at 2.9 million sows or less.

The Canadian influence may register as one of the major shifts in U.S. pork production philosophy, perhaps setting the stage for a new North American pork industry.

Checkoff Shifts Gears

In an unprecedented move, delegates to the National Pork Board annual meeting voted to lower the mandatory checkoff by a nickel, from 45¢/$100 value to 40¢.

Meanwhile, National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) delegates passed a resolution supporting a “producer's consent” initiative that will ask packers to deduct a dime per $100 value. Those monies will be divided evenly between NPPC and state organizations. NPPC also shifted plans for an expanded membership into high gear. Membership categories are being drafted across all facets of pork production and allied industry interests.

New NPPC CEO Neil Dierks states, “we need breadth to this organization” to ensure all members are well represented on all policy and regulatory issues that constantly bombard the pork industry.

Newspaper headlines serve as a billboard calling attention to the constant stirring of the environmental pot by Robert Kennedy, Jr. and the Waterkeeper Alliance as they spew out inaccuracies and falsehoods about the pork industry. Kennedy even ventured into Alberta this spring, broadening the scope of his misinformed message.

Animal welfare issues, too, must be faced. The drive to eliminate gestation stalls in Florida and Oregon is described as “the battleground, but not the war.” Fast-food giants are scrambling to appease the often-misinformed consumer. British pork producers can tell you that when animal welfare became a regulatory issue, they became uncompetitive. Consumers initially said they would pay more for “welfare friendly” production methods. Fact is — they won't. They've turned to less expensive, imported pork instead. Now, British legislators may moderate welfare laws in hopes of making domestic pork production more competitive.

Shifting gears is not new to the U.S. pork industry. The stories in this issue will bring you up to date on recent events. I've written it before — pork producers are as flexible, resilient and adaptable as the animals they raise. The road ahead will have the usual bumps and sharp turns, but the “state of the industry” is strong. We'll keep a watchful eye on the road ahead to help you achieve your desired destination.