The ham is one of the major primals of the pork carcass. Changes in ham value can influence overall carcass value.

The move toward heavier market weights has pushed carcass weights higher and, subsequently, the hams from these carcasses are heavier. As ham weights increase, the amount of muscle increases and so does the quantity of skin, bone and excess fat.

Two questions for the pork industry beg an answer:

Have these heavier carcass weights affected the value of the hams? And, has the quality of the meat from these hams been affected?

Weight's Impact on Composition

The ham comprises about 18% of the live pig and about 24% of the pork carcass. As market hogs go from a 250- to 290-lb. live weight, the ham primal or rough ham (Figure 1) increases in weight from 23 to 27 lb. (Table 1).

Normally, hams are not sold in their “rough” form. The major bone-in ham is sold, as the name implies, with the bone intact and the skin on. This ham is fabricated from the rough ham using the Institution Meat Purchase Specifications (IMPS) previously described (see “Selling Pork, Not Pigs,” page 6), to produce the Ham 401 (Figure 2).

The Ham 401 has the skin partially trimmed and some of the fat along the exterior surface trimmed. This trimming yields approximately 2 lb. of skin and external fat. The Ham 401 from the 290-lb. pig still weighs about 3.5 lb. more than the Ham 401 from the 250-lb. pig. These hams are used to produce bone-in, cured hams.

While bone-in hams are still traded, the majority of fresh ham meat is sold as boneless, trimmed cuts used to produce boneless cured hams.

Most ham processors have found it more economical to purchase boneless, trimmed, fresh ham cuts directly from the packing plant. By purchasing these fresh ham cuts, processors avoid the time, labor and cost of removing the bones.

Today's consumers also prefer low-fat hams with less visible fat. To meet consumer demands, ham processors began making hams from specific muscles.

Boneless hams can be made from individual muscles, but boneless fresh ham is commonly sold as either a four- or five-muscle ham. The four-muscle ham is made up of the four major muscles of the ham shown in Figures 3-5. These cuts can also be purchased individually.

As live pig weight increases from 250 to 290 lb., the weights of the inside ham (Figure 3), knuckle (Figure 4) and outside ham with the semitendinosus muscle (Figure 5) also increase. Weight comparisons of the muscles and byproducts of manufacturing boneless fresh hams — skin, bone, external fat and seam fat — are shown in Table 1. Lean, other than the major muscles, is usually mixed with other muscle and fat to be sold as 72% pork trim.

Table 1. Composition of One Ham Primal from a 250- and 290-lb. Market Hog
Ham Cut 250 lb. 290 lb.
Rough Ham, lb. 23.36 27.05
Ham 401, lb. 21.53 24.93
Ham Skin, lb. 1.45 1.50
Ham External Fat, lb. 2.56 3.46
Ham Seam Fat, lb. 0.13 0.15
Inside Ham, lb. 3.88 4.37
Knuckle, lb. 2.68 3.30
Outside Ham w/Semitendinosus, lb. 5.32 6.18
Ham Other Lean, lb. 3.40 3.76
Ham Bone, lb. 2.37 2.60

It is important to recognize that although ham skin, seam fat and bone increase only slightly with heavier live weights, the external fat increases substantially.

Ham Values

To better understand the impact of live weight on ham composition (Table 2) and subsequent value, the average price of hams for 2001 was used to compare the value of hams from the two live weight levels (Table 3).

Table 2. Ham Values Based on Weekly Prices Reported by USDA Agricultural Market Service for 2001, $/lb.
Ham Cut Average Minimum Maximum
Ham 401, 17-20 lb. $0.65 $0.49 $0.87
Ham 401, 20-23 lb. $0.59 $0.45 $0.68
Ham 401, 23-27 lb. $0.56 $0.43 $0.67
Boneless Four-Muscle Ham $1.14 $0.91 $1.33
72% Fresh Ham Trim $0.49 $0.36 $0.60

The pork ham prices reported in Table 2 show that as the weight of the ham increases, the price per lb. for bone-in hams decreases. Also, the price of the 17-20 lb. Ham 401 has a larger spread between the minimum and maximum values than the heavier ham categories.

The price for boneless, four-muscle hams is higher than for bone-in hams. The price differential is due to the lighter weight of the boneless hams; the labor cost to remove the bone and separate out the muscles; and the yield loss due to removing the skin, external fat, seam fat and other lean. Some value is regained from the external fat, seam fat and other lean as these ham components are added to 72% pork trimmings. The skin and bone have some value (See “Estimating Carcass Byproduct Values,” page 42).

Table 3. Composite Average Ham Value from a 250- and 290-lb. Market Hog, $/lb.
Ham Cut 250 lb. 290 lb. Value Difference
Ham 401 + Ham Fat $26.24 $28.90 $2.66
Boneless Four-Muscle Ham $27.18 $31.68 $4.50
72% Pork Trimmings
(external fat, seam fat, other lean)
$5.98 $7.24 $1.26
Boneless Ham Total Value
(Boneless Four-Muscle Ham + 72% trim)
$33.16 $38.92 $5.76

Even with the compositional differences between hams from 250- versus 290-lb. pigs, the value of the ham from a 290-lb. pig is higher for bone-in Ham 401; boneless, four-muscle ham; and for the combined value of the boneless, four-muscle ham and the 72% pork trimmings (Table 3). Whether ham values are high or low, the hams from the 290-lb. pigs are worth more.

Ham prices are subject to considerable seasonal variability. Prices averaged across four years (1998-2001), are reported for bone-in hams (Figure 6) and for boneless hams and 72% pork trimmings (Figure 7). Hams provide 18.8% of the value of the 250-lb hog and 17.7% of the value of the 290-lb hog.

Ham Quality

It is apparent that increasing live weight correspondingly increases the value of the ham. However, increasing value does not benefit the pork industry if the quality of the ham muscles decreases as a consequence.

As ham muscles are used for further processing, their ability to hold brines and to have uniform, pinkish color is important. Quality measures of color, firmness and pH were evaluated on the ham face and in individual muscles of the ham (Figure 8).

As live pigs increased in weight from 250 to 290 lb., quality of the ham face for color, muscle firmness and pH was not affected. However, when these same quality characteristics were measured in individual inside ham, outside ham and knuckle muscles, the muscles from the 290-lb. pigs were slightly softer, but had slightly less drip loss.

The comparison shows that as pigs are marketed at heavier weights, muscle quality in the ham is not significantly impacted. In fact, the ham muscles from heavier pigs may actually have greater ability to hold brines.

As the pork industry has moved to heavier weight hogs, composition of the ham has been impacted, but the total value of the ham has increased. And, the quality of the muscles from the ham have not decreased and may have improved slightly.