Hog weights getting heavier on average
By KAREN SCHWALLER
Finished hog weights have been creeping up slowly over the last 30 years, changing the way they look in finishing facilities and the way the pork product looks on the plate.
Average finish weights range between 280 and 290 pounds, up 40 to 50 pounds from two decades ago.
Greg Lear, of Spencer, past president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said even though overall weights are up, U.S pork producers have seen a downward trend in weights in the last few months due largely to the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus.
“We’re at 27 weeks in a row (as of the first week of October) of weights being below the year prior,” he said, “so actually the weights this year are less than they were last year.
“We lost something like 12 million pigs with PEDv last year, so it really isn’t fair to compare hog weights this year to last year’s pigs – you’d have to go to the year before.
“But if you’ve got a barn and try to recoup some of the losses (from PEDv and other diseases and causes) you just make the next pigs bigger.”
Lear said the market has been one that has encouraged larger pigs.
He said if producers have been paying 34 or 35 cents per pound to grow a pig, and are being paid 65 or 70 cents per pound for the finished pig, they’re going to consider the profit margins and keep the pigs on feed until they reach a larger weight.
He added that for packers, it takes as much time and man hours to break a 210-pound carcass as it does to break a 260-pound carcass.
“Almost all these packer windows are between 240 and 290 pounds – that would be their ‘sweet spot’ in order to get the maximum premiums,” he said.
Dave Stender, an Iowa State University Extension swine field specialist, said the size of finished pigs has been steadily increasing, as much as 1.3 pounds every year for the last 30 years.
He attributes it in part to packers paying for larger carcasses.
“If you run more pounds through the same facility, the cost per pound goes down,” he said. “It drives up the size.”
Stender said finished pigs look different today at 290 pounds.
“They used to look really, really fat at 250 pounds,” he said. “But modern genetics keep on going.
“As long as producers are getting a decent feed conversion (and an extra pound of feed costs less than the price of the meat-meat pays for the feed).
“If there’s a margin there, they’re going to go for it. If they’re still making money on those last pounds they’re going to go ahead and put them on.”
He said pigs are no longer considered fat at 250 pounds because producers are growing more lean pigs, and increased genetics have given pigs a stronger frame to be able to carry the added weight.
Stender attributes larger finished hog sizes to technology and genetics, with the availability of additives such as Palene, which puts extra pounds on pigs.
Space limitations can dictate the use of Palene because producers need a better growth rate in order to keep the pig rotations on schedule on their facilities.
“We (seek better growth rates) every year,” Stender said. “If we get that, we get better feed conversion, more pounds to the packer and it makes our product more competitive in the global market.”
Stender said 21 percent of U.S. pork is exported.
Lear said even though pigs have gotten larger in overall size, larger cuts of meat are not always desired by those purchasing U.S. pork.
“Pork is the protein of choice worldwide,” Lear said. “Forty-one percent of the protein consumed by the world is pork.
“But Japan gives us heck for the size of the loin that come from these pigs.
He noted a trade mission to Asia in which he participated.
“The food service industry asks for smaller cuts, too.”
He said that happens because restaurant owners may want to serve an eight-ounce portion, but with the cuts getting larger, they have to slice it thinner, so it doesn’t appear to be as nice of a cut of meat.
Stender said the big question going into 2016 is pig diseases.
“We lost over 8 million pigs in 2013 and last year we lost almost none,” Stender said. “It all hit the finishing units and not the farrowing units.
“Sows had immunity and we had vaccines and we had feedback procedures. They did a nice job of biosecurity last year, and the question this year will be, ‘Will it hold?’
“The farther out we get from the initial outbreak, the less immunity we carry, so we probably won’t lose 8 million pigs, but it probably won’t be as good as last year because some of those sows have been moved out now and new gilts have replaced them.
“No one knows what will be normal.”
Lear said feed costs will play a role in what’s ahead for finished hog weights, saying if corn gets to $7 again, it would most likely drive finished hog weights back down, especially if markets are down as well.”
But he said the days of a 240-pound finished pig are gone.
“These pigs have become more efficient as we’ve gone along,” Lear said. “It used to be that a 230- or 240-pound pig was the most efficient pig you could feed.
“Pigs today are later and later maturing (because of genetics), they continue to convert very well to these heavier weights. Now they just don’t mature until they’re close to 290 pounds.”
Lear said he sees finished weights edging higher in coming years, unless feed costs become more expensive or markets would decline because of a disease outbreak or other reasons.
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