DES MOINES, Iowa — U.S. hog producers set another record in productivity as they managed to save an average of 10.31 pigs per litter for the second quarter. That number surpasses the former pigs saved per litter of 10.15.

“Hog producers are just getting better at what they do in managing and caring for those sows and young pigs,” said Ron Plain, Extension economist at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

He was one of three industry experts who commented during a media call sponsored by the National Pork Board following the release of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Hogs and Pigs Report on June 28.

“We’ve been on a streak with that number being up,” he said. “USDA also gives us a monthly breakout, so if you look at the pigs per litter by month, March was up 2 percent, April up 2 percent and May up 2.6 percent, so based on that, there’s no end in sight for continuing improvement in saving more pigs for each sow that we farrow.”

The numbers, as read by Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics, came in mixed relative to analysts’ pre-report expectations.

All hogs and pigs were at 66.647 million head on June 1, nearly even with year-ago numbers and smaller than pre-report estimates, which had that number up six-tenths of a percent.

The breeding herd was at 5.882 million head, up three-tenths of a percent from a year ago and slightly larger than pre-report estimates, which predicted that number would be 99.9 percent of the 2012 number.

The market herd was at 60.765 million head, down one tenth of a percent from a year ago. Analysts predicted that number would be up seven tenths of a percent.

The March-May sows farrowed was at 2.921 million head, down 2 percent from a year ago. The June-August farrowing intentions were at 2.925 million head, down one tenth from a year ago, and September-November intentions was at 2.917 million head, up 1 percent from a year ago.

One big question hovering over the U.S. pork industry was answered earlier in the day, when a USDA acreage report stunned many with a report of 97.4 million planted acres of corn and a not-so-surprising 77.7 million acres of soybeans planted, both despite continued wet and rainy conditions in the major Corn Belt states.

“There was another report today, mainly focusing on the corn acres. Average trade estimates were expecting 1.5 million to 2 million less acres than the March planting intentions. We actually got 100,000 more acres, so that price response in the marketplace. If we were to have a normal, kind of average-yielding crop this year, we’re going to have plenty of corn left over. We could be very overpriced in corn right now,” said Daniel Bluntzer, director of research at Frontier Risk Management, based in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Joe Kerns of Kerns and Associates of Ames, Iowa, agreed, but cautioned that pork producers — and livestock producers in general — will have some uncertainty to deal with over the next few months.

“We don’t seem to be in a tight situation now, and one of the other pieces that came out of that earlier report was just how tight the current stocks are. You’ve got a phenomenon where old crop is moving higher, new crop is moving significantly lower and the livestock production sector is going to have to navigate through some very, very difficult waters,” said Kerns, who also pointed out an unwelcome bit of history.

“We’re approaching a total pig crop that’s near where we were when we hit some trouble spots back in 2008 and 2009.”

However, Kerns overall was optimistic on the report numbers.

“In general, I’m very optimistic for the foreseeable future for producer productivity, and based on the numbers we have out today, I don’t think there’s an uh-oh moment that we’ve discovered in these data,” he said.

Plain added his own optimism, as well, for the industry.

“Hog producers are back in the black right now, have been the last several days and, hopefully, there will be a lot more profits ahead of us and that’s going to lead to more sows farrowing,” he said.

But Plain cautioned that expansion will be measured.

“The big thing that the hog industry and all the livestock industry, I think, is counting on is some relief in feed costs. More corn and more bean meal and lower feed costs will certainly help out the bottom line for producers. How much and whether we’re going to grow faster than the farrowing intentions report will depend a lot on how far above 14 billion bushels this fall harvest is and how much of a drop in corn prices we get, but certainly there’s some potential that we’re going to be up even more in the winter quarter if we can sustain some profitability,” he said.

Kern said he expects any expansion to be slower than in past periods of profitability.

“I do think you’re going to see some very judicious and calculated expansion by the pork industry based on packing capacity. Some of the negative experiences we’ve had in the past are not so far away that we’ve forgotten nor have the lenders forgotten. I do think you’re going to be a little slower than what you might expect of a knee-jerk reaction to the lower corn prices. Hopefully, we’ll be able to sustain profitability a little longer until such time as we’d have sufficient plant capacity to justify some further sow expansion,” he said.

The other question for the U.S. pork industry is an outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus. PEDV, which is similar in symptoms to transmissible gastro enteritis, was confirmed on a farm in Ohio the week of April 15.

Since then, the virus has spread to almost 200 farm sites over 13 states. Authorities haven’t been able to identify how the virus entered the U.S. herd.

“What we know about this thing, we’ve got about 200 confirmed premises as of June 10 and apparently there’s some information this week of another 40 or 50 confirmed premises. If you do the math on it, even if those are pretty large sow farms and pretty productive sow farms, so far, the losses have not been huge,” Meyer said.

As industry officials and swine veterinarians urge stepped-up biosecurity measures at farm sites to try to control the spread of the virus, Meyer said how far the virus will spread is a big question mark.

“Obviously, the key on this is — is it going to spread? How tough is it going to be to control? We have seen this disease in other countries, so we know how it behaves with immunities and such,” he said.

“I don’t know if we’re going to have a lot of impact, and we’ll pick that up as we go through September and get the September survey. At this point, I don’t think there’s much out there, and it probably wouldn’t have been picked up in this June 1 inventory anyway.”

Meyer noted that the pig crop being affected by PEDV will go to market in early 2014, so any final impact on numbers would be seen then. Kerns agreed.

“If we do seem to have somewhat of a hole from PEDV, that’s going to be in that January timeframe,” he said.

Kerns said producers could add pounds to make up for the lower numbers.

“We’ll respond by adding weight,” he predicted. “We might market the same amount of pounds — they’ll just have fewer legs.”