Chris Hurt
Chris Hurt
DES MOINES, Iowa — The numbers told the story about the state of the U.S. hog herd and its recovery — or not — from a deadly virus that has decimated the baby pig population.

“I think all that indicates no expansion,” said Chris Hurt, livestock economist from Purdue University.

Hurt gave commentary on the U.S. Department of Agriculture second-quarter hogs and pigs report during a Pork Checkoff-sponsored media call.

“All that” was the numbers from all sections of the second-quarter report, that reports the U.S. pig population as of June 1.

All hogs and pigs were at 62.489 million, down 4.1 percent from a year ago and even lower than the pre-report estimate that had that number down 3 percent.

The breeding herd was at 5.851 million head, 0.6 percent lower than a year ago. Pre-report analysts expected it to be up 1.6 percent.

The market herd was at 56.638 million head, down 2.7 million hogs or 4.5 percent from a year ago. The trade expected that number to be down 3.4 percent, said Steve Meyer of Paragon Economics, who read the report numbers.

The under-50 pound category was at 17.999 million head, 5.9 percent lower than a year ago, and the trade expected that to be down only 1.9 percent, making a sizeable 4 percentage point difference between actual and expected numbers.

The 50-119 pound category was at 16.071 million head, down 5.9 percent from a year ago, and the trade expected that number to be down only 3.7 percent.

The 120-179 pound category was at 11.931 million head, down 3.9 percent from a year ago and close to the trade’s estimate of down 4.7 percent.

The 180-pound and over category was at 10.271 million head, down 3.8 percent from a year ago and, again, close to trade expectations of down 3.6 percent.

Farrowing

The farrowing numbers created a major question mark for the analysts.

The March-May pig crop, which Meyer noted was “being watched very carefully by market observers,” was at 27.361 million head, down 5.4 percent from a year ago, and the trade expected that number to be down only 2.3 percent.

Meyer called the difference between actual and expected “significant.”

The March-May pigs saved per litter, one indicator of how porcine epidemic diarrhea virus has ravaged the baby pig population, was at 9.78 pigs, down 5.1 percent from a year ago, and the trade expected it to be down 4.8 percent.

The June-August farrowing intentions were at 2.893 million litters, up 0.1 percent from a year ago, the trade expected that number to be up 2.1 percent.

“I thought we would really begin to see some of the expansion showing up in the number of breeding herd animals, and what this report says is that is not the case. We do not have an expansion of the breeding herd yet. I think the other surprise is the March-May farrowings, where we’d expected the intentions to be up a couple percent, and so we see those actual farrowing numbers were down fractionally,” Hurt said.

He said the numbers also showed that hopes that PEDV would abate as warmer weather arrived may be in vain.

“My anticipation is that as we got into some warmer weather, we would see the death loss from PEDV moderate somewhat. Maybe there is some moderation, but I don’t think it is as much as I thought,” he said.

Hurt noted that in tracking the monthly pigs saved per litter from the fall of 2013, the death losses increased over the winter and have not dropped off much in the spring and early summer.

“What that shows is we started to pick up about 2 percent death loss or lower pigs per litter last October. That continued to expand into colder weather. By October, we were up to 6 percent. January, February, March, up around 8 percent. But even around April and May, we were still at about 7 percent in April and 5 percent in May,” he said.

Number Questioned

Kevin Bost, president of procurement strategies in Des Plaines, Ill., questioned the numbers from USDA.

“I have the utmost respect for their comprehensive analysis of these numbers, and yet, for one of the first times in my career, I can say there’s something here that really doesn’t make sense. That is the decline in farrowings from winter to spring. That’s the one number that stands out to me as most questionable,” he said.

Bost agreed with Hurt that a trend toward profitability in the industry, which started last fall, combined with the losses from PEDV and lower feed prices, would indicate a move toward more farrowings, not fewer.

“It’s been good. It’s been quite good for almost a year now. I would say exceptional for quite some time now,” he said, noting the March-May farrowings were down about 2.4 percent from the December-February farrowings.

“Why would that happen when we have extremely good profitability?” Bost said.

“I don’t think we can blame it on PED because that would seem to affect the pigs per litter more, and the pigs per litter in the spring made sense to me. They were up quite a bit from a year ago, down quite a bit from the winter. That all made sense. But why would farrowings, the number of sows farrowed, have declined so much from winter to spring? I don’t understand that, and frankly I don’t believe it,” he said.

Bost said that the opposite should have been the case.

“The profitability is there, and if anything, there might be an incentive to overbreed to compensate for the PED losses,” he said.

Even though the farrowing numbers might be questionable, Victor Aideyan, senior analyst at Hisgraiincommodities.com, based in Ontario, Canada, said the weight category numbers, especially in the higher weight categories, suggest a steady supply of pigs for processors and pork for consumers.

“It implies that supply numbers are going to climb,” he said.