Apoor-quality 2009 U. S. corn crop is putting hogs in the Midwest off their feed, slowing growth and contributing to higher pork prices for consumers.
Average hog weights are down only slightly from a year ago. But producers and analysts say hogs are taking a longer time to reach market weight due to low-quality feed.
“The pigs are growing slower. We’ve added easily two weeks to our growing time, which is adding cost,” said Alan Wilhoite, a hog farmer in Lebanon, Indiana.
Hog farmers, on the front lines of the $16 billion U. S. hog industry, have struggled with low prices for two years. Higher feed costs due to problems with the corn crop could cause a reduction in the amount of pork on the market, due to both a drop in profitability and the slower hog growth rates.
“We will see likely pullbacks in the industry, as we’ve seen over the past year to two years, which means higher prices down the road because of less supply of hogs,” said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist with Iowa State University.
Rich Nelson, livestock analyst with commodity research firm Allendale Inc., estimated that problems with the corn crop have driven up cash hog prices by $2 to $3 per hundredweight.
Quality issues have plagued the corn crop, which was the largest in U. S. history at 13.2 billion bushels. Farmers had a lot of trouble bringing in the crop last fall as rains throughout the corn belt resulted in the slowest harvest pace in at least 30 years.
While farmers typically finish harvesting by late November, about five per cent of the 2009 crop was still in the fields as of Dec. 20, the U. S. Department of Agriculture said.
The wet conditions spread mould in many areas, and test weights – the weight of one bushel of corn – have been low, causing some hog producers to complain about reduced nutritional value.
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Much of the corn crop came off the fields with unusually high moisture content, making it difficult to store. Now, with springtime approaching, farmers are concerned about increased spoilage in their grain bins as temperatures warm up.
“I’m really worried that when we get into hot weather, that our issues may get worse,” Wilhoite said. “Even with good corn, there are always storage issues.”
Wilhoite said his hogs began rejecting their feed last fall due to vomitoxin, a mycotoxin that emerged in corn harvested in Indiana and Ohio.
Vomitoxin also turned up in the region’s dried distillers grain (DDG), a byproduct from ethanol plants that is sold as a feed ingredient. The distilling process concentrates the vomitoxin in DDGs to roughly triple the level in raw corn.
“The first of November, we had hogs that were completely off of feed because of vomitoxin,” said Wilhoite, who has raised hogs commercially for 30 years.
“The DDGs were a bigger problem to us than our corn,” he said. “We did work through that, and we’re able to feed our own corn right now. (But) it’s real erratic – one day the sows don’t care to eat, and the next day they eat it all up. We are experimenting with other additives,” he said.