U.S. hog producers are using genetics, modern farm housing, and animal husbandry to maximize pork production without greatly expanding costs for feed and barn construction, industry sources said.
With global demand for food growing quickly and production land limited or even shrinking, pressures are mounting to produce more with the same or less throughout agriculture.
Hog producers are facing high feed costs and opposition to new barns from neighbours worried about bad smells and possible pollution.
These factors have prompted producers to boost the size of litters. If a sow, or mother pig, has a bigger litter, the same amount of feed will ultimately produce more pork, and there is no need to build new barns for extra sows.
U.S. pig litters set a record this spring of 10 pigs per sow and experts forecast that could reach 13 in the next five to 10 years, a 30 per cent increase.
In the past, producers enlarged their herds by adding sows. That has meant increased costs for feed and barn space.
Larger litters are being achieved by mating hogs with high birth rates with those known for the tender, tasty pork that consumers want.
“The litter improvement is coming from crossbreeding a Yorkshire and a Landrace,” Craig Rowles, general managing partner of Elite Pork Partnership, said of the sow genetics.
Elite Pork is an 8,000-sow operation in Carroll, Iowa, in which the baby pigs are weaned and fed to maturity.
The boar, often determines the meat quality. Rowles said the Duroc breed is a common sire.
A sow can have up to 14 pigs per litter, but can only nurse 12. As a result, producers either hand feed the “extra” piglets or place them with other sows that are nursing less than 12.
“What we want to do is minimize the number of sows. Sows are where the work is, sows are where the cost is,” said Ron Plain, agricultural economist at the University of Missouri.
Despite the improvement, the United States lags in pigs per litter. Denmark, a major pork producer with much less land than the United States, is achieving 12 pigs per litter.