Hog farmers face challenges
Hogs eat like pigs.
With today’s record high corn and soybean prices, many hog farmers can’t afford to feed their stock.
For Johnstown farmer Ron Weberpal and many producers around Wisconsin, it’s time to cut back.
Weberpal plans to sell two-thirds of his hogs. He’s been finishing 1,200 on each of three local farms and has been marketing 7,500 hogs annually.
Cutting back wasn’t an easy decision.
“I can guarantee myself a loss or salvage something,” Weberpal said. “The decision is clear. It’s not what I want to do. But when the writing’s on the wall, you have to read it.”
The number of hogs on Wisconsin farms has been in decline for years, and Tammy Vaassen, director of operations for the Wisconsin Pork Association, is looking ahead cautiously.
Vaassen said 2006 ended on a stable note when the number of hogs on Wisconsin farms squeaked up to 450,000 head from 430,000 head in 2005. That’s according to the most recent data available through the National Agriculture Statistics Service.
“That’s the first time the number’s gone up in several years,” Vaassen said. “We are very cautious in 2008.”
Weberpal’s going to wait and see.
“There will be another day,” he said. “If I don’t do what I’m going to, I won’t be around to see it.”
In the red
To turn a profit in today’s market, hogs have to sell at 60 cents a pound, said Clinton-area veterinarian and swine specialist Art Mueller.
They’re selling at 40 cents, he said.
“Things are not prosperous at all,” Weberpal said. “I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining here, but it’s really difficult that everything else is really profitable and hogs are dragging.”
Record corn and soybean prices are part of the reason it costs more to feed a hog than the meat is worth.
When feed prices get daunting, beef or dairy producers can supplement with lower cost feeds such as hay or distillers grain. In the summer, cattle can eat grass, which is cheaper yet.
But a hog needs lots of energy to reach market weight. That means a steady diet of starch and protein in the form of corn and soybeans.
Feeding the competition
When grain was cheaper, it made sense for a farmer to grow his own feed. Cheap feed adds value to a market hog.
Today, farmers are better off selling the expensive feed somewhere else.
“It’s getting to the point where you ask how much you want to continue to lose,” said UW Extension livestock agent Randy Thompson.
Wisconsin has a lot of ethanol plants that divert a lot of corn from the feed bunk into the gas tank, Mueller said.
“That competes directly with livestock industry, including poultry, pork and cattle feed,” he said.
Ethanol producers get about $1.51 in subsidies for every bushel of corn they buy, Mueller said. Livestock farmers “are absolutely not” getting the same break, he said.
Landmark Services was selling corn for $4.64 Friday afternoon.
“(Ethanol producers) present a competition as far as inputs,” Mueller said.
Another source of competition is record grain exports, Mueller said. The weak dollar makes it tempting to sell corn and beans overseas, he said.
Mueller, of Clinton, is a swine specialist at the Clinton-Darien Veterinarian Service. He is a part owner of Heritage Swine Farm, a 2,000-sow farrow-to-finish operation in Delavan. Heritage finishes about half the hogs born each year and sells the rest to finishing operations.
Even though grain for human food is a different product than grain for animals, eventually the competition is going to affect prices at the grocery store, Mueller said.
“If grain exports stay up and ethanol keeps climbing, there will be less meat made,” Mueller said. “Prices will go up. The market is pretty inelastic. A little change in supply will make a large change in price.”
Rock County was once dotted with hog farms, but few commercial farms remain, Mueller said.
The high price of grain is putting the squeeze on pig farmers today. But Mueller said three other factors have contributed to the steady decline of hogs in Wisconsin and Rock County:
-- The influence of bigger cities such as Rockford, Ill., Milwaukee and Madison.
“Rock County is ‘ruralpolitan,’” Mueller said.
Not only are subdivisions popping up in places that used to be pig farms, new neighbors don’t always like living near the farms.
“Hogs have an odor,” Mueller said. “They do what they do.”
-- Two economic downturns—one between 1998 and 2001 and the other on now—forced many farmers out.
-- There is no hog processing facility in the state, which means live pigs are shipped out of state for slaughter and processing.
That boosts production costs and encourages producers to locate elsewhere.
“We’re a greener state, politically, so the hogs drift to where there’s less irritation,” Mueller said.
Swine project still growing
Show pigs … not just a pretty face.
Despite the shrinking number of hog farms in Rock County and across Wisconsin, more and more kids want to show pigs at the Rock County 4-H Fair, said UW Extension livestock agent Randy Thompson.
“The swine project has, over the last five or six years, continued to increase at a slow rate,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of interest there, a lot of interest in all of those animal projects.”
Really, the pork production industry and the show pig industry are hardly related, said Clinton-area veterinarian and swine specialist Art Mueller.
“Show pigs are bred for looks and not for performance,” Mueller said.
The two industries rarely share genetics, he said.
Fifty years ago, 4-H’ers showing pigs lived on a pig farm. Today, many 4-H’ers live on hobby farms or show a friend’s pigs.
But those kids are food consumers, and learning about livestock production is a good thing to know when you’re shopping, Thompson said.
In addition, kids are learning confidence, responsibility and leadership skills, he said.
And they learn about pigs.
“No matter what kind of operation, they do learn how to take a 50-pound pig to market weight.”
-- Sow: A mother pig.
-- Farrowing: The pig farming term for “birth.” On a farrowing farm, producers raise sows, supervise the delivery and take care of the nursing or “weaner” pigs.
-- Finishing: Finishing farms buy “feeder” pigs from farrowing operations. Feeder pigs have gotten a good start and weigh about 50 pounds.
Four months and one week later, the pigs are “finished,” or ready for market, said Johnstown hog producer Ron Weberpal. Market weight is between 230 and 300 pounds, depending on the buyer, Weberpal said.
-- Farrow to finish: A hog operation that does it all, from breeding sows to raising piglets into market hogs.
-- Inputs: The products that go into finishing a hog—or any other farm product. Inputs include feed, medication, labor and equipment.
-- Distillers grain: A byproduct of ethanol production. The starch is removed, leaving the protein, fiber and vitamins in a yellow powder.