During past agricultural eras in the United States, many farmers often said, “Pigs are the mortgage-lifters.” Perhaps many, but not all, pork producers would still say that today.
The industry has changed a great deal in an era of intense competition to supply the best pork cuts that consumers want and in the least expensive ways possible. Raising swine is the major economic enterprise of only some 60,000 farming operations in the U.S. The majority of these pork producers raise or finish thousands of pigs yearly.
Many other farmers produce pigs, usually fewer, and for conventional markets, specialty markets or for personal needs. Raising pigs is easier than raising most other livestock; they are one of the most adaptable and intelligent animals.
During bygone centuries some farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere turned sows and their piglets loose in the late spring to forage for themselves, often in forests until autumn, when their owners rounded them up by baiting them into enclosures. These farmers capitalized on pigs’ ability to adapt to their environments and fend for themselves.
Adaptation to a variety of environments is a characteristic that enables pigs to survive in confined farm pens as well as “in the wild.” It takes only one or two generations for tame swine to develop characteristics embedded in their inherited DNA to adjust to living on their own.
The hair of formerly domesticated pigs lengthens, they develop tusks and become wary, although these features are not as pronounced as those of Eurasian wild pigs that don’t have any modern swine genetic material. Nonetheless, it helps explain why feral pigs have become a problem in at least 16 states.
Some 5 million feral pigs thrive in these states. Perhaps they may survive beyond humankind, along with cockroaches, rats, algae and a host of other adaptable species, if our planet faces another cataclysmic devastation such as a major volcanic eruption, an encounter with a large asteroid or other more insidious environmental changes.
The hogs that are raised today for the grocery and meat markets are quite unlike Eurasian wild pigs, although both Eurasian boars and sows are lean and taste great. Today’s farm-raised pigs are long-bodied animals with wide backs and hindquarters that furnish thick lean loins and rib cuts, large hams and lengthy bellies for bacon.
They grow quickly and efficiently to reach market weight in about five months. Their mothers give birth to about a dozen offspring in each litter. The pigs are inquisitive, social and are often crossbred to express hybrid vigor.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, pork production in the U.S. in 2016 was estimated to yield about 12 percent of the gross farm income from all livestock sales. Iowa produces the most pigs, followed by North Carolina and Minnesota. All states produce some pigs.
Americans like pork; they made it the third-most consumed meat, after chicken and beef, in 2016. Turkey ranked a distant fourth. Is pork’s popularity because the pork industry has cast it as “the other white meat,” or due to other factors?
Pork’s current popularity is partly because bacon has become a much-sought meat and taste. Consumers like to combine bacon with vegetable and meat dishes; they can even find bacon ice cream. (I tried it; it tasted good but the lard around the meaty parts of the bacon was congealed and made the experience less than positive. Sorry, bacon-and-ice-cream lovers – it’s just one opinion from a single sample.)
Like most people, I savor bacon and many cuts of pork such as ham, ribs, roasts, souse and other pork sausages. I even enjoy properly prepared mountain oysters, which are tastier when from pigs than from cattle or sheep.
The pork industry overall, as well as some grain, dairy and livestock producers, are adjusting as farmers are taking a hit during the current agricultural recession. The overall income of about 80 percent of U.S. farms depends on off-farm income to supplement their net farm income. Can this continue?
Complicating the pork industry is that four meat processors slaughtered 57 percent of the hogs raised conventionally in the U.S. last year: IBP, which recently secured first place ahead of Smithfield, followed by Swift (ConAgra) and Excel (Cargill), which hold third and fourth places, respectively. Is the pork industry too consolidated?
On the other hand, despite their fewer numbers these days, independent producers still raise more than 50 percent of all pigs. The remainder are raised on a contractual basis.
Pork raised organically is flourishing. So are pasture-raised pigs that are finished on acorns and sunflower seeds, which furnish prosciutto and other cuts after curing for 1-3 years; they bring much higher prices than conventional pork. The pork industry will likely continue to thrive, because pigs and their producers are adaptable and pork meat is highly desired.
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Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer in western Iowa. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org