The improving prospects are a result of both reductions in U.S. pork supplies and improving demand. The large losses have resulted in the U.S. breeding herd dropping an additional 3 percent in 2009, following a similar decline in 2008. Over the past two years, the U.S. breeding herd has dropped by 6 percent.
In the 1990s and early in the 2000s, hog production tended to grow in areas away from the traditional corn/hog belt. There is some indication that the pork industry is consolidating back to the Midwest. North Carolina has led the decline in the breeding herd over the past two years with a 90,000-head or 9 percent decrease. Texas had a 45,000-head reduction, representing 43 percent of their breeding herd. Other reductions on the geographic fringes include Utah with a 25,000-head or 25 percent reduction, and Arkansas with a 20,000-head or 24 percent reduction. California, a relatively small production state, experienced a 65 percent reduction in the size of the breeding herd in the past two years.
Although the breeding herd has been down 6 percent over the past two years, pork production has actually increased due to a 4 percent increase in the number of pigs per litter and to heavier market weights. This has been a dilemma as reductions in the breeding herd were more than matched by productivity increases.
"Domestic consumers will notice much tighter pork supplies in 2010," Hurt said. "Pork production in 2010 is expected to be down 2 to 3 percent, but domestic availability on a per capita basis will drop by nearly 6 percent. In addition to less U.S. production, pork exports are expected to rise 10 percent, and the U.S. population is anticipated to grow nearly 1 percent."
USDA's forecast is for pork exports to rise to 4.6 billion pounds, which will represent 21 percent of U.S. production. This is up from about 4.2 billion pounds in 2009, representing just 18 percent of production.
According to Hurt, if these added exports do develop, they will represent an additional 3 to 4 percent of U.S. production that moves to foreign consumers and therefore will not be available to domestic consumers.
"A decline of 6 percent in per capita availability is a relatively large supply reduction, but improved demand will also be a critical factor in the drive to higher pork prices in 2010. Export demand increases are one component, but domestic demand will improve as well, bolstered by the recovering U.S. economy and by the demise of the H1N1 influenza virus as a daily front-page news story," Hurt said.
So how high can prices go, and what about costs of production? First-quarter live prices are expected to average in the higher $40s per hundredweight. The highest prices of the year will likely occur in the second quarter and average in the low $50s. The third quarter is expected to have average prices near $50 and the final quarter in the middle to higher $40s. For the year, live hog prices are expected to average near $50, or about $67 on a carcass basis.
"Unfortunately, total costs of production are also expected to be near $50 to $51 for the year based on corn and meal prices on Jan. 4, 2010," Hurt said. "The good news is that costs of production include all costs, including full labor return and full depreciation of buildings and equipment. The bottom line is that hog producers are not expected to go backwards financially in 2010."
According to Hurt, there is some hope that pork prices could be even higher than expected.
"The lean hog futures market is somewhat more optimistic than these forecasts. In addition, when hog prices do turn higher after a slump, they historically have greatly exceeded expectations. But vulnerabilities exist as well in the form of uncertainties over the level of feed costs, over the strength of the economic recovery, and over trade disputes that could still stifle the anticipated pork export growth."
"Margin hedging using lean hog, corn, and soybean meal futures should be considered by those who cannot accept the potential consequences of these vulnerabilities," Hurt said.