© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
IPR20012_Website_Header_Option2_NewsNavy.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Scaling Up: The weighty impact of hog farming’s evolution?

A typical pen format for swine in many Iowa animal feeding operations.
Kent Becker, Contact Dana W. Kolpin/U.S. Geological Survey
/
Investigate Midwest
Since the 1990s, hog farms have gotten bigger, more specialized and more productive, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Research Service.

The number of large hog operations increased while small farms disappeared in recent decades.

This is the first in a five-part series titled “Scaling Up.” Each week, we’ll release a new graphic explaining one way the pork industry has changed in recent decades. This week, we’re focusing on changing farm sizes.

Since the 1990s, hog farms have gotten bigger, more specialized and more productive, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Research Service.

The report illustrates drastic shifts in several aspects of the pork industry over the past three decades, tracking how the industry moved away from small operations where farmers raised hogs from birth to slaughter and toward large operations focusing on only one or two stages of the hog’s life cycle.

“(Hog farms) are large, and because they're large, they are able to take advantage of economies of scale,” said economist Carolyn Dimitri, associate professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and one of the authors of the report. “That seems to be what the industry looks like now.”

The larger the farm, the lower the production cost is per hog. This economic principle has resulted in the industry’s shift towards concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which have proliferated across the Midwest. 

Piglets in a pen on a hog farm in Frankenstein, Mo.
Jeff Roberson
/
AP
Piglets in a pen on a hog farm in Frankenstein, Mo.

In addition to examining farm size and specialization, the report also outlines changes in farm production contracts, input costs and regional differences. (More on those in the coming weeks.)

The report cites technological innovation as a driving cause of change. Ben Lilliston, director of climate and rural strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said corporate consolidation and policy decisions, such as subsidies in the Farm Bills of 1990 and 1996 that lowered the cost of feed, also contributed to the sector’s transformation.

The pork industry’s move towards bigger, more specialized operations also have had negative consequences for air and water quality in CAFO-dense areas.

While nearly half of all small and medium hog operations closed in recent decades, the number of large farms almost doubled.

While nearly half of all small and medium hog operations closed in recent decades, the number of large farms almost doubled.

In 1997, large farms accounted for nearly 40% of the swine produced in the U.S. Twenty years later, these operations produced more than 72% of U.S. hogs, according to the report.
CAFOs are an economically efficient way of growing hogs, as bigger farms have lower production costs per animal, the report found.

CAFOs are subject to more regulations and permit requirements than smaller operations, though information about them is sparse. These extra-large farms can produce more than 1 million gallons of waste per year, often leading to air and water pollution.

The USDA considers a hog farm to be a CAFO if more than 2,500 hogs weighing more than 55 pounds are confined at the facility for at least 45 days out of the year.