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Scaling Up: Pork producers are becoming more specialized

Piglets feed from their mother on a hog farm.
Investigate Midwest
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Piglets feed from a swine on a hog farm.

Farms are more likely to specialize in one or two stages of a hog’s life cycle, instead of raising animals from birth to slaughter.

This is the second 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 years. 

The days of breeding, weaning and raising hogs on the same farm for the animal’s entire lifetime are waning.

So-called farrow-to-finish operations have become a smaller and smaller share of the hog industry as more specialized operations have taken over, according to a recent study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now, most hog operations focus on only one or two stages of a hog’s life cycle. Farrowers handle the breeding, birthing and weaning of hogs. The weanlings either stay on the farrowing farm until they are “feeder pig” size — 30 to 80 pounds — or move to another farm that handles the weanling-to-feeder stage of life.

Feeder pig-to-finish farms, often called “finishers,” take the feeder pigs and grow them until they reach slaughter weight, 225 to 300 pounds.

Finished, fully-grown hogs require several times the space needed for piglets. That’s why feeder-to-finish operations vastly outnumber other kinds of farms that focus on earlier stages of the production cycle.

Specialized operations are more efficient than farrow-to-finish, said economist Carolyn Dimitri, associate professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and one of the authors of the USDA report. Farmers running feeder-to-finish operations don’t need to have the equipment or knowledge to breed and birth hogs, or spend time separating weanlings from their mothers.

“If you can specialize…it’s easier to manage your operation,” Dimitri said. “You don't have to have varying levels of knowledge. You just have one feed for that animal and then you just pass it on to the next farm.”

That leads to a lower cost of production per head of hog, Dimitri added.

Next week: we’ll show how the number of hogs produced under contract has increased.