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Scaling Up: Raising hogs has gotten less expensive, especially for big farms

A group of young hogs are gathered on a hog farm.
Alex Boerner
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Lillington, North Carolina - Friday June 2, 2017 - Young hogs are gathered in pens at Butler Farms in Lillington, NC. The hogs live on slatted flooring which their waste is washed through and gathered before being pumped into covered lagoons.

Technological innovation, specialization, increased farm size and policy decisions have driven down the cost of production.

This is the fourth in a five-part series titled “Scaling Up.” Each week, we’re releasing a new graphic explaining one way the pork industry has changed in recent years. 

As the average farm size has grown, the cost of raising hogs has decreased.

Technological advances in hog genetics, feed, veterinary care and housing have made growing hogs more efficient, according to a recent study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Research Service.

But public policy is an important part of the equation, said Ben Lilliston, director of climate and rural strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

The farm bills passed in the 1990s contained provisions aimed at making feed cheaper for producers, Lilliston said.

“This kind of below-cost feed really made these kinds of operations more economically viable,” Lilliston said. “This was a choice that was made in our farm policy to really produce a lot of feed.”

Also, concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which house hundreds or thousands of hogs under one roof, are associated with lower overhead costs.

And the number of hours of labor needed to produce a hundredweight gain — 100 pounds hog growth — also has sharply decreased, the study found.

Specialization across the industry also is a factor in the lowered cost of production, said economist Carolyn Dimitri, associate professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and one of the authors of the USDA report. Farms specializing in one or two stages of production don’t require as much equipment, knowledge or labor as farms that raise hogs from birth to slaughter.