N.D. hogs and pigs at lowest level since late 1800s

BISMARCK, N.D. — The number of hogs and pigs in North Dakota is at its lowest level since the days when Theodore Roosevelt was ranching and hunting in the western part of the state, before he set foot in the White House at the turn of the 20th century.

That doesn't necessarily mean the industry is dying in North Dakota, officials say, but it has changed. Gone are the days when farming meant small family operations with crops, a few cows for beef and milk, chickens to lay eggs and hogs to provide ham and bacon.

"Whenever we had a lot more small, diversified farms in North Dakota, we had a lot more hogs in North Dakota. The times of small family farms . everybody owned a pig," said David Newman, the swine specialist for the North Dakota State University Extension Service. "Granted, there weren't a million people in North Dakota back then, either, but there were just a lot more producers who had hogs around."

That isn't the case anymore. The Agriculture Department in its most recent hog and pig report listed North Dakota's inventory at 143,000 animals, down 12,000 over the year and the lowest level since about the time North Dakota was granted statehood.

Charlotte Meier of Regent, head of the North Dakota Pork Council, estimated the number of swine producers in the state at about 275, down about 150 from just four years ago.


"We did lose a number of people raising hogs. They were losing, like, $40 a head, and you can't sustain that very long," she said.

North Dakota has been insulated from some of the economic problems that have plagued much of the rest of the nation, but the agriculture industry is not a part of that. Hog farmers from North Carolina to North Dakota have been struggling as the ethanol industry has pushed up the demand for, and the price of, corn, which pigs and hogs love to eat. Add to that the global worries over H1N1 flu — more commonly known as the swine flu — and the industry has been through some lean times.

"2009 wasn't exactly a good year, nor was 2008," said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. "The demand was still there, the packers needed the hogs, and I think a lot of guys looked and said, 'I'm going to try and weather this storm.' I'm sure they didn't think it would end up lasting two years.

"So everybody stayed in the market, and finally in 2009, particularly after the H1N1 crisis, some guys just couldn't stay in. By that time they had burned through all their equity."

Another reason for the drop in North Dakota's swine inventory is that the industry in the state has evolved from small family farms to larger more industrial farrowing operations, which raise thousands of pigs each year from birth to a size where they are shipped out of state for fattening to slaughter weight. The "finishing" is done in states such as Iowa and Minnesota, where feed is more readily available and cheaper.

"A great deal of pigs that are born in North Dakota end up being counted in the production in other states," Newman said.

The federal data bear that out — the 2009 pig crop in North Dakota was at a 50-year high, and the 2010 crop was down only slightly. Pigs per litter the past two years have been the highest since 1924. But the number of hogs for market at the end of last year was the lowest since 1963.

In theory that could someday change, Newman said. Efforts to launch processing plants in North Dakota surface periodically, the latest example a $90 million beef plant that could process about 1,200 animals each day, proposed by a group of Korean investors and North Dakota cattle ranchers.


"What if a large company decided to build a large (hog) packing plant in the vicinity of Fargo, Bismarck?" Newman asked. "Could you imagine what that would do to production numbers in North Dakota?"

The idea is not out of the question, especially as more research is done on alternative feeds that could replace staples such as the corn and soybeans that also are desired by the fuel industry.

"North Dakota does boast a lot of other cereal grains that could be fed to hogs," Newman said.

Newman and Meier also said North Dakota is a favorable place to raise hogs because of available land and a more temperate climate. They both see a favorable future for the hog industry in the state, especially with continued strong demand for pork, and neither has given up on the next generation of farmers choosing hogs as a part of their career.

Students at NDSU are educated not only about the corporate side of farming, but also about such practices as using hog manure as a natural fertilizer for their crops. At the recent North Dakota Pork Council convention, one of the panel discussions focused on exposing college-age farmers to the swine industry.

"I think we will see pork production increase in the next decade in North Dakota (and) in terms of size and scale, I think there is going to be a place in that same time period for small, diversified farmers to get into the business," Newman said.

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