Hog backlog on U.S. farms could hit 2 million head

As many as 2 million hogs are backed up on U.S. farms because of coronavirus slowdowns and shutdowns at meatpacking plants, said three economists on Thursday, with the backlog likely to persist into the fall. The oversupply will weigh on market prices unless there is a strong recovery as the economy reopens, they said.

Hog farmers have pointed to the backup as evidence of their need for additional government assistance. They say huge losses are possible if they are forced to cull hogs because there is no room for them at pork plants.

Economist David Miller of Decision Innovation Solutions estimated a backlog of 1.2 million hogs. He also calculated that 2.1 million head had disappeared since March 1, either through direct sales and custom butchering or because of euthanasia by farmers. During a teleconference sponsored by the National Pork Board, Miller said that “as long as we’re backing up hogs,” market prices this fall could be 20 to 25 percent lower than a year ago.

Associate professor Lee Schulz of Iowa State University said the backlog could exceed 2.2 million head — “a week’s worth of slaughter backed up in the system.” Scott Brown, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, said his estimate of the backlog was “not all that far from what David has talked about.”

Brown, Schulz, and Miller spoke about the backlog while discussing a USDA report that estimated a national hog herd of 79.6 million head on June 1, the largest June 1 inventory in 56 years of recordkeeping. The June figure was up 3 percent from the March 1 inventory, which was the highest March 1 total on record.

“A lot of hogs we have to deal with,” said Brown, and “not a lot of help on prices.” Market prices could average $4 to $6 per 100 pounds lower in the fall and winter than estimated by the USDA, he said.

Schulz said the backlog could be whittled down if packing plants are able to run at high capacity this summer. Slaughter rates slowed in April and May because of coronavirus outbreaks at meat plants.

“We know we have large numbers of hogs coming,” said Schulz, referring to the record number of market hogs, 73.3 million head, on farms as of June 1.

Iowa is the No. 1 hog state, with 25.2 million head, followed by Minnesota, with 9.6 million head, and North Carolina, with 9.4 million head.