1 pig at a time

I spent a couple of days this week at one of the SVC Research wean-finish sites helping to individually weigh, ultrasound scan and tattoo pigs as we end a research trial. As I was swinging the tattoo hammer yesterday I realized I have been using this technology for 50 years.

In the spring of 1963 my family moved from the farm to an acreage at the edge of town. At that time my father became a partner in a hog buying station, feed store and livestock trucking company. As an independent buying station my dad and his partner were paid $0.05/100 lb live weight plus trucking from the station to the slaughter plant at Mason City, IA (Jacob E. Decker). It was thought that a good buying station should be able to source 50,000 market pigs per year.

As an experienced farm kid just finishing 8th grade I spent quite a bit of time on Saturday’s and during school breaks helping with the many activities in their ‘office’. This obviously included cleaning pens, sorting off individual pigs, working the scale, etc. It also included swinging a tattoo hammer on occasion, although my dad didn’t always trust that I hit the pigs in the right place and would be more than willing to verbally correct me.

In 1963 very few pigs were bought ‘grade and yield’ by packers. I vividly remember many traditional producers sitting in the ‘office’ arguing that they didn’t trust the packer to be honest with grade and yield payments. They would much rather have their payment made based on the liveweight that they witnessed being taken on the certified scale at the buying station. Ideal market weights were 190-210 pounds and anything approaching 230 or greater was heavily discounted.

Today anything approaching 230 pounds is considered a lightweight pig and is also heavily discounted. However, over 95% of the pigs are valued based on a carcass merit program of some sort. Except for Farmland and Morrell, packers are using measures of back fat and loin depth (backfat only at Hormel) to estimate carcass lean content.

Farmland and Morrell currently pay strictly on carcass weight with no consideration of merit. Most likely this reflects the vast improvements made in recent years in carcass lean content and reduction in backfat. The average pig delivered to these slaughter plants falls within the specifications needed for their product lines and down-stream purchasers of products.

Will they continue to offer a buying grid based on weight only? I suspect if they detect a change in the pig being delivered that drifts from their purchase needs some type of merit system will return.

Today’s buyer of pigs spends a good share of their time at a computer screen, juggling load delivery times, etc with a majority of the pigs destined for any plant locked up in long term market agreements.

Quite a change from the days when my father was competing with the Hormel buyer across the tracks for the pigs in the region. Some days he would be told by the plant to pay what it takes to keep Hormel from accessing any hogs in the local market. On other days when that was occurring at other locations he was effectively out of the market and had to watch all the local pigs going to the Hormel station.

Yes, how we sell slaughter pigs and how we’re paid for them has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. The tattoo hammer on the pig shoulder however is still done the same way – 1 pig at a time.

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