Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is an Executive Editor for Meredith Agrimedia, including Living the Country Life and Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and has an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, live on a farm in Iowa where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans.

October 7, 2013

Pork Powerhouses 2013

Every fall I write an exclusive report on the swine industry for Successful Farming magazine called Pork Powerhouses. This is the 19th year I have collected data on the largest 25 pork producers in the U.S. There is always a new issue confronting these producers, and this year it is a deadly disease. I have dropped in the table below, but you can download it here:

Pork Powerhouses 2013

Disease Hits as Growth Continues

By Betsy Freese, Executive Editor, Successful Farming


The biggest issue for the nation’s largest pork producers at this moment isn’t an international merger, but an international virus.

In May, a deadly viral disease never before seen in the U.S. broke in farrowing barns in Colorado, causing up to 100% mortality in newborn pigs. “I went in the barns and saw healthy pigs being born and 24 hours they were dead,” says Terry Holton, president and CEO of Seaboard Foods. “We hadn’t seen anything like it.”

The disease was identified as porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), caused by a virus earlier reported in Europe and Asia. By summer, it had spread across the Midwest and into North Carolina.

The disease hit the Oklahoma operations of Prestage Farms in June. “For four weeks we lost 100% of baby pigs,” says Zack McCullen, vice president of swine production. “I’m scared to death of that virus. I’m worried about what happens when it cools off and winter comes.”

In August, Garland Farm Supply was hit hard by PED on the company’s sow farm near Plains, Kansas. “We are out in the middle of nowhere, but that didn’t matter,” says owner Alfred Smith. “We lost four weeks worth of pigs. It’s similar to TGE [transmissible gastroenteritis], but worse.”

No exact numbers exist for how many pigs have died from PED, but the National Pork Board says there are positive tests for the virus in 17 states, with most of the confirmed cases in Iowa and Oklahoma. There is no cure or vaccine yet. The disease is the top-of-mind topic for the nation’s largest producers this fall.

Sow numbers up; China is in

The annual Pork Powerhouses ranking by Successful Farming magazine, now in its 19th year, shows a growth of 132,600 sows by the largest 25 U.S. hog operations in 2013. This is more than twice the growth as 2012, when producers added 62,000 sows. More telling, 17 operations added sows this year, versus nine in 2012.

The total number of sows owned or managed by the nation’s largest 25 producers, seven of whom are also pork packers, stands today at 3.18 million. That’s about 55% of the total U.S. breeding inventory reported by the USDA in September.

Smithfield Foods, at the top of the Pork Powerhouses list with 868,000 sows, dropped a bombshell on May 29 when it announced plans to sell to Chinese-based Shuanghui International Holdings Limited. Smithfield shareholders would receive $34 in cash per share of common stock owned. On September 24, the shareholders approved the $4.7 billion acquisition by Shuanghui, making the transaction the biggest purchase of a U.S. company ever by a Chinese firm.

“We are marrying up with the largest pork customer on the face of the earth,” says Joe Szaloky, vice president of procurement and business development for Smithfield. “This should be really good for U.S. pork.”

Smithfield will continue to operate under its existing brand names as a wholly owned subsidiary of Shuanghui International.

The deal does not mean Chinese pork will enter U.S. markets. “They [Shuanghui] came looking at us as a source of meat for China,” says Szaloky. “There is no opposite flow. They are not experienced with raising pigs.”

Szaloky says for the next few months at least, the new ownership won’t affect Smithfield sow numbers. “We are not interested in adding more sows; we’ve got plenty of sows. Our focus in on being more productive, stable, and reliable.”

One change Smithfield has made is to quit feeding Paylean (ractopamine) on its Eastern farms. The company’s packing plants in Clinton and Tar Heel, North Carolina, are completely Paylean free. The feed additive makes pigs grow lean meat faster, but is banned in China. The export market demanded the change, says Szaloky.

There are no immediate plans to eliminate Paylean on Smithfield farms outside of the East Coast, he says. “It does have an advantage to growing pigs.”

The move from crates

Converting from crates to group housing of pregnant sows is another of Smithfield’s priorities. By the end of the year, more than 50% of the company’s gestating sows will be in pens, a type of housing preferred by animal welfare activists and demanded by some food retailers.

“People think we are making the switch kicking and screaming, but it’s turned into an opportunity to make our business better,” says Szaloky. “We had a lot of 20-year-old facilities. Now they are remodeled into new, born-again assets. We are very pleased with it and happy with the performance we are seeing.”

All Smithfield sows should be in group housing by 2017, says Szaloky. “We are still on target and don’t see an issue. It’s an investment, but sow productivity is strong and consistent.”

Many of the largest producers do not share Smithfield’s enthusiasm about group housing of pregnant sows. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states there are advantages and disadvantages to any sow housing system. “Group housing systems are less restrictive, but allow aggressive and competitive behaviors that could be detrimental to individual sows,” states the AVMA.

The National Pork Board (NPB) does not recommend one type of sow housing over another, stating, “Regardless of the system, what really matters is the individual care given to each pig." Producers should be able to decide for themselves the type of production system that is best for their animals, and for them, given their resources and markets, says the NPB.

Market hog numbers dropping

In September, hog numbers at slaughter were running 3% less than the previous year, something that surprised and concerned many of the largest producers. Chris Hurt, agricultural economist at Purdue University, says he expects pig losses from the PED virus to reduce slaughter numbers by up to 2%, but we won’t see that effect until later in the fall. He suspects the drop is simply because the head counts a year ago were unusually high.

“Last year at this time we were heavy into the drought,” says Hurt. “We had really high corn prices, which caused people to advance marketings. This year they are delaying marketings. Last September head counts were 3-7% above the year before that. There was a rapid movement of hogs to market.”

Potential for profit

Hurt has a positive outlook. “The pork industry is finally looking at the potential of multiple years of profitability,” he says. “Pork is well positioned to fill the beef demand gap. The beef industry just can’t get numbers up, and pork is in a position to gobble up the demand.”

As for the Smithfield sale to a Chinese firm, Hurt says, “Overall, that is positive for the pork industry. It gives us access to the word’s largest market. The gates are open.”

Alfred Smith, who owns 22,000 sows with Garland Farm Supply, headquartered in Garland, North Carolina, blames high feed costs over the past year for market hog numbers dropping. “Liquidation is more severe than you think, mainly by smaller farms,” says Smith. “This is an unintended consequence of $8 corn. What we’ve seen for the past 12 months are severe losses.”

All of the Pork Powerhouses are concerned about the effect PED will have over the winter. Seaboard has locked down its sow farms, trying to keep them as self-contained as possible. “We are looking at every aspect of our business – trucks, maintenance, people,” says CEO Terry Holton. “We are reducing truck traffic and trying to have as little movement as possible. We are building additional truck washes and extra segregation at the plant.

“There is quite a large reservoir of virus still out there.”


Did you know?

15 years ago, Smithfield Foods had 152,000 sows in the U.S., versus 868,000 today.

Minnesota is home to the largest number of Pork Powerhouses, with nine companies on the list (including two members of Triumph Foods). Next is Iowa with six. In 1994, North Carolina had the most farms on the list, with eight.

10 years ago, the largest 25 pork producers in the U.S. had 2.52 million sows, versus 3.18 million today.


October 3, 2013

American picker

My dad loves to go to auctions. He and Bob went to a few last week while we were visiting. Dad's specialty is tools -- he buys boxes and tubs of tools, sorts through them, and creates sets that he resells. He also buys items for the annual church garage sale. Here he is last Saturday with his finds. Mom is not impressed. Bob had fun.

Dad also restores old farm machinery. Here is a fancy manure spreader he worked on for months.

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October 1, 2013

What we found in the attic

I was visiting Mom and Dad on their Maryland farm last week. Mom and I cleaned the attic. Cough, cough, sneeze, sneeze. We found lots of junk and some really fun stuff. My favorite was a box of old postcards from the early 1900s. More on those in a later blog. (Are you a collector?) Here are a few other items we dug out from under the dust.

Nobody remembers where these came from, so I packed one back to Iowa in my carry-on bag.

I threw this guy in the trash, but Mom dug him out. He's coming back to haunt another New Year's Eve party.

This is one of many old Nancy Drew books in a box. Mom got the books in the 1940s. I read them all in the 1970s.

One of the old postcards reads: Sheep Fold, Druid Hill Park, Baltimore Md. The date is July 18, 1911.





September 19, 2013

Remodeling the Root Cellar

Our home is almost 100 years old and it came with a root cellar or storm cellar, which we've never used. Cracks under the door allowed raccoons and feral cats to go down there, so I stayed out.

This month I decided my potatoes needed a better storage room for winter than the garage. Bob likes to clean and remodel, so he was on it. He swept and washed the floor and walls, sucking out the water with his wet vac and then using a fan to dry the floor for two days.

Next, he patched the brick along the steps. He has a few more fixes to make before we can use the cave, as we call it.

I've decided it's too nice now for potatoes. It's my new wine cellar.

Before shot -- Bob heads in. There was a skull of a raccoon on the floor, but Bob wouldn't let me take a photo.

From the inside -- all clean.

Working on the steps

September 16, 2013

Tomatoes anyone?

My tomatoes were late this year, so that means they are booming now that everyone is tired of them. Fresh garden tomatoes are so yummy in July and August. By September people run when they see you coming with a basket.

I love to make a simple salad with fresh tomatoes, basil, mozzarella slices, and Kalamata olives. Squeeze half a lemon over it and a dash of balsamic vinegar. This is what I eat about four nights a week.

Below is my favorite tomato of the year. It's a heirloom of some kind (we planted an assortment of seeds and forgot what was what). That's a quarter beside it. Huge! It took up the entire plate. Tomatoes anyone?


September 12, 2013

How dry is it in Iowa?

It's so dry that camels have replaced cattle.

It's so dry that our final cutting of alfalfa was a few measly bales full of foxtail.

This is the second droughty summer in a row for Iowa. Many farmers in our area have run out of pasture and pond water for cattle. After May, all the rain went around us. Is there normal weather anywhere in the U.S.?

(The camel and miniature donkeys live on a farm a few miles from us.)


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September 10, 2013

The farmer and his wife

Happy 53rd anniversary to Mom and Dad, Phil and Ruth Ann Johnson! Here they are in their berry barn at Walnut Springs Farm this summer. (Thanks to my niece Meghan Brumbley for the great photo.)

I will see you soon!

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September 9, 2013

Betsy's Beets

I grew beets for the first time this year and had good luck, winning the beet category at the county fair. I pickled them using cranberry juice cocktail instead of water and sugar in the recipe.

Betsy's Beets

3 pounds beets, boiled and sliced (or whole, if small)
2 cups vinegar
2 cups cranberry juice cocktail

In a large saucepan over medium heat, add vinegar and cranberry juice cocktail; bring to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over the cooked beets in jars. (I layered slices of raw onion in the jars.) Store in refrigerator for a week before eating.


September 5, 2013

Brussels sprouts

I grew Brussels sprouts for the first time this year. I started picking the sprouts from the bottom of the stalks in July and they just keep forming up the stalk as it grows and grows. I wonder if Jack climbed a Brussels sprout stalk instead of a bean pole?

I cut the sprouts in half, sprinkle with olive oil and salt and roast for 20 minutes in a 425-degree oven. Warning: Set the timer. I forgot once and had to throw the pan and blackened sprouts outside. These veggies don't smell great to begin with and they really don't smell good when burned.

Do you love or hate sprouts? Join the discussion here.

I have five of these monster Brussels sprout plants in the back of my garden.

September 3, 2013

A good summer

Summer is not officially over for a few weeks, but it seems like we've turned the corner to fall. It's been another dry season for our farm, with less than an inch of rain in August.
Below is my favorite photo from the summer. Nowlan came home for a visit before moving to Germany where his wife, Danny, is in graduate school. Bob took advantage of three kids home from college and jobs by baling several fields of alfalfa. He dumped the bales on the ground and Warren ran them up the elevator to Nowlan and Caroline in the hayloft (note their dust masks). When Bob offered to help on the last load the kids waved him off. "We have a system," they said. I'm not sure when we will all be together in one place again, but I treasure every time it happens.

Bob says, "The family that hays together stays together."

There is always a lively discussion in the kitchen after the job is done.

A campfire with friends and a full moon is the perfect ending to the day.

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