Corn and hogs: Unique complements over time

Edward Lotterman - Agricultural Economist

Published April 1, 1996  |  April 1996 issue

Hog production in the Midwest goes back a long way. In the colonial era and on the East Coast, hogs had been a minor household enterprise. They were raised in near-feral conditions, allowed to roam freely in the woods to forage on nuts and other "mast," reproducing at will, and being harvested in the fall by snaring them with "hogcatchers," forked poles with a rope noose at the end.

But as settlement expanded into Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, hog production became a major industry. Corn was the crop best adapted to these regions. It could be planted without clearing out stumps, required less labor to harvest than small grains in the era before any sort of mechanized harvesting and stored well in rudimentary facilities. Most importantly, corn could be transformed into pork, a much higher-value commodity and one that would transport itself to market. In the early 1800s, hogs were referred to as "20 bushels of corn on the hoof" because of the ease with which they could be driven or flatboated to markets in the days before railroads or steamboats. Indeed, the young Abe Lincoln's first venture away from the village of his youth was a trip taking hogs to market.

The spread of steam transportation widened farmers' marketing options, and the mechanization of small grain harvesting 80 years before that of corn reduced that crop's comparative advantage relative to wheat, barley and oats. Nevertheless, corn and hogs have remained uniquely complementary enterprises to the present day. Hogs can also be fattened with barley or grain sorghum, but neither is as nutritionally ideal as corn.

Hogs' reproductive cycles permitted two pig crops a year—traditionally "spring pigs" and "fall pigs"—seasons when livestock care did not interfere unduly with crop work. Hogs could even be used to harvest corn: "Hogging off" a field, harvesting corn by turning pigs in the fall to eat the standing crop, was a practice that persisted into the second half of this century. The United States Department of Agriculture counted over 200,000 acres harvested in this manner in South Dakota in 1968. And the early hybridization of corn, with resulting leaps in productivity, restored corn to its preeminence over small grains in most areas as far west as mid-Nebraska and South Dakota, as far north as mid-Minnesota or the border between the two Dakotas and as far south as northern Missouri.

Family farms spearhead technological change

As labor became scarcer and more expensive in agriculture, hog production became dramatically more capital intensive even within the context of relatively small family farms. Many farmers are amused when nonfarm opponents of large operations charge that total confinement of animals in environmentally controlled buildings, handling of waste as a liquid, use of antibiotics at subtherapeutic levels in feed, and genetic selection for narrow production-related characteristics are all consequences of corporate agriculture. In reality, all were initiated on or by family farms in the 1950s and 1960s.

New technology allows larger scale

As in dairying, breaking with traditional technology also opened the door to production at a scale unthought of a few years earlier. In the 1980s a few individuals and corporations began to build hog production facilities that were huge compared to the average. Most of these new actors had experience in large-scale cattle feeding or in broiler production, two activities where the intensification process had proceeded most rapidly. Some facilities were designed to turn out as many as 300,000 hogs per year. Most were established in states such as Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma, that did not have legal restrictions on large or corporate-owned farm facilities as did, for example, Iowa and Minnesota.

In general, the environmental regulations in these expansion states were less strict, or less onerous depending on one's point of view. These operations incorporated, on a large scale, production technology that had been developed on smaller farms. Access to finance gave them an edge, since they were large enough to raise funds directly on Wall Street at lower cost than traditional agricultural credit. They also had a marketing advantage, they were able to guarantee packers a steady day-to-day flow of very uniform slaughter animals.

Carolina production grows

The 1980s also were a time of growth for hog production in the southeastern United States, principally in North Carolina. This expansion was driven by a number of factors. Corn production increased with improved varieties better adapted to the soils and climate of the region, at a time when traditional southern crops were becoming less profitable. There were also spin-offs from intensive poultry production, which had been strong in North Carolina, and generally followed the poultry model. The new North Carolina facilities were generally smaller than the largest facilities on the Great Plains, often from 10,000 to 25,000 head at one time, but were larger than traditional facilities in the Upper Midwest.

Related articles, fedgazette, January 1999:
Contract pricing complicates hog markets
How much should pork prices drop?
Is agriculture in crisis?
The porcine slaughter of the innocents [Web only]