Fewer sows and higher feed prices mean pigs go to market sooner
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports, pigs are three to four pounds lighter at market weight this year. Many expect this trend to continue, while everyone wants to know why and if this trend will continue.
To start with the second part of the question, my opinion is that this trend will continue as long as inflation, reduced cereal availability and the war-related energy crisis continues. As to how long this is going to last, again, my unqualified opinion is that we do not really know, but I do not expect things to get back to normal before 2025.
Now, on to why pigs are marketed earlier than usual, the answer is dual. First, there are fewer sows producing fewer total market pigs because many farmers are getting out of the business due to the above reasons. Pork prices do not increase fast enough to keep all farmers in business. Thus, packers demand pigs sooner to keep their lines running and the supermarket shelves full of pork products.
There is another reason, too. Feed efficiency is at its worst point as pigs reach market weight. Not only does one have to account for ever increasing maintenance requirements (the heavier the animal, the higher the requirements), but we also have to account for the change in body weight gain composition. At the start of the growing period, most growth is lean tissue, bones and water, with a limited (required) amount of fat being deposited. As animals reach and surpass their peak in protein (lean) deposition and reach near-mature skeletal mass, the majority of growth becomes fat deposition (essential for pigs in the wild, but not desirable for market pigs).
In practical terms, it costs four times more to deposit one pound of fat as it costs to deposit one pound of lean. That is why, when feed prices go up, pigs go to the market sooner rather than later.