Utah farmers who are looking for new ways to increase their farm profits might well look at an old farm industry - raising pigs.
The state's record-high inventory of hogs and young pigs was 196,000 head in 1944. Since then, the number raised in Utah has fallen steadily until 1985, when the smallest inventory in the state's history - 23,000 head - was recorded.In recent years, hog prices have been rising steadily and, despite a national increase in pork production, industry leaders point to a steady increase in demand, which all but defies normal economic laws of supply and demand.
Despite the good news about hogs, Utah's hog inventory has increased only slightly - to only 25,000 in 1986. Last year, the total number of hogs being raised on Utah farms for breeding and for slaughter was up slightly, to 32,706 head, according to veterinary inspections reported by the Utah Agricultural Statistics Service.
Why the historic decline in the state's hog industry in the face of rising demand and prices?
Dr. Haven Hendricks of the Animal Science Department at Utah State University and an Extension swine specialist says raising pigs is hard work and many farmers have gotten away from it because it is labor intensive.
"A lot of farmers have specialized in other crops or animals or have gone into the dairy business," he said. "And raising pigs is not as glamourous as being a cattleman, for instance."
There are plenty of reasons to get back into raising pigs, Hendricks says.
For one thing, Utah has a ready-made market for pigs. Packing houses in the state import at least 30,000 pigs annually for slaughter, mostly from Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.
Hendricks says the packers could save a bundle on shipping costs by buying hogs locally, and would probably welcome the opportunity to buy Utah hogs instead of having to shop outside the state.
"I understand one Utah packer is now slaughtering 600 to 1,000 hogs a day and wants to step that number up to 2,000 a day. That is a demand that can only be a challenge to enterprising Utah farmers."
Utah has what hogs need - a warm, dry climate. In the 1940s, Utah farmers had no trouble raising hogs and they would have no trouble now.
Pigs do have a distinctive odor, but if grown in concrete pens with some care taken to insure optimal sanitary conditions, there need be no unusually bad smells - at least no worse than smells associated with raising cattle or dairy cows.
Traditionally, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, and Missouri have been the nation's top hog producing states, helping to boost the nation's total hog production value to nearly $9 billion a year.
Corn has been a major hog feed in the Midwest and many Utah farmers believe they can't raise hogs profitably because it is more expensive to raise corn in Utah and costly to buy imported feed.
But Hendricks says Utah farmers need not feed hogs corn and can do quite well feeding them barley, wheat, oats, milo - grain sorghum - and surplus milk products and milk byproducts. There is an abundance of these kinds of feed in Utah.
Hogs also do well on pasture, agriculture experts say, and about a fifth of an acre of good pasture is recommended for a sow and litter or for three to five growing pigs. Alfalfa and ladino clover are considered the best pasture. Utah is famous of it's abundant alfalfa hay.
One advantage of raising hogs is their prolific growth and speedy trip to market. From birth to market can take only six months. Most pigs grow from about 3 pounds at birth to a market weight of 225 pounds in six months. Cattle raisers sometimes have to wait a year to 18 months before they can market a newborn calf.
Pigs are famous for big and frequent litters. A sow can produce 20 pigs a year, or a total of 5,000 pounds of meat per year. And their feed to gain ratio, or the amount of feed it takes to grow meat, is much less than cattle. The most important products from hogs are hams, roasts, chops, bacon and sausage.
Pigs are among the smartest farm animals despite their reputation as muddy stinkers. For one thing, pigs knew when they are full and eat only enough and no more, unlike cattle and horses that will even eat themselves sick. That means pigs can be fed in self-feeders with a lot less attention than must be paid to feeding cattle or dairy cows.
Farmers who have sold their cows in the recent dairy buy-out or grain farmers who have a ready supply of feed are naturals to raise pigs, Hendricks says.
"But anybody can get into the hog-raising business and, today, it is a good business to be in," he said.