Little profit for the pork industry in 2016

By Debra Levey Larson 
U of I News Bureau

URBANA – The outlook for the pork industry has turned somewhat more optimistic in recent weeks. The sources of that optimism include a $2 to $4 increase in spring and summer lean hog futures prices since the first of the year and slightly lower new-crop soybean meal prices.  According to Purdue University Extension economist Chris Hurt, a bit higher hog prices and a little lower cost add to the potential for a profitable year.

“Currently, the 2016 pork outlook looks a lot like 2015, which featured losses in the first and fourth quarters with the second and third quarters providing some profit,” says Hurt. “That pattern appears to be repeating this year. However, the industry is expected to register a $4 per head profit in 2016 in comparison to an estimated $3 per head loss last year.”

Hurt says pork supplies in the first two months of 2016 were down about 1 percent from the same period a year ago. This is in alignment with the last hog inventory count from USDA. The relative accuracy of the last USDA count adds credibility to using their inventory numbers as a measure of spring and summer supplies.

“Based on that last report, March, April, and May pork production is expected to be down about 1 to 2 percent,” Hurt says. “Summer pork production is expected to be unchanged from year-ago levels and fall production is expected to rise by 2 percent. These numbers would indicate that domestic pork production would be unchanged for the year, while USDA analysts suggest that production will rise by 2 percent.”

The estimated cost of farrow-to-finish pork production in calendar 2015 was near $51 per live hundredweight. Hurt believes that is expected to drop a bit in 2016 to average near $50. The decline is related to lower costs for soybean meal. In 2015, high-protein soybean meal at Decatur.

averaged $341 per ton, but is expected to drop to about $283 for all of 2016. If so, Hurt says this will be the lowest cost meal since 2007 when it averaged $231 per ton. For corn, the U.S. average price received for calendar 2015 was $3.71 per bushel. Current futures prices suggest that price will be similar for calendar 2016.

Live hog prices in 2015 averaged $50.23, according to USDA. “My current forecast for 2016 is for hog prices to average about $51 per live hundredweight,” Hurt says. “Quarterly price estimates are $45 to $48 in the first quarter, $54 to $58 in the second quarter, $53 to $57 in the third quarter, and $45 to $49 in the final quarter.

“These forecasts suggest that the average cost farrow-to-finish pork producer lost about $3 per head in 2015, a near breakeven year in which producers nearly covered all of their costs, including depreciation and all hired and family labor costs,” Hurt says. “The year of 2016 also appears to be one near breakeven, but with a more positive tone of about $4 per head of profit above all costs.”

As the spring planting season approaches, Hurt says pork producers are well aware of the uncertainties of the upcoming growing season. Corn and soybean meal prices are at the lowest levels in nine years. Harmful growing season weather in the United States would increase feed costs.

How could producers help protect against some of these price increases should they occur?

According to Hurt, one possible answer is to buy December 2016 corn calls and December 2016 soybean meal calls.  At this writing, the premium for at-the-money December 2016 corn call options was 28.5 cents per bushel. If a pork producer were to buy the equivalent bushels to cover one year of feeding needs, this premium would raise the cost of production by an estimated $1.25 per live hundredweight. The at-the-money December 2016 soybean meal call option had a premium of $16.60 per ton. If a one-year’s was purchased for the hog operation, the premium costs adds 44 cents per live hundredweight to costs. Therefore, to cover both corn and soybean meal with new-crop call options would be about $1.69 per live hundredweight.

“The calls provide potential financial protection if the new-crop futures prices for corn and soybean meal were to rise,” Hurt says. “They do not eliminate the opportunity to buy corn and meal with even lower futures prices should another high-yield year develop. However, one has to pay the option premiums and any transaction costs for these rights.

“The more difficult question is ‘should’ pork producers use options to protect against the potential for rising feed prices,” Hurt says. “That depends upon the risk preferences of each producer, their perception of the risk of harmful weather this summer, their financial situation, and their overall outlook.”

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