Pork production

A study from the University of Arkansas reported over a 55-year period, 75.9% less land was needed to produce a pound of pork in the U.S. 

Pork producers have made great strides when it comes to sustainability in their operations, and Brett Kaysen has the data to prove it.

Kaysen, who serves as assistant vice president for sustainability for the National Pork Board, says an analysis released earlier this year indicates the industry has worked hard to become more efficient.

The study from the University of Arkansas reported over a 55-year period (1960-2015), 75.9% less land was needed to produce a pound of pork in the U.S. Additionally, 25.1% less water was needed and 7% less energy.

This resulted in a 7.7% smaller carbon footprint.

And Kaysen says this is just the beginning.

“Our producers say this is fantastic, and they patted themselves on the back for a day,” he says. “But their next question is ‘How do we do even better?’”

Kaysen says future improvement could be directly tied to crop production. He says as growers continue to produce more grain per acre, land use numbers should decline.

Producers are also making better of use of manure, or what Kaysen calls “brown gold.”

“We continue to get better with manure applications, by using that manure at the right time and in the right place,” he says.

The study, funded by the pork checkoff, used a comprehensive life-cycle assessment approach and used the best available methodology along with a field-to-farm gate approach. Kaysen says this meant including material and energy flows associated with the full supply chain, beginning with extraction of raw materials through production of live, market-weight pigs, including marketed sows.

Unlike previous studies, this research accounts for global warming potential and the use of dried distillers grains in many swine rations, he says.

Feed conversion is another area where the numbers can be improved, Kaysen says.

“It takes 2.75 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of protein,” he says. “I don’t think we have reached the ceiling when it comes to genetics and feed conversion.”

Genetic progress is being made at a fairly good pace, says Jason Ross, director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center and an Extension swine specialist with Iowa State University.

He says there has been tremendous improvement with efficiency when it comes to all areas of pork production.

“We are taking precision agriculture and applying it to livestock production,” Ross says.

Continued genetic improvements will make current efficiency numbers look even better.

“Nutrition and management are also important,” Ross says. “We need to continue to work to develop and utilize the best strategies that capture the genetic potential of the pig for efficient and sustainable production.”

He believes pork production will become even more sustainable as producers continue to make changes.

“We are nowhere near the ceiling when it comes to sustainability, the pork industry as a whole has for a long time been on a continuous improvement trajectory and I suspect that will continue.” Ross says.

Kaysen says about half of pork consumers have indicated they favor a sustainable approach to production.

“We have identified those shared values and will do all we can to meet consumer expectations,” he says. “We need to recognize those insights and tell them here’s where we are today, and here is where we eventually want to be.”

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Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.