ANALYSIS- While pig prices in the UK rose for much of 2012 the higher prices were more than offset by the high costs of production, writes Chris Harris.
This meant that the pig herd was cut and fell to its lowest level for 60 years.
And there were also fewer pigs across the EU, following a fall in the breeding herd, Stephen Howarth from the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board Market Analysis team told the recent Outlook conference in London.
“With the total REU pig herd declining, we were expecting tight supplies in 2013,” Mr Howarth said.
However, the degree of the drop in production did not occur. While the pig herd numbers fell production increased and carcase weights went up and the export markets performed well.
While supplies were tight, they were not as tight as expected and pig price rises continued throughout 2013 reaching unprecedented levels.
At the same time, feed prices started to fall so that by the summer of last year, pig producers were back in the black.
“Producers are in a much better position than they were 12 months ago,” Mr Howarth said.
The tight supplies on the UK market also meant that retail sales were subdued although consumer demand increased towards the end of the year.
In the world market, China is continually growing in importance as it accounts for almost half the global pig meat market and for this reason it has been an important driver in the international meat trade. Pig meat production in China is more than 54 million tonnes annually while all the other pig meat producers around the world collectively produce around 54 million tonnes.
Mr Howarth said that while the rapid growth of international trade in pig meat, which was seen between 1990 and the present day has started to slow.
There has been a slight drop in imports of pig meat in countries such as Japan and Russia as well as some EU countries over the last couple of years, but the growth in Chinese imports continues.
During this same period, EU production of pig meat has not changed much.
However, Mr Howarth said that during this year production growth is expected to slow down, largely because of the prices in China, which will see a slight fall in production.
This could be compensated y a growth in production in the major exporting countries – EU, USA, Canada and Brazil.
In the EU slaughterings were lower last year than in 2012, but a drop of between three and four per cent, which had been forecast did not materialise.
The EU market has been weaker since the summer of last year because demand remained subdued, but there has been the largest gap ever between the prices in the EU and those in the UK, as UK prices stay high.
The decline in the breeding herd in the EU will continue to affect production and supplies are expected to remain tight.
In the UK, there is expected to be some recovery in the breeding herd, but although the financial situation with higher prices and lower input costs is benefiting the producers, there is not expected to be a major expansion in production n and the breeding herd.
The June census last year showed a slight decline in the UK breeding herd compared to the previous June’s figures.
However, there has been an historic trend in productivity growth and this trend is continuing, with the number of pigs slaughtered per sow continuing upwards.
“Looking at the tight supply situation, at the beginning of this year the situation had started to stabilise and there should be a two per cent rise in slaughterings by the end of the year,” Mr Howarth said.
Carcase weights were much higher in the UK pig sector last year and this is expected to continue into 2014 with feed prices continuing to remain relatively low, but the weights are not expected to rise further.
“The higher weights meant a modest rise in pig meat production last year and we are looking at a two per cent increase in production this year,” he told the conference.
Despite the tight supplies, strong export growth in 2013 suggests that there will be further growth ahead. The growth will especially target the Chinese market.
“A strong performance and great demand for British product means that pros[pects are good for exports,” said Mr Howarth.
He added that the strong pound will affect exports to Europe and could hit export competitiveness.
“The UK economy is stronger than the rest of Europe and the forecasts are that this will continue in 2014,” Mr Howarth said.
On the domestic market, the volume of pig meat sold in the UK was down compared to other meats, but Mr Howarth said that there is room for growth as consumer confidence was down in 2013 and is appearing to recover this year.
“Retail sales and consumption will be better in 2014 for the UK.”
Mr Howarth warned that the sector was benefiting from low feed prices, but the price of feed wheat in the future is an unknown and any changes could affect future pig prices and production.
Weather conditions in feed exporting countries such as Brazil can also affect the price of soy and maize.
Disease problems such as PEDV in the US and Canada will also have an impact on the market.
At present the disease is affecting 23 US states and has had a serious impact on US production.
“The US is a major competitor to the EU on export markets and if they have less product tis could drive export market prices up,” said Mr Howarth.
In Europe, head said that the discovery of African Swine Fever in Lithuania and the subsequent ban on imports from the EU by Russia, is starting to see pressure put on the European Commission to reopen storage as an outlet for producers.
For the UK pig meat sector, the commitment by the retailers to buy British has kept prices high, but these high prices could also be a temptation for some to increase imports.