New virus threatens U.S. pork supply

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Regis Lefebure/USDA/ Agriculture Research Services

A newly designed phytase enzyme added to animal feed enables swine to use more phosphorus in the feed and excrete less of the phosphorus in their waste.

ARLINGTON, Va. — The livestock and poultry industries are poised for expansion, but a new fatal virus and low inventory could prove challenging.

The Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) is taking its toll on the U.S. hog market.

PEDv was first found in the United States in May 2013. Now, nine months later, it is in 25 states and has killed 4 million pigs.

Industry leaders and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials discussed PEDv and other challenges facing the livestock and poultry industries Friday at the 2014 Ag Outlook forum.

The Department of Agriculture-sponsored event spanned two days and included panels and discussions on food safety, climate change and diversity.

“PEDv is potent; one thimble full could infect all the pigs in the [United States],” said Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council.

The Pork Checkoff program has spent more than $1 million and is expected to spend another $500,000 in the upcoming months on PEDv research, said Wagstrom. Researchers are publishing and sharing data every two weeks in an effort to curb the spread.

Wagstrom said the U.S. strain of PEDv is 99.4 percent similar to an isolate found in China in 2012.

This U.S. outbreak is the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Peru, Mexico and Canada are all now reporting cases.

“Since this is a new virus, there was no immunity to it,” said Wagstrom of the challenges facing U.S. pork producers.

Wagstrom stressed this is a production disease and not a food safety issue.

The virus can have a 100 percent mortality rate in piglets less than four weeks of age. This is creating a shortage of market hogs.

“Growth in the number of pigs weaned per litter has been curtailed by the mortality rate,” stated a report presented by Shayle Shagam, a Department of Agriculture livestock analyst. The lack of young pigs will sharply limit the supply.

Shagam also presented projections for other livestock and poultry sectors.

The outlook stated that lower feed grain prices should help livestock and poultry producers expand operations.

Feed prices in 2014 are expected to be well below 2013 levels.

Corn is projected to be in the $4.20 to $4.80 per bushel range in 2014. Corn was $6.89 in 2012-13. Soybeans are projected at $425 to $465 per ton in 2014, down from $468 per ton in 2013-14.

Despite lower feed prices, beef producers are sending fewer cattle to slaughter. Those that are slaughtered must weigh enough to meet beef demand, and make it profitable for producers, said John Nalivka, president of Sterling Marketing, Inc.

Nalivka questioned Tyson’s decision to stop buying cattle that had been fed Beta Agonists – a food additive designed to help cattle gain weight. Beta Agonists can add 25 to 30 pounds to a carcass.

He said Beta Agonists increase feed efficiency in beef cattle.

In August 2013, Merck — the company that produced a leading Beta Agonist, Zilmax — suspended sales of the product. This was on the heels of reports of multiple incidents in which cattle that had been fed Zilmax refused to move. Cargill, JBS and National Beef joined Tyson and stopped accepting Zilmax-fed cattle at their processing plants.

Nalivka said using Beta Agnostics could be a way for producers to help meet the rising beef demand.

Consumers are eating more beef than ever before.  He said the per capita consumption of beef in 1950 was 63.4 pounds per year. Today it is 76.5 pounds per year.

He also said beef processors are finding ways to get more usable product from each beef carcass.

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