ARLINGTON, Va. – There’ll be a few more hogs to slaughter in 2004, but the number is still expected to fall about 300,000 head short of 1999’s record 101.5 million.

Nevertheless, says Joel L. Green, livestock analyst for USDA’s World Agricultural Outlook Board, 2004 will set a new record for pork production, 20.1 billion pounds, topping 2003’s record of 19.9 billion.

“Pork production will continue to be supplemented by increased slaughter of imported hogs,” he said at USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum at Arlington, Va., “and average carcass weights are expected to be about half a pound heavier.”

Prices after the first quarter of 2003 ranged from $3 to $25 per cwt. Higher than the previous year, Greene says, which led producers to expand their herds. “On Dec. 1, 2003, the inventory of all hogs and pigs was slightly over 60 million head, about 1 percent higher than at the same time the previous year. The expansion continued with a continually shrinking breeding herd.”

Still, he says, the nation’s hog herd has expanded because sow productivity increased last year, after holding steady the previous three years.

“In 2004, hog prices, on a national base of 51 percent to 52 percent lean, live equivalent, are forecast at $38 to $40 per cwt., about unchanged from last year’s average $39.45.

“Fairly strong demand for pork, especially from the export market, is expected to establish a steady price scenario for the year, and prices could move into the low $40s later in the year.”

But the fourth quarter is expected to bring seasonal low prices of $34 to $38 per cwt., as larger supplies become available, Greene says.

Pork retail prices are expected to be in the mid-$2.60 per pound range for 2004, about unchanged from last year.

Hogs “pouring across the border from Canada” have created industry attention, he says, with imports hitting 7.4 million head in 2003. Two-thirds were feeder pigs headed for U.S. finishing operations.

“In five years, the share of imports that are feeder pigs has increased from 50 percent to an expected 70 percent this year,” Greene says. “Available grain, slaughter capacity, and established business relationships are expected to continue to see feeder pig movement from Canada to the U.S.”

In 2004, hog imports are again expected to reach nearly 7.4 million head, the majority feeders.

Pork exports for 2004 are forecast to rise about 3 percent to 1.77 billion pounds, following a 6 percent increase in 2003, with Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mexico as major customers.

“Exports are likely to get a boost this year from increased buying interest by countries that have banned U.S. beef imports because of BSE and poultry because of avian influenza,” Greene says. “Also, the weaker U.S. dollar exchange rate favors pork exports at the expense of Canada and Denmark -- especially for sales to Japan.”

Because of its foot-and-mouth disease status, Brazil, a major pork exporter, will have limited access to the lucrative Japanese market.

Pork imports are forecast at 1.2 billion pounds in 2004, about 3.5 percent higher than 2003, with growth expected to slow because the weaker U.S. dollar raises the price of imported pork.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com