Synchronized Success

Livestock producers and grain farmers share a sustainability bond.

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
Connect with Chris:
The National Pork Board says pork producers use about 10% of the U.S. soybean crop to feed their animals. Due to this connection, production changes for either commodity ultimately affect both, Image by Jim Patrico

Bill Even jumped onstage during United Soybean Board’s (USB) recent long-range planning meeting and enthusiastically talked about how pork and beans go together.

Even, CEO of the National Pork Board, rattled off numbers about the record size of the pork herd and the reliance on soybeans. Last year alone, 121.3 million hogs went to market. That translated into roughly 430 million bushels of soybeans to feed those hogs, or about 10% of the soybean crop, Even pointed out. He noted every pork chop took about a half-pound of soybeans to produce.

With approximately 30% of pork exported, Even explained to USB members pork and beans are kind of in the same boat in the current trade battles, but overall, Even stressed the world needs and wants U.S. agriculture’s production.

“Fundamentally, the fact that United States soybean farmers, the fact that the United States corn farmers and the fact that the United States pork producers are the lowest-cost producers in the world is really driving this,” he explains. “There is global demand for our products despite bumpy times right now on the trade front.”

But, Even had another topic on his mind. With pork as the world’s most-consumed meat product, the National Pork Board is focused on establishing pork as the responsible, sustainable choice for consumers. But, that strategy needs to be reinvigorated for the next generation of consumers.

Even has statistics from a University of Arkansas study, contracted by the industry, that shows land use in 2012 to grow hogs was 78% less than 50 years earlier, water use was 41% lower and the carbon footprint of hog production was 35% lower. “I’m very proud of where we have come in producing high-quality, good protein in the United States,” Even says.

However, a broader life cycle analysis of pork production shows nearly 90% of water use is tied to crops, 42% of the pork industry’s greenhouse gases are tied to feed and more than 96% of land use is linked to feed. Such statistics join pork producers to the hip of their feed farmers, Even says.

GROWING ISSUE. People higher up in the supply chain now want to know how the pork industry is going to improve on its feed numbers. It’s a growing issue for the protein industries because various corporations want to make sure their sustainability goals are valid.

Even has led the National Pork Board for the past two years, coming from John Deere before that, where he also worked on sustainability topics. These issues have been growing in recent years, as more companies in various levels of the food and retail chain began making pronouncements to improve their stewardship measures throughout the supply chain.

“That is going to come back down the supply chain, it just fundamentally is,” Even says. “Eventually, the question becomes, how do you verify the sustainability of your feed ingredients? We could see this coming, so it was imperative for us to get with corn and soybeans, and say, ‘We’re all in the same boat.’ ”

TYSON FOODS’ ACTIONS. Tyson Foods announced more than a year ago it had partnered with the World Resources Institute to conduct a deeper analysis of greenhouse gases and water use in its supply chain, Even says. Last April, Tyson then announced it was targeting 2 million corn acres for improved stewardship practices to improve sustainability in its broiler operations, as well as some of the other livestock Tyson buys for production.

“Why did they do that?” Even says. “Because they are looking at some of the same numbers we are looking at on the pork production side.”

Even explained Tyson and other major food companies are facing more sustainability expectations from shareholders and consumers. The importance of accurate information on retail labels and marketing claims affects the credibility of the overall brand of these companies.

“Like it or not, end users are reaching back one step further in the food supply chain and asking pork producers where did their feed come from,” Even says. “What’s your fertilizer use? What’s your tillage? When did you spray?”

This is a new dynamic for hog farmers, who had grown accustomed to questions about animal welfare, antibiotic use and overall treatment of hogs. “What’s new to us is the fact they are asking questions now about feed sources,” he says.

RESPONSE OPTIONS. Even says the options are either to hunker down and push back as an industry, or figure out the implications to determine what is reasonable, what is science-based and what is in the best long-term interest of livestock and feed producers.

“We are linked to you and the corn industry through our feed,” Even says, adding that the stories Tyson or Costco wants to tell about their supply chains are now going to be directly linked to what farmers are doing out in their crop fields. He added, “This stuff is real. Like it or not, these things are happening.”

This focus on sustainability is an opportunity for the Pork Checkoff to work more closely with the United Soybean Board and the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) on a memorandum of understanding to create a framework for research and communications through a joint task force. Even says talks about the implications of these issues already began this spring with himself, USB CEO Polly Ruhland and Chris Novak, who is the outgoing CEO
of NCGA.

ASKING FOR PROOF. The industries have to answer how feed industries determine sustainability in grains and oilseeds largely commingled at grain elevators. “The fundamental thing that end users now are asking for is proof. They are asking for data. At first, they were fine with aspirational goals of where you are going, but these sustainability initiatives at corporations are now maturing, and the second-generation of people running these platforms are looking for data and proof.”

Even adds, “We don’t have the answers for that yet, so that’s why it’s important we partner with corn and soybeans to start working on answers in the background, because we can’t make a pronouncement in the pork industry,” he says. “We are utterly dependent on what the corn and soybean industries do.”

Joint work in the industry would avoid duplication already going on in the various checkoffs to deal with these issues, Even says. It makes no sense if NCGA, USB and the National Pork Checkoff Board are all out spending checkoff dollars with reports that have got about 40% of the full story or industry details.

Once Even finished his pitch, USB member Annie Dee, from Alabama, told the group the poultry company that buys her corn called her just last month wanting to visit her farm. “They wanted to know about sustainability on my farm, and their customers were asking them what I could show,” Dee says. “You are right on track.”


Past Issues