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Livestock Production Practices

In recent years, the number of livestock operations has fallen and production has shifted to larger and more specialized operations. These structural changes have been accompanied by a movement towards cost-saving production technologies and practices. The changes in livestock production have had important implications for economic efficiency, final product prices, water and air pollution, food safety, and rural development. ERS collects detailed information using Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) data to describe and document changes in hog, dairy, cow-calf, and broiler production practices. ERS research provides insight into some of the causes and consequences of these changes.

For example, ERS research examined links between the types of practices used in the hog sector and structural change (see The Changing Economics of U.S. Hog Production, ERR-52, December 2007).  A related study focused on broiler operations, and describes the industry's organization, poultry housing features, and production practices, including the use of antibiotics in feed (see The Economic Organization of U.S. Broiler Production, EIB-38, June 2008).  Together, these studies, and others, document the evolution of livestock production as operators respond to changes in technologies, regulations and economic conditions.

Technological Innovation in Hog Production

Economic competition and the incentive to maximize profits drive structural change and technological innovation in the hog industry. If larger operations are more profitable than smaller ones, competitive pressures may be expected to result in a larger average farm size in the long run. Similarly, operations that are first to adopt a cost-saving technology are more likely to survive and grow. Technological innovation in hog production includes such advances as improved genetics, nutrition, housing and handling equipment, veterinary and medical services, and management that improves the performance of hogs and the efficiency of the operation and/or reduces production risk.  

Market hogs are produced on either farrow-to-finish or feeder pig-to-finish operations. Farrow-to-finish operations are those on which pigs are farrowed (birthed) and raised to slaughter weight (225-300 pounds).  On feeder pig-to-finish operations, feeder pigs (30-80 pounds) are obtained from outside the operation, either purchased or placed under contract, and then raised to slaughter weight. The 2004 ARMS collected information about use of artificial insemination, all-in/all-out management (which commingles pigs of a similar age and weight and keeps them together as they move through each production phase), and other technologies, including terminal crossbreeding programs, commercial seed stock obtained from high-quality breeding animals, and phase feeding, which varies feed to match animal diets with changing nutritional requirements. 

The data reveal a strong relationship between the use of these practices and the size of an operation. Artificial insemination was used on only 4 percent of the smallest farrow-to-finish operations in 2004 but on 92 percent of the largest. As farrow-to-finish operations and feeder-pig-finish operations increased in size, use of all-in/all-out finishing increased from 14 to 83 percent of farms and from 66 to 72 percent of farms, respectively. Because large, specialized hog operations can spread fixed costs over more production and more easily take advantage of resulting productivity gains, they are better able to invest in current hog-production technologies.

Production practice use by size and type of hog producer, 2004
Size of operation1
Item Fewer than 500 head 500-1,999 head 2,000-4,999 head 5,000 head or more
Percent of farms
Farrow-to-finish operations    
Artificial insemination 4 12 51 92
Terminal crossbreeding 11 38 43 73
Commercial seed stock 5 24 36 26
Phase feeding 42 53 61 84
All-in/all-out finishing 14 20 54 83
Feeder pig-to-finish    
Phase feeding 51 60 72 72
All-in/all-out finishing 66 80 86 92

1/ Size of operation is the maximum number of hog and pigs on the operation at any time during 2004.
Source: USDA, ERS using data from the 2004 Agricultural Resource Management Survey.

Antibiotic Use by Poultry Operations

Antibiotics are widely used in modern livestock and poultry production to treat sick animals, but they are also administered in subtherapeutic doses to protect animals against disease and to promote growth. While the routine use of subtherapeutic antibiotics (STAs) can increase productivity, health officials, physicians, and veterinarians are concerned that extensive use is reducing the efficacy of antibiotics in treating human and animal diseases.

Widespread use of human and animal antibiotics can encourage the growth of drug-resistant pathogens. In agriculture, increased resistance to animal antibiotics can lead to more severe outbreaks of livestock disease. Resistant bacteria may cause disease directly, or they may pass genetic material associated with resistance on to other bacteria. In such cases, the widespread use of antibiotics, including STAs in animals, could help promote the development of drug-resistant bacteria that could pass from animals to humans, thus posing a danger to human health. In response to rising concerns, the European Union has banned STAs, and several major U.S. retailers and processors have moved to limit their use by input suppliers.

ERS research summarizing the use of STAs in broiler chicken production draws on data from a large-scale survey of broiler producers (USDA's 2006 Agricultural Resource Management Survey). STA use was not ubiquitous--42 percent of producers, representing 44 percent of production, did not use STAs in production in 2006 (this decision is actually made by the integrator that contracts with the farm).

Producers that did not use STAs relied instead on a portfolio of other practices to prevent disease and promote growth in broilers. About 75 percent of these producers had formal Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans, a systematic approach to identify and prevent food safety hazards. In comparison, only 43 percent of the farms that used STAs had an HACCP plan in place. Producers that did not use STAs relied on different feeding routines than STA users, and their facilities were characterized by more rigorous sanitation practices, improved ventilation for poultry housing, and more extensive testing for pathogens.

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Last updated: Thursday, June 07, 2012

For more information contact: Nigel Key

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