This weekend's competition in Wisconsin is a bit more intense than it was in your grade school gym class.
For the past year, farmers in at least 25 states in the U.S. and three Canadian provinces have been battling P.E.D. — porcine epidemic diarrhea virus. The infection attacks baby pigs and often causes them to die.
The outbreaks are leading to lower pork projections for this year, and prices for bacon are expected to be high.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. And for nearly a year now, hog farmers have been battling a virus. It's deadly to newborn piglets, and farmers are scrambling to protect their herds. But for those who eat meat, fewer pigs mean less pork, and you can also expect higher prices for bacon and other cuts as well. From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, Harvest Public Media's Amy Mayer reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIGS)
AMY MAYER, BYLINE: This is Phil Borgic's hog farm near Nokomis, Illinois, and these are some of his sick pigs.
PHIL BORGIC: This is a PED litter. See how dirty they are?
MAYER: PED, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus - when they contract it, baby pigs die from dehydration because their bodies can't recover from the vomiting and diarrhea caused by the infection.
BORGIC: These two litters here are very clean. See how clean looking they are? These are really healthy pigs.
MAYER: This visit with Borgic cane about a month after he first found PED. He says the virus wiped out an entire month's worth of piglets, about eight percent of his annual total. And Borgic's not alone. At least 25 states and three Canadian provinces have had PED outbreaks since last spring. That's why the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered its pork projections for this year, and hog prices recently reached a record high.
LEE SCHULZ: Demand is ramping up here. With tighter supplies, you know, I think that's kind of being reflected in the higher prices that we are seeing.
MAYER: That's Iowa State University livestock economist Lee Schulz. Pork is popular in the early spring, with Easter and then summer barbecue season starting up, but you don't need to go hoarding bacon. Schulz says there are factors controlling how high the prices will go. For one, pigs are arriving at market heavier thanks to cheaper feed.
SCHULZ: You're having, you know, larger hams, larger loins, larger chops, and so you're really increasing that volume of, you know, lean product available. And so that's how it kind of mitigates some of the lost supplies that we're having.
MAYER: And consumer response matters. Price-conscious buyers may shy away when the price goes up, lowering demand. Steve Meyer, an economist who consults with the National Pork Board, says suppliers have lots of frozen bacon out there this year. Last summer, unanticipated demand meant many got caught paying steep prices for pork bellies. That's what bacon is made from, so they planned ahead for this year.
STEVE MEYER: Bellies in the inventory, in frozen inventory as of the end of January, were substantially - almost double where they were a year ago.
MAYER: Still, those inventories will only go so far. Meyer says some packing plants have already reduced working hours and output because of PED. His math indicates the number of hogs brought to market in August could be down more than 10 percent from last year. And that means...
MEYER: Bacon's going to be expensive.
MAYER: Of course higher prices will help producers who can get hogs to market, but they have to stay vigilant. A hot summer could help kill the virus, but for now there's still no effective vaccine. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Amy Mayer in Ames, Iowa.
YOUNG: And Amy's story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.