John Phipps: Why ASF Outbreak Estimates in China Are Hogwash

John's World 10/05/19
The estimates surrounding just how many hogs China has lost due to ASF vary widely. John Phipps explains why accurately forecasting the ASF death toll in China is so tough. ( MGN )

It sounds like the beginning of a dad joke: How do you count all the pigs in China? However, the wild estimates of how badly ASF – Asian Swine Fever – has decimated the Chinese herd is a crucially important subject for our own swine and feed grain industries. I don’t think we’ll ever have accurate hog population information, since we really never have before. And for good reasons. In March, the hog population was said to be 375 million or 428 million according to another article, about half of which are on tiny farms with 1-4 pigs each. At best, to count the number of hogs in China would require contacting anywhere from hundreds of thousands to 40 million farmers. So virtually all estimates of Chinese herd size is done by back calculating from pork production after slaughter. These estimates vary somewhat with Rabobank guessing half the breeding herd has been lost to the disease. And as you can see other guesses are all over the board.

Oddly though, it is hard to correlate the dismal predictions of losses with feed consumption. Here is a graph showing Chinese soybean imports over the last few years – from all countries. The best in formation I can get is total imports are down about 9% year over year. That hardly matches up with the vast losses of pigs in the headlines. There are complicating factors trying to match them up. The losses are often in the breeding herd, so pig numbers could lag. But then pigs have a pretty rapid reproduction rate with two litters of 10 pigs per year possible. Retail sales of pork give aa clue, but I would bet real yuan stores are taking advantage of the ASF publicity to pad margins as well. Since many of the pigs are slaughtered on the farms, I’m not sure how they add that in either, or whether farmers are taking a hint from the soaring pork prices to market direct to consumers under the table.  It has been known to happen.

Expecting precise enumeration of 400-some million hogs in China is implausible. Estimates given out by ag industry observers may have some value, but there is no way to validate their guesses. And the most outlandish guess will get the most coverage. Maybe it is a dad joke after all: How do you count all the pigs in China? Count the feet and divide by four.