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China's pig farmers rein in expansion plans as hog prices plunge

Glut in the market has caused hog prices to hit an eight-year low in March

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With farmers now losing as much as 190 yuan per pig by the time it is slaughtered, Beijing this month called for more "rational" production as the situation hit a "warning zone".

Beijing

SOME Chinese pig farmers are adjusting expansion plans or putting planned projects on hold because of a glut in the market that led to hog prices hitting an eight-year low last month.

Two medium-sized companies have told Reuters they have either reduced expansion plans or are holding off on future expansion of breeding pigs, while an industry analyst said some small farmers have already begun slaughtering sows.

The moves are the latest sign that years of frenzied investment to boost hog production has been overdone, with output well beyond stagnating domestic demand at a time when global pork supplies are already at record levels.

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"Demand is not keeping up with the pace of production growth," said Pan Chenjun, senior analyst at Rabobank.

China is the world's biggest producer and consumer of pork, and the domestic glut is already having repercussions on the global market. A surge in China's supply of pigs pushed hog prices to eight-year lows in mid-March.

That reduces demand from exporters like the United States, where hog numbers recently hit record levels, driven by expanding processing capacity. Slower expansion in China may not necessarily help US farmers, after Beijing recently slapped tariffs on imports of US pork.

"The market right now is pretty pitiful," said Thomas Titus, a hog farmer in Elkhart, Illinois.

In China, hog prices are hovering around 10 yuan (S$2.09) per kg in major production provinces of Henan, Hebei and Shandong, as well as the north-east, where expansion has been fastest.

At the same time, feed prices have been high for much of the past year amid tighter supplies of Chinese corn and strong soyameal prices. Feed can account for as much as 80 per cent of production costs in Chinese pig farms.

With farmers now losing as much as 190 yuan per pig by the time it is slaughtered, Beijing this month called for more "rational" production as the situation hit a "warning zone".

Yin Pingan, chairman of Chongqing Riquan Animal Husbandry Co Ltd, said he plans to finish five new breeding farms already under construction.

But he will wait to see how the market develops before adding another 60,000 sows to his herd next year, as originally planned. "Those (farms) we haven't started, we'll slow down. We'll watch the situation before deciding whether to build or not," he told Reuters by phone.

An executive at another company that has recently moved into pig farming said it now planned to add only another 10,000 sows to the current 60,000 head. Previous plans were targeting around 40,000 more sows this year.

"The price will not improve before the end of the year," the executive said, declining to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

For now, Chinese hog prices are set to remain at a low level, an official warned on Tuesday, although some farmers have already begun slaughtering sows, which could help support the market in coming quarters.

But an escalating trade war between China and the United States may trigger a faster recovery. If Beijing implements high tariffs on soyabeans imported from the United States as threatened, feed costs will soar and drive more farmers out of the business, said Pan, the analyst at Rabobank.

On Tuesday, China imposed an effective 178.6 per cent duty on imports of US sorghum, another grain that is used in feed. REUTERS