The weather could also play a role.

“There is a second concern that corn prices will rise above $7 this spring and summer, and/or that the anticipated $1.50-a-bushel drop in cash corn prices from this summer to fall does not develop due to adverse growing conditions,” Hurt said.

“Needless to say, pork producers are deeply concerned because an imbalance between costs and hog prices means huge financial risks. They are anxious to see how this era will play out and are concerned for the survival of their businesses if costs move sharply above hog prices. In that case, they may fall off the tightwire with no safety net,” Hurt said.

In 2007, the animal industries were producing 222 pounds of meat and poultry per capita. This year production will be about 207 pounds, a 6-percent reduction. The reductions have come after enormous producer losses in 2008 and 2009. Hurt commented that with smaller supplies and a recovering world economy, consumers will face pork prices forecast at record highs of $3.36 per retail pound, an 8-percent increase over 2010.

“Prices of corn and hogs have been behaving differently in the past six months,” Hurt said. “Historically, one expected to observe a tendency for corn and hog prices to move in opposite directions. However, in the past six months corn and hog prices have both been moving higher. As corn prices moved higher, lean hog futures have tended to keep up with the higher costs implied by rising feed prices. Last fall, it was suggested that corn prices above $5.50 would throw the pork industry into losses. Now, lean hog futures have moved high enough for this spring and summer to suggest that pork producers can pay up to $7.50 a bushel for corn.”

Hurt examined the relationships between expected hog prices and corn and feed costs by first looking at the lean hog futures from the close on Feb. 25. “Those price levels equate to hog prices of about $60 per live hundredweight for the first quarter, near $70 for the second and third quarters, $60 for the fall and winter, and $63 in the second quarter of 2012. Cost of production estimates are about $64 in the first quarter, $65 to $66 in the second and third quarters, and around $60 next fall and winter as a result of some reduction in feed costs with normal yields,” he said.

This means that hog prices will be record-high for the year, at $64.50, with record-high production costs of $64, providing for a near breakeven year, Hurt said.  That delicate balance between hog price and costs continues into the first half of 2012 with a near breakeven outlook.

Using lean hog and soybean meal futures on Feb. 25 as the base for expected cash prices, Hurt asked, what are the breakeven corn prices?

“Under these assumptions, pork producers could pay about $7.50 a bushel for corn in the second and third quarters this year, around $5.75 in the fall and winter, and about $6.25 in the spring of 2012. This suggests that pork producers could pay a bit more for corn than corn futures prices were implying on Feb. 25th.”