The Upper Southeast livestock industry is booming, with North Carolina consistently placing in the top 10 in swine, poultry and cattle production in the nation. However, the region’s ongoing grain deficit -- combined with high grain and freight prices -- has put many livestock operations in jeopardy.

The grain deficit situation has been a particular problem over the past few years. For example, if North Carolina was a sovereign country, the state would be the fifth largest importer of grain in the world.

Last year, North Carolina livestock feeders imported 30,000 bushels of wheat. Though wheat is not a traditional feed grain of choice by livestock producers, the high cost of freight within the United States has forced them to make many changes in their feeding practices.

While this ongoing grain deficit situation produces a readymade local market for grain grown by Virginia-Carolina grain farmers, it has pushed many livestock producers to the brink of destruction.

Feed is the highest cost of livestock production, comprising about 70 percent of the cost of hog production. The high cost of Midwest grain and/or feed grains imported from off-shore countries is an ongoing challenge to all livestock industries in the Southeast, but none more so than North Carolina’s booming swine industry.

The state ranks second among hog producing states in the U.S., surpassing traditional hog producing states in the grain rich Midwest in recent years. When corn sold below $4 a bushel and freight rates were significantly lower, Carolina-Virginia farmers were more than competitive with growers in the Midwest. Now, the competition for grain has switched the competitive edge back to the Midwest.

Unfortunately for North Carolina’s swine industry, feed costs are not the only challenges.

This past fall, the state was struck with one of the biggest outbreaks of Porcine Epidemic diarrhea Virus in history. It spread quickly this fall, leaving many operators wondering, “what’s next?”

Going into the fall season, North Carolina had approximately 8.7 million hogs and a breeding herd of about 10 percent that total.  More than 150,000 sows were infected by the disease outbreak.

Tom Ray, director of livestock health in the state, says the disease is fatal to baby pigs, with the death rate in some litters as high as 80 percent.

The sporadic occurrence of rapidly spreading diseases in confined growing conditions, combined with high feeding prices has led to a coalition of grain growers and livestock producers, called the North Carolina Grain Initiative.