With the breeding herd only 0.6 percent larger than a year ago, sow numbers stable, and the market herd reportedly 2 percent larger, the nation's pork producers are largely holding back on expansion even though the industry returned to profitability in the spring of 2011.

According to Purdue University Extension economist Chris Hurt, large financial losses in 2008 and 2009 and uncertainty associated with higher feed prices due to crop damage in South America may be some of the reasons for the reduced profit outlook for 2012.

"The current outlook is for profits of just $4 per head for 2012," Hurt said. "This compares with estimated profits of $14 per head last year. An early look toward 2013 suggests modest continued expansion of pork production with somewhat lower hog prices. Feed costs are expected to moderate to the down side with estimated total costs dropping to around $60 per live hundredweight compared with $63 in 2012.

"One thing is sure," Hurt said. "The U.S. pork industry's costs structure has changed significantly from around $40 during the $2.00-a-bushel corn era to closer to $60 per live hundredweight now."

Hurt said that cash hog prices and lean hog futures were negatively impacted by the media attention and consumer reactions surrounding lean finely textured beef.

"With that issue receiving less attention, hog prices should be set for a spring rally in the next six weeks," he said. "Over the past five years, for example, live hog prices have rallied an average of $11 per hundredweight into mid-May. A similar increase this year is expected and should take prices that are currently in the low $60s to the low $70s over coming weeks."