WASHINGTON — U.S. pork producers have kept 5.814 million hogs for breeding, according to the recent numbers released in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Quarterly Hogs and Pigs Report.

“We’re really scratching our head on the breeding herd because that number is below the lowest number analysts came up with,” said Len Steiner, president of Steiner Consulting Group, Manchester, N.H.

As of Sept. 1, the USDA estimated the inventory of all hogs and pigs at 68.36 million, up three-tenths of 1 percent compared to one year ago. The number of market hogs totaled 62.546 million, also a three-tenths of 1 percent increase from the 2012 number.

For the market hogs by weight groups, the USDA reported 20.085 million hogs under 50 pounds, up nine-tenths of 1 percent from one year ago; from 50 to 119 pounds, up 1.1 percent from last year at 18.087 million; 120 to 179 pounds at 13.284 million, an 1.5 percent increase from 2012; and for the 180 pounds and over, 11.090 million, a 3.5-percent increase from one year ago.

“They analysts were wrong in the other direction on the 50- to 119-pound and 120- to 179-pound categories,” Steiner said. “The USDA has numbers on those two categories above the highest estimates that analysts ahead of the report came up with.”

The analyst added that he has been struggling over the past six weeks with the slaughter numbers compared to the estimates reported in the June report.

“Clearly this report indicates we’re going to pick up slaughter and be above a year ago,” he said. “I think a couple of these numbers are suspect.”

With the smaller number of hogs in the heaviest weight category, that implies slaughter rates from this point are going to come pretty close to last year, said Dan Vaught, economist at Doane Advisory Service, St. Louis.

“And the lighter weight categories are all up, so the numbers will move above last year’s in pretty short order, which could be pretty difficult,” he said.

For farrowing numbers, the USDA estimated from June to August, 2.925 million, up nine-tenths of 1 percent from one year ago; for September to November intentions at 2.9 million, a four-tenths of 1 percent increase compared to 2012; and intentions during December to February at 2.87 million, a nine-tenths of 1 percent increase from last year.

The June to August pig crop totaled 30.21 million, a 1.9-percent increase from 2012, and the June to August pigs saved per litter was 10.33, an increase of 2 percent from one year ago.

“With pigs per litter up 1 to 2 percent and farrowing intentions for September to November at 2.9 million head, the potential pig crop is 29.88 million which would be a record over 2007 for that quarter,” said Lee Shulz, extension livestock economist at Iowa State University. “And the December to February farrowing intentions is potentially another record compared to the record last year.”

Steiner was surprised with the number of pigs per litter number.

“I think that is a little out of synch because of the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus and the change to less gestation crates,” he said. “I thought the growth would be slowed down, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.”

“I think the PEDV situation is the reason so many analysts were looking for an unchanged figure on the pigs saver per litter and for the size of the pig crop,” Vaught agreed.

“If the industry is entering into an expansion phase, I believe the one thing that happens is producers retain older sows that may be less efficient.” the economist explained. “I tend to look for below-trend increases in the number of pigs saved per litter, so that would dictate a number under a 1-percent increase, so to have it 2 percent over one year ago was pretty surprising.”

“The markets are currently showing quite a bit of enticement for expansion,” Steiner said. “For the next 12 to 18 months, the potential profits are well above breakeven and domestic demand is strong.”

“We have seen very strong prices over the last three months, which is going to encourage expansion, as is the decline in prices for feed since the late April grain stocks report,” Vaught agreed.

“The industry was very aggressive in expansion in the mid-2000s until 2007,” the economist said. “I believe there are quite a few hog barns empty, and the industry is eager to repopulate those. It’s finding the right circumstances, and I believe they’re pretty close to that.”

Based on the CME Lean Hog Index on a carcass basis, Vaught said, he expects prices in the $86 to $90 range.

“For the first quarter of 2014, I’m looking for lows around $86 and the winter high in February around $92,” he said. “For the second quarter, prices will range from $90 to $105, and for the third quarter, $103 to $92.”

Shulz reported his price predictions based on the Iowa-Southern Minnesota series on a carcass base price. He is expecting for October to December prices ranging from $85 to $88 and similar numbers in the first quarter of 2014 from $83 to $89.

“For the second quarter, I think the prices will range from $88 to $92 and in the third quarter from $82 to $88,” he added.

Steiner also based his price outlook on the Iowa-Southern Minnesota series on a carcass base price.

“For the fourth quarter, prices will average $87.33 and at $86 for the first quarter of 2014,” he predicted. “For the second quarter, prices will average at $90.70 and down to $88.70 for the third quarter.”