LIVESTOCK-U.S. livestock futures rise, with beef demand supporting cattle

CHICAGO, Dec 26 (Reuters) - U.S. livestock futures strengthened on Thursday as traders adjusted positions ahead of the end of the year.

Strong domestic and export demand for beef helped to underpin cattle futures, traders said. Meat packers slaughtered an estimated 120,000 cattle on the day after Christmas, up from 101,000 a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Most actively traded February live cattle futures rose 0.975 cent to 126.800 cents per pound at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. January feeder cattle futures jumped 1.875 cents to 145.450 cents per pound.

In the swine market, most actively traded February lean hog futures crept 0.200 cent higher to 70.900 cents per pound. The contract reached its highest price since Dec. 13.

Large supplies continue to limit hog prices after U.S. producers expanded their herds in recent years to supply new processing plants, analysts said. Farmers are hoping for China to ramp up imports of U.S. pork as it grapples with a devastating outbreak of a fatal pig disease, African swine fever.

“In the hog market, we’re marking time,” a broker said. “When is China really going to step up imports of U.S. pork to levels that we thought it would? Demand has not met those early expectations.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday is set to report pork and beef export sales data for last week. Traders will check for sales of both meats to China, the world’s top pork consumer.

The USDA said in a quarterly report on Monday that the inventory of all U.S. hogs and pigs on Dec. 1 was 77.3 million head, up 3% from a year earlier.

“We’re amply supplied in pork,” a trader said.

China’s large pig farms are teaming up with small, family-based farms in a state-initiated investment of nearly 50 billion yuan ($7.14 billion)to boost hog production, the agriculture ministry said. The country’s pig herd is about 40% smaller than a year ago, after African swine fever swept through the country, the ministry has said.

The disease has also spread to Vietnam and other Asian nations. Vietnam’s pork imports during the first 11 months of this year more than doubled to 110,000 metric tonnes, the finance ministry said, as 20% of the country’s herd was culled. (Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)