* Farmers sent more pigs to slaughter in first quarter
* Higher slaughter rate triggered by steep price decline
* Further price pressure expected - Ag ministry official (Adds official’s comments starting in paragraph 7)
By Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu
BEIJING, April 17 (Reuters) - China’s pork output rose 2.1 percent to 15.4 million tonnes in the first quarter compared with the period during the prior year, official data showed on Tuesday, after farmers rushed to slaughter their pigs amid a rapid decline in prices.
Live hog prices in China plunged by around 30 percent in the first quarter, in one of the steepest declines ever recorded, after a significant increase in production by new farms.
The falling price led some farmers to send more hogs to slaughter amid worries prices would come under further pressure later in the year.
The number of hogs slaughtered rose 1.9 percent to 199.8 million head, the National Bureau of Statistics said, while the total herd declined by 1.2 percent to 415.2 million head.
China is the world’s top producer of pork and its herd accounts for more than half the global total.
In addition to expansion by large farms, heavy snow in Eastern and Central China before the Lunar New Year holiday in mid-February delayed the transport of pigs from the north to the south, boosting pig supplies in the market after the holiday when demand is typically much weaker, an official with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs told reporters at a briefing.
That escalated the fall in pig prices, which are set to “remain at a low level” for much of the year, said Tang Ke, director of the ministry’s market and economy information department.
“The whole pig farming industry has started to lose money,” he said.
Prices might get some support as farmers begin to eliminate some production capacity due to losses however, said Tang.
Including beef, lamb and poultry, total meat production in the country reached 23.2 million tonnes, up by 1.8 percent, the data showed. (Reporting by Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu; Editing by Sunil Nair and Christian Schmollinger)