Apr 8, 2013 by Lee Hart

UNCRATING THE HOG INDUSTRY

I read recently that Calgary Co-op food retail chain, then
national hog processor Olymel, and mostly recently Tim

England pigs small  copy.jpeg

 Horton’s restaurants are
among the latest companies to make it known that hog producers have to change
their production practices.

These companies, and others have set deadlines where they
will no longer accept pork from operations using dry-sow stalls or gestation
crates in their production system. And probably it is about time. It has been a
few years, but I have been in barns that use crates. The animals appeared well
cared for and comfortable. But the pig is supposed to be an intelligent animal,
so is spending months in these crates, and then moving into a not much
different sized farrowing crate a good way to spend your life? (Photo at right: British boars at play…why should boys have all the fun.)

And certainly today if you go on line and Google the phrase
“gestation stalls” you don’t have to scroll down very far before you find one
or several animal welfare videos, usually filmed undercover, that show pigs in
distress. Play a little violin music in the background, and it doesn’t really
matter if this only applies to .00001 per cent of hogs in gestation crates, to
most consumers watching these videos “this must be the sorry and pitiful way
hogs are produced.”

CHANGE IS PLANNED

The move away from gestation crates toward some type of
loose or looser housing isn’t news to hog producers. I found out the Canadian
industry has been looking at and researching different housing options for some
time. Europe has been using different types of loose dry sow housing, Canada’s
Prairie Swine Centre in Saskatoon has also researched and designed systems that
give sows more freedom, yet still maintain optimum production.

But, Lee Whittington, president and CEO at the Prairie Swine
Centre estimates only about two per cent of Canadian hogs are raised in some
type of loose housing system. The industry has a ways to go. The technology is
there, but the big kicker of course is cost. If someone was building a new barn
today, they would no doubt design it for the loose housing system. But
retrofitting existing barns isn’t cheap or easy. First of all is the capital
cost of the renovation and likely the producer would have to suspend production
during the retrofit period, so it is a double whammy — spending money, and
income interrupted.

And the bottom line there just isn’t a lot of money in the
hog industry. There use to be a general joke in the ag industry — someone asks
a farmer who just won a million dollar lottery what he is going to do with the
money…”Oh, I am going to keep farming until it is gone.” That may be more
specific to the hog industry today.

The grain sector has turned around quite nicely, and I think
even the beef guys do have some good days, but hogs have for the most part been
a loosing proposition for several years. Producer prices spike the odd time,
but in recent years feed costs have been a real burden. One article I read
quoted a producer saying last year it cost $140 to feed a market hog that sold
for $180. So that $40 difference had to cover all other production costs plus
living expenses. And it is all because those damn grain guys are making way too
much money that hog guys see their margins disappear. (I am joking there, but
it is the nature or reality of the agriculture industry that every silver
lining seems to frame a dark cloud and lookout if you’re in the cloud.)

I looked at some figures from Statistics Canada. The average
price per hundred weight for market hogs was $83 in 1982 and $52 in 2009. With
that kind of price trend no wonder hog farms are disappearing. There were
63,600 hog producers in Canada in 1976 and that has dropped to about 6,800 in
2012. Production is down too to some extent, but a lot it means there are way
fewer and way bigger operations.

IT WILL TAKE A BIT OF TIME

I am sure the industry will move toward loose housing
systems over the coming years, but that means too there will likely be even
fewer and larger operations. The economies of scale will have to stretch that
$40 or whatever margin even further.

In the meantime consumers will either have to be satisfied
with the knowledge the industry is making a sincere effort, or go without their
bacon. I don’t think I have been to an animal industry conference in the last
15 years where there hasn’t been some expert at the podium warning that
consumer/retailer/processor demands will require the livestock industry to
develop new production practices. And as pork industry knows the other shoe is
now dropping.

I don’t like to think any animal is in distress in its life
just to keep me fat, but as a consumer I have to believe the industry is doing its best and making progress toward improved animal welfare.

Lee
Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or
by email at
[email protected]

 

Lee Hart

Lee Hart


Lee Hart is a long-time farm writer, and honorary member of the Alberta Institute of Agrologists, with many observations on the agriculture industry, who never hesitates to admit he is wrong (should that ever happen.)


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