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Planning For A Sow Housing Revolution

Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal. His columns will run every second week in the Manitoba Co-operator.

By the end of next year, pig producers in the European Union should have converted any existing sow stall housing into group housing. Legislation requires them to house sows in groups for all but four weeks of gestation.

In practice, it is unlikely that all producers will meet the deadline, which will create all sorts of trade issues. Producers in member states that have completed the conversion will press for a ban on imports from those countries that have failed to meet the legislation. In addition, it is becoming increasingly clear that a significant proportion of producers will just quit production.

The total sow herd in Europe may shrink by as much as 30 per cent when stricter animal welfare rules come into place in 2013 in the EU, according to an analyst at the Dutch bank ABN Amro. Wilbert Hilkens, the bank’s sector manager for animal industries, says: “Even if it would only be 15 per cent, this could be a significant reduction. This will mean lower meat production, with demand that stays at the same level and will increase on the other continents.” According to the bank, for about 20 per cent of its customers in the pig industry, investments in animal welfare may not be feasible.

HIGHER PORK PRICES

The impact of this reduction in pork production is likely to be significantly higher pork prices, benefiting those producers that remain in business. One of the main beneficiaries will be Denmark, which is close to meeting the legislation already and which exports 80 per cent of its production. This could have a knock-on effect in world markets because the Danes will sell less pork into lower-value markets such as Russia and more to its EU neighbours.

Because the EU market is protected by import tariffs and a host of other barriers to trade, Canadian processors will not be able to take direct advantage of the high pork prices. Even if the EU relaxed import tariffs to reduce prices, there would be a requirement that imported pork meet the production standards used in the EU, including the sow housing component, which would limit trade.

I have commented before about the phasing out of sow stalls in Australia and the likely effect on trade with Canada. Australian producers have agreed to move to group housing by 2017, while their neighbour New Zealand will complete the move by 2015.

Australia is Canada’s fourth-largest export market by value and combined with New Zealand accounts for $144 million worth of trade out of the total pork export value of just over one billion dollars. Losing those high-value markets would likely result in a reduction in the total value of Canadian pork exports.

Frustratingly, the demand from those markets would probably be met by the large U.S. integrated producers such as Smithfield and Cargill who already have a significant part of their production systems converted to group sow housing.

LOCAL LOBBY

In North America, the pressure from lobby groups on sow stalls is starting to increase and public sentiment also appears to be changing.

Seven U.S. states – including Michigan, Arizona, California and Florida – have banned sow stalls through voter ballots, while Maine, Colorado and Oregon have banned stalls through state legislative initiatives.

While the time scale for this change varies, there is little doubt that such legislation will be enacted. In response to public and economic pressures, some of the larger pork production businesses have made changes to their sow housing or committed to doing so.

In Canada, opposition to sow stalls is focused mainly on Manitoba. Manitoba Pork’s recently published strategic document – Embracing a Sustainable Future – includes a commitment to encouraging producers to phase out sow stalls by 2025.

CAMPAIGN

Two vocal animal rights organizations, Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals and the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals have launched a campaign apparently aimed at moving that date to 2017.

“At the very least, sows deserve to be housed in groups on straw, where the animals can root around and socialize with each other, the way pigs are meant to do,” says an email to supporters. The two organizations have asked people to write letters to Manitoba Pork, created a website ( helpthepigs.ca), and have also been running television commercials in Manitoba.

So where does all this leave Canadian hog producers? First, the industry must accept that change will come eventually, the question is when. Manitoba Pork has taken a brave step and laid out a time scale of 14 years, but it has no power to compel producers to change.

That time scale could be shortened considerably if lobby groups were effective at changing the public mood, or if retailers forced a change as they have done in parts of Europe, or if key export markets demanded sow stall-free pork.

Producers will make changes to their systems in response to economic signals and that would be the best route to change. Legislation on the issue is the last thing our financially fragile industry needs, but even without it, there seems no doubt that a sow housing revolution is coming. Industry organizations need to prepare for this by providing practical solutions for producers so that change can be made cost effectively and without compromising performance.

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