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Pork sector mixed victories and challenges in 2017

Policy changes positive war with the worst PEDv outbreak on record and renewed criticism from Hog Watch as pork producers look back on 2017

Manitoba’s pork sector has racked up victories on paper, but challenges on the ground during 2017.

In perhaps one of the biggest wins for the industry, 2017 ended the freeze on new barns, something industry has fought for since a rule requiring anaerobic digesters in new barns was first introduced in 2006 and expanded province-wide five years later.

Barns became prohibitively expensive to build as a result of the requirement, industry argued, and new barns over the next decade reached only single digits.

Requirements relaxed in 2015, assuming new barns could meet a list of other conditions such as two-cell manure lagoons and nutrient monitoring.

This year, the Manitoba government passed Bill 24 to remove the requirement entirely.

No building boom

The province will “definitely” see more hog barns now that Bill 24 is through the Legislature, Manitoba Pork Council (MPC) chair George Matheson said.

“It’s going to be slow, there’s no doubt about it,” he cautioned. “That’s mainly due to return on investments. To build a barn, it’s extremely expensive and, of course, that’s a depreciating asset.”

MPC hopes its new development corporation will speed up that process. The corporation will guide producers through barn approval and building, the council says.

Hylife Foods already plans to expand. The farm-to-fork company is looking at new barn sites near Killarney, residents heard during an open house in November.

MPC expects hog numbers to reach eight million this year, although general manager Andrew Dickson says more is needed to bring processors up to full capacity.

Manitoba’s farm building code was also repealed this year and rolled into provincial codes as part of red-tape reduction efforts. MPC hailed the move, and the addition of a low-human occupancy class. The new class comes with fewer fire restrictions, including fewer smoke alarms and exits.

Mike Teillet, MPC manager of sustainable development, said the new codes line up with Canada’s national farm building code, although the changes came under fire from advocacy groups, that pointed to Manitoba’s less than stellar record with barn fires and argued that fire protections shouldn’t be rolled back.

More barns may be incoming, but Matheson does not expect those changes to speed up gestation stall phase-out.

Producers have until 2024 to change sow housing, but Matheson says many are waiting for a 2019 decision to clarify loose housing or equivalent exercise rules.

“I don’t think that any producer I’ve met is against loose housing, it’s just being forced to do it and the expense required by 2024, that’s what worries them as much as anything,” he said.

Dealing with criticism

With the wins, came backlash. This year saw a resurgence of activist group Hog Watch. The group strongly protested building code changes, pointing to a then-recent barn fire that had claimed 3,000 animals near New Bothwell.

The group returned to oppose Bill 24, including a protest, day of action and speaking events.

Among its arguments, Hog Watch argued that Bill 24 would cut back on environmental protections while encouraging more intensive livestock production, a proverbial smoking gun for many in the group, who argued that intensive livestock production also intensifies waste, nutrient stress and water quality concerns.

Lake Winnipeg was, once again, a main subject of debate. Nutrient loads and related water quality issues and algae blooms have been a perennial problem and were a driving factor behind the anaerobic digester requirement in 2006. Federal programs have since got involved, although a report this year from Environment and Climate Change Canada says phosphorus levels dropped less than one per cent, and over half of that from Niverville’s municipal lagoon closure, despite five years and millions of dollars.

“In Manitoba, we have a number of sources for nitrogen and phosphorus,” Eva Pip, a retired biology professor, said during a Hog Watch event in late 2017. “In rural Manitoba, factory farms have become a ubiquitous sight… and many of them are at unbelievable density, for example in Hanover municipality, which is completely supersaturated now with hog barns.”

Export-based economics and rural decline also made the group’s talking points.

Hog Watch verbally clashed with MPC several times through the year.

“Hog Watch, I think, has been very unfair to us,” Matheson said. “There’s no doubt about it that Lake Winnipeg is sick and needs help from all citizens, but Hog Watch always forgets that the drainage into Lake Winnipeg is a huge watershed.”

The Lake Winnipeg Basin draws from four provinces and four states and the Manitoba government now estimates that half of the lake’s nutrient load comes from upstream.

“Lake Winnipeg needs our attention, but for Hog Watch to focus on us and say that we were the prime cause of those problems is very unfair,” Matheson said.

The head of the Manitoba Pork Council accused the group of being anti-livestock in general.

Other rural Manitobans have taken exception to MPC’s plans to tackle Manitoba’s Planning Act next year, something that would cut back the approval process for building a barn.

Critics, however, have worried that those plans might cut out municipalities on issues like odour management.

Matheson acknowledged those concerns.

Responsible

The pork council hopes to see up to 4,000-head barns, double the current size, he said, but added that MPC hopes to work with municipalities and the province.

“We have to be responsible citizens,” Matheson said. “Western Manitoba especially, the Interlake as well, (there are) vast areas where these barns can build, but they definitely have to be put in the right place where there’s an adequate amount of cultivated land to apply the manure and also, lots of buffers between that barn and residences that could be impacted by these odours.”

MPC admits that reducing barn fires and odour mitigation both need to be improved.

It has turned to the Manitoba Farm Safety Program, which launched infrared barn inspections this year after the New Bothwell fire.

Keith Castonguay, Manitoba Farm Safety Program director, says infrared cameras will identify hot spots from bad wiring before a potential short. Wiring is a major cause of barn fires, both Castonguay and Matheson say. Corroded wires from high humidity or corrosive gases may be hard to detect inside walls.

Fighting disease

Barns in the southeast saw their PEDv year on record. The virus, which causes dehydration and diarrhea, is lethal for piglets and claims 80-100 per cent of naive weanlings.

A total 80 sites came down with the virus this year, eight times more than all previous years combined. Over a million animals were put under surveillance and over 200 premises sat in the five-kilometre buffer zones around each infected site.

Thirty of those cases were due to animal movement.

“Those were a couple of different things,” Glen Duizer, veterinarian with Manitoba’s chief veterinary office, said. “Certainly, in some cases, in 18 of them, the movement happened prior to clinical signs being observed in a herd.”

In others, infected pigs were deliberately moved to a farm due to space issues or pigs were assumed to be non-shedding, moved, and then relapsed.

“One of the things that we’ve learned from this disease is that, whether it is because piglets or pigs in nurseries have become positive with PED — we don’t quite get the disease spread across the entire farm — or because there is some low level of carrier state that exists in some of these animals, we can go weeks after a group of pigs have recovered from PED. We can even have multiple negative tests, but there is a risk that those animals will start shedding the virus at a low level again, in some cases four to six to even eight weeks after they’ve recovered from the virus,” Duizer said.

The outbreak changed how many farms and transport staff approached biosecurity, the veterinarian said. Wash procedure came under the microscope while the sector introduced dedicated transport routes for cull sows coming from large assembly yards.

The fever-pitch concern over PEDv has since cooled. There have been no new cases since Oct. 24. Twenty-four infected sites no longer show clinical signs and an equal number are now presumptive negative, with both animals and barns cleared of the disease, although it may be lingering in manure storage.

“The lagoons and the manure-holding facilities will probably always have a trace of it for quite some time,” Matheson said. “So, yes, things didn’t start off quite well, but you know, all things considered, we did very well. At one point, I would’ve said it’s next to impossible to eradicate it from the province. Now I think there is a possibility that we can, in fact, do that.”

Duizer expects a number of transitional farms will become presumptive negative over the next month. Some have been delayed since the province requires naive gilts to be in a barn for 30 days before the site is considered presumptive negative. Those farms introduced exposed gilts and must first run those gilts through the production cycle and replace them.

All farms should be presumptive negative by March 2018, Duizer said.

Trade deals

The pork industry is keeping a close eye on North American Free Trade Agreement talks.

The U.S. is Manitoba’s main destination for both meat and live pigs. About three million weanlings are traded south every year and Manitoba exports 90 per cent of its pork production, also mostly to the U.S.

“We hope that border stays open for trade and that trade freely flows one way and the other,” Matheson said.

Both beef and pork sectors are also bouncing between promised access to Europe and regulatory barriers.

CETA, Canada’s trade deal with the European Union, promises access to over 81,000 pounds of pork, but would require changes to labelling, more compatible inspection standards and trichinella-free validation for Canadian meat.

“It will be a market that we pay attention to, but I think the main potential is the Far East, especially China,” Matheson said.

Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam are a major trade focus for MPC and part of the continuing saga of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Countries are still trying to save the deal since the U.S. withdrew in early 2017.

Predictions for 2018

The pork sector will celebrate changes to the Livestock Manure and Mortalities Management regulation this year, with changes coming into play Jan. 1.

Provincial Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said the changes bring the pork sector in line with other livestock industries.

Among the changes, the province is removing in-season nitrate limits, laying out permit needs for seasonal feeding areas, removing some processing steps for permits, putting more information in public registries, adding variance options to accommodate biosecurity and changing how farms are monitored.

MPC also hopes the new year will bring wash station changes. The group lobbied the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to allow trucks crossing back into Canada from the United States to be sealed at the border and washed at a designated site in province, something it says will allow more control over biosecurity.

That plan is now in the works, both MPC and the CFIA say.

Prices also look good as the calendar flips over.

“The futures didn’t look like they would be, they weakened off in the fall, but the first part of 2018 looks reasonably good,” Matheson said. “There will be, I think, some profits being made over the next seven or eight months.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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