A hog barn near Strathclair has come under scrutiny after critics say it failed to meet the proper approvals prior to construction.
The wrangle over the facility has revealed grey areas in the regulations which some feel are open to interpretation.
Capacity in question
In a September submission to the RM of Yellowhead council, advocacy group Hog Watch argued that the facility exceeds 300 animal units. It says that at the time the expansion was built, the Planning Act still required any barn over that size to be designated as conditional use. There was no conditional use hearing registered for the expansion, the submission says.
Why it matters: The debate behind how regulations are interpreted may have implications for new and expanded hog barns and whether they fall under the 300-animal unit threshold. Being below that threshold exempts them from some regulations.
“The question is one of public policy,” Ruth Pryzner of Hog Watch said. “What’s good public policy and what’s good regulation? And good regulation is not saying, ‘Go ahead and build a barn, and then when you get caught, then you get to fix the problem.’ Saying that sends a really dangerous message to the hog operators.”
That section of the Planning Act was removed as of June, part of changes that allowed barns to increase up to 15 per cent without additional hearings, as long as they stayed in compliance with municipal bylaws. The municipality currently requires a conditional use hearing for operations producing 400 or more animal units, according to public documents cited by Hog Watch.
Hog Watch based its claims on the barn’s 17,900-square-foot layout (a number provided by municipal Access and Privacy Officer and CAO, Nadine Gapka). According to their submission, the group then took published plans from a comparatively sized barn off the Manitoba Pork Council website, to estimate penning area. That space was then divided by per-pig space requirements laid down by the 2014 National Farm Animal Care Council guidelines.
The group argues that the addition, added to the existing facility, would bring animal units up to anywhere from 408.4 to 422.4 animal units and is pressing the local RM council to file a complaint with Manitoba Sustainable Development.
Getting a count
For its part the local council says it’s not ignoring the situation.
“We did talk to him,” Reeve Don Yanick said. “We asked if we could find an independent person to go and actually do a physical count of the hogs, because (by) the information he’s given us, he’s under the 300 animal units… as council we are saying that we would like to actually send somebody in and verify that. We’re trying to set that up right now.”
Two veterinarians have so far denied the municipality’s request, citing logistical issues with getting an accurate count, council heard Oct. 23.
The farm’s engineering firm, South-Man Engineering, has disputed Hog Watch’s numbers. In an Oct. 5 letter to the RM of Yellowhead’s CAO, the firm argued that the barn is purposefully stocked lower to improve animal husbandry.
“The intent of the finisher barn added to the existing weanling barns is for the purpose of raising and selecting gilts which are then transported as replacement breeding stock to other existing sow facilities,” the letter read. “This gilt raising and selection process is different than a commercial finisher facility in that additional space per pig is required to facilitate a healthier and more productive environment which ultimately impacts on the animal’s reproductive ability in the future.”
The new barn gives about 11.5 square feet per pig compared to the nine square feet typically seen in commercial operations, the letter said.
Likewise, the letter argued, the original weanling barn stocks about 500 weanlings per room for a maximum 4,000 animals, compared to the 4,800 animals it was built to house.
According to the province, the farmer in question applied to expand his 132-animal unit barn in 2017, bringing it up to 297 animal units, a number also cited by South-Man Engineering.
Hog Watch, however, argues animal units should be based on barn capacity, rather than physical count of pigs.
“The way to do it is to say, this is what the capacity of the barn is, this is the maximum number of animals it can hold to be compliant with the Animal Care Act and that’s how many animal units that barn can hold, and then you regulate on that basis, otherwise we’re in this back and forth. You can make different claims,” Pryzner said.
Pryzner says she is concerned with on ongoing enforcement, should animal units be calculated on the number of pigs in the facility at any one point in time. A few dozen additional animals would tip the operation over 300 animal units, she argued, something she says is a “marginal” amount.
Michael Teillet, Manitoba Pork Council sustainable development manager, says barn approvals have never been based on barn size.
“Barn design, configuration of pens, types of animals, the owner’s wishes as to how much space to give their animals, etc., all make it impossible to determine the number of animals in any barn based merely on barn size,” he said.
He also argued that farmers are purposefully overshooting on new barn size in the anticipation that animals will get bigger over the next few decades.
In terms of enforcement, Teillet argued that municipal approvals are based on the assumption that an owner will follow the law and municipal officials, “don’t routinely check these things unless there is a legitimate reason to do so.”
A question of manure
Hog Watch has also accused the barn of building without adequate manure storage and without a manure management plan, a requirement it argues was in force at the time that the barn was built.
The group says when the barn was built, a manure management plan was a requirement for any barn, regardless of size. A document from the Manitoba Pork website regarding historic nutrient management practices stated that any barn established or expanded after Oct. 31, 2009, until the passage of the Red Tape Reduction and Government Efficiency Act in November 2017, required a manure management plan. Hog Watch claims the barn was expanded during that period and therefore should be covered by those regulations.
To back up its claim, the group compared the estimated storage surplus (derived from figures in the existing barn’s initial approval and waste production estimates from the Farm Practices Guidelines for Pig Producers in Manitoba), with new waste expected from their estimated barn capacity figures. The group’s submission set that excess manure at 962,000 to 1.1 million gallons over current capacity per year.
According to the same letter from South-Man Engineering, an application was made to expand manure storage to the required 400 days’ worth of storage capacity. The application was completed Aug. 28, it said, but only recently arrived at Manitoba Sustainable Development due to a clerical error. Current capacity allows for 253 days of storage, the firm said, something it argues will carry the barn over the winter if the expanded storage can’t be completed until spring.
Hog Watch says it intends to take matters up with the province itself if the RM chooses not to press the complaint.
The barn operators could not be reached for comment.