Hog farmers have major doubts about benefit of proposed changes

Group housing in Denmark. A Canadian Pork Council spokeswoman says sows are aggressive and Canadian farmers don’t see the benefits of the system.

It’s estimated implementing the new national pig code of production could 
cost farmers $500 million, and could drive many out of the business

Overwhelming outside interest in sow confinement and housing are obscuring other issues that need to be resolved in the national pig code of production, says Catherine Scovil of the Canadian Pork Council.

The committee of farmers, food industry reps, and animal welfare experts developing the code was flooded with more than 4,700 comments this summer on what should be in it, Scovil, the council’s associate executive director, told the recent National Farm Animal Care Conference.

The committee is sorting through the suggestions but “we’re not there yet. This will be a big change for producers,” she said, noting one of the issues to be dealt with is reducing the pain associated with tail docking and castration.

While the number of comments is far greater than any other livestock production code has attracted, “there was no big consumer concern,” she said. The comments came from overseas as well as Canada and the U.S.

“We’re trying to meet public expectations, but the process is clouded by all the noise in society,” said Scovil. “There’s no recognition of all the changes that have been made in farming in recent years.”

Some complained the process has been hijacked by animal rights activists, and many farmers “worry the result will lead to poor animal welfare outcomes,” Scovil said.

“Sows in groups can be aggressive,” she said. “Producers don’t see the benefit of group housing.”

As well, producers don’t foresee any government help or higher pork prices to cover the extra costs they will face, she said, noting changes in sow confinement and group housing will add $820 to $1,155 per sow in extra costs. Once staff training costs, additional labour requirements, and adapting to other code provisions are added in, it’s estimated the change could cost the Canadian pork industry $500 million.

“If this type of production is what the market wants, it should give farmers premiums,” Scovil said. “Many farmers fear they will be forced out of the business because of the extra costs of the code.”

The code calls for group housing on all pig farms by 2024.

The process has also raised other concerns from farmers.

“There’s lots of uncertainty over how to have a conversation with consumers,” Scovil said. “They don’t understand why people without a vested interest in their farms are trying to tell them what to do.”

It was hoped the pig code would be in draft form by the end of the year, but it’s more likely to appear in 2014.

It will also spell out new restrictions on gestation stalls, limiting their use to 35 days of a sow’s pregnancy.

But the first priority is the care and welfare of animals, Scovil said.

“Any change on farm must be done in a way that protects the welfare of the animals and keeps Canadian farms strong.”

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