Behind the Lines

Behind the Lines - October 2008

The online dictionary Wikipedia defines a false economy as “an action which saves money at the beginning but which, over a longer period of time, results in more money being wasted than being saved.” It gives many instances.

This issue of Better Pork carries several stories devoted to dealing with false economies – short cuts which producers may be tempted to take as they cut costs to survive the current downturn in markets. In our cover story, “The key to preventing barn fires,” Don Stoneman reports on concerns that pig barns built in the construction boom that began a little more than10 years ago may be more susceptible to corrosion from gases and require more maintenance of electrical and copper than barns in the past. The result of lack of maintenance can be a devastating fire. Such fires have already taken place in Ontario’s hog belt, costing tens of millions of dollars in damages and lost income. This story starts on page 6 and offers some economical ways by which producers can assure that electricity in their barns is safe.

On page 22, nutritionist Janice Murphy writes that the positive effects of antibiotics in pig diets appear to be short-lived and feeding potato protein may be a better bet in the long term. And on page 28, Ontario Pork’s environmental specialist Sam Bradshaw reports on steps to maintain outstanding barn air quality. 

Finally, agricultural engineer Ron MacDonald writes about the dangers of moisture buildup in pig barn attics. Failure to remove moisture, and keep it out, can have serious consequences.

As Better Pork goes to press, a late summer rally in pork prices appears to be over and prices are trending downward. There will be more and more pressure for farmers to ignore routine maintenance on barns. Please remember the unintended consequences that can result.

And finally you'll notice a change in our Second Look column. Ever since we launched Better Pork in February 2000 to fill the large void left by the bankruptcy of Farm & Country Pork, Richard Smelski has graced our back page with his thoughts on the state of the industry. He has, in his inimitable style, prodded, provoked and challenged. Now Richard has suggested that we open the back page up to others in the industry and I'm pleased to report that Mary Jane Quinn has taken up the challenge in this issue with some timely thoughts on food recalls. We have an impressive lineup of other industry thinkers to follow in Smelski's tradition.

Let us know how you like the change.


Behind The Lines: August 2008

Who pays for trucking, when and how, all become critical questions when the provincial marketing board decouples from the settlement process. This month’s cover story examines this subject, looking into a proposal known as freight on board (FOB) plant pricing. It is one of the relatively arcane, yet critical, changes proposed as the provincial marketing board moves to give producers what they have asked for – more freedom in marketing their hogs. This story starts on page 6.

Ontario’s pork producers have a long history of looking for scapegoats when they are dissatisfied with returns for hogs. Ontario Pork’s plan to develop a new “strategic direction,” as it is called, has been in the works for a while. Decisions are going to be made in a year, and the deliberations predecessing these come at a time when production costs are soaring to unprecedented heights and pork prices threaten to dive to levels not seen in a decade. At the same time, the Farm Products Marketing Commission, the board’s overseer, is shining a spotlight on the marketing board’s operations, again, at the request of dissatisfied producers.

A new marketing plan is not going to solve the problems of high grain costs, disease and currency fluctuations. These are all outside the realm of Ontario Pork. Where Ontario Pork can have a role, though, is in assuring timely and accurate payment, more choice in marketing and more freedom in business arrangements.

It’s tough to do both at once, Ontario Pork chair Curtiss Littlejohn admits. The commission sets the rules and has the power to send the pork board in a direction different than the board may have intended. Through all of this, producers are scratching to survive in the business or make the most of opportunities to get out.

The board’s monopoly on selling may very well be opened up. Farmers may become their own selling agents, and perhaps, later, the most successful will become agents for other farmers as well.

Would another way of marketing hogs put more money in Ontario producers’ pockets? Will costs be reduced? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Whether the marketing issues at Ontario Pork can be separated cleanly, or cause an unravelling of services to producers and their customers, remains to be seen.


Behind the Lines - June 2008

Fewer days to market and less backfat. Generations of Ontario’s conventional pork producers have striven to improve on those goals. Along the way, they have adapted practices to give consumers more abundant and cheaper food. Now, for producers with operations that are “are a fit” for production with different goals, there are different market opportunities. Witness the recent interest in food trends towards local food and also towards specialty products such as Berkshire pork.

Niche market production isn’t for everyone, as writers Don Stoneman and Mary Baxter spell out in their story beginning on page 6. Commodity pork, from a producer’s point of view, will certainly continue to have its place, especially in day-to-day diets of families with children and teenagers to feed.

But specialty niche markets are another matter. Génétiporc sales representative Jerry Koert, who arranged for Better Pork to take photographs on Mennonite and Amish farms supplying the special needs of Quebec packer duBreton’s Humane Pork program, laid out a scenario of a dinner party where the cost of the meal’s ingredients isn’t an issue.
The centrepiece of the dinner is a specialty cut of meat, with special attributes. Perhaps it is organic. Perhaps it was raised to the standards of the Humane Pork program on straw bedding and with lots of room for the sow and litter. Regardless, that meat and its attributes, become part of an enjoyable and unique dinner conversation, Koert told Better Pork.

DuBreton isn’t alone. Other companies such as Quality Meat Packers and a host of smaller businesses are creating their own niche markets and also have a keen eye for the market they are trying to reach. Still, a producer has to wonder if these specialty markets will hold up in the face of grave concerns about an economic recession south of the border and a looming world grain shortage.

Few would argue that Europe has led the way with animal welfare. It’s no surprise, therefore, that castration has been a hot topic in Europe for decades. In the last issue of Better Pork, we noted that Switzerland had already banned piglet castration without anesthetic and that Norway is to follow suit in January of next year. Dutch retailers and fast food outlets have announced that, beginning in January, they will no longer sell pork from male hogs not anesthetized during castration.

In our Eye on Europe section this month, European correspondent Norman Dunn reviews the alternatives to castration and explains why immuno-castration vaccination is making inroads in Europe. Australia, New Zealand and Mexico have already gone this route. Will Canada and the United States be far behind?

And, finally, one issue affecting both conventional and niche market producers is Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus (PRRSV). University of Montreal researchers say that it’s costing the industry up to $150 million annually. On page 22, Kate Procter reports on one Ontario operation which has embraced a new approach to preventing the spread of this disease. It’s been evaluated by the university researchers and they say results look promising from both a cost and benefit perspective. 


Behind the Lines - April 2008

Three industry leaders, three different decisions.

As the pork industry goes through unparalleled turmoil, producers are having to make unparalleled, and difficult, decisions. For this issue’s cover story, writer Don Stoneman spoke to three industry leaders who made three different choices about their future as pork producers. This story, profiling the times of producers Bob Hunsberger, Phil Anwender and Gilbert Vanden Heuvel, starts on page 6.

Why these three producers? They’ve all been industry leaders. Hunsberger is a founding member and serves on the board of Progressive Pork Producers. He will continue to produce pork on a smaller scale so, even though he has sold the last of his sows, we haven’t heard the last of him.

Anwender has been honoured for making substantial contributions to the industry, serving on Ontario Pork’s competitiveness committee and chairing its safety nets committee. He’s getting out of pork production in Ontario, but promises to return when the markets are better.

Vanden Heuvel, a former president of the Liquid Swine Feeders Association, plans to stay in. Last fall, the management team at his barn near Goderich won a “PRRS survival award” from the Ontario Pork Industry Council’s Swine Health Advisory Board.
All three producers are adept at using numbers to see where they stand. They also represent different age groups.

Nearly two years ago, Ken McEwan, an agricultural economist at Ridgetown College, surveyed pork producers to get a picture in time of an industry already under stress from costly disease outbreaks but before the current economic crisis struck. More than half of the producers who received a detailed questionnaire filled it out.

As surveys go, the response rate was astonishing. The findings were published just over a year ago and were highly revealing. The mainstay of the Ontario pork industry remains the farrow-to-finish operator. Judging by age, many producers are likely in the second half of their careers.

Vanden Heuvel, the newest of the three to decision-making in pork production, tells us that in these tough times going to the gym regularly helps him to stay optimistic. So does hanging out with positive young producers. He thinks that technology is going to help smaller operators have the best of both large and small producer worlds.
Thinking about closing down your barn temporarily as Anwender has done? Paul Luimes, professor and animal and poultry science at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus has a check list. Closing things down right can make it a lot easier to start up again when market conditions are more conducive. That story starts on page 22.


Behind the Lines (February 2008)

Once the mainstay of farmer feeders across grain-growing areas, pork production south of the border has accumulated in a few hands over not much more than a decade. While the integrators themselves have touted the benefits of multi-site production and sow-to-packinghouse ownership, an American specialist in global development and environment has put some numbers to made-in-Washington policies that promoted soybean and corn production.

Timothy Wise, director of Global Development and Environmental Institute in Massachusetts, turned a fresh eye to agricultural issues and thinks he has filled a hole in the body of economic studies about food production and government policies.

He argues that the American Farm Bill drove down livestock feed costs, adding billions of dollars to the bottom lines of pork integrating companies, often to the detriment of farmer feeders in the traditional Mid-western growing regions. With ethanol production driving feed prices, the shoe is now on the other foot, Wise argues. And new environmental rules applied to the big operations, which don’t grow feed and spread manure on relatively small acreages, will tend to increase their costs even further.

Does this sea change matter to Ontario pork producers caught up in the feed pricing crunch? Better Pork senior staff editor Don Stoneman put the question to a number of producers and got a surprising variety of answers, which he reports in this month’s cover story starting on page 8.

All producers are interested in keeping costs down while maximizing production. Feeding blood plasma to pigs is one of those trends that is drawing a lot of interest these days.

For this issue, former Ontario agriculture ministry nutritionist Janice Murphy and pharmaceutical company swine specialist Dr. Ernie Sanford filed separate stories related to feeding blood plasma. They are looking at this feed from very different points of view. Sanford’s herd health story starts on page 22. Murphy’s nutrition column begins on page 26.

Ontario Pork’s environment specialist Sam Bradshaw has deviated from his normal topic to write about employee issues on pig farms. In June of 2006, the Occupational Health and Safety Act began applying to farms that have one or more paid workers, even for a short period of time.

Employment issues are very important to the province’s producers. In the 12 months ending Dec. 1, 2007, 2,917 producers shipped around 5.4 million hogs. That was about 90 producers fewer than in the previous year, and they shipped more pigs. Towards the end of the year, weekly slaughter was 115,000-120,000 hogs. The history of the province’s pork industry has been one of nearly constant consolidation. The trend towards fewer producers isn’t likely to change.


Behind the Lines (December 2007)

A barn fire is arguably the ultimate challenge for any livestock producer. From personal experience, I can say that the horror never really goes away. It’s hard to describe the inevitable feelings of failure, loss and uncertainty. When the unthinkable occurs, however, there is little time for feelings. Instead, you need to draw on all of your knowledge and abilities to make the best of a bad situation.

Fires, their aftermath and what producers can do to prevent them or mitigate losses are the subject of this issue’s cover story. In her first effort at writing for Better Pork, our new field editor, Mary Baxter, spoke with producers in southwestern Ontario who have lived through the agony and heartbreak of such disasters. She also talked to insurance company leaders, fire fighters and the agriculture ministry.

It’s not just the frequency of the fires that is a concern, but also the speed at which they spread through buildings that may now be as large as 100,000 square feet and cost millions of dollars to build and even more to stock.

Starting on page 20, we continue with our series on Ontario producers grappling with PRRS. This month’s article, by Kate Procter, contains some surprises as well as challenges in monitoring actual PRRS status in barns. Perhaps the outcome that surprised me most was the situation with a producer we’ve been following who has had excellent results in his battle against PRRS. He’s someone who is now achieving a respectable 25.3 pigs per sow per year.

Clearly, he has what it takes for success. Yet he is considering his future in the pork industry. Given the economic uncertainty facing our industry, I suspect he’s not alone in his thinking. Stay tuned for our next update in the February issue.

Also in this issue, swine nutritionist Janice Murphy looks at multiple feeding of sows in group housing situations so that bully sows don’t dominate the bunk. Does the technique work? The story starts on page 38.

As always, the Europeans keep forging ahead. Norman Dunn, who writes for us from Germany, looks at labour worries in Denmark, price concerns in Britain and pork tastes in Germany. There’s always something new in the pork industry and Better Pork keeps bringing it to you.