Pork Producers Protect the Environment

Canadian hog farmers are global leaders in environmental stewardship and sustainability. This month, we celebrate the industry’s accomplishments and highlight new opportunities.

by Kate Ayers

Canadian swine producers strive to take optimal care of their livestock and the environment, protecting them for the next generations.

For example, officials estimate that the amount of natural resources that pigs use has decreased over the last 50 years by about 50 per cent per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of pork, Manitoba Pork’s website says.

Pigs in pen with waterer
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

In addition, for every kilogram of pork that farmers produce, they use about 40 per cent less water, 33 per cent less feed and up to 59 per cent less land than hog producers five decades ago. Today’s farms also emit 35 per cent less greenhouse gases.

And producers want to drive these numbers down even further.

“Farmers are innovators. (Producers) have and will continue to implement improvements as they come along, as long as they prove to be economically viable,” says Sheldon Stott, a Manitoba pork producer and senior director of corporate sustainability at HyLife Ltd.

soil with corn in background
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

“I think environmental stewardship is about staying diligent, being cognizant of our impacts and holding our-selves and our peers accountable for the activities we’re doing on our landscapes,” he adds.

HyLife Ltd., headquartered in La Broquerie, Man., is Canada’s largest pork producer and global exporter of high-quality pork products, the company’s website says.

Pork Producers Protect the Environment
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

This month, Better Pork speaks with farmers, producer group representatives, researchers and environmental specialists to highlight the new approaches that farmers have adopted in recent years to ensure that Canada’s pork sector remains one of the most efficient in the world.

We also learn about the best management practices that producers can use in their operations to reduce their environmental footprints.

Environmental regulations

Canadian farmers are proud of their operations and follow strict rules and regulations to protect the environment.

For example, Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act, 1990, concerns the protection and conservation of the natural environment. This act has requirements for the containment, clean up and disposal of any agriculture-related discharge that is not in accordance with the province’s nutrient management protocols, says Sam Bradshaw, Ontario Pork’s environmental specialist.

In Ontario, farmers must also abide by the Clean Water Act, 2006, which concerns the mitigation of risks associated with any land-use activity that is designated as a significant drinking water threat in accordance with local source protection policy plan requirements, Bradshaw says.

And Ontario producers must also be aware of the Planning Act, 1990. This provincial act “concerns ground rules for land-use planning, including official plans that guide future development in an area and zoning bylaws that direct how farmland may be used and where buildings may be placed,” he adds.

manure management
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

In Manitoba, “hog farmers must file an annual manure management plan with the provincial government,” Grant Melnychuk, Manitoba Pork’s manager of sustainable development says in an email statement.

This document outlines “what fields they will apply manure to, how much manure they will apply and what crops they will grow.”

In addition, “there are strict limits as to how close to waterways and wells manure can be applied. Manure cannot be applied on frozen ground to prevent spring melt runoff, and manure cannot leave a property once applied,” he adds.

Other provinces also protect the environment through legislation. While adhering to all relevant regulations, Canadian farmers often go above and beyond to ensure they do what is best for the environment, says Stott.

Nutrient management

In many livestock operations, farmers harvest crops for feed and apply the resulting manure on their fields. Livestock are part of the natural carbon cycle.

However, these animals produce a lot of manure that farmers must handle properly to ensure nutrients do not leach into environmentally sensitive areas or waterways.

Corn field in sunset
    David Sucsy/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“Most pork producers test their soil and manure to make sure they are fertilizing to crop needs,” says Bradshaw.

Dr. Brett Kaysen, assistant vice-president of sustainability for the National Pork Board in Iowa, agrees.

When the time comes to apply manure on fields in the spring and fall, farmers can reduce the environmental effects by “measuring and managing,” he says in an interview with Better Pork.

“When you are trying to balance nitrogen (N) and phosphorus, you start with measuring what nutrients you have in your soils and knowing what nutrients the crop requires. There are platforms and software programs that can help farmers with N balance so we don’t have excessive N in the soil that could harm waterways.”

When applying manure to their fields, many farmers also adhere to the 4R principles: the right source, the right rate, the right time and the right place.

“We require all our manure applicators to install GPS and GIS technology in their equipment, which tracks the exact placement of the products on the fields as well as the rates,” says Stott.

When Stott and his team analyze this data alongside soil and manure samples, the producers ensure that they abide by the 4Rs, he says.

Stott’s approach is not unique: many Canadian pork producers use “guidance systems, yield mapping and variable rate technology to precisely monitor all inputs used on the farm,” says Mike Mitchell, Ontario Pork’s Middlesex County director.

Some farmers also use manure injection, which benefits crops and the environment.

This approach places the manure near the root zone of plants, greatly reduces the risk of runoff and decreases greenhouse gas emissions, Melnychuk says.

Feed efficiencies

Feed production accounts for 52 per cent of the carbon footprint resulting from the production of one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of Canadian pork, says a 2018 report on the life cycle assessment of pork production. Manure management – storage and treatment – accounts for 26 per cent of the carbon that farms produce. Other contributors – including meat processing and on-farm energy use – account for 22 per cent, the report says.

“As swine producers improve the feed conversion ratio, that is reducing the amount of feed needed to produce a pound of pork, the land base for crop production and associated effects will decrease,” says Dr. Greg Thoma, a professor in the Ralph E. Martin department of chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas.

“This increased animal efficiency will lead to lower amounts of manure to be managed, also reducing impacts.”

In 2015, Thoma and a team of researchers completed a life cycle assessment and costing economic analysis for American swine operations.

Jean-Michel Couture, a partner and senior consultant in corporate responsibility at Groupe Agéco in Montreal, Que., agrees that less is more. Groupe Agéco is a consulting firm that specializes in economic studies and sustainability in the agri-food sector, and its team conducts environmental life cycle analyses.

Optimizing feed rations is beneficial from animal health, economic and environmental perspectives, Couture says. Farmers should look at their inputs – such as feed, gas and electricity – and compare their values to the farms’ outcomes, including product yield, water footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.

“The more you can produce with fewer inputs,” the lower your footprint will be, he adds. “Yield is a significant factor for productivity and for reducing the environmental footprint of production.”

Since the composition of animals’ diets and quantities of feed intake affect the sector’s environmental footprint, industry stakeholders and researchers strive to improve this aspect of production.

“Most farmers are constantly improving feed rations for better efficiency,” says Bradshaw.

Phytase, for example, helps reduce pigs’ environmental impact. This feed ingredient increases the digestibility of phosphorus found in cereal grains, allowing the pigs to better use the feed, which reduces the amount of the nutrient that can leach into groundwater, he adds.

Nutrition specialists play a key role in these efforts, Stott adds.

“One of the biggest advancements that we have implemented is having nutritionists looking at the pigs’ nutritional requirements,” he says. “Then we formulate our feed to meet” the animals’ needs.

Continuous improvements

As environmental stewards, Canadian producers are diligent about manure storage, energy and water use, and land conservation.

“Pig farmers are committed to continuous improvement,” Kaysen says. They recognize the industry’s progress in environmental stewardship over the years but ask “How can we do even better?”

Many farms in Ontario, for example, have environmental farm plans. Creating a plan increases producers’ environmental awareness of 23 areas on their farms, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs website says.

Farmers identify environmental strengths and weaknesses in their operations, and participation in local workshops helps producers develop action plans to deal with vulnerable areas on their farms.

In the field, “a lot of producers are using no till, minimum tillage and strip tillage,” Bradshaw says.

“Other farmers are planting cover crops to reduce erosion, use excess nitrogen and control weeds.”

Farmers are also investing in drainage and water protection infrastructure in their fields.

“Many farmers are building berms to slow down water runoff that could carry sediment and phosphorus” into nearby steams or water bodies, Bradshaw says.

“A number of producers are planting trees as buffers to reduce odours” and the risk of water contamination.

In manure storage pits, some farmers “use additives to ease agitation, save fuel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Mitchell says.

In the barn, producers monitor their water and energy use to make sure resources are not wasted.

To reduce water use, farmers must first acknowledge “how much they are using,” says Stott.

“We track water usage daily on our farms. We submit those numbers to our compliance specialists monthly, and then we analyze our use to understand if it is in line with what the norms are across the province. If levels exceed the norm, then we investigate why.”

On many hog farms, leaky water pipes are the top cause of excessive water use. So, producers need to be diligent in repairing leaks and conducting regular maintenance, Stott adds.

“In terms of energy usage, our modern barns are fantastic facilities. Farmers look at different factors like insulation, air flow and lighting in the barn to reduce energy use and use it most efficiently,” says Kaysen.

Farmers are installing energy efficient LED lights, programming “feedmixing systems to run during off-peak times and converting electrical heaters to propane or natural gas,” Bradshaw says.

Consumers want to know

Canadians are becoming increasingly concerned about the origins of their food and how it gets from farms to their tables. As a result, pork producers need to effectively tell their stories and highlight the good work they do.

“On social media, consumers are constantly talking about environmental stewardship, sustainability, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions,” says Kaysen.

“We as pig farmers need to talk to consumers and say, ‘Hey, we want to connect with you and demonstrate our values, principles and practices on our farms.’”

Mitchell agrees.

“It is important for consumers to know that pork producers are always looking for efficiency improvements in both feed and energy use in pork production,” he says.

This information can help consumers “appreciate the sustainability we strive for in the production of the pork that they consume.”

Canadians want to know that pork industry stakeholders are committed to improving their practices and doing the right thing, Couture says. So, farmers need to communicate their efforts clearly.

Environmental sustainability “has become an important piece of marketing our products,” Stott says. We must show consumers “the environmental stewardship that we perform not only on our pig farms but also in our processing facilities.” BP

Funding Environmentally Friendly On-Farm Changes

Pork producers are always looking for ways to improve their farms’ efficiencies and reduce their environmental footprints. Across Canada, producers can find funding programs to help cover some of the associated costs.

The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA), for example, offers several funding and educational programs to help farmers in the province achieve these goals.

Karen Jacobs, a program coordinator with OSCIA, provides descriptions of available programs.

Environmental Farm Plan (educational)

Helps identify risks by completing a self assessment for 23 areas of the farm.

Farmers must have a verified complete 4th Edition Environmental Farm Plan to be eligible for funding through any of the OSCIA-delivered programs.

Details can be found at ontariosoilcrop.org/oscia-programs/workshops-webinars/environmental-farm-plan/.

Farmland Health Check-Up (educational)

One-on-one discussions between farmers and participating certified crop advisers or professional agrologists assess soil health on specific areas of the farm.

Producers require a Farmland Health Check-Up to be eligible for funding through the Lake Erie Agriculture Demonstrating Sustainability (LEADS) program.

Details can be found at ontariosoilcrop.org/canadian-agricultural-partnership/farm-health-check-up.

Canadian Agricultural Partnership (funding)

The environmental stewardship stream of the Partnership offers financial support to farmers implementing environmental projects.

Funding is also available in the protection and assurances stream and the economic development stream of the Partnership.

More information is available at ontariosoilcrop.org/canadian-agricultural-partnership and ontarioprogramguides.net/en.

LEADS (funding)

Eligible projects must be located in the Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair watersheds, and aim to improve soil health and water quality and to reduce agriculturally sourced phosphorus in Lake Erie.

More information about the program is available at ontariosoilcrop.org/canadian-agricultural-partnership/lake-erie-agriculture-demonstrating-sustainability-leads and ontarioprogramguides.net/en.

Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (funding)

This program is available to all Ontario producers who are interested in implementing best management practices that also create, enhance and protect habitat to support species at risk on agricultural lands. Details are available at ontariosoilcrop.org/oscia-programs/sarpal.

Resources for similar programs exist in other provinces too.











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