Small-lot pork production: successes and risks

As more small-lot producers contribute to the amount of pork raised in Canada, a lack of biosecurity awareness threatens the broader industry.

by Jackie Clark

At first glance, commercial pork producers might not easily identify the similarities between their operations and the farms of non-commercial or small-lot producers.

After all, a significant difference in scale exists. In 2020, the average number of pigs per farm in Canada is 1,814, Statistics Canada says. As the term small lot suggests, these producers have much smaller herds.

Commercial and small-lot producers typically differ in their housing types and breed selection, too.

Despite these differences, both types of producers share some goals: producing high-quality pork and protecting the health of their herds.

Given the increasing concerns about diseases like African swine fever, these seemingly disparate players must continue to further their education and biosecurity efforts to protect the national swine industry.

This month, Better Pork connects with pork industry experts, as well as two small-lot pork producers, to discuss the challenges this sector faces. We also highlight how the commercial industry can play a role in risk mitigation.

What is “small lot?”

“There isn’t a strict definition” of what constitutes a small-lot pork producer, says Dr. Kelsey Gray, a veterinarian at Prairie Swine Health Services in Red Deer, Alta.

Some provincial governments or pork boards have definitions, which leads to variability across regions, explains Dr. Egan Brockhoff. He is a partner at Prairie Swine Health Services and veterinary counsellor for the Canadian Pork Council (CPC).

For example, “in British Columbia, a small-lot producer is anybody who markets less than 300 hogs per year,” Tom Droppo tells Better Pork. He’s the pork and dairy industry specialist with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, based in Abbotsford and Duncan.

A great diversity of small-lot farms and practices exist. These producers raise anywhere from one or two to over 100 pigs, says Brockhoff.

In general, “these farms do not participate in the Canadian Pork Excellence programs. … These farms are not marketing pigs to federally inspected slaughter plants,” says Brockhoff.

The Canadian Quality Assurance program, now referred to as PigSafe, outlines standards for food safety and biosecurity. Combined with standards of animal care (PigCare) and traceability (PigTrace), those standards make up the Canadian Pork Excellence platform. Registration with PigTrace is mandatory by law for all pork producers across Canada, whereas the other components of the Canadian Pork Excellence program are only required if producers send their hogs to federally inspected processing plants.

By participating in the Canadian Pork Excellence platform, commercial producers demonstrate that they have met national standards for pork production.

Small-lot producers typically raise pigs outdoors and process their pork at provincially inspected slaughter plants, Gray adds.

Small-lot pork farmers are “producers, they just do (things) differently,” she says. “A lot of outdoor producers raise heritage breeds. … By nature, heritage breeds take longer (to raise), and they’re also less efficient.”

These farms may be called smallholders, hobby farms, or outdoor or pasture production. But most small-lot producers “don’t like being called backyard producers,” says Gray. This term can be perceived as “diminishing what they do.”

What they do is raise pork in Canada.

Sector growth

In Canada, the number of people raising pork in small-lot operations is growing.

“In B.C., we probably have the smallest commercial pork concentration of any province. We only have about 15 commercial producers here,” says Droppo. “But we probably have more than 100 times that figure in terms of small-lot producers.”

To get an idea of national numbers, Brockhoff took the total number of premises registered through PigTrace and subtracted the number of premises enrolled in the PigSafe program. This calculation provides an estimate of 8,248 farms considered commercial, and 7,734 farms operated by small-lot producers, he says.

“We don’t have a lot of historic data but, right now, about 90 new outdoor or hobby sites are being added (nationally) per month,” he says. “The challenge is – are those new producers who never had pigs before? Or are these producers just recognizing that it is regulation in Canada to register a premises ID with pigs?”

While we don’t have a clear sense of the trajectory, we know the number of small-lot pork producers in Canada is increasing.

Tera Chanasyk and Worthington Worthington are two such producers.

Chanasyk has a 111-acre farm with her husband in Carstairs, Alta. The couple started their operation, Triple Eh Farms, with chickens and horses, then began raising cattle.

“The next logical step was to get some pigs,” she says. She chose the Kunekune breed.

“They were expensive to get into but they had some characteristics that made me keep coming back to them,” Chanasyk explains. Kunekune pigs tend to be docile and less destructive than other breeds.

Worthington also raises Kunekune pigs on Whispering Wind Farms in Carstairs, Alta. She first raised cattle to produce grass-fed beef and had customers asking for pork.

She now has over 100 pigs, including animals for pasture pork and breeding stock.

However, both Chanasyk and Worthington needed to be resourceful to find accurate information about how to safely and effectively raise pigs in a small-lot system. Small-lot pork producers don’t have a single, recognized association and few informational resources or extension specialists are available with expertise in this type of production.

Nursing Piglets
Small-lot producers “are viewed as probably the highest risk in terms of biosecurity to the commercial pork sector Canada-wide,” Tom Droppo says. - Whispering Wind Farms photo

The lack of readily available information for novice small-lot producers causes some concern among experienced members of the swine industry. These stakeholders worry about animal health and biosecurity risk to the broader Canadian herd.

For example, many small-lot producers who reached out to Droppo were unaware that, “under federal legislation, anybody who has a pig is supposed to have a premises ID … and be registered with PigTrace,” he says. “That program is one of the foundations in keeping track of and being able to manage a health crisis or outbreak.”

Health challenges

Broadly speaking, small-lot and outdoor pig producers face different animal health challenges compared to producers operating commercial herds.

“The stocking densities (in small-lot production) are much lower than in commercial production,” so certain diseases tend to spread less, explains Gray.

However, she observes “more parasite diseases and more diseases associated with skin issues because of sunburn. We see some soil-borne diseases that we don’t really see as much in commercial production. … Generally, the disease challenge is there (in small-lot production), it’s just different” than in commercial production.

Sometimes, small-lot producers’ lack of understanding of the nutritional requirements of pigs leads to malnourishment diseases, Gray adds. She has also observed cases where pigs are positive for diseases like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome or porcine epidemic diarrhea, but not showing clinical signs.

Pigs in some small-lot farms “might test positive for some of these diseases,” she says. However, the diseases may not “really cause production-limiting consequences because, one, the farmers are not producing pigs at such an intense capacity and, two, (the pigs) might just be a bit heartier,” she adds.

Brockhoff has seen “old diseases in (small-lot) pigs that really haven’t been seen in commercial production in 20 years,” he says. Those illnesses may reappear in small-lot settings because fewer biosecurity protocols exist, and producers may have less institutional knowledge.

“A lot of people new to pigs are unaware of common diseases,” he explains.

Many of these small-lot producers try to do what’s best for their pigs, but the farmers run into conflicting information online, says Chanasyk. “They don’t know what they don’t know. Some of them go out of their way to try to source information and hit obstacle after obstacle,” she says.

“It’s not an easy thing to find swine vets,” adds Worthington.

Chanasyk agrees.

Kunekune Pig
    Whispering Wind Farms photo

“It’s really hard to find a vet who specializes in swine, and sometimes hard for (small-lot producers) to find a vet who will even see their pigs or … order vaccines in for their pigs,” she says. “It is quite frustrating for me to know that some small producers are really trying to get support and they’re just not receiving it.”

Biosecurity awareness

Some small-lot producers “are very well informed but, for many people, (biosecurity considerations are) all brand new,” says Brockhoff. “I would say, in general, the level of understanding of biosecurity would be poor.”

Droppo agrees.

While “many do an excellent job,” some producers show “a lack of understanding or respect for how quickly a disease can be introduced to a farm,” he says.

Biosecurity going to and from slaughter is one of the main issues, says Gray. She has witnessed producers sharing trailers. She’s also read of offers to share boars.

“We need to figure out better biosecurity messaging for outdoor” producers, she says.

Chanasyk and Worthington both employ stringent herd health and biosecurity protocols on their farms.

When she got her pigs, Chanasyk reached out to Prairie Swine Health Services. She worked with Gray to confirm nutrition programs, and to set up a vaccination program and parasite control.

Chanasyk “wanted to add some good genetics” to her herd, so she investigated requirements for importing pigs, she says. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency had to approve the farm’s quarantine facility and biosecurity protocols.

“We were kind of in the fire right away,” she says.

That trial by fire gave Chanasyk the experience to develop effective everyday biosecurity practices on the farm.

“We welcome visitors. … It’s really important that people who want to get into pigs can get to farms,” says Chanasyk. However, she talks to the visitors in advance to see if they’ve had recent exposure to livestock. All visitors use a boot dip and hand sanitizer upon arrival.

“We wouldn’t have somebody come in who would have just visited another pig farm,” she explains.

Kelly Worthington holding pig
For Kelly Worthington, biosecurity “is about protecting the pork industry. One little thing could devastate the industry.”- Brownlee Photography

Worthington takes similar actions on her farm. “Whenever we have new pigs come in, we do a minimum 30-day quarantine,” she says. Then she deworms or vaccinates as needed.

She has a questionnaire and protocol for farm visitors.

It can be hard with pasture to completely protect the farm, Worthington says. But, “if we go to the butcher, etc., we give our truck a complete washdown before we come back in,” she adds. For her, biosecurity “is about protecting the pork industry. One little thing could devastate the industry.”

The risk

“It’s my opinion that small or outdoor producers … contribute a significant risk to the whole swine industry,” says Chanasyk.

Droppo agrees.

The concern is more than just major foreign animal diseases, such as African swine fever, that could devastate the industry, he says. Illnesses already present in Canada might not catastrophic on a large scale but could still pose a lot of risk to individual producers.

As a result of these concerns, industry leaders have moved to invest “time, money and resources in putting programs together” for small-lot producers, Droppo adds.

Swine experts “want to protect (the entire pork) sector. It brings a lot of value to the Canadian economy,” says Brockhoff.

Small-lot pork producers “provide food for people as well. So, we want to do everything we can to keep those animals healthy. It’s reciprocal. Both sides of the fence will be more successful if everyone’s closely monitoring their herd health and, of course, biosecurity is probably the most important way to do that,” says Brockhoff.

“So how do you close the gap?” asks Chanasyk.

She loves her pigs, she says. But “I would rather see small producers eliminated than to continue the way (some) are. It’s an animal welfare issue as well,” she adds.

Potential solutions

Chanasyk, Worthington, Brockhoff, Droppo and Gray strive to assist and provide peer support to the small-lot sector of the pork industry.

“We’re starting to engage with (small-lot producers) more and it’s becoming more of a conversation. I think it’s going to be the repeated efforts that will probably make the biggest difference,” says Gray. She hopes to emphasize key messages around the highest risk activities, such as advising farmers not to feed meat scraps to pigs.

The CPC is also developing more resources for small-lot producers, says Droppo. Making information about biosecurity, nutrition, housing, genetics, breed selection, traceability, and regulations at feed mills or abattoirs readily available could help. Industry leaders plan to provide workshops or webinars for small-lot producers.

Chanasyk hopes officials will “develop an online class on best practices for non-commercial producers,” she says. The classes could lead to a certification process that shows small-lot producers have met some industry standard of knowledge.

Jessica Law checking on pigs
Dr. Jessica Law, a veterinarian at Prairie Swine Health Services, checks on the pigs at Whispering Wind Farms. - Whispering Wind Farms photo

Officials could model more specialized veterinary support for small-lot producers after human health programs, Chanasyk says. In remote locations, on-site medics communicate with doctors, so they can help to diagnose and treat patients. Similarly, veterinary technicians or other animal health experts could specialize in swine and consult with veterinarians remotely to deliver services to more producers.

The question remains of who will organize and fund these potential solutions.

Industry experts and groups have “taken some really positive steps to reach out to the small-lot sector,” says Droppo. “What I’ve seen the last two years is more than I’ve seen in 20 years. I’m quite happy with what I see happening, but it’s not too soon.”

While the commercial industry should play a role, “it can’t be just industry stepping up,” says Brockhoff. The federal and provincial governments must provide support for education, he adds. BP

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