Porc Show covers markets, farm costs and more

By Andrew Heck

For the second year in a row, the Porc Show’s guests will not be treated to the beautiful sights and sounds of Quebec City, but the programming has remained as high-quality as ever.

The Porc Show’s virtual format returned for three consecutive weeks on Nov. 23, Nov. 30 and Dec. 7, 2021, welcoming nearly 1,000 guests tuned in from around the world. It was the eighth edition since the event’s inception and the second one held virtually, in light of COVID-19 concerns. The event was held in-person in Quebec City from 2014 to 2020.

“It’s a very dynamic sector, and in the last five years, we’ve seen great growth… But sometimes, if we take a closer look, we can see there’s been trouble as well,” said André Lamontagne, Minister, Quebec Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. “There are issues on the farm but also at the processing level. We can hope to see progress in the short term.”

While the event’s stunning location was greatly missed again this year, each day of the Porc Show featured multiple presentations on a variety of compelling topics, from pork market development, to managing on-farm costs, to promoting pig health and more.

Pork markets at the mercy of the pandemic, politics

The Tianzow breeding farm is a ‘hog hotel’ in China’s Sichuan province. A desire to recover from African Swine Fever (ASF) and reduce pork imports is driving rapid infrastructure expansion in the country.

Zhan Su, Professor & Chair, International Business, University of Laval believes that China will continue to be a thorn in the side of international pork traders. A reported rapid herd recovery from African Swine Fever (ASF) is looked upon dubiously by many pork-exporting countries, including Canada, but larger geopolitical considerations could continue factoring into the market’s ebb and flow.

While China would love to become more self-sufficient and curb its reliance on foreign pork, imports have surged in the last decade, now composing 10 per cent of the total volume of pork consumed domestically. Prior to 2008, China was a net exporter of pork. That year, the country imported less than 500,000 metric tonnes, and by 2020, it was importing more than 4.5 million metric tonnes. Even if ASF recovery happens as the Chinese government reports, pork from the Americas, Europe and Australia should remain desirable for years to come.

Rob Murphy, Executive Vice President, J.S. Ferraro – a Toronto-based meat and livestock market analysis firm – takes a less optimistic position on the Chinese market.

“Some time in the summer of 2021, the Chinese hog price dropped below the cost of production and has stayed there ever since,” said Murphy. “They will still be importing pork, but it won’t be nearly as strong as the height of the ASF problem in 2020.”

Murphy also thinks the U.S. hog herd could shrink in the first quarter of 2022, reducing hog availability and increasing hog prices for farmers, but numbers are expected to rebound in the second and third quarters, which could drive prices significantly lower.

“On average, for 2022, we end up with a cut-out in the mid- to lower-$80 value, which isn’t bad, historically, but it’s still quite a bit lower than the past year,” he added.

COVID-19 has a role to play on the processing side as well, as government-issued income supports for meatpacking plant workers may have collectively, artificially inflated incomes beyond the pre-COVID-19 growth trend, which has pulled some workers away from the sector altogether, adding to the existing problem of labour shortages, labour cost inflation and food price inflation for consumers farther down the value chain. However, these same income supports, taken together with foodservice restrictions, have driven pork demand at retail in the U.S., as more consumers are cooking at home, and as chicken and beef prices soar.

For Jan Peter van Ferneij, Senior Animal Protein Analyst, French Technical Institute of Pork (IFIP), global pork supply and demand may reduce in step with each other in the coming year. European Union (E.U.) exports to China dropped dramatically in 2021 compared to the past two years, but a projected decline of hog production in the U.S. could result in tighter inventories.

“For Canada, the consequences are the same. This year, China will not maintain the same demand as last year,” said Van Ferneij. “For now, we’re not seeing Russia much on the international scene, but things are developing in a sustained manner. Russia is suffering from ASF, and this is going to jeopardize their export ability, but if there is demand, Russia will develop exports. We will see this production uptick.”

In addition, Van Ferneij believes ASF’s expansion to new countries, social pressures, labour shortages and changing consumption patterns will play a role in the markets going forward.

Managing on-farm costs for better returns

Understanding cost of production is key to keeping margins positive for producers, according to Daniel Leblond (right). But a true understanding takes a commitment to properly gathering data over multiple years.

The skyrocketing relationship between cost of production and its direct link to feed costs has dominated the discussion for producers in the past year. Of all the proposed solutions, Daniel Leblond, General Manager, Groupe Porc LV Inc. – a 1,200-sow farrow-to-finish operation southeast of Quebec City – believes the most credible solutions are found within producers’ own operations.

“You need fixed points that allow you to look at the data and react accordingly,” said Leblond. “Risk management is a work tool within the business, and it will become more accessible for everybody. We used to need complicated math, but now we have tools that allow it to be done on a smaller scale. You need to understand your production costs. Accounting should look at a range of three to five years.”

Underscoring the importance of forward thinking, Leblond reminds producers to be patient and thoughtful toward the bigger picture, rather than seeking short-term gain.

“The day you know your production costs, you can see your weaknesses and strengths,” he added. “It’s not just risk management, but when you know those costs, the risk manages itself. Making a profit of $10 per pig for 10 months is better than making $20 per pig for just two months.”

The often-unseen or less considered aspects of production costs include everyday equipment maintenance. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, farm loss prevention expert Jean-Claude Fecteau, President, In-Prev Inc. believes neglecting to fix minor issues within a barn can transpire into much larger problems down the road.

Electricity is the main cause of fires and losses in agriculture, which is why it is important to ensure work is being done properly, with attention paid to waterproofing and rodent-proofing especially. As an example, in winter, mice crave the heat generated by electrical panels and will make a home on the inside if there are gaps in the panel cover. This can go unnoticed if the panel is not being regularly checked. Generators, too, can be an ignored source of overheating and fire. Annual or bi-annual inspections by professionals are recommended, along with heat alarms for electrical panels.

Heating equipment itself can also become damaged over time and with the change in seasons. Proper suspension of equipment from barn walls and ceilings is necessary so that corrosion does not result in critical failures that send objects crashing onto the floor.

Promoting pig health and welfare

While the idea of ‘intuitive eating’ (what you want, when you want) is becoming popular in human society, allowing sows open access to varied diets can help them process feed more efficiently.

As feed represents the most significant consideration in cost of production, sow feeding may be worth a fresh look, according to Bruno Silva, Professor, Pig Nutrition and Environmental Adaptation, University of Minas Gerais (Brazil).

“Heat stress is the first limiting factor for feed intake. But, in reality, feed intake is just one of the factors related to metabolism,” said Silva. “If I let the sow decide how she wants to eat during gestation, how will she?”

Feeding sows a very starch-heavy diet, manually, only once a day can lead to what we as humans understand as the “McDonald’s effect” – the feeling of lingering hunger and increased agitation despite having eaten a large quantity of food. On the contrary, sows fed precisely calculated diets, using free-access systems, have lower cortisol levels (indicating less stress) than sows fed in certain conventional ways, such as using troughs positioned next to gestation crates. Lower stress equals better nutrient absorption. The use of group sow housing has an inherently beneficial impact here, and the inclusion of a fibre supplement can also slow the metabolism of glucose, which helps sows feel fuller longer.

“You will have some sows that fall within in an ideal range, some with metabolic disorders and some that are below potential,” said Silva. “Understanding each type will help formulate diets… The way you feed your sow during gestation will affect her feed intake during lactation.”

While sows today have a higher metabolism than in years gone by, reducing the overall need for feed intake, it is worth noting that sows do not stop growing themselves until after their fourth parity, and with each parity, a sow must still expend a large amount of energy, on account of lactation. By using best management practices in gestation, energy expense for the sow can be more efficient, which aids in her post-farrowing recovery and can lead to cost savings.

Even as some producers express reservations when it comes to converting to group sow housing, Yolande Seddon, Professor, Swine Behaviour and Welfare, University of Saskatchewan believes the transition has value, recognizing the large capital cost associated with making the change.

“When a producer is familiar with these systems, you can have similar performance between a free-farrowing system and a farrowing crate system,” said Seddon.

In Europe, where animal welfare is generally considered to be more progressive, support for greater welfare has become an increasingly important demand. In Germany, state-level welfare labelling for animal-based food products at retail is supported by more than 80 per cent of consumers. In Spain, the existing labelling system includes a tiered ranking that considers everything from minimum E.U. standards up to additional improvements related to space, pain management and enrichment.

As in Europe, analgesics are required in Canada for pain management in tail docking and castration at any age, but this is not the case in the U.S. For that reason, Seddon believes Canada is better positioned in this regard, as it relates to satisfying modern demands. In most parts of Asia, animal welfare standards are considerably lower or non-existent, but in Brazil, standards are being brought up to match some of the more progressive systems in the world, as a way to secure market access.

“Globally, there is an obligation to provide appropriate care for animals,” said Seddon. “The expectation is that good animal care means good food safety. Animal welfare is part of product quality and, therefore, forms part of this trust.”

Looking forward to the ‘new normal’?

The Porc Show’s ‘Cook It’ box featured all ingredients to prepare pork shaobing – a shallow-fried stuffed bun – at home, in addition to a video tutorial demonstrating the process.

Last year, as COVID-19 fatigue had already set in for many, there was faint hope in-person gatherings could be held again at the same time this year. For some events across the country, this has been the case, but for many others yet, the situation has not improved enough to generate the necessary confidence to make the commitment.

Nevertheless, the Porc Show’s organizers have done an impeccable job delivering this major bilingual conference virtually, even incorporating some ‘normal’ aspects in addition to presentations, such as a digital networking space and recognition for Quebec food.

The Porc Show’s ‘Cook It’ box, available by mail for participants in Quebec and Ontario, featured a delicious-looking pork shaobing recipe for entertaining a party of four. The box was created by chef Anita Feng, proprietor of a new Chinese eatery in Montreal, J’ai Feng. The box is cleverly designed to bring a taste of hands-on fine dining into the homes of those who chose to order it.

The ‘Cook It’ box, along with a culinary student competition, brought a much-desired personal element into the event beyond the conference basics. These efforts do not go unnoticed, especially when guests are left wanting the human connection that is sadly lost with virtual events.

From pork market development, to managing on-farm costs, to promoting pig health and the extra perks afforded by the program, the Porc Show is a reminder for the entire Canadian pork sector to continue the conversations, inspiration and dedication that shape the resiliency of everyone who strives to make the industry great, even during troubled times.