Engaging small-scale producers pays dividends

By Andrew Heck

Compared to commercial hog producers, small-scale farmers raise just a fraction of pigs in Canada, but their need and desire for industry information continues to increase.

In the last two decades or longer, a predictable phenomenon has swept almost all regions where commercial pork production exists on a significant level: a trend toward larger, fewer farms with increased herd sizes. In most provinces, that means fewer than half of all producers – commercial operations – raise nearly all of the hogs accounted for, while the balance of producers run small-scale farms, not to be overlooked.

There is room in the Canadian pork industry for both commercial and small-scale production, as they typically serve different end-users. Many small-scale producers are responsible for supplying hogs to local provincially inspected abattoirs, while some perform on-farm slaughter for farmgate sales or personal consumption. In any case, the presence of small-scale producers represents an increasingly greater and more important challenge as time goes on: effective communication.

Regardless of size, all producers have a role to play in responsible pig stewardship, which helps protect our $24-billion annual industry when it comes to animal care, health and traceability. And it is incumbent upon producer organizations and the broader industry to invest more heavily in this area, as foreign animal diseases and public trust concerns continue to emerge.

Surveying small-scale producers across Canada

Most small-scale producers raise pigs outdoors, with optional shelter provided.

Last year, Prairie Swine Centre launched a survey of small-scale producers across Canada’s main pork-producing regions.

The survey sought information in four main areas: operational features, herd composition, pig health and disease awareness. The survey was completed by nearly 600 producers, of whom, nearly nine of 10 own fewer than 25 pigs total. A similar number of those producers reside in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, with the occasional British Columbian or Maritime producer included for good measure. More than half of all surveyed own pigs for only part of the year, with fewer than one-fifth housing pigs entirely inside a barn, favouring mixed indoor-outdoor production.

“It confirmed what we thought in certain areas,” said Murray Pettitt, CEO, Prairie Swine Centre. “While most of the results weren’t too surprising, it is a bit concerning how many respondents indicated that they feed food scraps to their pigs and were unaware of certain diseases, like African Swine Fever.”

As a follow-up to the survey, Prairie Swine Centre is looking at options to improve small-scale producer engagement, including the potential development of fact sheets and videos as resources. Recently, a new website (‘www.smallscalepigfarming.com’) was launched to support knowledge transfer.

As Pettitt sees it, part of the challenge could be the widespread availability of misinformation on social media, especially for someone new to raising pigs.

“Many farmers prefer to get their information from diverse sources, such as other producers, veterinarians, websites and social media,” said Pettitt. “This new website will be identified as a source of accurate information, allowing small-scale farms to have confidence in the content they choose to seek out.”

Recognizing the challenge at hand, Pettitt has posed some pointed questions.

“Are the knowledge gaps related to new people coming into pigs, or is it something else?” asked Pettit. “Can we communicate most effectively by understanding farmers’ goals and objectives, which can be different from the needs of large-scale production? What resonates with them?”

At least one possible answer could be the use of interactive sessions to strike down some of the myths around small-scale farming, to bring those individuals into the circle of trust that the commercial industry is hoping to widen.

“The whole effort is really about education,” said Pettitt. “It can be difficult for small farms to find useful, factual information applicable to the way they raise their pigs. Key information on topics like feed and biosecurity are important to all producers in Canada, no matter the size. By making this information easier to access, collectively, we will better protect the health and welfare of Canadian pigs.”

Webinars link small-scale producers to experts

Kelsey Gray of Prairie Livestock Veterinarians led a series of Alberta-based webinars for small-scale producers last year.

Alberta Pork supported a three-part webinar series last year with Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC) and Prairie Livestock Veterinarians. The series invited dozens of small-scale producers to attend hour-long broadcasts, free-of-charge, for anyone who owns a small number of pigs or may wish to do so in the future, covering everything from legislative concerns around pig ownership to proper handling. Funding from Alberta Pork made the webinars possible.

“Producers can often be set in their ways,” said Charlotte Shipp, Industry Programs Manager, Alberta Pork. “You would be hard-pressed to find a producer who does not take raising pigs seriously, but the ‘right way’ of doing things can mean something different to everyone.”

Certain production practices that are more prevalent with small herds include things like raising pigs on pasture, which increases the animals’ risk of stress due to weather, interactions with wildlife and potential disease incursions. While these practices hearken back to the traditional way of doing things, the industry has evolved considerably in recent decades. For small-scale producers who are not as up-to-speed with the modern industry, there is still progress to be made when it comes to registering their farms with provincial pork organizations and entering their pig movements into Canada’s national traceability database, PigTrace.

Producer registration captures important information

Producer and premise registration through the appropriate provincial pork organization is a legally required first step to moving pigs, which are tracked in PigTrace.

Few small-scale pig producers rely on their hog operations as a sole source of income, and some of those producers are caught off-guard when it comes to registering with provincial organizations, which is legislated for anyone who owns even a single pig.

This is most easily observed in late summer, when, every year, requests come into the provinces for last-minute registrations. What often happens is that a producer arrives at his or her intended abattoir with a hog and is then informed by the processor of the registration requirement. Because abattoirs are responsible for collecting and submitting producer levies to the appropriate provincial organizations, to collect that levy, producers must be registered in advance. This process can sometimes be expedited on-the-spot, assuming traceability officials are available to assist at any given time, but the situation is not ideal for anyone.

“We get panicked calls from producers who are waiting at the abattoir with a pig, but they can’t get it in, because they haven’t gone through the registration process yet,” said Christina Quinn, Traceability Coordinator, Alberta Pork. “It’s a pain for them, and while we’re happy to help producers in a bind, it is easiest for everyone if initiative is taken prior to the moment when these things need to be in place.”

The situation described by Quinn is evidence of why communication is vital to the process. If we can actively campaign to register new and prospective producers, it makes the job of traceability much more thorough. In the unfortunate instance of a disease outbreak, which could affect anything from product recalls at retail to the industry’s ability to conduct international trade, traceability is a crucial component of incident investigation. Lessons learned help the industry prepare for the future and improve upon any mistakes.

Strengthening relationships equals better business

Education matters. Feeding food scraps to pigs is not recommended, but some small-scale producers are simply unaware of the risks.

Every pig owner – from the pet lover and conservation breeder to the on-farm consumer or commercial farrow-to-finish operator – factors into the bigger picture. As the global marketplace for pork continues to expand, the commercial industry will certainly need to focus more often on small-scale production, not just because these producers outnumber commercial producers, but more specifically because they have the potential to make or break certain promises the industry has worked hard to keep with its many respected, valued overseas partners.