By Andrew Heck

Quebec City’s ‘Petit Champlain’ quarter in the old town – named for founder Samuel de Champlain – is one of many perks for guests at the Porc Show, which was back in-person this year.

Following a three-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the Porc Show returned in-person for more than 800 guests at the Quebec City Convention Centre on Dec. 6 & 7.

Without a doubt, producers and industry partners from coast-to-coast have had their calendars marked since 2019, eagerly awaiting this pilgrimage to Canada’s second-oldest city and the country’s largest pork-specific conference.

From an exploration of supply chain issues in meatpacking and the environmental impact of pork, to improving the judicious use of antimicrobials and better management of feed, the Porc Show this year featured a full slate of engaging speakers and timely topics.

Supply chain issues continue to hamper meatpacking

Executives from federally inspected meatpackers spoke frankly about the challenges they have faced in the past few years, during an on-stage chat to kick off the first day of the event.

On the first afternoon of the conference, a panel discussion took place with Paul Beauchamp, Vice President, Olymel; Arnold Drung, President, Conestoga Meats; and Stéphanie Poitras, Executive Director, Aliments Asta, covering a range of issues that have created obstacles for packers, including political tensions, labour shortages and consumer demands.

Uninterrupted market access for Canadian pork continues to be a barrier. For Drung, the often-rocky but usually reliable trade relationship between Canada and China has been more unpredictable in recent times.

“You can’t build a business plan on China,” he said.

While high-quality cuts of meat earn a premium in markets like Japan, price-conscious markets like China favour offal, which has few other outlets, almost none of which are domestic. Despite that favourable situation, certain high-level decisions still prevent some Canadian packers from sending pork to China, without much hope of change anytime soon.

For Beauchamp, filling shifts at Olymel’s plants in Quebec has proven harder than he would like. For years, his company has targeted foreign workers from Francophone countries in the Caribbean and North Africa, but even that has proven to be not enough. Thankfully, an update to federal legislation is now making it easier for families of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) to come to Canada. Drung concurred, citing the example of two Filipino workers who joined Conestoga nearly two decades ago as TFWs and remain with plant today, as a result of eventually having established permanent roots in Canada.

“The meat industry has always been an industry of immigrants,” he said. “Look back 100 years. We have a good track record with them, and a lot of them want to stay.”

In addition to politics and labour, new considerations have emerged when it comes to the preferences of international pork buyers.

“We’ve had enormous pressure in the last five years on animal welfare,” said Poitras. “We need to watch everything we do.”

Despite this, members of the panel agreed that, between Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requirements and voluntary quality assurance programming, the Canadian pork industry has a better handle on animal welfare than some other major producers globally, which should be an encouraging prospect.

The future of pork’s environmental impact

When it comes to climate concerns, threats to the agriculture industry are inevitable and ongoing. Turning those threats into opportunities is key.

Mia Lafontaine is a consultant and speaker in sustainable development for the agri-food sector. She has previously worked as a feed company representative. Originally from France, she currently lives in the Netherlands, which is at the centre of a bitter dispute between farmers trying to protect their livelihoods and a government that is hostile toward agricultural land use.

However, based on data out of Quebec and Ontario, pork’s increasingly smaller land use in our country is already very competitive globally. But when it comes to measuring environmental impacts on-farm, we have some work to do. In order to fully understand the sector’s carbon footprint, we first need baseline data to measure improvements over time, which is beginning to happen.

Not only in Europe, but also in Canada, packers and retailers are starting to set ambitious climate targets. She cited Maple Leaf Foods and Loblaw as two examples of companies looking to become ‘carbon-neutral.’

“Despite the environmental crisis being a global problem, we have to start working locally,” said Lafontaine. “As an industry, we have to stop thinking this isn’t a priority – it is.”

Lafontaine believes some important steps for producers include environmental farm planning and responsibly applying hog manure to crops, offsetting the use of chemical fertilizers. Both practices align with federal government priorities and represent a huge opportunity to demonstrate success, which could translate into financial support.

Threats also continue to linger. Despite varying degrees of government support in Canada, myths regarding the use of water and plastics in agriculture continue to eat away at public trust. While some elected officials here are working toward a carbon tax exemption on farm fuels, in New Zealand, producers will soon be taxed on total farm emissions, starting in 2025. Avoiding such unreasonable legislative steps will be a massive task for all of Canadian agriculture.

Progress sought on antimicrobial use

Around 700,000 people die every year across the planet due to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which disproportionately affects those in the developing world. At the current rate, that number is predicted to climb to 10 million annually by 2050, according to Laurie Pfleiderer, a veterinarian with Triple-V Inc. The culprit? Depending on which source you consult, animal agriculture has a lot to do with it.

While there is a tangible yet fairly weak link between AMR that impacts animals and AMR that impacts humans, the issue is not so black-and-white. Between 2016 and 2020, global antimicrobial usage (AMU) declined by 20 per cent, but there is still much room for improvement. Data presented by Pfleiderer suggests median AMU in Canadian livestock production is slightly higher than in the U.S. and about three times higher than in Europe, with hog production composing the greatest single proportion of that usage.

Many different and often valid reasons exist for administering antimicrobials, and ‘judicious use’ means they may continue to be used to ensure animal welfare. But where alternatives exist, Pfleiderer believes those should be explored.

“Why are you giving antibiotics? Is it treatment or prevention?” she asked. “You need to have a conversation with your veterinarian to address the problem in the best way.”

Vaccine protocols are one alternative, along with options like water acidification and even the use of essential oils. Favouring individual treatments for smaller numbers of animals can help prevent bacterial spread to an entire herd and the need for mass treatment.

Feed management makes the difference

‘Teamwork makes the dream work.’ Or, when it comes to feed management, producers and nutritionists finding solutions together.

Misuse of feed can equate to tens of thousands of dollars of losses annually for a producer, depending on barn size. Feed represents not only the largest chunk of production costs but also contributes significantly to pork’s ecological impact. As such, managing feed effectively and efficiently makes a great deal of sense.

Aurélie Moulin is a nutrition consultant with Agri-Marché Inc. Her main recommendation is to use ‘feed budgets’ containing specific phases to optimize rations. The better the phases are defined, the more controlled the process can be.

As sow feed composition changes, so does density, and so should volume, accordingly. Particle size is a factor, whether the feed is pre-mixed or made on-farm. Feed wasted in gestation can range from nearly $10 per sow to upwards of $40 per sow, and during lactation, heat stress can have negative impact on performance. The hotter a sow is, the less she will eat.

Starting from farrowing, nursey feed management is critical. It is the costliest stage and has the greatest impact on future performance. Understanding proper feed composition in weaning helps prevent diarrhea and lost energy. Lighter piglets are especially vulnerable in this regard.

Feed that goes uneaten is also part of the problem not only on a cost basis but in terms of performance as well.

“Any feed that isn’t consumed is made up from body reserves,” said Moulin. “Having access to enough feed early on is important for growth.”

However, feed intake levels and performance are not always correlated. Finding the sweet spot for your operation is key. Maintaining feeders is an important task for producers to help themselves manage feed better and control costs.

As an overarching message, Moulin believes that this area is not only the responsibility of a nutritionist; producers must work closely with their partners to ensure that feed is being put to best use from day one all the way to shipping out of the barn.

Porc Show highlights the industry’s best

This year’s meal included braised pork shank; potato and parsnip purée; winter veggies with bacon; and a pan sauce of beer, mushroom and maple. The dish was the winning creation of culinary students from Quebec’s Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management – an annual tradition for the Porc Show.

The gathering of minds at the Porc Show is special and different from most other North American pork conferences. Not only the predominant use of the French language and the wonderful setting, but also the level of expressed government commitment to the province’s pork sector.

“We want the industry to be profitable, and the industry is only as strong as the weakest link in the value chain,” said André Lamontagne, Minister, Quebec Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. “We need to focus on each part. Is it working for everyone in the long term? We need to find solutions.”

Canada’s ag minister, likewise, echoed the sentiment of strengthening the sector through continued collaboration.

“I know the situation is not easy, but the federal government wants to support producers as much as possible,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). “Our ASF funding is designed to support biosecurity and wild boar management, and new market development opportunities are meant to support trade.”

With another Porc Show in the books, participants are reminded of the beauty, diversity and history of Canada and our industry, which are stronger united – in-person – than divided along boundaries we impose ourselves. Together, we can continue to do great things across the value chain and across our country.