Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Banff 2021 – Editorial

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Message from the editor

The Banff 2021 edition of the Canadian Hog Journal is here!

This year’s Banff Pork Seminar adopted the theme, “Resiliency in a New World.” In this edition, you will notice that theme woven into the various pieces of coverage and commentary on the presentations delivered during seminar, including topics on economics, disease management, mental health, awards, research and more.

The first-ever Banff Pork Seminar took place in 1972, following an earlier prototypical event held at Olds College, a renowned agricultural institution located about 100 kilometres north of Calgary. Since then, the event has taken place at a handful of venues in the Banff area. From the beginning, the seminar was jointly organized by the University of Alberta, Alberta Pork and the Government of Alberta. The partnership remains unbroken to this day. Prior to COVID, the seminar’s advisory committee had planned to mark the 50th anniversary this year with special in-person festivities. Sadly, we will have to wait for that celebration, but hopefully not too long.

The cover of this edition of the Canadian Hog Journal features Banff’s bridge over the Bow River, constructed in 1923. Adorned with First Nations reliefs and located in the historical lands of the Stoney-Nakoda people, the bridge connects us through time, distance and relationships. The same bridge today connects the seminar’s usual location – the Banff Springs Hotel – with the main townsite to the north.

Over the years, our industry, country and the entire world have changed in so many dramatic ways. COVID-19’s impact and the Banff Pork Seminar’s virtual format this year are a contemporary reminder of how the passage of time can impact choices and alter perspectives. The Canadian pork industry has no shortage of issues that still require mending, but if we can continue establishing honest connections, rather than making excuses for dysfunction, our future looks bright, despite any existing grievances.

The image included in this ‘Message from the editor’ was captured at the 2019 Banff Pork Seminar – my first since entering this industry in June 2018. From left to right, the photo includes Michael Young (former Vice President, Canada Pork), me, Marvin Salomons (farm labour consultant, Salomons Group Solutions) and Ron Gietz (former extension economist, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry) – all gentlemen whose depth of knowledge and experience eclipses mine, but certainly positive role models and reminders of the long-term commitments that so many in this industry have made. It is invaluable encounters like these that we lose with a virtual conference, which is unfortunate, but as this year’s seminar theme confirms, resiliency has long been a hallmark of agriculture. We will return.

What are some of your favourite memories from the Banff Pork Seminar? I would love to read those stories and share them in the next ‘Letters to the editor’ section. Reach out to me by emailing andrew.heck@albertapork.com.

Winter 2021 – Editorial

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Message from the editor

By Andrew Heck

The Winter 2021 edition of the Canadian Hog Journal is here!

Last year, with the latest Winter edition hot off the press, I was headed to the Banff Pork Seminar, eager to share the magazine with guests. This year, I will have to settle for sharing the PDF virtually and changing my laptop computer background to an alpine scene. Not quite the same, but it will have to do. And I can still have my pint of beer at home while listening to Irish jig music, right?

The issue of delayed Canadian Pork Excellence (CPE) program implementation persists, and this edition features the third article on the subject in as many years. Consider that a ‘hat trick,’ if you will, as we wait on the next NHL season to start.

Feeding human food scraps to pigs is an age-old practice for some small-scale producers, but is it an effective or safe solution to eliminating food waste? While pig production volume heavily favours the commercial industry, it takes only one disease slip-up to potentially shake the entire sector to its core and jeopardize consumer confidence, which disproportionately affects commercial producers.

Manitoba Pork’s long-time general manager, Andrew Dickson, is retiring. Likewise, long-time communications coordinator, Sandy Ellis, has also left the organization. Her replacement, Joey Dearborn, has written a thoughtful career-in-review piece about Dickson, included here.

As with visiting Banff, I was looking forward to travelling to Quebec City again this year to attend the Porc Show, but that too will have to wait. While the conference was unavailable in-person, the organizers did a nice job of hosting the event over Zoom, as you will see from the coverage.

This edition also includes many interesting news pieces, along with expert commentary on the growth of grocery e-commerce, in addition to a look at the last decade of Swine Innovation Porc (SIP), as well as research on water consumption under stress and the benefits of feeding trace performance minerals, along with a callout for producers to support an environmental footprint study.

Heading into 2021, the past year of mostly negative developments in the Canadian pork industry should, hopefully, help us see the potential positives going forward. I remain grateful to continue advocating for this sector, as I anticipate the birth of my second child — another daughter. The older one is not quite three-years-old, but she already has her mother’s smarts and good looks, along with her father’s way with words and habit of asking too many questions – a dangerous but exciting combination.

Whatever this year holds for us all, you may like to buckle up, grit your teeth and hold on! I will be doing likewise. Our saving grace? If industry players and publications continue promoting the right kind of content to influence decisions that benefit our sector, our odds of collective success might be better than we even know. Let me know what you think by emailing andrew.heck@albertapork.com. I want to share your views in the next ‘Letters to the editor’ section. Diverse perspectives equal higher-quality, thought-provoking conversations, which is what we should all being aiming for.

Letters to the editor

In reply to ‘Price negotiating power balance hurts producers’ (Fall 2020)

“During Alberta Pork’s recent annual general meeting (AGM), I put forth a resolution requesting producer support for the Alberta Pork board of directors to explore new hog marketing options, including the potential for a system like single desk selling, using Quebec’s marketing arrangement as a possible example. Producers voted to approve the resolution.

“The whole idea is to get more negotiating power, and I believe that is a necessary step to take. If we leave it up to producers to pursue voluntarily, it is much less likely to work. If we look at formalizing such a system, it may be more binding and successful.

“The reason I think Alberta Pork should be the producers’ marketing representative under this kind of system is practical: for the concept to work, legislation will need to be modified, which requires partners that are recognized by government. I have confidence that the Alberta Pork board of directors includes the right people and motives to represent producers in this regard.

“It is not every day we have an opportunity to inspire real change within our industry. I really hope all producers take this seriously and truly hold themselves accountable and help push things in the right direction.” Nathan Stahl, Stettler, Alberta

In reply to the cover of the Canadian Hog Journal (Fall 2020)

The cover image used on the Fall 2020 edition of the Canadian Hog Journal has received some positive attention from readers, including the Canadian Pork Council (CPC), which has framed and hanged the cover at the organization’s office in Ottawa.

The image itself was staged and captured in the kitchen of editor Andrew Heck, featuring a homemade Canadian pork and beef tourtière, along with a CPC-branded ceramic mug and other fall-themed decorations.

The cover and total magazine layout are the responsibility of Michael Poulin, a graphic designer with Capital Colour of Edmonton, the company that prints and distributes the magazine.

Fall 2020 – Editorial

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Message from the editor

The Fall 2020 edition of the Canadian Hog Journal is here! I was first introduced as the incoming editor of the Journal in the Fall 2019 edition, so this makes it my official first anniversary.

While every new edition is an exciting accomplishment for me personally and professionally, more importantly, it is an opportunity to advocate for this industry that supports tens of thousands of jobs, millions of Canadians and billions of global consumers.

We should all take time to appreciate the good things in our lives, but I feel compelled to digress a bit. The 2020 calendar year certainly has felt like an eternity for all the wrong reasons, no thanks to where we find ourselves as a sector, and producers are still facing a long-term negative pricing situation. Being so close to this issue myself, from an investigative point-of-view, it can be mentally draining. Still, that feeling pales in comparison to the ongoing stress producers must manage on a daily basis.

It is my sincere hope that all industry representatives, including magazine editors, are doing the right things to help you navigate this storm with as little hardship as possible. That is our goal and duty. Our collective success or failure has wide-reaching implications for many people.

In the Summer 2020 edition, we continued to provide coverage of shared value concerns across the entire Canadian pork supply chain. And while it would appear there are some positive outcomes to certain discussions, lingering issues and adversarial relationships can be difficult to overcome. Drilling down on shared value, this edition considers the balance of marketing power between producers, processors and retailers, and how that has changed over time. Despite the discomfort, producers must keep fighting for fairness.

Processing plant protests continue to be a platform for animal activists, but now, support for farmers and truckers is starting to receive attention, as shown in this edition’s coverage of recent rallies.

On the disease management side, we provide an overview of activities taking place on the national level to combat African Swine Fever (ASF). While value-sharing and other contentious issues can divide stakeholders, ASF represents a universally respected threat, and we all have to be on guard.

On the food side, consider an expert’s opinion on COVID-19’s impact on meat retail. While grocer profits are up, so are consumer prices, thanks to more Canadians eating at home.

Research in this edition covers a study of genetic disease resilience in grow-finish pigs, how science is taking a bite out of feed costs and the cost of sow exercise.

Readers are always encouraged to drop me a line at andrew.heck@albertapork.com. I want to share your views in our ‘Letters to the editor’ section. Dialogue and understanding are the only way we can move forward, and we need a stronger chorus of voices to speak up if we wish to be heard. As it stands, it would seem our messages are getting lost somewhat in a world with so many competing interests, whether those represent ‘priorities’ or not. When push comes to shove, many may soon find out the hard way that food is not only a priority but likely the top one.

Letters to the editor

In reply to “Producer-packer tensions threaten viability” (Summer 2020)

“Why aren’t Canadian pig farmers seeing any benefit from the record-high pork export prices and volumes processors are benefiting from? The prices we receive for our animals are at a decade low. The pricing system is broken and needs to be fixed ASAP, or there will be no pig farmers left in Canada outside of Quebec.” – Mick O’Toole, Neerlandia, Alberta

In reply to “Producer-packer tensions threaten viability” (Summer 2020)

“Western Canadian producers could perhaps benefit from a pricing system like Conestoga has in Ontario, where their producers were being paid more than $2 per kilogram in mid-July, while others across the province were being paid $1.20, which is roughly $0.60 below cost of production. I have also heard about multiple producers sending their financial statements to packers like Sofina to try and get better prices, since the packers are making money like crazy right now.” – Jeremy Van Dorp, Woodstock, Ontario

In reply to “Producer-packer tensions threaten viability” (Summer 2020)

“This really looks like the end of the western Canadian independent producer as a previously viable part of our agricultural output. The circumstances are what make this almost unbelievable – that a commodity with increasing worldwide demand cannot be produced economically because of local pricing structure, rather than logistics, climate or other more obvious variables.

“This is a very western Canadian problem, and it saddens me to see independent producers choosing to downsize or exit the industry. Clearly there must be a space for all viable production. With the loss of one part of the sector, we lose production in the short term and the value of agri-business diversity overall. Not everyone can be, or desires to be, a global megaproducer, but both indeed have merit for different reasons. And there should be room for both, if both can find ways to access fair value in their product.” – Brent Taylor, Drumheller, Alberta  

Editorial – Summer 2020

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Message from the editor

The Summer 2020 edition of the Canadian Hog Journal is here!

After a few months that have seemed like an eternity, life is creeping back toward the [new] normal we have been told to expect. With any luck, we will now be better prepared to handle the predicted second wave of COVID-19, if and whenever it comes.

This edition prominently includes an exploration of shared value between producers and packers. It should come as no surprise that this matter is quite controversial and divisive. Many producers I encounter pull no punches when it comes to describing their deep-seated frustrations regarding pricing, and this article is an attempt at reflecting those concerns in a way that can hopefully inspire positive change and a collaborative path forward.

This edition also includes an update on the Spring 2020 coverage of COVID-19’s impacts on the Canadian pork industry. It is a lot to digest, and quite frankly, the news has been happening too fast to cover with an entirely clear picture of the situation. It is a tricky story to tell, and out in the world beyond our industry, our story has, unfortunately, been told badly. This has likely resulted in undue harm to our collective reputation, and we will now have to work even harder to share accurate, balanced news to raise public awareness.

In 2019, several hog and poultry farms in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec were the victims of animal activist organized crime. It is an indescribable insult to producers’ livelihoods and a black mark on the legal institutions that are supposed to protect farmers but fail miserably. Thankfully, some sympathetic political representatives have been aiming to change the game. This edition looks at what progress has been made.

If you manage to make it all the way through the heavy content, you will enjoy a summer-focussed look at the growth of home cooking, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The story reminds us how, in spite of challenges, we are ready to continue enjoying the brighter side of life to the best of our ability.

Research in this edition covers the potential cost savings of including enrichment for your herd, the intestinal fate of dietary zinc and copper, along with the role of protected acids in sow performance.

I have once again included a “Letters to the editor” section featuring reader feedback. Got something to say about what you see here? Do not hesitate to reach out and let me know. Email andrew.heck@albertapork.com with your thoughts, and they could make it into the next edition!

Letters to the editor

In reply to “Defending the pork value chain during COVID-19” (Spring 2020)

“Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, recently said agriculture needs to ‘make better use of existing [financial] support.’ What support is she referring to? AgriStability, AgriInvest or provincial programs? AgriStability is based on the last five years with the highest and lowest drops, with the remaining three years generating your average. My farm’s average sucks because government refuses to acknowledge what trade wars have done to us. Under AgriInvest, the support is matched up to $15,000. Hell, the carbon tax alone is going to eat that up!” – Maaike Campbell, Arkona, Ontario

In reply to “Defending the pork value chain during COVID-19” (Spring 2020)

“Since COVID started, my family and I have been enjoying lots of Canadian pork. It’s yummy and supports local producers and the economy!” – Karin Melnyk, Red Deer, Alberta

In reply to “Producers should seek better share of export values” (Spring 2020)

“Exports obviously form an important part of the Canadian pork industry, but consumers sometimes forget that there are great local products close to home. I’m proud to serve local food and beverage at my business, The Copper Coil Grill and Still, and I think it’s really important these days especially to support producers.” – Scott Gadsby, Squamish, B.C.

Swine welfare research a hot topic in cold Banff

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By Miranda Smit

Editor’s note: Miranda Smit is Assistant Manager, Knowledge Transfer, Prairie Swine Centre. She can be contacted at ‘miranda.smit@usask.ca.’ For more information on the NSERC IRC in Swine Welfare research program, visit ‘swinewelfare.com’ or contact Yolande Seddon at ‘yolande.seddon@usask.ca’ or Martyna Lagoda at ‘martyna.lagoda@usask.ca.’

Just prior to the start of the Banff Pork Seminar, on Jan. 9, while it was quickly becoming frigidly cold outside, discussions were taking place around animal welfare in modern pork production systems.

More than 40 pork producers, industry representatives and researchers came together to hear the results generated from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair (IRC) in Swine Welfare research program. The program is located at the University of Saskatchewan, led by Yolande Seddon. The forum was hosted by Prairie Swine Centre, which played a key role in the establishment of the research Chair.

Seddon kicked off the meeting with an overview of the factors at play driving the conversation forward on animal welfare, including emerging regulatory changes. This includes the switch to group sow housing by 2029, as mandated by the National Farm Animal Care Council’s (NFACC) Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, along with changes to the Health of Animals Regulations under the Health of Animals Act.

Transport regulation changes have come under fire from the industry, as changes are considered to be not fully informed by science, due to a lack of research in the area of swine transport.

Program created to address industry challenges

The NSERC IRC in Swine Welfare program was on full display during a Prairie Swine Centre forum in advance of the Banff Pork Seminar.

With the onset of regulatory changes for animal welfare, in 2015, the industry recognized the need to proactively respond, which prompted 14 partners in the Canadian pork value chain to come together with a vision to enhance collective understanding of welfare considerations.

The solution was the creation of a research Chair in swine welfare, providing resources to address current and future challenges. The University of Saskatchewan agreed to create a position at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) in Saskatoon, and following a competitive application process, including an international scientific review, NSERC matched industry funding to create the five-year program, which started in 2018 and is now wrapping up.

From the beginning, the objective was to conduct research to support sustainable intensification of pork production systems, with a focus on improving welfare in fully slatted reared pigs, including tools to measure and monitor welfare. Along with improving welfare of pigs on-farm, the program provides an opportunity to communicate progress on animal welfare inside and outside of the industry.

This objective was split into four goals: the impact of early life influences on sociability and resilience to stress of growing pigs; the ability for play to induce positive emotions and immune response; the identification of biological markers to indicate welfare; and the examination of carcasses at processing to measure welfare.

During the forum in Banff, three PhD students and one postdoctoral fellow presented their research results tied to the respective program goals.

Early life management leads to long-term success

Siba Khalife looked at how early life management of pigs influences their long-term welfare in fully slatted systems. Pigs were provided enhanced management consisting of chewable materials to support normal foraging behaviour, intermittent positive human contact to reduce their fear of humans and additional space to support social skill development either in the farrowing room, nursery or both stages until 12-weeks-old, before returning to ‘standard’ production conditions and followed to slaughter.

Pigs provided with enhanced management in both the farrowing and nursery stage had higher lifetime weight gain thanks to improved growth in the nursery period, and better handleability scores at the end of the nursery period, suggesting that modifications in early life management can have long-term positive effects.

Play provides benefits beyond enjoyment

When pigs play, they’re happier and healthier, which supports their wellbeing and the barn workers who know them best.

Understanding the role of play as it relates to disease resiliency and quality of life provides production benefits for producers and increases public trust for the entire industry.

Karolína Steinerová explored whether play behaviour can be used as a tool to enhance positive welfare and quality of life for farmed pigs, while also supporting benefits for production.

The research showed it’s possible to stimulate play in pigs in a commercial environment beyond the age it naturally occurs – between two- to six-weeks-old – demonstrating the potential for the industry to promote this behaviour, characterized by spontaneous excitement with arousal. The research also collected data supporting the assumption that play is a positive experience for pigs, therefore increasing the evidence that play can be used as an approach to support positive welfare in commercial settings.

Since positive emotional wellbeing is associated with improved health and resilience in humans, an important aim of the research was to evaluate whether the same benefits can be realized by pigs, through play. Exciting findings reveal that when challenged with a Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) infection, pigs reared with play opportunities had a more moderated immune response than control pigs – those reared without play – suggesting a lower inflammatory response.

Pigs reared with play and control pigs both fended off the PRRS virus at the same rate, but pigs reared with play gained more weight. Pigs reared with play also experienced lower respiratory distress and for less time, suggesting enhanced disease resilience. For producers, this demonstrates the potential to incorporate play strategies into production to better manage disease threats. Improved approaches to animal care routines can promote positive welfare, enhancing pigs’ quality of life and resilience to production stressors. Positive welfare can also be incorporated in on-farm assessment programs as a measure of animal care. The next steps are to test play promotion on commercial farms to develop practical adoption strategies.

Physical indicators speak volumes

Whether looking at live pigs or carcasses, biological markers and other physical indicators can paint a picture of welfare that is now better understood. By tying this understanding to farm- and processing-level assessments, decisions around pig care can be evidence-based.

Darian Pollock presented her work on using hormone levels in swine hair to measure welfare and discussed the applicability of this technique for genetic selection for stress resilience. Hair collection is a non-invasive, low-cost method of sample collection, and a section of hair can provide information on the hormone activity over time, corresponding to the hair growth, helping to reduce the frequency of sample collection and providing a chronic measure.

One of the significant advantages of the NSERC IRC in Swine Welfare program is the opportunity for additional collaborations with industry researchers across North America. Pollock presented work on a collaboration between the WCVM Swine Welfare team, Iowa State University and PigGen Canada to analyze hair from pigs with a variety of genetic backgrounds, taking a closer look at using hormone levels for genetic selection of stress resilience.

This work showed a correlation between cortisol levels in hair and the number of struggles and vocalization intensity of piglets during a standardized handling test – the backtest – that evaluates behavioural stress response. Hair cortisol levels are also considered ‘moderately heritable,’ meaning they are somewhat able to be passed from sows or boars to piglets, suggesting the potential application of hair hormones for genetic selection for stress resilience.

When evaluating whether hair hormones were influenced by rearing system modifications that could support improved welfare, Pollock found that hair hormone levels were not influenced by providing straw to pigs, nor by the enhanced early life management practices described by Khalife. However, there was a lot of individual variation in hormone levels, and piglets with lameness pre-weaning did have a higher ratio of cortisol-to-DHEA – a steroid hormone precursor – suggesting hair hormone ratios can potentially be used as a biomarker of individual pig welfare.

Physical indicators provide a wealth of information on pig welfare but monitoring at the processing plant level demands automation to support integration.

Martyna Lagoda looked at whether physical indicators on pig carcasses could be used to automatically monitor welfare in processing plants. The research team assessed on-farm welfare indicators all the way from breeding to slaughter. Indicators on carcasses were evaluated using a camera installed opposite the production line after scalding and dehairing had taken place.

Analysis is evaluating if the appearance of skin lesions, tail length and hernias can shed light on the conditions under which pigs were raised. Initial results show a relationship between the proportion and severity of tail-biting and observable lesions on carcasses, demonstrating how monitoring carcass lesions could be used as a herd diagnostic tool for welfare on-farm and during pre-slaughter handling.

For processors, using these indicators to determine welfare requires seamless integration with existing plant procedures. The research team collaborated with Seok-Bum Ko from the College of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan to develop a software model using artificial intelligence to recognize and track individual pig carcasses and identify different body parts for assessment. The next steps are to train the model to measure skin lesions, tail length and hernias while organizing the data collected for analysis. 

Research supports pigs and people

The NSERC IRC in Swine Welfare program wraps up this year, but researchers are looking for continued support.

Given the success of the projects under the NSERC IRC Swine Welfare research program, the group is looking to continue its efforts on behalf of the Canadian pork industry. The commitment of NSERC and producer organizations to date has made it possible to build a strong research team that is also able to look at other welfare priorities outside of the research Chair focus, providing opportunities to up-and-coming professionals aiming to make their careers here in Canada.

Carmen Cole, who first joined the swine welfare research group to do her undergraduate research thesis, then continued as a research technician, is now a Master’s student with the group. She had the opportunity during the forum to present on her work developing and validating a one-step electrocution technique for on-farm euthanasia. As her research continues, the program holds value not only for the students engaged in the work and the pigs whose quality of life is improved, but also for those who reap its benefits in pork production and processing.

Seddon ended the research forum with a call to action: as the program will end in June 2024, she encouraged stakeholders to consider renewing their commitments to the program, both financially and in principle. Sustaining a research Chair in swine welfare maintains key research infrastructure for the industry and demonstrates a strong working partnership. She also encouraged producers to think about how they can incorporate results of this work into their own operations.

This certainly gives everyone enough to think about while we’re waiting for warmer temperatures outside!

Banff Pork Seminar tests assumptions, offers insights

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By Andrew Heck

Conversations were plenty among this year’s Banff Pork Seminar guests, as the event hosted its most guests since 2018.

The 52nd annual Banff Pork Seminar took place at the Banff Springs Hotel from Jan. 9 to 11, featuring a wide range of plenary session speakers, breakout session presenters, award winners, research presentations, networking and much more.

“The advisory committee has worked hard to bring in speakers to cover things like the economic picture, sustainability, new technology and more,” said Steve Davies, Senior Manager, Hog Production, Maple Leaf Agri-Farms & Chair, Banff Pork Seminar Committee. “We have speakers from all over the world to cover day-to-day farm operations, to help those who want to improve.”

More than 700 guests were flooded with informative and entertaining talks on topics that spanned the pork value chain, allowing them to consider their own operations and where improvements can be found.

Markets are bleak, but future looks better

While the past year was financially difficult for many producers, especially in the U.S., Joe Kerns thinks there’s reason to be optimistic in the coming months.

Joe Kerns, CEO, Partners of Production Agriculture opened the seminar with an exploration of commodity market outlooks for the coming year. Based on margins for U.S. farrow-to-finish operations, late 2023 and early 2024 could be considered the least-profitable for producers in the industry’s history.

While COVID-19 ultimately caused a spike in U.S. domestic pork demand, due to restaurant closures and improved grocery sales, that impact has fallen off, levelling out demand last year and likely going forward. This, along with the high cost of production but increased productivity, has hurt profitability. With inflation not easing back to pre-COVID levels very quickly, this has had a significant impact across the board. Lack of available labour remains a challenge, but the cost of labour in all industries might be an even larger problem.

However, in the coming year, Kerns believes a lot of opportunity exists, and he cautions producers against forward contracting too early.

“I could see the second half of 2024 having sharply higher prices. I’m incredibly optimistic,” said Kerns.

In virtually every pork-exporting country in the European Union (E.U.), year-over-year production continues its downward trend, making room for other market players, including Canada and the U.S. On the farm side, Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) cases in the U.S. in 2023 were at their lowest numbers in more than a decade, along with the average pigs saved per litter.

These positives, however, are tempered by a less lucrative Chinese market, where pork prices have fallen rapidly in the past year on account of a large domestic supply. Whereas foreign interest in China peaked during the initial stages of the country’s African Swine Fever (ASF) outbreak, through 2018 and 2019, the Chinese government appears to be working to strengthen economic ties with South American partners.

In Brazil and Argentina, corn and soybean production are expected to be at a record high in the coming year, due to El Niño’s positive impact on growing conditions and better global market potential. Brazil has effectively doubled corn production over the past 12 years, and its soybean production continues to climb. An increasing proportion of food- and feed-grade Brazilian corn and soy is being bought by China.

“Last year will go down as a watershed moment where we [U.S.] forfeited our soybean export dominance to Brazil,” said Kerns. “They are the force to be reckoned with.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S., corn and soybeans for sustainable fuels are being pursued aggressively, cutting into supply that might otherwise enter the livestock feed market, pushing prices upward. The U.S. government is incentivizing these crops by providing a credit for farmers to sell to sustainable fuel processors.

“I think there are some unintended consequences that will be coming into play,” said Kerns.

Conestoga does things differently

Arnold Drung’s decades-long view of the pork industry brought a sense of calm to the audience, considering industry setbacks, which are nothing new.

Arnold Drung, President, Conestoga Meats presented his perspective on the industry as an integrated production-processing business.

As a processor, Conestoga traces its roots to the opening of its hog slaughter facility in Breslau, Ontario in 1982, along with the founding of Progressive Pork Producers in 1994: a collective formed between 120 farms in Ontario, during a time when U.S. tariffs on Canadian pork were a considerable threat to financial viability. In 2001, Progressive Pork Producers purchased Conestoga, and the two entities effectively became one.

Prior to joining Conestoga, Drung’s experiences working with Maple Leaf Foods in the 1990s share some parallels with the situation in the industry today, where the list of problems perpetually seems longer than the list of solutions.

“We ran into a train wreck in the hog industry [in 1998],” said Drung. “It was a very difficult time, with hog prices hitting record lows. That led to interesting changes, like increased consolidation.”

Worker strikes at Maple Leaf’s slaughter facility in Burlington, Ontario, along with the opening of the slaughter facility in Brandon, Manitoba, were challenges navigated by Drung that have contributed to his resiliency and poise in the face of struggle.

“It’s a great business, but it’s not for the faint of heart,” said Drung. “A key differentiator for our business has been our unique pricing model. What drives the pricing in our system is what consumers are willing to pay for pork.”

Massive currency swings, disease outbreaks and geopolitical impacts were cited by Drung as major factors that have affected Conestoga over the past 25 years.

“If you can’t compete at par, you can’t compete at all,” said Drung.

Conestoga approaches its pricing in a way that keeps the company competitive. Like all major Canadian processors, export development remains a focus for the company, though inroads have been made more recently with domestic retailers.

“Different people want different things,” said Drung. “That’s good because certain jurisdictions like different parts of the animal. That’s why we still consider the Chinese market important.”

In places like China, and in other parts of the pork-loving world, Drung suggests that economic prosperity provides hope for the future of exports.

“When people’s incomes grow, one of the things they do is spend more money on better food, including protein, like meat,” said Drung. “If you look at global incomes, they’re rising.”

Touching on the environmental sustainability of the industry, Drung sees potential for greater public awareness of the gains made so far.

“We have to keep reminding people how much we’ve already done in the past 50 years,” said Drung. “We’ve produced a lot more with a lot less, and we’re continuing to do that. People tend to forget.”

Carbon markets make sense but need work

Carbon credit values vary by type, as shown on this pricing chart from July 2023. For agriculture, opportunities like capturing methane from manure are promising for pork production.

While the agriculture industry has been reluctant to fully buy in to the principle of carbon reduction, Marty Seymour, CEO, Carbon RX suggested the sentiment is misdirected.

“Carbon, to me, is a little bit of a lightning rod,” said Seymour. “It’s an anti-Trudeau play. We didn’t like the messenger, so we didn’t listen to the message.”

Seymour’s experience working in the livestock feed industry in the 2000s saw the rise of concerns over antimicrobial use (AMU). At the time, reducing AMU seemed lofty and impractical, but with enough time and pressure, the industry is adapting.

“We could not imagine raising pigs without antibiotics in feed. Fast-forward 20 years, and we’re doing it,” said Seymour.

While the topic of carbon reduction is certainly not new, in terms of widespread adoption and implementation, Seymour thinks the best time to take the plunge is now. For agriculture businesses, it requires only an open mind and an understanding that society is unlikely to back off the idea.

“If you’re not yet at the table in this conversation, you’re not late,” said Seymour. “There’s still time on carbon, but it’s happening fast.”

Assessing greenhouse gas intensity, methane is considered 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, while nitrous oxide is more than 250 times more potent. For pork, that represents opportunity when it comes to manure management. Manure injection sequesters methane and reduces reliance on fertilizers containing nitrous oxide. While carbon dioxide is often the focus in carbon markets, methane and nitrous oxide are avenues that are underexplored.

Carbon markets have two types: compliance markets, like taxation, and voluntary markets, which global businesses are approaching as part of their sustainability strategies.

“This is like the Kijiji of carbon,” said Seymour.

But there’s a problem: while compliance markets are essentially unavoidable – a form of negative reinforcement to discourage emissions – they’re not integrated with voluntary markets. In many ways, this serves to lessen the attractiveness of voluntary markets. While many companies are looking to cash in on climate incentives, Seymour warns against this narrow thinking. The co-benefits of carbon reduction and meeting sustainability goals hold value in today’s commercial landscape.

“Agriculture needs to learn what ESG means [environmental, social and corporate governance],” said Seymour. “What’s changing are the financial terms related to ESG. The financial nature of carbon markets makes them a sticky business.”

When it comes to net-zero commitments, as they relate to improving public trust for the pork sector, Seymour expressed skepticism.

“I don’t think this will actually drive consumer behaviour. It’s more complicated than that,” said Seymour. “But the risk of not being in this space still isn’t worth it. If you don’t know what’s for dinner, you’re what’s for dinner.”

Heat stress concerns on the rise

Bruno Silva believes significant challenges lie ahead for the pork industry, in light of global warming.

Bruno Silva, Professor, Swine Nutrition and Production and Environmental Adaptation, Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil), thinks that global warming naysayers in the pork industry need to think harder about how to brace for a hotter planet.

“In the coming 50 to 60 years, there will be a huge impact in the northern hemisphere. Winters will get shorter, and summers will get longer,” said Silva. “It’s clear that these changes will impact our society, including economically.”

Currently, summers in Europe and Asia average about 25 degrees-Celsius for more than half of the time. This is the threshold for heat stress on sows and finishing pigs. In the U.S. livestock industry, losses to heat stress total between $1.9 billion and $2.7 billion annually.

“When we look at heat stress, it’s a cascade of effects,” said Silva.

Silva reminded producers that pigs cannot sufficiently regulate their own body heat. When pigs are too hot for too long, they experience hormonal changes. As pigs begin rapidly panting to cool themselves off, intestinal hypoxia can occur, leading to reduced amino acid digestion and inefficient growth.

Heat stress also increases sow infertility and abortions, along with worsening maternal microbial transmission to fetuses, which compromises born piglets’ immune responses. Under heat stress, microbiota modulation is key to managing sows’ glycemic response. Sows fed high-starch diets experience the effects of hypoglycemia – or low blood sugar – more intensely than those fed lower-starch diets when it’s hot.

“This is the McDonald’s effect. You order the Big Mac, the milkshake, the fries — it’s all starch, and then you’re hungry again four hours later,” said Silva.

Regardless of season, Silva suggested 80 per cent of total feed intake of lactating sows happens between midnight and 7 a.m.; however, many farms do not program their feeders for the sows’ benefit, according to this range of time, but for their own ease of management, which is less effective.

Choosing palatable feed flavours can also increase feed intake, which prevents body weight loss and stimulates milk production, partly countering the effects of heat stress. Likewise, feed formulation can play a role. Feeding less crude protein and more supplemented amino acids keeps sows cooler as they digest feed.

Prop 12 dos and don’ts 

While opinions vary on Prop 12, for those trying to operate within its parameters, it helps to have some advice.

PJ Corns, Director, Sow Production, JBS Live Pork provided lessons learned in the wake of California Proposition 12: the new sow-spacing regulations that have caused some discomfort in the U.S. pork industry, as producers are left to trial-and-error experimentation, in many cases, to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

“One thing we learned in Prop 12, if you put a thin animal in the barn, she’s going to have a tough time,” said Corns.

Unfortunately for JBS, as Prop 12 compliance reared its head, the company and other producers facing the same struggles have not been assisted very proactively by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, including vague direction on exactly how pens would be measured.

When auditors visited JBS’ barns, the new set-up was already mired with difficulty, as auditors took measurements smaller than what JBS had planned for. The result was a half-square-inch less per sow, which caused headaches and necessitated further barn renovations. This prompted JBS and some of its major competitors to form a working group, to share information and resolve any common problems experienced by all.

“We had to act fast,” said Corns. “Every farm and every system we’ve done for Prop 12, we’ve gotten better.”

Corns suggested proper gilt selection, an expectation of increased labour and a change of mindset are the path to success. Sorting sows according to body condition, and then assigning pens on those factors, has helped manage the process. Not only space, but length of time in the pen, is covered under Prop 12. JBS diligently records the time sows are in pens, as an easy way to communicate compliance to auditors.

“I thought about all kinds of digital options, but nothing beats good, old pen and paper,” said Corns.

Corns also reflected on the impact of social hierarchy within the sow groups, which is even more critical to understand with loose housing. Identifying the ‘bullies’ and the ‘bullied,’ and separating them, works better for all.

On the whole, compared to pre-Prop 12 practices, Corns indicated JBS has experienced an increase in sow death losses due to injury but decreases across most other categories, especially prolapses and sudden deaths.

When to wean when zinc oxide is out

As public opposition to the use of zinc oxide continues to threaten its status, Mike Tokach offered some suggestions for how to maintain performance while using less of it.

Mike Tokach, Professor, Kansas State University looked at nutrition and management of weaned pigs fed low-zinc diets. Zinc oxide supplements are commonly used to prevent diarrhea, but their usage globally is under growing scrutiny for their negative impacts on antimicrobial resistance and the environment.

“We know it’s being restricted in places like the E.U., and we want to prepare for a time when that could happen here [in North America],” said Tokach.

Producers around the world are now being tasked with using zinc oxide at lower levels – or not at all – while being mindful of how to overcome the loss of its benefits, using strategies related to genetics, management and diets.

Tokach suggested that lower-zinc-oxide diets need palatable ingredients that stimulate feed intake, have reduced but highly digestible crude protein and coarser-ground grains. Acid-binding capacity also matters. In the gut, products containing lactose increase calcium, which has a high acid-binding capacity. Lower-calcium diets for first two diets after weaning are recommended to help balance it out.

“In places like Denmark and the Netherlands, where zinc oxide is removed, producers are weaning at 28 days,” said Tokach.

From one genetic background to another, recommended weaning age can differ; however, early-weaned pigs have more permeability in the gut, which reduces immune response to E. coli. In general, non-Duroc genetics and later weaning ages provide the best scenario for preventing E. coli, as Duroc sires tend to have less resistance to the bacteria.

Water hardness also impacts E. coli prevalence. Water found in most parts of the Canadian prairies and U.S. Midwest is considered ‘extremely hard.’ These are areas of significant pig production where zinc oxide supplements might otherwise come in handy.

Tokach also pointed out that Rotavirus precedes E. coli in many cases, as an early warning sign. Decreasing the environmental load in the barn is important for controlling the build-up of pathogens, including Rotavirus. Effective sanitation is one solution, including a process of degreasing, pressure-washing, disinfecting and drying thoroughly at a warm temperature.

Luc Dufresne, Veterinarian, Demeter Veterinary Services took a deeper dive into weaning age, evaluating older weaning strategies to support piglet and sow performance. Deciding on the ideal weaning age, for any operation, largely depends on a cost-benefit analysis. Using an accurate production model, with good data, is essential.

“If you put garbage information in, you’re going to have garbage information coming out,” said Dufresne.

Dufresne reflected back on the popularity of segregated early weaning, which resulted unintended consequences for weaners’ gastrointestinal (GI) tracts. The GI tract is the single largest immune organ in the body. As in humans, the presence of healthy gut bacteria supports pig immunity, but earlier weaning creates stress, which disrupts the normal development of the GI tract and increases disease susceptibility, as a result.

 “We used to think of the GI tract like a big stew, on an element, and whatever you put into it just mixes,” said Dufresne. “We now know that’s not how it works.”

In attempting to wean later, farrowing crate efficiency is also important. While costs will increase across many variables with later weaning, this increase is offset by reduced mortality. In Demeter’s trials, a 21-day weaning age seemed to be the sweet spot, though a multitude of production factors can come into play for individual operations.

MealMeter 2.0 wins Aherne Prize

Dave Kloeke, President, PigEasy & inventor of MealMeter 2.0 was awarded a U.S. patent for the product this past year. Kloeke’s farrow-to-wean operation near Templeton, Iowa serves as his testing ground for new ideas.

The F.X. Aherne Prize for Innovative Pork Production recognizes individuals who have developed either original solutions to pork production challenges or creative uses of known technology. The prize is named for the late Frank Aherne, a professor at the University of Alberta, who was a major force for science-based progress in the Canadian pork industry.

This year’s Aherne Prize was awarded to Iowa-based equipment manufacturer PigEasy, for its MealMeter 2.0 technology.

MealMeter 2.0 is a smart feeder designed to monitor and improve the health and productivity of sow herds. PigEasy’s system uses sensors to track feed and water intake and alerts workers in real-time via a virtual dashboard if there are dips or irregularities. This allows workers to quickly identify and treat individual sow issues. MealMeter 2.0’s dashboard tools can also help barn managers make informed decisions about ration changes, treatments and culling.

“For technology to truly improve productivity and efficiency on the farm, it must be easy to implement and user-friendly,” said Katie Holtz, Vice President, PigEasy. “MealMeter 2.0’s tracking and alerting technology achieves this by integrating into an already high-performing feeder. The PigEasy team is honoured and grateful for this recognition.”

Sows use intuitive feeding behaviors to dispense feed and water from MealMeter 2.0. With its innovative design, MealMeter 2.0 simulates the natural rooting and drinking behaviors of sows, encouraging them to consume the feed and water they dispense. There are no complicated feed curves to set, adjustments required or motors to maintain.

MealMeter 2.0 is available in Canada through Manitoba-based Buckingham Ag.

“The common-sense approach to this feeder enables the producer to have minimal electrical requirements, which dramatically reduces the cost to install,” said Rick Bergmann, President, Buckingham Ag. “The fact it doesn’t have a motor eliminates costly maintenance issues. It’s a very well thought out product that brings savings back to the farm.”

Banff’s legacy lives on

The iconic Banff Springs Hotel, town of Banff, Banff National Park and nearby attractions continue to be seen as an incentive for distant visitors to the seminar.

From far and wide, to the heights of the Rockies, the Banff Pork Seminar continues to represent Canada’s longest-running and one of the best pork conferences in the world, when it comes to blending informative content with networking opportunities and a stunning location.

Guests from Canada and across the globe are excited to spread the knowledge – and get the word out – about this must-attend annual event.

Message from the editor – Winter 2024

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The Winter 2024 edition of the Canadian Hog Journal is here!

You may have noticed this edition has been published one month later than normal, as the Canadian Hog Journal moves to a four-edition annual cycle from five editions, previously. Our Spring 2024 edition will be published in May, as usual.

Our wide-reaching coverage of the Banff Pork Seminar, along with highlights from the latest Porc Show and Saskatchewan Pork Industry Symposium, are all found in this edition, and much more.

A project covering enrichment options for weaners, from the University of Manitoba, won first place among student scientists at Banff, which is found here, along with coverage of Prairie Swine Centre’s swine welfare research forum, which was held just before the seminar.

Sylvain Charlebois, ‘The Food Professor,’ is widely sought after by national news media to share his perspective on agri-food policy and its many sensitive issues. With his finger on the pulse of Canadian consumers, Charlebois offered his perspective on what he believes lies ahead for pork. His plenary session speech was one of the most highly anticipated this year in Banff.

Representatives from across the Alberta pork value chain descended on Jasper this past fall to mentor and judge international business students. Twelve international student teams had just 30 hours to develop strategies to address pork industry profitability, which were then presented to an expert panel. Despite the short timeframe and lack of specific knowledge about the industry, the students pinpointed some new ways of thinking about old problems.

Research in this edition features a project directed by Swine Innovation Porc (SIP), related to sow group mixing, along with two topic areas from industry partners: PrevTech addresses stray voltage in barns, and Trouw Nutrition reviews the advantages of measuring your farm’s carbon footprint.

The Canadian Hog Journal works collaboratively with producers and their partners to be more than just a source of information, but an advocate for collective success and a showcase for our incredible industry and its people. And we need your help: send news releases, ideas, feedback and suggestions to ‘andrew.heck@albertapork.com’ or tag the Canadian Hog Journal (@HogJournal) in your conversations on Facebook and X.

Could your business or event benefit from advertising with us? Ads are sold not under commission, and revenue goes directly into the design and print costs associated with the magazine, directly supporting our readers – especially producers – who routinely turn to the Canadian Hog Journal for the exploration of important issues, production insights and personal enjoyment. Your product and service sales, or event attendance, can benefit from this exposure among our more than 3,500 print subscribers, who receive the magazine free-of-charge, along with many other readers who visit our website, ‘canadianhogjournal.com,’ and social media. Email ‘andrew.heck@albertapork.com’ for details.

Lower birth weights hurt producer profits

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By Zhenbin Zhang

Editor’s note: Zhenbin Zhang is a swine nutritionist for Cargill Animal Health. He can be contacted at zhenbin_zhang@cargill.com.

Strategies targeting management, genetics and nutrition can counter issues related to lower birth weights, enhancing profitability.

The swine industry has achieved significant advancements across various aspects, such as enhancing litter sizes, accelerating growth and improving feed efficiency in commercial grower-finisher pigs. These achievements can be attributed to extensive research and development efforts from both academia and industry. However, there remains ample room for enhancing pig livability.

When considering the cumulative losses from stillborn and mummified fetuses (eight to 10 per cent of piglets), pre-weaning mortality (14 per cent of losses), nursery mortality (four per cent) and grower-finisher mortality (four per cent), it becomes apparent that nearly one-third of pigs perish following pregnancy assessment. Many of these mortality factors can be correlated with birth weight.

Birth weights decline with larger litters

While producers are enjoying litter size increases, at a rate of about 0.3 piglets more per year, there is a downward trend in birth weights. When litter size is increased by one piglet, birth weight is reduced by 20 grams, and birth weight within-litter variation is increased by 0.38 per cent. The literature from five years ago consistently reports average birth weight above 1.4 kilograms, whereas birth weight today is closer to 1.2 to 1.3 kilograms.

Researcher George Foxcroft associated low birth weights with uterine capacity and maternal uterine nutrition. Moreover, gilts tend to give birth to lighter piglets than sows. The augmented rate of sow herd replacement over time could be partially responsible for this downward trend in birth weight. The health status of the pigs also plays a role in determining birth weight. Nutrient appropriation by parasites and the constraints posed by reproductive pathogens like Parvovirus and Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) can also hinder fetal development.

The reduction in birth weight bears economic repercussions for pig producers. Firstly, a correlation exists between birth weight and pre-weaning mortality. The critical birth weight threshold for heightened pre-weaning mortality risk has been identified as 1.1 kilograms. Research conducted by Kansas State University several years ago revealed that 15 per cent of piglets exhibited birth weights of 1.11 kilograms or less. This subgroup demonstrated a 34 per cent pre-weaning mortality rate, contributing to 43 per cent of overall pre-weaning mortalities. Piglets with birth weights below 500 grams seldom survive.

Table 1

Secondly, low birth weight compromises growth performance. As demonstrated in Table 1, lighter piglets at birth exhibit a reduction in body weight of one kilogram at weaning, 2.5 kilograms at the conclusion of the nursery phase, and five kilograms at the end of the finishing phase. Additionally, these lighter piglets demonstrate a two per cent lower feed efficiency from weaning to finishing. It is worth noting that birth weight has no discernible influence on carcass quality or meat characteristics. Given the significance of mortality and growth performance as key economic indicators, the decline in piglet birth weight undermines the profitability of producers.

Finding solutions to common problems                                           

Industry experts have been working tirelessly to improve birth weight and mitigate their negative impacts. Swine geneticists are exploring ways to enhance uterine capacity, while nutritionists are focusing on improving uterine nutrition for placenta development and fetal growth. Much research into late-gestation nutrition has encouraged the industry to use a late-gestation diet or ‘bump feeding’ to increase nutritional intake. However, there is a need to raise awareness of the importance of nutrition in early gestation. There’s also nutritional technology like Profert, developed by Cargill Animal Nutrition, which can improve follicle maturation and development in weaned sows. This technology results in better-quality fertilized eggs, which translates into higher and more uniform birth weights and more piglets born alive.

From a production management point-of-view, the practice of split-feeding helps low-birth-weight piglets obtain the colostrum they need for life-readiness. At the same time, some producers have used a milk replacer for herds with large litters. For example, if a sow farm has an average of 17 to 19 live-born piglets, but the sows have only 14 to 16 teats, the extra piglets can be fed a milk replacer. In this case, the primary objective is to save the piglets’ lives. In the light of this practice, it also makes sense to give milk replacer to low-birth-weight piglets or with large litters. Milk replacers like Cargill’s Rescue Milk are designed to provide nutrition comparable to that of sow’s milk.

The nutritional concept covers milk proteins, essential fatty acids comparable to milk fat composition, immune-enhancing compounds and gut health technology. The use of milk replacer results in low pre-weaning mortality and higher weaning weights. In addition, milk replacer can improve the body condition of sows at weaning, thus ensuring reproductive performance of the next litter. Therefore, the use of a milk replacer can be considered a standard management practice to improve productivity in herds with litter sizes greater than 14 live-born piglets.

Strategies targeting management, genetics and nutrition can help counter issues associated with lower birth weights. Integrating milk replacers can reduce pre-weaning mortality, improve weaning weight and sow condition, with the effect of enhancing profitability for producers.

Ontario news platform showcases pork’s people

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By Ontario Pork

Editor’s note: For more information, contact Tyler Calver, Senior Communications Specialist, Ontario Pork at tyler.calver@ontariopork.on.ca.

Ontario Pork’s new YouTube channel, Ontario Pork News, is sharing stories from across the Ontario agriculture value chain.

Among the many things that COVID-19 taught us, we learned just how essential our food supply chain is. More importantly, we learned just how vital the people are who work to keep that supply chain moving.

It’s for this reason that Ontario Pork has launched its very own online news platform, to tell the stories of these unsung heroes. From farmers to butchers, chefs to restaurant owners, truckers to veterinarians, nutritionists to processors, Ontario Pork News is creating a channel of human-interest news stories that focus on the people who are feeding not only Ontario, but the world.

Each story will be posted on Ontario Pork’s YouTube channel (@OntarioPorkNews). A new video will be posted every two weeks, and the stories will also be shared across all Ontario Pork’s social media accounts to engage a wide range of viewers.

“We want to share these stories and celebrate these people,” said John de Bruyn, Chair, Ontario Pork. “Ontario Pork News will be that conduit for us to tell the positive stories happening across the industry.”

OP News will be travelling across the province telling news stories similar to the half-hour, farm-dedicated program format on local TV stations some viewers may remember from decades past. The channel won’t just focus on the pork industry but on different people across the supply chain.

“It’s not just pork-centered; we’re going to be talking to other people who represent different commodities,” said Tyler Calver, Senior Communications Specialist, Ontario Pork. “There are so many amazing stories out there, and we want to highlight the dedicated people who work so hard 365 days a year to put delicious, nutritious food on our plates.”

Whether it’s a focus on successful farming operations, ensuring healthy animals and safe food, fostering a sustainable environment, or building strong communities and people, Ontario Pork News is dedicated to sharing informative stories from the many people and their families who are feeding our communities.

“There are so many misconceptions about agriculture floating around and there really isn’t a countering voice,” said Steff Lebrocq, Meat Manager, Market Fresh. “With so many jobs in agriculture available, I believe Ontario Pork News will be a great way to showcase the variety of great professions in agriculture while highlighting all of the meaningful contributions of the agriculture industry.”

In the last few years, especially since the pandemic, there have been employment challenges for a lot of agricultural sectors.

“We’re hoping by shining a positive light on our industry, we might be able to attract more people to these awesome jobs,” said Calver. “Ontario’s pork sector employs close to 20,000 people in directly related jobs that support communities. For example, when a truck driver stops at the local café or gas station, or a veterinarian buys a new truck. Agriculture isn’t just feeding people; it’s driving our economy.”

The Bergsmas lost their son, Dalles, and created a charitable initiative in his memory. Their story was the first to be highlighted by Ontario Pork News.

The first Ontario Pork News story featured the Bergsmas, a hog farming family from Lambton County. Through the loss of their son, the Bergsmas have created a mental health charity. This story already has more than 200,000 views across all of Ontario Pork’s social media platforms.

“We are incredibly grateful to Ontario Pork for taking so much interest and providing support for our Three Oaks Cabin project,” said Diane Bergsma. “Being able to share our story, although difficult, does provide some relief. We hope this exposure will help cultivate recognition of the necessity to care for our mental wellbeing and promote awareness for our respite cabin and mental health resources.”

If you or anyone you know has an interesting agriculture-related story you’d like to share, please email news@ontariopork.on.ca. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to @OntarioPorkNews on YouTube for all the latest videos.

Getting the dirt on cleaner trailers

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By Swine Innovation Porc

In the process of combatting swine disease transmission, researchers have been looking for new ways to improve livestock trailers for biosecurity reasons.

Porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) – which causes vomiting, diarrhea and often mortality – has wreaked havoc on pigs around the world, and science is helping to combat it on several fronts. Most recently, researchers targeted a common mode of disease transmission – livestock trailers – as they strove to improve cleaning methods and boost biosecurity in Canadian swine transport.

What started as an effort to save time and money when cleaning trailers took on added meaning in early 2014, when PED arrived in Canada. The disease that first hit North America in the U.S., costing their pork sector billions of dollars, was here, and producers were in panic mode.

PED prevention partners

For guidance on how to proceed, the federal government and pork producers asked the University of Saskatchewan to lead efforts to stop the transmission of PED and other diseases that can result from transporting animals. 

Researchers consulted with a PED advisory committee comprised of members from across the country, including transport companies, provincial pork producer organizations, processors and veterinarians. Together, the parties identified priorities around PED prevention, starting with how to clean trailers thoroughly enough that no trace of the virus remained on board.

Working with the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI) in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, scientists devised a high-pressure washer and vacuum system that would reach every corner of a trailer and blast out clumps of manure or any other material that might harbour PED.

The washer was a good start, so the next step was developing a remotely controlled system that would allow complete cleaning of trucks without the need for human workers entering the trailer. This involved trying different technologies, including a small robot vehicle used by the military to pick up explosive packages and safely detonate them. Eventually, the project partnered with Truck Wash Technologies Inc. in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to advance its gantry-style wash system for their purposes. This system moves across the length of the trailer in multiple passes, simultaneously cleaning the exterior and interior. 

Feeling the heat

Researchers were also tasked with finding the optimal level at which to heat trailers, so that if any trace of the pathogen remained after washing, it would be deactivated. Collaborating with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan, the research team concluded that heating the trucks at 75 degrees-Celsius for 20 minutes would be sufficient to eliminate the threat. 

The challenge with heating was that some areas of a trailer – such as behind gates and walls – can be harder to warm sufficiently. In response, the team looked for sensors that could be installed in trailer trouble spots and monitor temperatures. Though they found a company that specialized in sensors to assist in this effort, it overlooked one small detail: pigs eat sensors. 

Undeterred, the University of Saskatchewan engineers collaborated with the sensor company – Transport Genie in Burlington, Ontario – to develop sensors and insulate them properly to protect against curious snouts. The new sensors deliver GPS traceability of swine transport trailers, continuously measure environmental conditions during transport of animals and verify that trailer trouble spots reach the required time and temperature during heat treatment.

Idle threats? Not a chance

Thanks to this project, the risk of transmitting PED and other pathogens during transport has been drastically reduced, saving producers millions of dollars per year from illness and death loss. Findings from the study have raised the biosecurity bar, and heating trailers at 75 degrees-Celsius for 20 minutes is now the industry standard.

Based on this project, Prairie Swine Centre has developed guidelines to assist designers in considering animal welfare and biosecurity with new trailers.

As a further benefit, scientists are working with trucking companies to install their sensors, not only for biosecurity, but to warn drivers when the temperature and humidity levels are endangering pigs. Apart from enhancing animal welfare, this move will aid both trucking companies and processors, as each is responsible for the pigs once in their possession.

Led by Terry Fonstad at the University of Saskatchewan, this study drew on funding from Swine Innovation Porc (SIP) and expertise from several corners: Prairie Swine Centre, PAMI, Truck Wash Technologies Inc., Transport Genie Ltd., the PED advisory committee and VIDO.

Arms race

As the world learned the hard way from COVID-19, we must always stay a step ahead of the enemy. In that spirit, researchers are addressing what happens if a trace amount of virus survives washing and heating of the trailer and embeds itself in a biofilm for self-protection. A biofilm is a thick layer of organisms that gather to form a colony. 

With the attention garnered by their findings, researchers are now fielding calls from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) about other diseases of concern, such as African Swine Fever (ASF), and how to defend against them.

Probiotics could help piglets defeat diarrhea

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By Swine Innovation Porc

Editor’s note: This article is a project summary prepared for Swine Innovation Porc, as part of a series of articles covering SIP’s work. For more information, contact info@swineinnovationporc.ca.

The inclusion of Bacillus-based probiotics in nursery pig diets may reduce the presence of feed-induced diarrhea and help maintain or improve growth performance.

If you want to kill the buzz at a party, bring up diarrhea. Though it’s rarely discussed off the farm, the condition is a major concern for producers, sparking science to look for solutions.

Given the stakes, developing an alternative and environmentally friendly strategy to combat post-weaning diarrhea and improve the overall health of pigs is imperative. Post-weaning diarrhea is caused by a group of E. coli that produces special toxins and is widespread in swine production today. In addition to causing stress for the animals, it does the same for their owners by harming growth performance and increasing mortality in the barn. 

In many cases, farms rely on antibiotics to treat post-weaning diarrhea. Given the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with livestock farming, pressure is growing to phase out the drugs completely, with some countries already banning their use in feed to promote growth.

Heavy metals like zinc oxide have proven effective in controlling diarrhea yet have come under considerable scrutiny for their negative effects on animal health and the environment. These metals can accumulate in vital organs like the pancreas and liver and can contaminate soil and water. 

Probiotics: all pros, no cons

Now that we know what doesn’t work, only one question remains: what does? Based on recent studies, the addition of probiotic bacteria – live micro-organisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed – to the diet has several advantages for piglets during weaning: improved nutrient digestibility, reduced pathogen levels and greater gut immunity.

As a further benefit, adding specific probiotics to pig feed could help reduce the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the intestine. One such probiotic – Lactobacillus – has been studied extensively for this purpose and is now being used in commercial applications. 

Another promising option in the battle against post-weaking diarrhea is a particular strain of Bacillus species, known as Bacillus subtilis. Bacilli are rod-shaped bacteria that can form spores and survive in harsh conditions. These bacteria are plentiful, residing in soil, water, dust and air, and will thrive in various temperatures. Furthermore, their ability to create spores at high temperatures and endure high-acidity environments make Bacillus subtilis a robust strain that could be developed as an in-feed probiotic supplement. In recent studies, augmenting pig diets with probiotic Bacillus subtilis reduced the incidence and severity of diarrhea and boosted the immunity of piglets during testing. 

Apart from addressing diarrhea caused by E. coli, the inclusion of Bacillus-based probiotics in nursery pig diets may reduce the presence of feed-induced diarrhea and help maintain or improve growth performance. This is significant, since weaning-associated diarrhea can also be triggered by economical diets that are mostly plant-based. 

Because feed cost is a huge burden on the industry, less costly regimens are often necessary, but they have also been associated with a higher incidence of diarrhea and lower intestinal integrity, which refers to the ability of the intestine to maintain its structure and function.

Scale-up testing needed

Good research is an investment in the future, so the scientists in this study were grateful for financial support from Swine Innovation Porc (SIP), the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and CBS Bio Platforms Canada.

From the University of Guelph’s Department of Animal Biosciences, several researchers and students joined forces for the project: Julang Li, Sudhanshu Sudan, Lee-Anne Huber, Robert Friendship, Elijah Kiarie, Xiaoshu Zhan, Lauren Fletcher and Serena Dingle.

Also integral to the project were Rob Patterson, Vice President, Innovation & Commercialization, CBS Bio Platforms, and the animal care and sampling assistance provided by the barn staff and research associates at the Arkell Swine Research Facility, along with sample processing and data extraction by BioZone at the University of Toronto.

Based on the current results, low-dose supplementation can achieve significant improvements in growth performance in a research environment. From here, larger studies in commercial production settings must be conducted to confirm these findings.

While there is still work ahead, this study adds to a limited body of research on the use of probiotics as an alternative to zinc oxide and antibiotics in guarding against post-weaning diarrhea. The results also suggest that supplementing piglets with a novel Bacillus-based probiotic may improve feed efficiency and growth performance, offering an economical feeding strategy to benefit producers around the world.

As a dinner topic, that sure beats diarrhea.

Green goals, grey realities: the net-zero quest

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By Katerina Kolemishevska

Editor’s note: Katerina Kolemishevska is Director of Policy Development, Canadian Pork Council (CPC). She can be contacted at kolemishevska@cpc-ccp.com.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood alongside other world leaders in at the COP21 conference in 2015, signing Canada onto the Paris Agreement, which commits us to international net-zero goals.

The call for a net-zero planet has been echoing across countries, industries and communities with more urgency than ever before. As floods, heat waves and wildfires ravage our world, finding an effective but achievable solution to climate change is paramount.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2018 that the Earth has warmed 1.5 degrees-Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, due to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The report emphasizes the need for a “rapid and far-reaching” transition to keep temperatures at current levels. This is how the net-zero concept came to exist and was adopted with the Paris Agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), during which signatory countries, including Canada, pledged to act.

Canada has committed to reaching economy-wide net-zero GHGs by 2050, along with 120 countries, aiming to slash global emissions in half by 2030. The Canadian government has set various legislative measures to meet the goals, with the most important being the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, enacted in 2021. Currently, the government is developing its Sustainable Agricultural Strategy (SAS), outlining the indicators, tools and actions that could help the agri-food sector meet the target.

What does ‘net zero’ really mean?

Manure management strategies align with net-zero ‘insetting’ practices and have widespread application on Canadian farms today.

Interpretations of ‘net zero’ usually refer to reducing GHG emissions to the greatest possible extent and balancing what’s left. Why ‘net’ zero? Even with total de-carbonization of systems that create emissions, there will always be GHGs in the environment. To reach total neutrality – or ‘zero’ – emissions must be completely balanced, which is impossible. As most emissions come from energy-intensive industries, including agriculture, a delicate yet imperfect solution is being sought.

‘Offsetting’ and ‘insetting’ GHG emissions are two basic strategies for agriculture. Offsetting provides an instant way to balance emissions, whereas insetting directly enhances the sustainability and resiliency of agricultural operations.

To be more precise, offsetting allows producers to compensate for emissions already produced by investing in environmental projects outside of their operations, to reduce their carbon footprint. Most offsetting strategies focus on industrial carbon capture and storage. This is contrasted with reducing emissions directly related to agricultural activity and the agri-food supply chain, which is considered insetting.

Insetting incorporates carbon reduction directly into the production business model, such as conservation tillage, crop rotation and manure management. Depending on the operational structure, producers can combine offsetting and insetting practices and tailor them to specific on-farm contexts to drive significant progress towards the broader net-zero goal.

Are some net-zero goals out-of-reach?

Realistically reaching net zero remains a foggy proposition for most Canadian hog farmers, as investment and technology are still insufficient.

The net-zero approach represents a good attempt to tackle climate change in theory, but in practice, the path is burdened with complications.

As it stands today, it seems nearly impossible to maintain global temperatures at just 1.5 degrees-Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This will require significant adjustments for the agri-food sector, including how we produce crops and livestock, eliminate food waste and manage biodiversity.

Transitioning to net zero often requires substantial investments in new technology, equipment and procedures. In its report on “Canada’s road to net-zero,” RBC estimates $2 trillion of investments will be needed to finance the transition over the next three decades. That’s at least $60 billion annually from government and industry to cut Canada’s emissions by 75 per cent.

For agriculture alone, RBC suggests costs will be $2.5 billion annually to cut emissions from 73 megatonnes in 2019 to 43 megatonnes going forward. While current government programs can cover some of the cost, it is unclear how public incentives can guarantee long-term commitment. But what happens with the huge remaining cash gap needed to enable this transition? Where is that money coming from? Current economic conditions, such as inflation rates, don’t make it any better. On the contrary, it makes the money tighter.

Technological limitations also challenge innovation. Despite scientific progress, we are still in the early stages of creating scalable, efficient and cost-effective climate-smart technologies. While other sectors have identified many technologies that could substantially reduce emissions, these are not readily available in agriculture. As energy sources vary from one region of the country to the next, one-size-fits-all solutions may be out-of-reach for farmers.

Across agriculture, carbon capture and storage systems could be a game changer, but land availability is a major concern. The U.K.-based climate policy thinktank, Grantham Institute, believes up to 1.2 billion hectares of land worldwide would be required to grow crops for bioenergy to replace conventional, carbon-intensive forms. That equates to nearly 80 per cent of all the land that is now farmed. Implementation at that scale would permanently damage biodiversity and harm global food security.

And there’s another problem: nitrogen. We still have much to discover scientifically when it comes to understanding biological processes that contribute to GHG emissions, especially the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen encourages carbon sequestration by promoting plant growth, so it must be managed carefully. A recent report by the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlights the lack of clarity on how nitrogen affects soil microorganisms, which impacts soil biodiversity and fertility, crop output and nitrogen emissions. As the nitrogen enigma becomes better-understood, we may find out that the net-zero calculations are even more complicated than previously thought.

The existing knowledge gaps in agriculture make net zero unfeasible with today’s tools. To overcome this barrier, the industry needs multi-faceted strategies to support economic, social and technological advancements.

Find a more balanced way forward

ESG goals have consumed the corporate world. Even within the Canadian pork industry, companies are looking to keep up.

Even if all of the recommended best management practices are implemented, the agri-food sector has little chance of attaining net zero. Despite the associated risks, many agricultural sectors have already committed to pursuing these environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

While the Canadian pork industry’s carbon footprint is comparatively low, we have significant potential to reduce our overall environmental impact. Hog farmers are constantly striving to improve on-farm practices to lower their input costs and generate positive ecological outcomes.

Yet, some experts consider the net zero commitment necessary to fast-track progress, while others argue that additional regulations and taxes should accompany the pledge; however, relying on legislation rather than cooperation undermines the incentive for producer engagement.

Initiatives that measure and enhance producer sustainability support the broader industry’s transformation efforts. Sustainability as a principle – rather than net-zero commitments – balances all associated factors to ensure the industry’s long-term viability, rather than only targeting GHG emissions in the pursuit of a one-dimensional objective.

Given that the obstacles to net zero are significant, acknowledging them does not justify inaction. Instead, it demands a more realistic approach. Prioritizing best management practices is important, but producers are not the sole drivers of change. We should shift our attention and invest profoundly in research and development to address technological gaps and develop strategies that work for everyone.

The reality of arriving at net zero is grey because, regardless of which direction we take, no solution is completely green. Instead of unreachable targets, we should understand that the path toward sustainability is a series of steps, and every step in the right direction is critical.

PRRS scare leads to H1N2 discovery

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By Cordell Young

Editor’s note: Cordell Young is a veterinarian with Precision Veterinary Services, based in Alberta. He can be contacted at cordell@precisionvet.ca.

Steven Waldner is the hog boss for Fairlane Colony and an Alberta Pork board director. Starting three years ago, Fairlane has progressively and successfully navigated an H1N2 outbreak, providing lessons for all producers who may face similar situations.

When Fairlane Colony in Alberta – a 370-sow farrow-to-finish operation – noticed an unusually high number of sick pigs in its herd in 2020, alarm bells quickly sounded.

“We knew there was a problem right away, so we called our vet,” said Steven Waldner, Fairlane’s barn manager. “She came out to our farm to see what was happening and suggested we start dealing with it right away.”

Initially, Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) appeared to be the culprit, which is bad news for any producer, given the amount of time and resources required to recover from such an outbreak. The farm immediately began to use medication to stem the spread of what was believed to be PRRS.

However, other options still remained on the table. After the outbreak was already underway, Waldner reached out to Precision Veterinary Services for additional support. Our initial thinking was, what if some kind of influenza, not PRRS, was responsible?

Unfortunately, at that time, the perspective on flu vaccines wasn’t particularly promising, but Waldner’s determination and Precision’s persistence remained steadfast. We knew a solution was needed – something that could reverse the farm’s fortunes and save its animals from further suffering.

Attacking the issue head-on

As Fairlane’s production has stabilized in the years following the outbreak, the farm is now prepared to manage any potential concerns into the future.

Early samples for flu strains came back negative, but further diagnostic analysis ended up determining the problem: H1N2, a subtype of Influenza A, which is sometimes called ‘bird flu’ but is endemic in pigs and can also infect humans. Its symptoms can be similar to PRRS, and co-infections of PRRS and H1N2 are not unheard of.

While the discovery was jolting, knowing what was behind the problem ignited a spark of hope. Armed with newfound knowledge, the team launched into action. The farm underwent internal biosecurity changes and an intensive process to initiate flu vaccinations – a critical step towards turning the tide against the illness that had plagued them for so long. The decision to implement vaccinations proved to be a game-changer.

“Vaccination really helped get our production back on track,” said Waldner. “All of the performance metrics got better, and we didn’t need to use as much medication anymore. After that, we were able to continue mostly as normal, with upgraded biosecurity.”

Fast-forward to 2023, and Fairlane’s numbers paint a compelling picture of resurgence, thanks to the effectiveness of the vaccine and the producer’s ability to do what needed to be done.

One of the most significant changes was the number of sows that farrowed early. Using 115 days of gestation as the cut-off, only half as many sows farrowed early post-vaccine compared to before. This matters because piglets born at that point in gestation are often considered premature, have higher rates of mortality and are poorer quality. This had a substantially positive impact on overall piglet viability by reducing the amount of labour and stress that might have been required during the first two days after farrowing and also reduced scouring outbreaks.

Adjusted farrowing rates increased to nearly 92 per cent, which was a dramatic improvement. The average gestation length of just over 116 days highlighted the farm’s change in sow stability, as piglets born alive per litter surged to 15.27, with the mummified fetus rate dropping to a mere 1.8 per cent, which suggests improved sow health and prenatal care. The average litter birth weight also increased modestly from 20.2 kilograms to nearly 20.7 kilograms, underscoring better nutrition and piglet development.

The average number of piglets weaned per litter increased from 12.17 to 12.92, with pre-weaning mortality decreasing to 14.5 per cent from 15.5 per cent, pointing to improved piglet health and care post-birth. Piglets weaned per sow per year also increased substantially from 29.62 to 31, which could be a combination of management efficiency and possible genetic improvements.

The breeding female cull rate also decreased to 41.9 per cent from 50 per cent, indicative of improved herd health and culling decisions. The average number of parities of those sows increased to 5.29 from 3.13, which tells us more of the young sows were able to withstand the demands of production without the additional challenge of H1N2.

Recovery continues, with the power of knowledge

Despite the outbreak, Fairlane’s weaners are looking better than before, thanks to the adoption of the vaccine and improved biosecurity.

Beyond the numbers, the recovery process taught us some valuable lessons, which helped Fairlane right its course in the aftermath, even leading to production benefits.

“We saw a very big improvement in weaning since getting the problem under control,” said Waldner. “The average birthweight per piglet is a bit lower than before, and we don’t quite know why, but it could be the higher number of births. In any case, this hasn’t hurt the piglets’ health or average daily gain on the sow. That part has actually been even better.”

While some residual coughing remains, even today, it’s a far cry from the previous state of the herd. While no flu vaccine is capable of completely removing all the long-term respiratory challenges that emerge, vaccines are a powerful tool for veterinarians to offer producers, and the results speak for themselves. Today, Fairlane’s herd looks much better than three years ago.

In addition to addressing the disease itself, Fairlane’s biosecurity has improved. Hallways used to move piglets from the nursery to the scale are now washed weekly, and new clothing protocols involve a change of coveralls, gloves and boots before moving between the grow-finish, nursery and farrowing rooms of the barn.

Fairlane Colony’s unwavering commitment to finding a solution in collaboration with veterinary support helped the farm battle through sickness and uncertainty to emerge victorious. The journey from a state of crisis to a better, healthier life for the farm’s pigs is a testament to the power of science, understanding disease, resilience and the importance of working as a team.

Fairlane’s experience showcases what can be achieved with the right tools, expertise and dedication to problem-solving. Even in the face of the most daunting challenges, there is always a way forward – a path towards triumph, growth and transformation.

Pork promotion must look to the future

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By Andrew Heck

Appealing to modern pork consumers is harder than ever. The Summer 1993 edition of the Western Hog Journal featured a spotlight on Alberta Pork’s ‘thrilling summer promotion.’ But do the same strategies work today?

Despite its inherent virtues – from affordability, ease-of-use, nutritional density and taste – Canadian pork has fallen behind the pack when it comes to consumer marketing, compared to its protein competitors. While supply-managed commodities undoubtedly have a financial advantage, it is incumbent upon the Canadian pork industry to keep pace.

Pork demand is largely tied to trends outside of the industry’s control, but that doesn’t mean the industry can’t help influence the trajectory. Consumer marketing has ranked lower on the industry’s priorities in recent years than more pressing concerns, like pricing, which has created an opportunity for increased attention and improvement to current pork promotion efforts.

Once upon a time, Canadians could be counted on to fill their fridges and freezers with fresh and cured pork products, ready-at-hand in a moment’s notice for tonight’s family supper, tomorrow’s bagged lunch or a backyard cookout.

Today, the situation is very different. Consumers are much less inclined to stock up on food at all, as grocery prices have soared and as foodservice options have made meals more convenient than ever. About half of Canada’s nearly 40 million people are under 40-years-old, and nearly 95 per cent of the entire population lives in cities, including many new Canadians. While pork appeals to Canadians of all ages and backgrounds, there’s no doubt that younger, urban, culturally diverse consumers and their children will continue to wield increasing influence over trends.

This societal change represents both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, consumers are much better informed than ever before, and they have a lot more choices when it comes to food. On the other hand, the playing field for marketers has become much more complex to navigate. Pork promotion, however, has been sluggish to adapt.

Pork: the other (non-)white meat

Starting in 1987, the U.S. National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) trademarked and aggressively promoted pork as ‘The Other White Meat®.’ The slogan resonated with consumers into the 2000s, but today, it’s antiquated.

With consumers becoming increasingly health-conscious, and as professional nutrition advice began to steer people away from diets high in saturated fat, pork in the 1980s needed a makeover. The solution? Turning pork into chicken – proverbially speaking – as lighter, bird-based options were rapidly taking flight in terms of purchasing habits.

Marketers readily latched onto this revolutionary idea to modernize pork’s image, beginning with a U.S. National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) campaign in 1987: The Other White Meat®. Thanks to concentrated, well-funded initiatives, the catchy slogan spilled over into Canada, becoming a sentiment that would be adapted and recycled for years. While the tagline was officially retired in 2011, its legacy endures, representing former glory that has yet to be recaptured.

Even though the campaign resonated with a relatively homogenous consumer base back then – using traditional media like print, radio and television advertising, along with point-of-sale activities – it was based on a falsehood, as pork isn’t white meat. In fact, many people eating pork today were not even born when the campaign was conceived.

When the motto first came into use, the positive perception of poultry was hard to ignore. One of the main selling features of fresh pork then, as now, is its similarity to chicken in terms of nutritional value and possible methods of preparation. But does that matter? Fast-forward to the age of the internet, and not all consumers are seeking a chicken copycat anymore, but perhaps one that goes toe-to-toe with a comparable yet pricier protein, like beef.

As chicken consumption has continued to rise in Canada, beef consumption has declined, with pork remaining stable. Logically, filling the void left by beef may hold greater potential than trying to cut into chicken’s popularity, which continues to dominate, almost untouched. Plant- and lab-based meat alternative manufacturers recognized this right away, heading straight for the creation of fake beef burgers. And while these companies have struggled to turn a profit and continue to try their hand at simulated pork, poultry, dairy and seafood products, the soy- or pea-based patty has seen moderate success and commercial application relative to other imitation goods.

While foodservice does not directly drive pig or pork prices, restaurants play an important role in how consumers engage with pork, especially as mobile application-based delivery options become increasingly popular.

When diners are looking for a night out and a satisfying meal, heading to the local steakhouse has remained a popular choice for decades. Even when pork manages to make a prominent appearance on restaurant menus, few establishments treat it with the same level of reverence and respect as beef, and the results speak for themselves, when guests are served an underwhelming, regrettable pork plate.

As these unfortunate eating experiences serve to reinforce consumers’ preferences, beef comes out on top almost every time, which cements in their minds a distinct difference in quality, even if that belief is rooted in a simple matter of technique and presentation.

For a long time, pork was under-classed as subsistence – eaten at home when many people kept backyard pigs for personal consumption or simply didn’t appreciate it fully. Pork’s second-rate historical reputation precedes it, even today, with food safety remaining a common yet dated concern.

Food safety has come a long way over the years, with foodborne illnesses in pork not usually the direct responsibility of production or processing, but cooking. Age-old fears related to Trinchinella bacteria are no longer seen with commercially raised pigs, with other pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria now the focus.

Just 10 degrees-Fahrenheit separates juicy, medium rare pork from dry, well done pork, but health officials around the world have differing opinions on what’s safe.

As a result, there has been renewed interest and push for health officials to adopt lower temperature standards, given the circumstances around modern pork production and processing. Already back in 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered its temperature recommendations for pork to 145 degrees-Fahrenheit, with some rest time, which is consistent with their guidelines for beef and veal. Australian Pork even goes so far as to publish on its website: “Pork doesn’t need to be overcooked to be safe. In fact, pork can be eaten with a hint of pink in the middle.” Health Canada, meanwhile, still places the pork minimum at a stodgy 160 degrees-Fahrenheit, just shy of chicken’s 165-degree threshold.

While it may seem like a reversal of once-trusted marketing strategies, if Canadians – especially the current generation of young and soon-to-be adults – can be convinced to treat pork more like the red meat it actually is, it could showcase the beauty of the product in new ways. Even if a consumer’s preference is to eat out or order in, picking pork could be seen as enjoyable and economical just the same.

Disease provides tangible reason to care

Canadian beef’s triumph over BSE was a massive accomplishment, at least partly due to consumer loyalty, which was built over time by the industry’s own promotional efforts. But would Canadian pork under ASF receive the same treatment?

One area in which the Canadian pork industry has a pressing need to brush up is the situation of a potential foreign animal disease outbreak, like African Swine Fever (ASF).

In the event trade comes to a halt due to ASF, pork supplies already in cold storage will become backlogged, awaiting export, which will cause serious supply chain complications. The only immediate reprieve could be renewed consumer interest in buying up the stalled pork until market activities resume as normal. This sounds doable in principle, but in practice, Canadians are nowhere near equipped to eat up much of the surplus.

Flash back to 2003: a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was first discovered in Canadian cattle, resulting in the closure of global markets to Canadian beef. In response, the industry rallied Canadian consumers to buy beef… and it worked.

Year-over-year, between 2002 and 2003, per capita domestic beef consumption increased from 13.5 kilograms to 14.2 kilograms. While beef prices plunged as a result of the markets lost from BSE, hurting the industry in the direct aftermath, consumers were thrilled to find deep discounts at retail. Curiously, during that same time, per capita pork consumption declined, with chicken consumption remaining stable.

While Canadian consumers’ response to BSE could serve as an analogy for a hypothetical ASF experience, there are some differences: only about half of all Canadian beef is typically exported, with the other half consumed domestically, whereas pork is undoubtedly more export-reliant. Additionally, romantic stereotypes about beef – think of the picturesque ranching lands featuring cattle and cowboys in the Rocky Mountain foothills – are largely absent with pig production, which positions beef much better than pork among everyday consumers who may view pork neutrally or even negatively. ‘Factory farm’ prejudices are one example.

If ASF were to hit Canada, it is doubtful that Canadians would respond as enthusiastically to pork as they did to beef during the BSE crisis, which means it’s in the pork industry’s best interest to work even harder now to build its brand, before the need becomes critical.

While a supply crisis may be inevitable under ASF, anything helps, when it comes to growing consumption levels. Proactive thinking suggests pork promotion is one way to do it, to develop favourable consumer habits and build pride along the way, which has a ripple effect even when crises are not imminent.

Partners must come together rather than splinter

While provinces are fond of their own brands and promotional activities, the strength of Canadian pork lies its ability for partners to pool their resources.

Today, more than 1.4 million metric tonnes of Canadian pork end up overseas, with around 670,000 metric tonnes being consumed domestically; however, not all pork consumed by Canadians is Canadian. An additional 270,000 metric tonnes of imports – mostly from the U.S. – end up here, highlighting the reality of an integrated, international market, as retailers often choose to sell foreign pork. In foodservice, that can improve profit margins, and in grocery, it may be easier to sell at a lower price, encouraging shoppers’ purchases.

If the proportion of Canadian pork consumed domestically versus exported became even a bit more balanced, it could make all the difference to enhancing Canadian food security and public trust, with a financial benefit to follow for the industry. While private businesses like grocers and restaurants are free to acquire pork from any approved source, it stands to reason that retailers could make the conscientious choice to consider standing behind Canadian versus foreign products. While pork may lack beef’s bold appeal, Canadian consumers are generally on board with the ‘buy local’ mantra, which is a naturally favourable position for the Canadian pork industry.

Working with Canada Pork, provincial pork producer organizations across Canada and the Canadian Pork Council (CPC) frequently engage with one another on various promotions, in addition to efforts that take place exclusively at the provincial level. For example, Alberta Pork, Sask Pork and Manitoba Pork join forces regularly to drive initiatives designed for western Canada as a whole, while Ontario Pork and Éleveurs de porcs du Québec (Quebec Pork) have sophisticated programs of their own, tailored to their respective jurisdictions. From having a presence at community events to working with grocers and restaurants to showcase Canadian pork, there is still a place for traditional forms of consumer marketing, although the benefits are typically less impactful compared to decades past. As such, pooling resources for maximum effect, today, possesses the greatest potential.

Through Canada Pork, provincial borders dissolve, and the true face of a united pork front is revealed. To the consumer, it sends a stronger message about the product, through brands like Verified Canadian Pork (VCP), with a value proposition based on quality assurances at the farm and plant level.

From one province to the next, it may be true that subtle differences like feed ingredients, environmental conditions and operational styles contribute to distinctions in the end product, but overall, the average consumer likely can’t tell the difference, may not care and probably doesn’t even know. Suffice to say, marketing at the provincial level, over the national level, divides resources and brings smaller returns than the industry is likely capable of achieving through collective action.

Pork can prevail, but only with fresh thinking

Understanding contemporary demographics is a must. The choices of today’s pork consumer look very different from what they once were.

For the Canadian pork industry to address its current marketing stalemate, it has become clear that collaboration and investment are the best way forward. Paired with modern thinking and novel approaches for an ever-changing demographic, pork has more to offer consumers than most other proteins, but those virtues are not as widely appreciated as they could be.

Successful marketing requires data to strengthen its case. If the direct benefits are unable to be measured, stakeholder confidence is lost, and momentum dies. The Canadian pork industry must take action to understand its audience even better.

The changed landscape requires updated tools and tactics to tap into what today’s consumer wants and will ultimately find, with or without industry input. Finding a way to capitalize on the situation remains pork promoters’ Achilles Heel.

If Canadian consumption of pork can tick upward, even a little, it may generate greater domestic interest in this world-leading product, which is the goal that has eluded the industry as society forges ahead faster than pork marketing has been able to match.