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Why eating like a pig costs big

Steve Buist, Hamilton Spectator, 2021.05.30

It’s 7 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 21, and it’s one of the coldest mornings of the winter so far. The snow crunches under foot, there’s just a hint of grey light along the eastern horizon and an icy mist rises off the nearby Grand River.

Two gleaming silver tanker trucks from the Wallenstein feed company have already started emptying their loads into the metal silos at Curtiss Littlejohn’s pig farm in the hamlet of Glen Morris.

For biosecurity reasons, Littlejohn prefers to have his feed delivered Monday mornings on the trucks’ first run from the mill, located in the village of Wallenstein, a few kilometres west of Elmira.

That way, he knows they’ve been washed thoroughly from top to bottom over the weekend, so there’s no chance that a disease picked up from another pig farm could inadvertently get transported onto his property.

On this morning, 71 tonnes of feed are being disgorged, enough to keep Littlejohn’s 7,000 pigs fed for a week.

The bill?

Just under $22,000, a sharp reminder of the scale of costs faced on large farming operations.

From the time Piggy is weaned from his mother at three weeks of age, he is free to eat to his heart’s content — as much as he wants, whenever he wants, 24 hours a day — assuming he can squeeze himself into a spot between the other pigs at the trough.

By the time Piggy gets shipped off to market, he will have eaten about a quarter of a tonne of feed — about 550 pounds.

It’s a phenomenal amount of food in such a short time.

At the Littlejohns’ farm, the monthly feed bill alone had reached $120,000 by March.

Not surprisingly, feed is easily the largest cost associated with raising pigs, and it’s a cost that has been growing steadily for two years.

In September 2006, based on calculations from Wallenstein Feed and Supply Ltd., it cost $53.75 on average to feed a pig from birth to market.

By the start of May, the cost had jumped to $90.31 per pig, an increase of almost 70 per cent.

In fact, since last fall, it’s cost pig farmers in Ontario more just to feed their animals than the price they get for selling a hog to a processing plant.

“My crystal ball isn’t too clear right now,” said Rick Martin, general manager of Wallenstein Feed and Supply. “In the past we’ve always been quite confident. Today, you add it up and it doesn’t compute. We can’t produce pork at a price that is profitable for the farmer.

“We’re trying to be supportive of the farmers who want to hang in there but on the other hand, we’re counselling quite a few of our farmers to get out while the getting’s good.”

The current financial crisis in Ontario’s hog industry sends ripples out far beyond the farms.

With some customers purchasing more than $100,000 of feed each month, supply companies such as Wallenstein are also nervous about the future.

“A guy buys $100,000 of feed a month and if he doesn’t pay us, then next month it’s up to $200,000,” said Martin. “It’s extremely stressful for our swine feed sales reps because they have to go out there and talk to the people and the conversation is kind of like ‘Well, guys, it’s pretty tough out there, the prospects don’t look too good for 2008, let’s make a plan here.’”

“It must be tough for your salespeople,” I said. “On the one hand, farmers need to survive for you to get your money, but at what point do you stop throwing good money after bad?”

“It’s so tough,” Martin said. “These sales reps, 100 per cent of their job might be swine feed sales and they might be out there talking the swine farmer out of business because he can’t survive.

“The trouble is feed mills aren’t secured creditors, not like the bank. Even if there is equity, we don’t necessarily get it. We’re at the very end of the line, with the electrician and the plumber.”

“And you have no assets to recover because the feed is gone,” I said.

“Yep, the feed’s gone, and we don’t own the pigs or the chickens,” Martin added. “We have an extremely good sales staff but now they’ve almost had to put on their counselling hats.

“It’s tough.”

WALLENSTEIN FEED and Supply is the largest feed mill in Canada, producing about 40,000 tonnes of livestock feed a month for its 2,000 customers across the province.

The company can make 900 types of feed mixtures for all kinds of animals, but normally about 80 per cent of production is for poultry and the other 20 per cent is swine feed.

The No. 3 Mill, where swine feed is made, is so highly automated that two men can run the entire operation from a computerized control booth, churning out almost 800 tonnes of feed a day without having to leave their office chairs.

Amber Swidersky is the technical services manager at Wallenstein Feed and an expert in swine nutrition.

She wants to get one thing straight right from the start to counter any misperceptions the public might have.

“There are no growth hormones or steroids in any hog feed in Canada,” Swidersky said, “or chicken feed, for that matter.”

“I’ve got this guy in my church who insists that we force-feed hormones to chickens,” Martin added. “I’m the manager of this place, I’ve worked here for 27 years, and I tell him, ‘No, we don’t.’

“It’s not legal, it’s not available in Canada, it’s not even a possibility, yet he insists that we do,” he added. “How do you prove a negative? It’s really difficult if someone sets their mind to it that ‘Yep, that’s what happens.’”

Some medications and antibiotics from a government-approved list can be added to swine feed mixtures at the direction of a veterinarian.

Nutritional requirements for swine feed are established by the federal government’s Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and CFIA audits and inspects the feed mill for compliance.

Wallenstein Feed and Supply is also an accredited member of an industry-wide food safety program called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, which requires annual audits of the mill to check performance.

Swidersky’s job is to put together feed mixtures for the various parts of a pig’s life cycle that provide all of the daily dietary requirements. At the same time, she wants to keep the cost as low as possible for farmers.

She uses a computer program and sets minimum levels for such components as protein, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and total energy, then lets the program figure out the cheapest mix of ingredients to satisfy all of her conditions.

For instance, sows producing milk will get a mixture that’s higher in protein, B vitamins, calcium and phosphorus.

Young weaned piglets, on the other hand, need to have a highly digestible feed with milk proteins added as they make the transition from their mother’s milk to solid food.

The older a pig gets, the less complex — and less expensive — the feed is.

“We’ve noticed that our farmers have been trying to really minimize that feed cost and make the transition more quickly to the cheaper feeds,” said Martin.

Like the hogs they’re feeding, Swidersky and her associates at Wallenstein Feed are opportunists.

They can put to use a wide variety of byproducts from other industries — soybean and canola meal left over after the oil has been extracted, wheat castoffs from the flour-making process, or day-old bakery products.

“I think the really great thing about the feed industry is that we’re taking products that were human grade and recycling them,” said Swidersky. “We’re a great recycler. If it didn’t go back into animal feed, it would be going into the landfill.”

But opportunism and high-tech computer programming haven’t been able to solve one unavoidable dilemma that has plagued the feed industry and farmers for the past year — the skyrocketing price of corn.

About 50 per cent of all swine feed at Wallenstein Feed and Supply is made from corn, but because of U.S. energy policies, more and more of each year’s crop is being diverted to make ethanol, used as a gasoline additive.

From 2000 to 2007, corn production in the United States rose by 32 per cent, but the amount of corn being used to make ethanol increased by 410 per cent.

By 2007, a quarter of the total U.S. corn crop was being used to make ethanol.

Predictably, corn’s popularity has sent prices soaring.

In August 2006, a bushel of corn cost $2.15 US. By January of this year, a bushel was worth just over $5 US. By April, the price touched $6 US a bushel.

The dramatic increase in the price of corn in the United States has lifted prices higher here in Canada.

A tonne of corn that cost $96 in August 2006 had risen to more than $230 by the start of May.

North America’s growing desire to turn corn into fuel makes one University of Guelph professor sputter indignantly.

“Some idiots thought that it would be better to make gasoline out of it and put it in your SUV and drive around,” said Robert Friendship, a swine research expert.

“That whole industry is a false economy,” he added. “Where it really sells is in the U.S.

“It’s safe fuel, it’s not in Iraq, the terrorists can’t get at it. It’s there in Iowa.”

And ethanol gives people a warm, fuzzy feeling because it’s perceived as a greener, renewable alternative to oil pumped from the ground.

“So they can go out and buy their Hummer and feel good about it because 10 per cent of the gas is made from corn,” scoffed Friendship.

There’s just one problem: converting corn to fuel isn’t as green an option as people might think.

A 2005 study by scientists at Cornell University and the University of California-Berkeley concluded it took 29 per cent more fossil-fuel energy to make ethanol from corn than the amount of energy ultimately retrieved from ethanol.

What’s worse, one of the scientists said, is that when ethanol is added to gasoline, “its use amounts to burning the same amount of fuel twice to drive a car once.”

That doesn’t even take into account the costs associated with diverting huge amounts of corn that could be used as food for humans and animals into the production of fuel.

Last year, researcher Robert Hahn of the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy research organization based in Washington, analyzed a broad range of environmental and economic factors and came to the conclusion that “the case for ethanol is lacking.”

He looked at two scenarios — a modest increase in U.S. ethanol production by 2012, and a more aggressive increase over the same period.

Hahn concluded that in the modest scenario, the costs of producing ethanol would exceed the benefits by about $1 billion US a year.

In the more aggressive case, the additional costs would amount to more than $2 billion US annually.

“It doesn’t really make sense,” said Dr. Kees De Lange, co-ordinator of the University of Guelph’s swine research program. “It’s more driven by politics than anything else.

“It has to do with American presidential elections, which start in Iowa, which is a corn-producing state,” said De Lange. “In the past, corn production has been subsidized but with international trade issues, subsidies on corn are difficult to maintain.

“In a way, stimulating ethanol production from corn starch is a subsidy to corn producers.”

There are also environmental consequences to be considered.

Much of the U.S. corn production is centred in states that border the Mississippi River.

Corn requires significant amounts of nitrogen-based fertilizer but corn fields aren’t as efficient at retaining nitrogen in the soil as other crops, such as soybeans. The nitrogen gets washed into creeks and streams, and then collects in the mighty Mississippi.

Each year, about 100,000 tonnes of fertilizer nitrogen flow down the Mississippi and end up in the Gulf of Mexico.

All of that fertilizer has now created an oxygen-depleted dead zone of 20,000 square kilometres where fish and shrimp can’t survive.

GIMME THE TRANSPONDER, SAID THE HUNGRY SOW

A modern technology associated with toll highways like the 407 may provide an ingenious solution to an animal welfare issue related to feeding.

On pig farms across North America, most sows spend their entire lives kept in narrow, restrictive stalls, primarily to control feed intake and limit aggression between animals.

But the European Union and some large North American pork producers have announced they are banning the stalls because of animal welfare concerns, meaning farmers will have to house their sows in group pens.

That can present feeding challenges because bossy, aggressive sows will eat more than their share of feed at the expense of weaker, submissive sows.

To combat the problem, electronic feeding systems have been developed, although they aren’t widely used yet because of prohibitive costs.

Sows wear a collar with a transponder embedded inside, and when the animal approaches the feeding station, the gate opens, one sow enters at a time, and the station dispenses her daily allotment of feed, based on the transponder information, into a controlled trough.

“They learn pretty quickly, particularly for a food reward,” said Tina Widowski, a swine behaviour expert at the University of Guelph.

The computerized system will only allow the sow to enter once a day. It’s not a perfect solution, though, because there can still be fights between sows at the entrance to the feeding station.

“I’ve also heard stories about sows who have found someone else’s transponder collar and picked it up and carried it over to the feeding station to get feed,” Widowski added.

Newer versions of the system embed the transponder in a sow’s ear tag.

THIS LITTLE PIGGY ATE ONLY VEGETABLES

Putting together a pig’s diet can get rather complicated when it comes to satisfying the requirements of niche market consumers.

One challenge in particular has left the nutritionists at Wallenstein Feed and Supply scratching their heads.

Some consumers want to eat the meat from a pig or chicken that’s been fed a vegetarian diet.

“It really is an odd phenomenon that people want to eat a vegetarian animal,” said a slightly bewildered Rick Martin, general manager of Wallenstein Feed. “I’ve just never understood that market.”

For the nutritionists, it means they can’t use bone meal as a protein source, sheep’s wool to obtain vitamin D, or the gelatin coating normally used on vitamins to allow them to withstand heat during the process that makes food pellets.

Pigs and chickens are omnivores in the wild. If left on their own, they would normally consume some animal protein.

SAY GOODBYE TO THE LITTLE RED BARN

When Florian Possberg started raising pigs on his Saskatchewan farm in 1975, it took a year for him to produce 900 hogs.

Now, Possberg’s Big Sky Farms conglomerate produces that many pigs every seven hours.

With 50,000 sows producing more than 1.1 million piglets a year across 49 sites in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Possberg freely — and proudly — admits that Big Sky is a factory farming operation.

He just has a hard time understanding why the term “factory farming” has such a negative connotation.

Factories produce large quantities of specialized goods, he said, while focusing on uniformity, quality assurance and lowest cost. It’s a concept that consumers value when it comes to their cars and televisions, he added, but apparently not when it comes to their food.

“Our business is the food production business and we go to exceptional lengths to make sure that the food we produce is safe,” said Possberg. “If people want to refer to that as factory farming, well, I’m sorry, we’re doing a very good job of producing safe, nutritious food at a reasonable price.

“Would you rather have your car built in somebody’s garage in the back yard with a guy picking up pieces here and there?”

Possberg said farmers themselves contribute to the perception problem with what he calls “a bit of dishonesty.”

“The pretend game (we play) is that we’re really not big farmers and we’ll show a picture of a little red barn,” Possberg said.

Food used to be produced on smaller farms that were closer to consumers, particularly in the days before refrigeration and easy transport.

Toronto earned the name Hogtown because English immigrant William Davies set up a massive slaughterhouse and pork processing plant on Front Street in the late 1800s that was capable of producing millions of pounds of pork a year.

New York’s Wall Street took its name from the wall that was built to keep rampaging hogs out of lower Manhattan.A06

Consolidation of farms, greater mechanization and razor-thin profit margins have led to larger-scale operations and the death of the idyllic Old MacDonald-style small family farm.

“You add up how much food comes from that kind of farm and you’ll find it’s a fraction of 1 per cent,” said Possberg.

“If that was your only supply on the grocery shelf, we would have an awful lot of hungry people.

“If the consumer believes that we can go back to the little red barn then I’m sorry, they’re disillusioned about where real food comes from.”

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Posted by OFAC on July 22nd, 2009 :: Filed under Canada,Family vs factory farming,Farm life,Innovation and technology,Pork
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