Hog shortage a factor in Maple Leaf slowdown

Brandon facility | Manitoba Pork says hog supply contributed to decision to close plant one day a month

Maple Leaf Foods decision to reduce production at its pork processing plant in Brandon has provoked a crisis of confidence in Manitoba’s hog sector.


Dave Bauer, Maple Leaf spokesman, said the company has eliminated one day of production per month, from May to September, as part of plant renovations.


“We’re performing upgrades to the Brandon facility. Completing them on non-production days will eliminate the impact they have on our operations, allowing us to process hogs smoothly.”


Manitoba Pork said Maple Leaf made the decision because it can’t secure a sufficient supply of hogs to run the Brandon plant at full capacity.


Manitoba Pork said the hog supply will not improve quickly because there aren’t enough hog barns in the province and provincial regulations are “killing” investment in the sector.


In 2011, the Manitoba government imposed a moratorium on hog barn construction or expansion in Manitoba, unless the barn features an anaerobic digester or equivalent technology to treat the manure. 


The province developed the legislation to prevent additional phosphorus from flowing into Lake Winnipeg. 


Manitoba Pork has said the regulations are an unfair and unjustified attack on hog operations, which represent a small fraction of the total nutrients entering the lake.


Bauer said the Brandon plant isn’t operating at full capacity and the company does need more hogs, but many pork processors are struggling with a hog shortage.


“Hog supply across North America remains restricted. It’s an industry challenge. It’s not something Maple Leaf is facing alone…. Simply put, there are less hog producers in the market producing less hogs today than there were a few years ago,” he said. 


“We’re looking at alternative procurement strategies and this is a temporary supply challenge.”


Bauer said the Brandon plant is running under its capacity of approximately 90,000 hogs per week.


“(But) we are not significantly below.”


Andrew Dickson, Manitoba Pork general manager, said to fully supply the Maple Leaf plant and the Hylife Foods processing plant in Neepawa, Man., farmers need to produce an additional 1.5 million market hogs per year.


In 2013, Manitoba produced 4.68 million market hogs.


“If we could get up to six million pigs we’d be doing good,” Dickson said. “That’s the sort of number we need to get to.”


Progressive Conservative MLA and agriculture critic Blaine Pedersen said the province has to move quickly to boost hog production in Manitoba.


“This has nothing to do with the price of grain. It has nothing to do with COOL,” he said, in an audio file released by the PC party. 


“Maple Leaf Foods is having a supply problem. This was created by this government…. They need to move on this and they need to move on it quickly. Jobs are at risk. Not only in Brandon but also in Winnipeg because (Maple Leaf) Winnipeg plants further process the (pork) that comes out of Brandon.”


Dickson said it costs approximately $1 million to build a small barn with 2,000 finisher places. 


“(The) anaerobic digester for an operation like that would cost at least $1 million…. Why would you do it?”


Dickson said the province is considering an amendment to the regulations to permit a cheaper and simpler technology to treat the manure.


One alternative is building an additional earthen storage structure (known as a storage cell or lagoon) for the hog manure.


“A multi-cell storage facility. You would separate through a passive system… the solids from the liquids,” said Dickson.


“One would flow into the other. You would treat one cell as separate from another, in terms of application of the manure to the field. So the solids, which tend to be higher in phosphorus, you’d apply that at a different rate.”


Dickson didn’t provide a cost estimate for the system.


“The extra cell would be an additional expense but it’s not huge. It might help in terms of doing a better job of managing your manure.”


Dickson said Manitoba Pork has been talking to the government about this concept for a number of months and hopes the province acts soon.


The Manitoba government did not respond prior to press time.