Manitoba hog industry gears up for growth

Pork official says it will be a long time before the sector rebounds to peak years

The ice is breaking up in the frozen Manitoba hog farming industry with dozens of new barns expected in coming years.

“We are getting calls almost daily,” Mike Teillet, the Manitoba Pork Council’s manager of sustainable development, said during the organization’s annual meeting April 5.

The council is expecting 50 to 100 new and replacement barns to be built in Manitoba in the next year as the new provincial government lifts a decade-old series of regulations strangling the industry’s development.

However, much of that will make up for closed facilities and worn out structures with true, long-term growth taking a while to set in, said Andrew Dickson, the pork council’s general manager.

“We’re sort of holding our own at the moment,” said Dickson.

“It’s going to be a long time before we ever get back to our peak years.”

The slump of Manitoba hog production has left packers with millions fewer hogs to slaughter, which has caused the Maple Leaf plant in Brandon to run well beneath capacity. 

The situation is much different in the U.S. Midwest. 

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Pat McGonegle, the chief executive officer of Iowa Pork Producers, said his state expects to see 200 to 230 new barns in construction this year, which is similar to last year.

“We expect growth to continue,” he said.

Farmers are bullish about the future because of four new hog slaughter plants coming into production in the next two years, including three in the Midwest and one in Michigan.

That should produce eight to nine million more shackle spaces, relieving any nearby worry about slaughter capacity.

The U.S. industry sells much of its pork outside the United States, and it needs that to continue. As with Canada, countries such as China now absorb a lot of the excess pork produced in North America. However, unlike with Canada’s producers, U.S. producers have to worry about their government’s commitment to trade and the risk of an overseas trade war developing.

Attacks on Chinese trade practices and threats of retaliation worry producers, but little has gone beyond words.

“So far it hasn’t had a negative impact on our movement,” McGonegle said.

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“The U.S. wants to continue to be a strong, reliable supplier … even when our president says goofy things once in a while.”

The Americans said many of the same concerns hanging over Manitoba’s industry also affect the U.S. industry. 

“Where do we find the people?” Reuben Bode, president of the Minnesota Pork Board, said about workers for the hog industry.

“We just simply can’t find them.”

As well, regulations around water and zoning add months to any new barn going forward.

A fortunately small topic at the pork council meeting was porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which has not appeared this year. Manitoba had four cases last year, but it never went out of control as happened in the U.S.

“We should not get complacent,” said council president George Matheson. “We’ve done a remarkable job in Manitoba.”

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