Market forces at play in sow housing

Market forces at play in sow housing
Feb 16, 2021

Though the deadline to transition may have been extended, big players in pork will still be looking to buy pork that exceeds Pig Code standards

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer

The National Farm Animal Care council (NFACC) has recommended extending the date by which all sows must be housed in groups by five years to 2029. This may seem like a reprieve; however, market forces are likely not slowing down, Christoph Wand, livestock sustainability specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), told

At federal-provincial meetings across different commodities, Wand has observed large agri-food companies indicating an interest in animal care standards that go beyond the NFACC code, he explained.  An example that went to market was ‘cage-free’ eggs in quick service restaurants.

Costco and Maple Leaf are big players in the pork sector, and “we cannot for a moment presume that they do not understand the sector,” Wand said. “They have made very big moves and they’re not just consumer chasing.”

For the pork industry “to think these are just fads driven by some uninformed consumer agenda is just wrong,” he added. “The idea that sustainability (in livestock) is a communication problem is being disproven.”

Companies in the pork business striving for sustainability and animal welfare goals may begin to set standards above and beyond the NFACC Pig Code.

“The industry made that decision (to delay the transition date) together and I think it was a good decision,” he explained. “Pushing this off five years to allow people to make good transformations in their barn is technically a good decision but I don’t think it’s going to take away” the market pressure.

Many large swine operators, particularly those in western Canada, are moving ahead with transitioning to group sow housing, Wand said. For smaller, individual operators in eastern Canada, this may increase pressure to transition sooner, regardless of the extended date.  

“To believe you’re immune to some of those marketplace pressures, I think would be a mistake,” Wand said. “I think the five-year extension actually gives more leverage to a buyer, processor, slaughter facility, to create a standard that is higher than the code of practice … I think it actually increases the risk.”

For smaller scale pork producers, “the independence they had to operate may leave them even more vulnerable to the differentiation the marketplace might drive in these next five years,” he added.

Despite the extension, pork producers should be starting to get a clear idea of a transition plan for their farm, Wand said. “They need to triage their facilities, as to which ones can be brought into compliance.”

Depending on facilities, it may be best to transition from keeping sows to just running a finishing operation, he explained.

For some farmers - depending on career timing - “the answer may be to take that money and leave the business rather than plough that money into new infrastructure,” he explained. “Some people may need to be sitting down and doing retirement planning.”

National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

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