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Dan Bussieres - Swine slowdown: Facing challenges in pig production

May 14, 2020

Processing plant shutdowns and short labor have slowed down the number of pigs going to market in Quebec.

While some pork processing plants have shut down temporarily, swine farmers are being forced into difficult circumstances. Dan Bussieres, swine nutritionist in Quebec, explains the challenges that come with farmers not being able to move their pigs to processing plants and shares what trends he is seeing within the industry.

This episode is part of a special AgFuture series on the impact of COVID -19 on the food supply chain. Join us to hear how those on the frontlines of the global pandemic are working to overcome adversity and feed the world.

The following is an edited transcript of Michelle Michael's interview with Dan Bussieres. Click below to hear the full audio.

Michelle:       Hello! I'm Michelle Michael. In this special series of AgFuture, we're talking with those working along the food supply chain about the impact of COVID-19. My guest today is Dan Bussieres from Quebec. Dan is a swine nutritionist who works with producers all over Canada. Dan, thanks so much for joining us today.

 

Dan:               You're welcome.

 

Michelle:       Can you tell us a little bit about your role in the industry? What does your day-to-day look like?

 

Dan:               I have been in the swine industry for 25 years now. I (have) run my own business, with some partners, since 2005. My role has been mostly swine nutrition support to producers in the swine industry in Canada. I'm also involved a lot in research with our customers and some of the research barns we look after in Canada. I'm also doing some consulting with a group in China for about three years now and (am) also doing some work with some groups in Japan over the last year.

 

                        My day-to-day is reformulating diets for customers, evaluating new feed programs, making sure we are on top of our nutrition program in terms of new research that we are doing and, also, with other people in the industry. We are involved a lot with the suppliers in conducting research programs with them, to be in contact with them as well, to understand the new technology available for us on the market.

 

                        Our focus has always been on cost as well, so we've been doing a lot of research, but at the end of the day, our focus has been to be cost-effective in our production with our customer. We also have a production company that raises pigs in Quebec. We produce about 250,000 or 200,000 pigs a year in Quebec. This is not a huge number based on the U.S. standard, but for Quebec production, it's a nice number. Like I said, we have some skin in the game, so we're not just consulting with our customers. We also raise pigs ourselves, which helps us to understand better the needs of our customers.

 

Michelle:       When it comes to consulting — particularly right now — on the nutrition side of things, how crucial is your role, especially right now, in the midst of this pandemic?

 

Dan:               I think things have been different over the last month and a half, with less traveling and more web meetings. Our role is to make sure our customers get served the way they were (being served) before (the pandemic). I think technology help us a lot to be effective on that side. On the nutrition side, I don't think there has been a lot of change — although, recently, we've had some issues with some supplies of ingredients, like DDGs, wheat, so some ingredient suppliers have been short due to some reduction in internal production, so we have to do a lot of reformation lately, and we'll talk about that a bit later, all the strategies around slowing down pigs, some of the packing plant issues that we have in Quebec and also in other parts of North Canada. I think it's more effective in answering your customer, which we'll always try to be because, sometimes, you need to introduce requests pretty quick, so that's our goal: to be effective, to answer our customers.

 

                        In terms of research, there's a bit of a challenge now to conduct research due to the fact that we may be short of labor, in some form, (and) access to feed meal for manufacturing diets. Also, our research diet has been a bit limited now, so we have to juggle around with some of the research projects that we have on the go, but so far, it's been not too bad.

 

Michelle:       I want to go back just a moment to what you just talked about. We've heard that some meat processing plants in Canada — especially a swine processing plant — needed to shut down for some time because workers contracted coronavirus. There are similar stories in the U.S. How is this impacting the industry in Canada right now?

 

Dan:               Well, in Quebec, that's probably our biggest concern right now: the fact that we have some packing capacity that has been reduced. The plant that shut down three weeks ago reopened last week, but with a much slower pace, which is about 4,000 pigs they killed last week versus 28,000 they normally kill. Two weeks prior to that, they were at zero. Today in Quebec, at the end of last week, we had about 90,000 to 100,000 pigs that were not killed over the last two to three weeks, which is about 20% to 25% of the normal killing that we have as a backup, so that's a bit of a concern for now.

 

                        For the next two to three weeks, we still can probably keep some pigs in the barn with doing different strategies, but we are very concerned about the fact that if we cannot ramp up killing production, that's going to become an issue. There's talk about humane euthanasia on pigs. Nobody wants to do that, but I know there's some government talks about that, that we should do it if we have to do it.

 

                        In the northern part of Canada, Ontario has been really good. The two plants in Ontario have been pretty much full-speed. They took the strategy to do some Saturday kills as well to keep up on production. Out west, if I look at Manitoba, Alberta, where there's a major plant, so far, it's been good. The COVID-19 situation over there is less of an issue versus Quebec. Quebec has been hit pretty bad with COVID-19 over the last couple of weeks, so that's a concern.

 

                        The other plants are also slowing down a bit. There are two plants that are accessed from workers from the Montreal area. Montreal is in bad shape for the COVID, so those workers cannot come to the plant anymore, so short labor means they cannot kill as much pigs as they used to. Overall, it's okay right now. It's under control, even though there are some pigs backing up, but we have to find a solution within the next two to three weeks. If not, there's going to be some problems here.

 

Michelle:       Dan, I want to break this down for a minute because, when you're confronted with a situation like this, what happens? Normally, a producer would feed for efficiency. How do you manage pigs when they are the right size to go to the processing plant but COVID delays that from happening? Do you have to slow the growth? If so, how do you do that? Is that safe?

 

Dan:               First of all, when we first heard about that plant closure three weeks ago, that's what we did right away. We set up a diet, what we call a “low energy maintenance” diet, which is a bulky diet that we can feed to our pigs that are ready to go to market. There are different ways you can do it. Do you want to slow down the pigs that are ready to go to market or do you want to slow down all the pigs in your system to avoid more pigs being ready to go to market within the next two to three weeks?

 

                        The first strategy for us was to slow down the pigs and late finishers so we don't get pigs that are too big, although the packing plants have opened the grid to ship heavier pigs, because that's what we have been doing over the last two to three weeks. We always ship the heavier pigs, so pigs that are heavier than normal. Feeding a bulky diet has been the first thing we put in place to try to limit the growth of those pigs without compromising health and welfare, because that's the other concern. If you limit growth by feed restriction or other means, you can impact the welfare of the pigs and have other issues, so our goal was to feed a lot of fiber, high-NDF and soluble fiber, in our diet to try to maintain the pigs' well-being without aiming to grow too fast.

 

                        There are a lot of strategies that can be put in place to slow down the pigs. This is probably the best one — although, over the last two to three weeks, like I mentioned, we have lower access to some of the high-fiber ingredients that we used to have, either from a cost perspective or just a supply perspective. It's okay, on paper, to set up those diets, but at the end of the day, you need to be able to access the ingredients that you want to get those diets going and also do it in a cost-effective manner. There's a little bit of a challenge around that right now. Like I said, we've been okay so far, but there's a limit to slow down the growth of the pigs. Also, there's a limit to adding more pigs to a barn. You need to empty the barn at (some) point because crowding and other things can become an issue.

 

Michelle:       Dan, when you talk about slowing the growth of pigs, are there things not to do?

 

Dan:               Yes. Like I said, we always have to keep in mind the well-being of the pigs and make sure that we do the right things with the pigs, even though we want to slow the growth of the pigs. One thing that we don't want to do is restrict water intake. Make sure that pigs still have access to water. Although we know that if we drop water intake, pigs' slow growth will happen, we don't want to do that. We don't want to create a situation where we get issues with the pigs' welfare, so no water restriction. You can get into salt poisoning as well if you lower water intake, so that's an issue. That's something we don't want to see.

 

                        Overcrowding to an extreme point — like I said, at (some) point, you have to realize that crowding is not a good thing and that (it) will affect not just the growth of the pigs but also the welfare of the pigs. We don't want that to happen. We want our industry to be well-seen by the public people, so although we have to take some action, we want to make it in the way that we treat our pigs okay as well, so overcrowding to the extreme point is not recommended. Also, people will say, “Drop the salt and it will reduce water intake and it will reduce the growth of the pigs,” but if you drop the chlorine level when you bring down salt in the diet, you can reduce also the feed intake and you can get some issues with the welfare of the pigs.

 

                        Increasing temperature and lowering ventilation — in Quebec right now, it's still a bit of winter. It's still cold, so doing those things is not that bad, but once you go to summertime, you don't want to create some issues with ventilation, air quality and, again, creating some issues with the well-being of the pigs.

 

                        Those couple of points should not be thought about. Look at the diet first. Talk with the nutritionist. Talk with your production people and try to find a way to achieve your goal without compromising the welfare of the pigs.

 

Michelle:       It seems producers are facing so much uncertainty at this time. How long can producers sustain operating this way? Is there an expiration date, so to speak, to where they won't be able to continue slowing the growth?

 

Dan:               Like I said, the first two to three weeks or four weeks, we're okay to manage it, but we are close to the end of that period. I was mentioning that if, in the next two to three weeks, we are not able to go back to a higher speed of killing pigs in Quebec, we're going to face a problem. That's why there's been talk about humane euthanasia of pigs. Nobody wants to go there, but there's a point where we're going to have to think about that. We already thought about it, but there's a point where we may have to go at it. The issue with the swine industry is that the time before you make a decision for those pigs go to market, we can slaughter sows, reduce breeding, reduce farrowing rates, but those things will have an impact in four to six months. People don't want to make a decision now that would impact throughput in four to six months, when, we think, things would be back to normal.

 

                        The chicken industry in Canada has cut down by 15%, but the chicken turnover is pretty quick. It's 30 to 35 days to produce a chicken, so by reducing hatching by 15% within the next four or five weeks, you're going to see some impact. Pigs are different, so it's tough to make a decision that will have an impact in four to six months, thinking that the situation would be back to normal — if we know what is normal at that time. That's another issue. People are just crossing their fingers, hoping for things to turn around quick and then just living with this situation for three to four weeks without having to kill pigs on the farm or doing some humane euthanasia at the plant.

 

Michelle:       Certainly, we all hope this is resolved and much, much better four to six months from now, but what's the worst-case scenario in four to six months? You talked about there being problems down the line, potentially. What are your thoughts?

 

Dan:               Well, if there's a problem, that's a tough situation, because we need to have a crystal ball to see what will happen in four to six months. If we knew, we can make the decision right now that will get some impact at that time and make us able to go through that situation, but we don't know what will be the situation in four to six months. That's our biggest challenge. That's a bit different than when you get hit by a disease like ASF, which we have some plants in Canada to act against that. We know that if ASF comes to Canada, there's going to probably be four to six months or a year when we won't be able to export pigs, something like that, so then we can make decisions based on those terms.

 

                        Today, with the COVID, it's much tougher to make decisions, because we hope and we all expect the situation to be back to normal within a couple of months from now. If that's not the case and we don't make a decision now, we're going to face some problems down the road. We've had some discussions last week with some producers in Canada and in the U.S. as well, and I think everybody's on the same page on that: they just wait and see. I know, in U.S., there's more sow liquidation happening right now, and I don't think it's only a matter of COVID; it's a matter of price, which is related to COVID, but the price is so bad that some people are making decisions to take down some sow numbers.

 

                        In Canada, we haven't seen that yet — although some smaller producers, we think, will take opportunity of the situation right now to quit the market. We have a lot of small farrow-to-finish independent farms in Quebec that don't have any people to take over. When the price is good, they keep going, because they certainly can make some money, but with the situation right now, (with) the price and the uncertainty about COVID and the future, we're going to see some liquidation of smaller farms in Quebec.

 

Michelle:       Dan, I want to go back to something you just said for our listeners who may not fully understand. You said ASF. That is African swine fever that you're referring to, I assume.

 

Dan:               Yeah.

 

Michelle:       Now, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, there were other viruses, like African swine fever and others. Are producers still dealing with those issues and, now, COVID-19, on top of all of this?

 

Dan:               Well, like I said, we don't have African swine fever. In North America, it's not an issue. The one thing that is probably good about the situation right now is (that) the risk of getting African swine fever in the North American industry was coming, probably, from people traveling from Asia, bringing back some food products that could get into food chain or production chain. With the closure of the border and much less traveling, I think that's a safer world right now for us, in terms of protecting our industry from ASF.

 

                        With that being said, the risk is always there, but there's a difference. The ASF is the worst thing, because we have to shut down our exports in Canada, which is 70% of our big production. COVID, we think it's a temporary situation that will resolve. The only thing we don't know is how long it's going to take to go back to normal.

 

Michelle:       I want to talk about biosecurity. That's always been extremely important in swine production, but have you noticed any changes or extra precautions that you and your clients are taking during this pandemic?

 

Dan:               There are a couple of things that we are doing differently. It's mostly (related to) the protection of the people we work with in our business. As an essential lead business, we're still doing business on a daily basis. In terms of office staff, we try to reduce the traffic at the office, but at the production plants where we produce feed micro-premix, our staff is at full capacity. We try to minimize the contact between people.

 

The paperwork has been changed as well. The delivery on the farm has been done in order to reduce human contact and exchange of paper, so we put in place those extra safety procedures to make sure that we protect our people.

 

                        In some of the farms, we know that COVID is not — so far, we have no proof that COVID could be transmitted to livestock, so things didn't change that much on the farm virus committee to protect their pigs from the disease. We are more scared about PRRS and other diseases on the farm side. COVID doesn't affect pigs, but at the same time, we think the workers on farms have (taken) extra steps in protecting themselves between the workers — so washing their hands, wearing masks, things like that. Again, it's the same for everybody. If some people have some signs of COVID or things like that, they won't go to work.

 

                        The problem on the farm is, when you have a small farm with yourself and your wife and no employees, the risk of transmitting disease to other people is less, but at the same time, if you get sick, you still have to go on the farm and feed your pigs. For larger farms, it's less of an issue because there are more people, but at the same time, if you lose half of your working staff on the farm, it's tough to replace that.

 

                        So far, it's been okay. The countryside is more remote than the big city. In Quebec — Montreal has been, like I said, the biggest place for the COVID, but if you look at the backyard or the countryside, it's been not too bad so far. I haven't heard of any cases in terms of farm people, working people on farms, that have been affected. So far, it's been okay.

 

Michelle:       That's good news. When you talk about changing the way you feed pigs because you can't move the pigs, you do that through nutrition modification used to slow the growth. Are there behavioral issues or other issues in the barn that you, then, also have to manage?

 

Dan:               So far, it's been okay. Like I said, feeding the high-fiber, bulky diet will get the pigs satisfied and won't create, so far, any tail-biting or behavioral issues with the pigs. The issue we may face is when we start to crowd the pigs. If we have a barn where we do double stock and we cannot reduce crowding after a certain period of time, then the crowding may become an issue — (especially with) access to feed, access to water. The nutrition side, I'm not too worried about what we have done or what we are doing, unless we add some crowding and water issues in terms of access for the pigs.

 

                        There are other people that have looked at some other ways to reduce the growth of their pigs, like increasing the temperature in the barn. If you increase the temperature, feed intake will go down and you may slow down the growth of the pigs, but those types of strategies have to be really well-done because you can create some issues with the welfare of the pigs. Those things have to be done with some thought behind it. Like I said, the other thing that people can do to reduce feed intake is to add some calcium chloride to your feed. There's a good dataset that shows that calcium chloride will reduce feed intake, but you need to have between 2% and 4% of the product in the feed, which can reduce the feed intake of the pigs, but at the same time, because you are adding a lot of calcium along with the chloride, you need to adjust your calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.

 

                        All those strategies are short-term strategies. If we think about long-term strategies to slow down the growth of the pigs, none of those strategies are good over time. We're talking about the two-to-four-week strategy, and after that, like I said, if we have to keep slowing down the growth of the pigs, there's going to be some other stuff that needs to be done, which is reducing the throughput of the pigs in the farm. This means euthanasia of pigs or reducing the number of pigs by farrowing number, things like that, which takes time to be done.

 

Michelle:       Dan, as a nutritionist, have you ever faced anything like this in all the years you've been doing this job?

 

Dan:               Never. Never, for sure. We have, sometimes, some pigs that cannot be shipped to the plant because of holidays, short weeks, those types of things, but when we talk about a situation like this, today, where we don't know how long it's going to take, (no). The other thing is that we're starting to have some more cases in some of the plants that are still running. Those plants will be shut down or (will have to) reduce throughput by a lot. The one that reopened last week, it's good. There are still four, five, six other plants in Quebec that haven't been too much affected so far, but if there's an increase of COVID cases in those plants, they're going to be shut down or they're going to be reduced by more than half of the throughput.

 

                        There's a lot of uncertainty. Honestly, we go day by day and then we can bring something different, so we need to be able to adapt. Our pig producers are pretty resilient, but it's tough, and the price on top of that — everybody knows that the live price of the pigs was the lowest we've ever seen for a long time (before the pandemic), so we are losing money right now when we ship pigs to the plants. We keep those pigs for extra time in the barn, and we have to feed those pigs, so even though we feed them the low-energy diet, there's added cost to feed those pigs. When you put that all together, that's tough on the cash flow.

 

                        The biggest issue for producers is cash flow right now, because you don't ship your pigs or you get paid for the ones you ship like crap, so you lose money on every pig you ship. You don't ship all the pigs you have, and the pigs you keep in the barn, you have to feed those pigs, so there's cost added to those pigs. It's really not a fun situation. Cash-flow-wise, it's really tough for the producer. The government can come back with some programs to support that, which we don't have. We have some programs that can help on that aspect, but not to the extent of what we're living right now. A compensation program based on cost of production is one thing, but now, it's beyond that. Yeah, that's going to be tough for some people, and some people won't make it and will use that time to exit the production.

 

Michelle:       Producers, as you've mentioned, they're extremely hardworking individuals, very passionate about what they do. As you continue to consult, describe the emotion you're hearing from producers firsthand, if you could. What's the main thing you're hearing during this truly unprecedented, challenging time?

 

Dan:               Like I said, it's a bit different, because Quebec is in a different situation than the rest of our customers in Canada and even in China. I can come back (to discuss) China after, but if I talk about Quebec, like I said, other people are asking what will happen within the next two to three weeks. Everybody is pretty comfortable with where they are today, even though they know it's not easy, but if things don't go back to normal within the next two to three weeks, that's going to be tough. We're going to see, like I said, some people quitting production. We'll see some bankruptcy.

 

                        I think, on mental health, it's pretty hard as well, for some people. In Quebec, I think the situation is a bit different than the rest of Canada. (In) the rest of Canada, people are not seeing (the effects of the pandemic) except the price, which is not good — but the throughput of pigs to the plant, except (for) some people in Ontario that were shipping to Quebec, has not been too bad. Things are okay in that sense, although the price is something that's (affected) probably, well, everybody in Canada.

 

                        In China, COVID has been there before, so January and February were tough for them, but because of the ASF that has been going on in China for two years now, the price of pigs are really, really good, so everybody that still produces pigs makes a lot of money in China. Even though you lost 20% to 25% of your production, with the profit per pig that the market has been showing recently, they still make money. In China, the mindset is a bit different. Although they've been affected by ASF and then COVID, in terms of issues with labor and things like that — and there's an issue with moving pigs between provinces and things like that — the price has been so good that all of that has been compensated (for) by good prices and making some profit, which is a bit like the PED (virus) in 2013 in the U.S. The PED brought the price to a record level in 2014. I know some people lost money because they were affected by PED, but overall, the industry had a very good year because of the short supply of pigs at that time.

 

Michelle:       Dan, you mentioned some of the consulting and research that you do there in China. Can you tell us, are there lessons from China that we can use here?

 

Dan:               We can talk about ASF as a lesson — that we have to keep it away from us. The problem in Canada is that we are an export market, so ASF — to go to a country where you don't export versus (a country that does) export, I think the impact is much different. For us, it's a no-no. We don't want to get ASF in North America, that's for sure.

 

                        I think the Chinese — we want to keep working with that market. It's a very good export market for the meat packers in North America. We want China to go back where they were before. We hope not, but we like them to have short supplies of meat so we can export meats to those places. In terms of COVID, the other situation that happened with COVID in China is that the price of vitamins and amino acids has been raised since February to March due to the closure of some plants, due to short labor, due to the Chinese New Year that spanned for four weeks instead of two, so there was a lot of delay in production and shipping of goods from China to North America, so the price of amino acids and vitamins has been up. That's another side impact of the COVID from Asia that affects our cost of production.

 

                        When I looked at it last time, there was about two or three bucks per pig's increase in cost of production in terms of feed cost, due to the amino acid and vitamin price from January to March. So, within two months, you're adding $2 or $3 per pig on the feed cost because of that situation, (which) is out of your control. We rely on China. We hope they control their stuff to make sure that they don't create issues on our end, but we would like to think that China should have a short supply of meat so we can still export meat over there, because that's probably our biggest opportunity for the industry to keep making some money on the meat side.

 

                        The problem we have right now in the industry is that people don't have access to packing, don't have interest in the packing business or meat retail, just producer stuff for them, because the price of the live meat is really low — although the price of sending meat to Asia, Japan, China, for a packer is still pretty good.

 

Michelle:       As you mentioned, the next few weeks will determine so much. Our fingers are crossed for all of those resilient producers out there. Dan Bussieres from Quebec, stay safe and well. Thank you so much for joining us today.

 

Dan:               Thanks for your time.

 

Michelle:       For additional resources on COVID-19, visit alltech.com.

 

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