A major U.S. drought may be putting smiles on grain farmers' faces these days, but it's causing no end of grief for Manitoba hog producers.
Parched fields through a wide swath of the U.S. Midwest have curtailed crop production, sending international feed grain prices soaring while evaporating profits in the livestock sector.
That's sparked concern among hog farmers north of the border, where some observers link the discovery of 1,300 distressed piglets on a western Manitoba farm with the industry's economic troubles.
The pigs were found "in severe distress" on Friday and had to be euthanized. They were put down immediately to "avoid further pain and suffering," the province's chief veterinarian said in a statement.
The hog barn under investigation is owned by Berg@34 Pork Ltd., the Manitoba Co-operator, reported, and the yard site east of Austin, turned up a collection bin filled with dead hogs.
A call to the listed owner of the company, Menno Bergen, was brief. Asked to comment, Bergen said "No, thank you,"àbefore the call was abruptly ended.
Doug Chorney, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said he fears similar stories could emerge in the coming weeks because troubles in the pork industry mean weanling pigs are essentially worthless.
"I phoned my neighbour who's been a lifetime hog producer and is a very astute business person," said Chorney, who noted the neighbour's farm has raised hogs for 75 years.
"He said, 'We're depopulating our barn and by November there will be no hogs left." '
Chorney said the last thing farmers want to see is their livestock suffer, but the dire situation facing hog farmers causes people to "do things that they would never normally see themselves do."
However, Andrew Dickson, general manager of the Manitoba Pork Council, refused Tuesday to tie the neglect of 1,300 piglets to the crisis.
"One is an animal-care issue, and that is being dealt with by the province," he said.
"Producers look after their animals. It's in their interest to look after their animals because that's how they make their living."
Currently, sellers of market-weight hogs are losing $10 per animal, given the price of grain and the price of pork, Dickson said. Those losses are expected to climb to between $27 and $52 a pig before things get better next year.
The losses have had an immediate effect on production. Farms that raise weanling pigs for sale to hog feeders are cutting back their operations. "They can't sell them (the weanlings). (The feeders) don't want them," Dickson said.
He said packers such as Maple Leaf -- Brandon's largest employer -- are concerned many independent producers will sell their herds in the coming months. The processors want to pay enough money to keep the supply of hogs flowing, but they're walking a fine line. What if consumers aren't willing to pay more for pork?
"Some (producers) will rearrange their financial situation to try to bear the cost (of the industry downturn), and a number won't be able to do it," Dickson said.
About 70 per cent of Manitoba's hog production is controlled by three corporate players -- Maple Leaf, La Broquerie-based HyLife and Puratone of Niverville -- and Hutterite colonies. Dickson said those players will be greatly affected by the new economic reality but are unlikely to walk away from the industry.
HyLife controls farms that produce most of the pigs that wind up in its Neepawa hog-processing plant, the former Springhill Farms. It recently announced plans to expand production.
Maple Leaf counts on its own production, plus supplies from Hutterites, independent producers and Puratone to keep its Brandon plant stocked.
But no one knows yet how big a storm the Manitoba hog industry will have to weather in the coming nine to 12 months. "We're in (relatively) calm waters right now, but there's a major storm coming down," Dickson said.
-- with files from The Canadian Press, Brandon Sun