WINNIPEG — Manitoba’s punch-drunk hog industry has taken another upper-cut to the jaw after the swine-flu scare sent hog prices tumbling this week.
"I’ve lost roughly $12 to $13 per pig since Monday," Manitoba Pork Marketing Co-op (MPMC) president and Selkirk-area hog farmer John Preun said in an interview Wednesday.
With Manitoba producers selling about 100,000 slaughter hogs a week, that would translate into an industry-wide loss of about $1.3 million weekly if prices remain at that level, Preun said.
"That’s big, big money. We just can’t sustain these types of losses."
He and veteran Dugald hog farmer Bill Vaags said Manitoba producers were already reeling from a flurry of body blows suffered over the last three money-losing years. They included low hog prices, high feed costs, an earlier run-up in the value of the Canadian dollar and last fall’s adoption of new country-of-origin-labelling (COOL) rules in the United States, which dramatically reduced hog and weanling sales to that key export market.
Manitoba Pork Council general manager Andrew Dickson said that in 2007, Manitoba producers shipped about 1.3 million slaughter hogs to the U.S. This year, they’ll be lucky if it’s 150,000.
That same year, they also shipped about 120,000 weanling pigs south of the border, and this year the number is expected to fall to 80,000, he said.
Preun and Vaags predicted if prices don’t rebound soon, some Manitoba farmers will be driven out of business.
"We’ll start to lose them pretty fast because they’re down on their knees already," Preun said. "One more blow and their bank will say, ‘enough is enough.’"
MPMC general manager Perry Mohr said the province has already lost 500 to 600 hog producers over the last three years — there are roughly 800 compared to approximately 1,300 to 1,400 in 2006.
He said $145 is the average break-even price for most Manitoba hog producers, and over the last two years they’ve been getting an average of only about $128 a pig. That’s left many of them financially vulnerable.
He said the regular spring run-up in prices had barely got underway when this flu scare hit late last week. Industry officials were expecting prices to climb as high as $155 to $170 a pig over the next three or four weeks. Now it’s anybody’s guess where they’ll go, although Mohr said they did stabilize Wednesday at about $127.
What’s particularly galling to local industry officials is that this particular flu hasn’t even affected pigs. Dickson said it was called swine flu because some of the same genetic materials found in this flu can be found in other swine, bird and human flues.
"And there’s no threat to public health by eating pork," he added. "I’m just finding it very frustrating and it’s very stressful," Preun said. "We are in an industry that seems to be under attack from all angles."
Manitoba’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Wayne Lees, said unwarranted trade restrictions invoked by several countries are having a huge impact on the industry. Lees stressed that the virus is infecting humans, not pigs, and that pork is still safe to eat.
There have been no reported cases of human swine flu in Manitoba pigs.
The attack continued Wednesday when more than a dozen countries joined Russia and China in banning imports of pork products from parts of the United States and Mexico where the flu has been detected. Some countries, including Indonesia, have even been destroying pork products already imported from those areas.
So far, the bans haven’t been extended to Canadian pork products, so Manitoba exporters haven’t been directly affected, Mohr said. But they’ve been indirectly impacted because the bans have driven down U.S. hog and pork prices by about 10 per cent since Monday.