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Manitoba's hog population rose by 18.7 per cent between 2011 and 2016, the highest increase in the country, according to Statistics Canada's agricultural census.
Hog numbers in the province increased to 3.4 million even though there was a de facto moratorium on construction of new hog barns during that period.
Manitoba also reported the highest average number of pigs per farm of all provinces, said the census numbers released this week.
The figures come out as the Pallister government is embarking on a campaign against bureaucratic red tape that is expected to permit producers to build new hog barns again.
But Manitoba Pork said the figures are slightly misleading, as the key indicator is the number of sows for reproducing pigs. Statistics Canada figures show sows in Manitoba increased by just 30,000 over that five-year period, to 341,705. That's an increase of 10 per cent, or two per cent per year.
"Let's be clear here. It's a modest expansion of sow numbers," said Manitoba Pork general manager Andrew Dickson.
Sows produce 25-30 piglets per year. Many are whisked off within three weeks for sale in the United States.
The increased production may have come from producers finding ways to be more efficient with existing barns, or barns that were previously underutilized, Dickson said, adding under current restrictions that amount to a moratorium, it is cost-prohibitive to even replace aging barns.
However, a watchdog agency says the Statistics Canada figures raise questions about the so-called moratorium.
"I just think there's something suspicious when its reported hog number increased 19 per cent. It confirms our lack of trust that things are really above board in the hog industry," said Hog Watch's Vicki Burns.
"I think the results are probably not good for the environment. It really does raise a red flag," she said.
A provincial spokesman said very few hog barns have been constructed in Manitoba since 2011.
"Any construction that did occur was construction of barns that were approved prior to the supposed 'moratorium' and that had sufficient manure storage capacity to comply with the ban on winter application," he said.
Manitoba's hog industry is hopeful the Pallister government's red-tape task force will remove a provision that any new or replaced barns have an anaerobic digester system, which removes nitrogen.
The cost for a standard hog barn is about $1 million. And the cost for a anaerobic digester adds about $1.5 million. That has effectively nullified hog barn construction in Manitoba.
In Europe, the cost of anaerobic digesters is hugely subsidized and they are primarily found where land is scarce for spreading manure, such as the Netherlands.
Burns said a lot of barns will have to be replaced in the near future before confinement stalls are banned in 2024, and she would like to see anaerobic digesters stay as a requirement.
"Let's do it in a way that's very sustainable environmentally," she said.
The next greatest increase in hog numbers was 14.4 per cent in Ontario to 3.5 million animals, while Quebec's went up 10 per cent to 4.5 million, the census found.
The average number of pigs per farm in Manitoba increase from 4,831 pigs in 2011 to 5,087 pigs in 2016.
Manitoba Agriculture has slightly different figures. They're figures show just a 10 per cent increase in hog numbers for the census years, peaking at 3.13 million. The difference in figures could depend on when population counts were taken, the province said.
In addition, Manitoba saw a big jump in its sheep population.
While the total number of sheep across Canada decreased five per cent during the census period, the population in Manitoba jumped 43 per cent to 90,423 animals.
That makes up almost nine per cent of the sheep in the country. Ontario accounts for about 30 per cent.
Bill Redekop has been covering rural issues since 2001.