The Olymel plant at Red Deer, one of the largest hog slaughter plants in Western Canada is being temporarily closed after an outbreak of COVID-19.

 Darcy Fitzgerald,  Executive Director of Alberta Pork says it's a big hit for producers, and they'll have to look at their options. 

"Number one which is expensive, is we sit and wait and feed pigs. I wouldn't think we get past too much farther than two weeks. So hopefully we're back up and running and can start shipping pigs by the end of this month.  Then the second option is that we ship those pigs to another market. Which is quite pricey, again, because its huge transportation costs, it would have to primarily be out of our region. The third one is we start to look at reducing the number of baby pigs and again, they would have to be shipped out to some other market where they could be looked after.  That just lessens the space requirements inside the barn being pushed forward up to the feed-finishing side. And then the last option that we would look at would be the euthanizing pigs that are in the barn. It's unfortunate, but the way our system is set up, it's kind of just in time markets.  You know, as we progress past the two-week mark, for when a pig is supposed to be shipped. We have a backlog of pigs that are inside the barn that keep moving forward to get to that space that the finished pig is at. You've got a nursery where you have moms and the babies, and then the babies move to another area of the barn and grow a little bit larger, and they keep progressing through the barn to bigger spaces.  Their diets change, the temperatures in the barn change, the conditions change for them, for their size. The mothers go back to where they were to be bred again, and you know then move back through the system. And so you have dedicated space within the barn. You really can't change that, it's designed that way to be efficient, and it's designed that way for the best conditions for the pigs."

He says if you have to stop, it creates kind of a bottleneck at the end of the process.

Fitzgerald says Alberta's 300 commercial operators produce 2.3 Million pigs a year with about 30 to 40 thousand marketed each week through Olymel's Red Deer plant. 

He says producers are trying to find avenues that they can move their pigs, they're facing a lot of pressure right now.

"I know a lot of cost, feed prices, in the case of feed grains are 50% higher than they were in the summer time. We're just seeing huge costs placed on producers. You know, this cold weather hasn't helped out either. And now we've got a plant that's closed down."

Mark Ferguson is the Manager of Sask Pork and says that it will cause a space issue for Saskatchewan producers as well.

"Pigs are amazing animals in terms of their ability to grow and put on weight. You know, when you can sell pigs out the back end of the barn, that becomes a disadvantage because you can't stop that growth. As they grow, they need more space, you make that space by marketing the animals that are ready to be processed."

Ferguson notes Saskatchewan markets about 800,000 hogs a year through the Olymel plant.

"Olymel is basically one of the two largest (plants) in Western Canada, along with the Maple Leaf plant at Brandon. We've also got Donald's Fine Foods which operates two facilities one in BC and of course Thunder Creek in (Moose Jaw) Saskatchewan. Then we've got HyLife as well which has a processing plant in Manitoba. So there's really, you know, five key facilities that process hogs, so losing any one of them is a serious issue."

Ferguson says with the shutdown producers will have to look at some emergency plans to deal with the inventory on the farm.

"Feeding maybe more of a straight grain ration and not having as much protein in it. So that might be one step that's taken. You know, of course, double stocking of pens is another option for farms. Looking for alternative markets to sell animals into will probably be another step taken. Producers may also be looking into some of the other processing plants to see if they can squeeze an extra load in, or maybe selling some feeder pigs as well."

Fitzgerald notes they appreciate all the hard work that the folks at Olymel are trying to do.

"I mean, they voluntarily closed the plant for the safety of the workers. I hope that workers can come back soon and get working there. But And you know, I think when we have organizations like rolling mills stepping up, to safeguard their workers, I think we all should, you know, give them a pat on the back for trying to do that. It's almost been a year that that plants been running with very good success, you know, so they've done very well compared to others in the industry."

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