Multi-storey hog hotels elevate Chinese industrial farms to new levels

Photo: File/Reuters

Yaji Mountain, China | Reuters — On Yaji Mountain in southern China, they are checking in the sows 1,000 head per floor in high-rise “hog hotels.”

Privately-owned agricultural company Guangxi Yangxiang Co. Ltd. is running two seven-floor sow breeding operations, and is putting up four more, including one with as many as 13 floors that will be the world’s tallest building of its kind.

Hog farms of two or three floors have been tried in Europe. Some are still operating, others have been abandoned, but few new ones have been built in recent years, because of management difficulties and public resistance to large, intensive farms.

Now, as China pushes ahead with industrialization of the world’s largest hog herd, part of a 30-year effort to modernize its farm sector and create wealth in rural areas, companies are experimenting with high-rise housing for pigs despite the costs. The “hotels” show how far some breeders are willing to go as China overhauls its farming model.

“There are big advantages to a high-rise building,” said Xu Jiajing, manager of Yangxiang’s mountain-top farm.

“It saves energy and resources. The land area is not that much but you can raise a lot of pigs.”

Companies like Yangxiang are pumping more money into the buildings — about 30 per cent more than on single-storey modern farms — even as hog prices in China hold at an eight-year low.

For some, the investments are too risky. Besides low prices that have smaller operations culling sows or rethinking expansion plans, there is worry about diseases spreading through such intensive operations.

But success for high-rise pig farms in China could have implications across densely populated, land-scarce Asia, as well as for equipment suppliers.

“We see an increasing demand for two- or three-level buildings,” said Peter van Issum, managing director of Microfan, a Dutch supplier that designed Yangxiang’s ventilation system.

Microfan also supplied a three-storey breeding operation, Daedeok JongDon GGP Farm, in South Korea.

“The higher ones are still an exception, but the future might change rapidly,” van Issum said.

High-rise hogs

Yaji Mountain seems an unlikely location for a huge breeding farm. Up a narrow road, away from villages, massive concrete pig buildings overlook a valley of dense forest that Yangxiang plans to develop as a tourist attraction.

The site, however, is relatively close to Guigang, a city with a river port and waterway connections to the Pearl River Delta, one of the world’s most densely populated regions.

While Beijing is encouraging more livestock production in China’s grain basket in the northeast, many worry that farms there will struggle to get fresh pork safely to big cities thousands of miles away.

That has helped push some farm investments to southern provinces like Guangxi and Fujian, where land is hilly but much closer to many of China’s biggest cities.

Yangxiang will house 30,000 sows on its 11-hectare site by year-end, producing as many as 840,000 piglets annually. That will likely make it the biggest, most-intensive breeding farm globally. A more typical large breeding farm in northern China would have 8,000 sows on around 13 hectares.

In Fujian province, Shenzhen Jinxinnong Technology Co. Ltd. also plans to invest 150 million yuan (C$30.2 million) in two five-storey sow farms in Nanping. Two other companies are building high-rise hog farms in Fujian as well, according to an equipment firm involved in the projects.

Thai livestock-to-retail conglomerate CP Foods is also building four six-storey pig units with local firm Zhejiang Huatong Meat Products Co. in Yiwu, a Chinese city near the large populations around Shanghai.

High-tech complexity

Yangxiang spent 16,000 yuan per sow on its new farm, about 500 million yuan total, not including the cost of the pigs. Building upward means higher costs and greater complexity, such as for piping feed into buildings, said Xue Shiwei, vice-chief operations officer at Pipestone Livestock Technology Consultancy, a Chinese unit of a U.S. farm management company.

“It would save on land but increase the complexity of the structure, and costs for concrete or steel would be higher,” he said.

Health concerns also raise costs, because the risk of rampant disease — an ever-present problem in China’s livestock sector — is higher with more animals under one roof.

Even two-storey farms in Europe have sparked worries that pigs will receive less care, said Irene Camerlink, an animal welfare expert at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna who has worked with Chinese farms.

Any outbreak of disease could lead to extensive culling, she said.

Farm manager Xu said Yangxiang reduces the risk of disease by managing each floor separately, with staff working on the same floor every day. New sows are introduced to a building on the top floor, and are then moved by elevator to an assigned level, where they remain.

The ventilation system is designed to prevent air from circulating between floors or to other buildings. Air enters through ground channels and passes through ventilation ducts on each level. The ducts are connected to a central exhaust on the roof, with powerful extraction fans pulling the air through filters and pushing it out of 15-metre high chimneys.

A waste treatment plant is still under construction on Yaji Mountain to handle the site’s manure. After treatment, the liquid will be sprayed on the surrounding forest, and solids sold to nearby farms as organic fertiliser.

The project’s additional equipment – much of it imported – to reduce disease, environmental impact and labour costs, significantly increased Yangxiang’s spending, the company said.

But after testing other models, Yangxiang concluded the multi-storey building was best. Others are less convinced.

“We need time to see if this model is doable,” said Xue of the farm management firm, adding that he would not encourage clients to opt for “hog hotels.”

“There will be many new, competing ideas (about how to raise pigs in China),” Xue said, including high-rise farms.

Eventually, “a suitable model will emerge.”

— Dominique Patton reports on Chinese agriculture for Reuters from Beijing.

hog hotels
Research is underway in Canada to develop a vaccine aimed at eliminating the threat of bovine tuberculosis (TB). If successful, the results will mean better health for cattle and humans around the world. [caption id="attachment_103414" align="alignleft" width="150"] Dr. Jeff Chen and his colleagues are researching TB and developing vaccines to combat the disease.[/caption] “When we say bovine TB, sometimes it can also be TB that’s found in humans,” says Dr. Jeff Chen, explaining that Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis) is part of a large family of closely related bacteria, which includes the bacteria that causes TB in humans. Chen leads the Mycobacterial Pathogenesis and Tuberculosis Research Program at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac). He says that because there are potential human applications, investment in developing the vaccine to safeguard the cattle industry will also help in the fight against human TB. According to the World Health Organization, TB in humans has surpassed HIV/AIDS as the world’s number one killer due a single infectious agent. An estimated 10 million people were infected as of 2018. Disease transmission and control It can also affect other species such as sheep, goats and even family pets. It even makes its way into wildlife populations, which is why it’s so difficult to eradicate. In the U.K., the practice of culling wild badgers to contain the spread of bovine TB in domestic cow herds has caused public controversy and division for decades. “In most industrial nations, the way you deal with an outbreak is to test, identify animals that are infected and then cull them,” Chen says. But if healthy cows pick up the bacteria from wildlife, culling is not an effective control method. “The fact that it’s spread through the air, affects so many different species and it is able to persist in wildlife reservoirs makes it a tough disease to deal with,” he says. In Canada, Dr. Todd Shury has had success reducing bovine TB in a deer and elk reservoir deep in the farmland of southern Manitoba. [caption id="attachment_103415" align="alignleft" width="150"] Dr. Todd Shury.[/caption] “It took 15 years of concerted effort, but we reduced the incidents of infection from about 10 per cent to near zero in Riding Mountain National Park,” says Shury, who’s the national wildlife health advisor in the Office of the Chief Ecosystem Scientist with Parks Canada. Shury is also an adjunct professor in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. The project was a joint effort of the federal and provincial governments, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the cattle industry and others. He’s now working on research to find a way to manage bovine TB in wild bison herds. Preliminary laboratory work has been completed, and in January 2020, the first trial will begin with bison. The goal is to try to manage the disease in the herds in and around Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. There, brucellosis and bovine TB have been present since the 1920s, when some infected Plains bison were shipped into the area. As far as cattle goes, Canada, for now, is considered a bovine TB-free country. But problems have arisen as recently as 2016 in Alberta, when six cases were found in cattle on a single farm, and when four cases were detected in 2018 in British Columbia. “For trade purposes, it’s very important that we retain our disease-free status,” Chen says, adding that the federal government and industry are keen on staying that way. High-security 
laboratory At the time, the laboratory had just received regulatory approval to work with the highly contagious pathogen. “We use very strict rules and procedures,” he says. Since his arrival, the research has centred on basic research into the disease, developing better models of how the disease behaves in cattle, using swine to mimic how the disease is transmitted and progresses in humans, and developing the actual vaccines. “We have several vaccine candidates, including a sub-unit protein candidate and a live vaccine candidate,” he says. Both types of vaccines prepare the immune system to fight infection in different ways. Chen is cautiously optimistic that the couple of vaccines under development now will be ready in two to three years’ time for clinical trials. “It’ll be roughly another five to six years after that before we have something that’s commercially viable for veterinary use,” he says, adding that the candidates they are working on could eventually be used for both bovine and human TB. Two of the main principles when developing any type of vaccine are efficacy and safety. “It has to work and it has to be very, very safe,” he says, particularly for vaccines that are involved in the food system. The process for bringing vaccines to market is rigorous, through proof of concept testing, efficacy testing and safety testing. The attrition rate is substantial — a field of 10 candidates can be winnowed down to one or two. Challenges beyond developing the vaccine “It’s really important for industry stakeholders to know this, and to help move things into the market,” Chen says. In Canada, he says, the CFIA has strict protocols to keep Canadian herds healthy and free of disease from foreign countries. “We have great systems in place — surveillance is really good, detection is there, testing takes place and culling happens quickly.” Despite this, he believes that we need to keep working to find ways to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place. “It’d help if our global partners could benefit from this research as well,” he says. “In developing nations, they can’t afford the test-and-cull system that we have.” Besides the economics, he says that in some countries, it’s not feasible for social and cultural reasons as well. Because bovine TB is a chronic disease and symptoms may persist over time, farmers who can’t afford to cull them could continue milking and even breeding infected animals. “In situations like this, a vaccine would be the best bet,” he says.



Stories from our other publications