A Visit to a Modern Brazilian Swine Operation

Robert Chambers, swine and poultry structures and equipment engineer with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) describes his impressions of a visit to a new integrated pig operation in the mid-west of central Brazil.
calendar icon 24 March 2009
clock icon 7 minute read

In early September of last year Robert Chambers had the good opportunity, while attending an international conference in Brazil, to visit a newer integrated swine operation in the mid west of central Brazil, along with 19 other engineers from various countries. Brazil's main population of 190 million is concentrated along the coast and southern states, along with the bulk of the industry. In the last 50 years or so, there has been a concerted effort to develop the central cerrado, a savannah like region with large plains interspersed with mountain ranges. It is this area that has seen the development of the large scale soybean farms.

The climate is tropical and is divided into two main seasons, dry, the winter season, and wet, the summer season. When Mr Chambers visited, it was the end of winter, southern hemisphere, and it had not rained for three months and would not be raining for another month or so. The temperature was 38°C during the day with a relative humidity of 25 per cent, dry. I was told that summer was actually cooler as it typically rained in the morning, cooled the air and was sunny in the afternoon drying out the air.

Soybeans are a wet season crop, seeded typically in October and harvested at the end of the rainy season in January. The dry season crop is seeded immediately after to take advantage of the moisture and is typically corn, sorghum, millet or cotton and is harvested during the driest time of the year.

In recent years, ethanol production has begun to have its effect on the availability of livestock feeds, in this case though the 'culprit' is sugarcane. Sugarcane ethanol plants obtain their raw cane from fields located in a 40 km radius. The cane is a semi-perennial, lasting five years before being replanted. The plants are harvested once a year and the harvesting season lasts for about 10 months. One of the important by-products of sugar production is bagasse. This is the fibre residue that remains after the cane has been crushed to extract the juice. On the cerrado, with the absence of natural gas and the high cost of electricity, bagasse is burned as a heat source by the ethanol plants and most of the food processing plants as a heat source. The black plumes on the horizon signify an ethanol plant or some other large industry. The large processors have become so concerned that they recently lobbied the government to restrict the number of ethanol plants in any given area so as not to increase the cost of their feed. The main selling point was that the ethanol plants employ relatively few people per hectare of sugarcane production compared to the hectare of feed grain that goes to livestock that is processed and then exported.

The company, Perdigão, which welcomed the visiting group, is Brazil's second largest food processor with beef, dairy, pork, poultry and margarine processing plants, predominantly located in the south of Brazil. Ten years ago, attracted by an abundance of low cost grain, the company built a poultry and pork processing plant in town of Rio Verde, Goias State, south of the capital of Brazil, Brasilia. Unlike the south, there was no existing swine or poultry production or processing of any significance. Ten years later, the plants (the pork and poultry processing are located in adjoining plants) are slaughtering 5,000 hogs a day and 400,000 broilers a day, six days a week and doing further processing as well. Most of the production is exported around the world; with a large market in Europe, distributed through the Perdigão's own distribution companies. Produce is transported by truck and exported through the port of Santos, about 1,000 kilometres away on the Atlantic coast.

"The biggest risk in the barn were the colonies of killer bees."

The company uses North American-style integration systems. Integrators are surrounding farms that are enticed by the long-term contracts, steady revenue and company support. The company supplies professional extension staff, many of whom are second generation Perdigão employees and some have trained in Canada and the USA to assist the integrators obtain the maximum production. The other interest is the manure. Fertilizer is expensive due to transport and the availability of manure is welcomed. Due to the large land base there is minimal concern for over application.

The facilities are divided into farrow-nursery and finishing, with shipping weights in the 105 to 110 kg range. Genetics are primarily PIC and TOPigs. The finishing facilities are typically four, 1000-head barns, solid floors with gutters on the outside that flow to an anaerobic digester. Earthen pits are formed into channels and lined with plastic, then the cover with membrane, add manure and let the naturally high ambient temperatures and bacteria produce the methane. It is currently being flared off but there are plans to install electric generators. The systems are supplied free to the farms by a company that gives 10 per cent of the carbon credits value to the producers and keeps the rest. The barns are naturally vented with spray cooling systems installed to cool the pigs. Due to the low relative humidity in the air this system works extremely well. Trees are planted as in Canada on the north side of the barns, as it is the Southern hemisphere the purpose is to provide shade on the roof of the barn. Eucalyptus is typically used and grows about four feet per year.

The sow facilities range in size from 1,200 to 2,400 sows. At the 2,400 sow farrow-nursery facility, they obtain 26 pigs/ per sow per year. Due to various reasons the employees live on the farm. There were 17 full-time employees and two seasonal workers. A house is provided and usually couples are preferred, both are hired. In the farrowing rooms, there is someone there 24/7, and no pig is born without supervision. The operation mixed its own feed using a corn/soybean meal base. Instead of rooms, they use barns linked together by a system of sidewalks with low fences to guide the pigs. As with the finishing barns the cooling system is a combination of natural ventilation, misters/fans and trees. The biggest risk in the barn were the colonies of killer bees that feast on the feed in weaner rooms. They had an outbreak of circovirus the previous year but as in the rest of the world, had it under control through vaccination.

As in all exporting countries, the Brazilians were concerned about disease. Every state border in Brazil requires a veterinary permit to cross with live animals and is zoned. In the event of a disease outbreak in one state, the other states can continue exporting.

The biggest limitation to growth that Mr Chambers could see was transportation. The highways are in poor shape. The bus trip from the airport in Goiania to Rio Verde is 220 km and took four bone-jarring hours. There is currently a railroad being built that is to go from the port of Santos deep into the cerrado to further develop agro-industry ventures. The Brazilians that he talked to dream that their country will one day become the world's largest agricultural exporter bar none. At the conference though, when asked of the biggest risk to this dream, the head of the Brazilian Agricultural Engineers listed global warming. She said the only country that would benefit would be Canada.

March 2009

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