You can measure the pork industry’s development in Ontario in some obvious ways, such as sales and the size of the herd across the province. But Prof. Bob Friendship at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, says another strong indicator of the sector’s vitality is the number of veterinary students who are choosing it for a career.
Friendship, whose career has been dedicated to swine health and education, is enthused that this year’s graduating class at the college has four students fully committed to swine practices, and another who’ll be a part-time swine veterinarian.
“We may have never seen that number dedicated specifically to swine,” he says. “It’s very good news for the industry that we have talented, well-trained graduates who will be involved in swine for the next 25-30 years and will become leaders in their field.”
The new veterinarians will be concentrated around the Stratford region, where pork production has taken hold. Clinton Lichty and Ed Metzger will join Southwest Ontario Veterinary Services, a major swine-only practice with locations in Stratford, Ridgetown, Listowel and St. Clements. Ryan Tenbergen will be working with Dr. Al Scorgie in Tavistock, as part of Demeter Services Vétérinaires Inc. headquartered in Quebec. Greg Dimmers will join Dr. Sue Burlatschenko, a swine vet at Goshen Ridge Veterinary Services in Tillsonburg. And Rachel Poppe will be working with swine and dairy clients at Mitchell Veterinary Services.
Newly minted veterinarian Lichty grew up on a hog farm. From his perspective, the foundation of a healthy herd is based on environment, the animal itself, and the presence of disease agents.
“I think the best spot to start for a producer, is the environment,” he says. “So much about disease stems back to things like stocking density, cleanliness, and air quality. These are things that vigilant producers do very well to keep in focus.”
Lichty describes pork production as a specialized business with specialized facilities, designed to optimize the health of the pigs and the economics of the farm.
“The health and welfare of the pigs is of the utmost importance to the entire industry because, healthy pigs make healthy food for consumers and healthy pigs are also profitable pigs for producers,” he says. “Fortunately this leads to a natural promotion of healthy pigs that are well cared for, healthy food for consumers, and a healthy industry for our province.”
For the students, this opportunity to become part of a swine practice has a great deal to do with history, and how the sector has evolved.
In the 1970s, pork production grew from being a minor pursuit in Ontario to a teeming activity. Overall, farms of all types were expanding, and pork was an attractive commodity. The investment to get into raising swine was comparatively small – unlike some commodities, pork had no quota attached to it and production could increase as a producer saw fit. Herds grew to the point where barns that once had a few sows were now full with several hundred pigs.
That opened the door for a measure of specialized swine practitioners, who had to come to grips with what had quickly become a complex production system.
As modern techniques were implemented to control diseases such asatrophic rhinitis, mange and pleuropneumonia, new diseases have continued to emerge – PRRS in the late 1980s, then circovirus, then PED and various influenzas.
Another challenge for swine veterinarians has been the constant changes in production and management. For example, in the 1990s, off-site nurseries sprung up, and piglets that later joined a herd would bring new diseases with them – just like kids who come home from daycare with every communicable affliction imaginable.
“As one thing calmed down, another would emerge,” says Friendship.
And at the same time, production was becoming more sophisticated. Carcass sizes, litter sizes, herd sizes and barn sizes continued to grow. Standard operating practices were instituted, changed and changed again. Swine veterinarians who entered practices earlier were not bored.
Now, as established veterinarians start winding down, opportunities are emerging for new veterinarians to join them and perhaps one day replace them. The pork industry is continuing to grow, and Ontario Veterinary College graduates are helping address the need for swine-savvy veterinarians, says OVC dean Jeff Wichtel.
“It’s no surprise that our graduating veterinarians are choosing careers in support of the swine industry,” he says. “The swine health and production group here at the University of Guelph is the strongest and most innovative in Canada, giving these students inspiring role models. This is a visible example of the renewed commitment to agriculture by the University of Guelph.”