Thousands of pigs died after the barns where they were housed lost power during an April storm in Manitoba.
Manitoba-based hog production company HyLife said roughly 2,000 hogs died near Kola, Man., about 300 kilometres west of Winnipeg near the Saskatchewan border, when backup generators and phone notification systems failed.
“During extremely challenging and lengthy weather conditions, which resulted in highway closures, travel advisories and dangerous driving conditions, our employees were not able to access one of our sites,” Dave Penner, chief operating officer of farms for HyLife, said in an email on Wednesday.
“HyLife regrets this loss and commits to doing everything necessary to prevent this from happening again.”
On April 24, a spring storm walloped southern parts of the province with rain and snow, causing flooding and power outages.
Manitoba Hydro reported numerous outages that day, including in the Virden, Man., area, which is about 30 kilometres from Kola.
The power company said nearly 5,000 customers in that region were affected, from around 10 p.m Sunday until about noon the following day.
Problem unusual: Manitoba Pork
Manitoba hog producers follow national guidelines for handling pigs and are required to have plans in place for emergencies — including backup systems to ensure ventilation, temperature regulation and feeding and watering continue.
“We have a situation where both [the] primary power source and the backup power source failed,” said Cam Dahl, general manager with Manitoba Pork, the province’s industry association.
“This is something that is extremely unfortunate and it’s also very unusual.”
HyLife won’t say how the pigs died, but a lack of ventilation can lead to a buildup of poisonous gases.
“[Ventilation is] both for cooling, as well as to ensure that hydrogen sulphide levels — which is produced in hog manure — is kept out of the barns,” Dahl said.
The province’s chief veterinary office is investigating but won’t release any details.
It’s unclear whether the company could face penalties. HyLife produces 3.4 million hogs a year, with the majority of its barns in Manitoba.
“My understanding, at this time, is that this is an accident,” Dahl said.
“It was the perfect storm coming together that created that loss of primary and secondary power, rather than a failure on people’s parts, that’s my understanding.”
Both HyLife and Manitoba Pork said practices would be reviewed.
“When something unfortunate like this happens, it is taken seriously by not only producers’ representatives like us, but by individual producers,” Dahl said.
Industry needs oversight: Humane Society
People with knowledge of the industry say in a situation where ventilation is lost, animal deaths are likely due to overheating or breathing in concentrated toxic gases — or both.
“There is a level of suffering and essentially suffocating that occurs in either situation,” said Brittany Semeniuk, an animal welfare specialist with the Winnipeg Humane Society.
“It’s not ideal and it’s definitely not a humane death.”
Semeniuk says the deaths illustrate the difficulties of ensuring animal safety in industrialized farming, especially in cases of emergency.
“Even if someone was at the facility, it would be very, very difficult — basically impossible — to safely evacuate these animals,” said Semeniuk.
The Humane Society would like to see more transparency and third-party oversight around industrial farming practices.
“There’s really no way to have the public know what is going on behind closed doors other than what the facilities are willing to show,” she said.
“Until we address the way we house these animals and we raise these animals in mass quantities for food production, there are going to continue to be tragedies like this.”
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