A big pig deal: Local swine breeders land $2.5M contract with China
Tavistock, Ont., breeder builds on years of selling Canadian breeding pigs to customers overseas
It was back in 1986 when Tavistock, Ont., swine breeder Jim Donaldson sold his first batch of breeding pigs to China.
"It was a small shipment of 75 pigs to the province of Jilin," said Donaldson, who owns Donaldson International. "Then in 1989, I sold 400 pigs and it grew from there."
Fast forward to today and Donaldson has just signed a deal to supply 1,000 purebred pigs and 1,000 doses of frozen boar semen to China. The pigs that will be making the journey aren't for slaughter, they're breeding animals to help China continue to expand its domestic swine industry in a country with 1.4 billion people to feed.
The pigs will be supplied through a partnership with Alliance Genetics of St. Thomas. Alliance is providing the animals and selling them using Donaldson's connections built over decades of exporting Canadian pigs to more than 50 countries.
Donaldson said Chinese companies are keen to tap Canadian breeders' expertise.
Canada is a world leader in mastering the complicated genetics that lead to a supply of animals with traits that all pig farmers covet: everything from a high birth rate for sows, to an efficient conversion of feed to meat.
"Canada is at the top of the heap in technology that guarantees that we are producing some of the highest, most efficient genetics in the world today," said Donaldson.
When Donaldson made his first trip to China, the domestic Chinese swine industry was mainly limited to animals raised by families on small rural properties.
"Basically the pig population was all household production," said Donaldson. "One pig per family off the kitchen and whatever rice was left over from supper, that went to the pig," he said.
At the time, there was no genetic breeding program in China and the quality of pork produced was poor. The animals were too fat, which didn't suit a more health-conscious consumer. It also wasn't good business because it takes more than four times the amount of feed to produce one kilogram of fat on an animal than it does to produce the same amount of quality lean meat.
The Chinese swine industry has matured since the 1980s.
"Today they have large operations with thousands of sows," said Donaldson. "One of the customers I sold to has 750,000 sows in China now, so the industry has totally changed."
The Canadian government also helped.
In the early 1990s a program called the China-Canada Lean Swine Project helped China upgrade its pork industry with modern genetics, breeding programs and nutrition.
On his property in Tavistock, Donaldson hosts delegations of clients from across the globe who drop in to buy breeding animals. Donaldson also provides support and training, essentially teaching his clients how to manage their own herds.
Donaldson says he's not worried that giving China and other overseas swine farmers all this information and breeding stock amounts to handing a competitor the keys to his business.
"If I don't sell to them, somebody else will. We have competitors in the U.S. and Europe," he said. "We can sell them the genetics because we have such a large swine population here, we're making huge genetic progress very fast, likely faster than our customers in some of these countries."
He also says his customers will always need more animals and breeding expertise in the years to come. In his view, it's about building a long-lasting business relationship that connects him to the world's largest markets.
"Every two or three years, [our clients] are going to need new bloodlines, so that there's no inbreeding," he said. "They're going to want to upgrade and maintain the quality of their herd. If we send them high-quality pigs, then they keep coming back."
The pigs Donaldson needs to fill the China order won't be born until fall.
In the meantime, he has a handful of animals in his quarantine facility getting set for a trip to Taiwan later this month. Before they go, they'll be subjected to multiple tests to ensure they're in top shape and produce top-quality hogs for years to come.