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What You Need to Know About China’s Swine Industry

Swine veterinarian John Kolb spent the past two years working in China, calling the experience “challenging, sometimes frustrating, but always interesting.” The Chinese swine industry produces as many pigs as the rest of the countries in the world combined, he explains, so U.S. producers need to watch what is happening there.

The changes to the Chinese swine industry have accelerated as the country moves to become more food self-sufficient, says Kolb, but not every farm moves at the same pace. “There is a broad range of experience, skill, and willingness to adapt and improve among producers.”

Most traditional farms have a factory look and have buildings that were designed for manufacturing purposes, making them very difficult to ventilate. The layout was simply copied from other industrial facilities to save costs. Larger and more professional pork producers are seeking out Western input. Facilities and pig flow are improving in the modernizing parts of the industry, says Kolb. 

river of dead pigs

The election in 2013 of the current president, Xi Jinping, was, unfortunately, accompanied by the discovery of thousands of dead pigs floating into Shanghai in the Huangpu River, says Kolb. The source of the pigs is rumored to be from a farm that had a PED or pseudorabies outbreak.

The dumped pigs helped spur regulations excluding swine production in special environmental zones. These regulations, called the demolishing campaign, have dropped the Chinese sow inventory from 50 million to about 38 million sows today, but the largest integrated farms are expanding at a rapid rate. Of the top 10 farms (2016 estimates, in table above), two have plans for 50 million pigs as a 2025 target, says Kolb.

Pigs are moving away from traditional production areas near population centers based on the wet market sales model, Kolb explains. Production is moving to rural provinces that are poorer and less expensive for land and labor, and are more willing to support new industries. North and northeastern provinces like Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia are seeing or predicted to see rapid growth in livestock numbers to combine with their grain production and lower populations, he says.

With an expected long-term pork demand growth of 25%, China will continue to need significant pork imports. “U.S. producers should be well positioned to provide high-quality, USDA-inspected pork at a significant price advantage over domestic Chinese pork,” says Kolb.

costs higher

Economic drivers will force Chinese hog farms to become more efficient and productive, says Kolb. In general, production costs are double that of the U.S.

Grain prices are expected to remain high for Chinese producers, with both proposed increases in supports for grain prices and expanded use of biofuels.

“High feed costs and variable feed-quality problems do restrict the competitiveness of pork and poultry producers in China compared with North American producers,” says Kolb.  

Financial competitiveness, as in the U.S., varies greatly from larger, integrated producers to small suppliers, he says. Biologic performance likewise varies greatly. Top-quality production systems can achieve 25 pigs per sow per year (PSY) or more on a system-wide basis, making them competitive in any marketplace. However, the performance is more variable than that in the U.S. Middle- and lower-quality farms in China often produce less than 15 PSY.

“There are top-10 producers in China still struggling to get to 20 PSY,” says Kolb. “Similar to the late 1990s in the U.S., more efficient Chinese producers or those with access to land and capital may be positioned to acquire systems with poorer financial performance.”

diseases are big concern

Health remains one of the top challenges for pork production in China, says Kolb. The impacts of disease are exacerbated by poor-quality facilities, traditional farrow-to-finish production sites, and veterinarians without professional-level training and access to diagnostic labs. 

The infectious disease environment in China is rightly a concern for producers in the U.S. and elsewhere, says Kolb. With the official exception of African swine fever, all major swine pathogens are present in China at some prevalence. In 2011, a then-novel strain of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus spread through China from north to south. The strain hit U.S. herds hard in 2013.

Today, highly pathogenic porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (hpPRRS) virus is the most talked about virus on Chinese farms, says Kolb. The virus is causing disease and mortality in challenged, nonvaccinated animals. 

There is no routine sampling to determine prevalence of different virus types, nor any public or private laboratories that routinely test new isolates to confirm virulence or protection by current vaccines.

Classical swine fever (CSF), or hog cholera, is endemic in the Chinese swine herd. Vaccination is widespread with domestic modified live vaccines. Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) virus is also present, though it is mentioned much more quietly than CSF, says Kolb. Very little testing is done.


Bat virus

Other viral infections of pigs in China include Japanese encephalitis virus, hepatitis E virus, and, recently, a new corona virus. Bat-associated corona virus was described in nursing piglets in two cases from southern China, says Kolb. The clinical signs and production impact were similar to a PED outbreak in a naïve herd. Material from affected piglets was administered to suckling piglets and the disease was re-created. 

There are fundamental challenges for the swine industry in China, explains Kolb. These include the variability in vaccine product quality and safety, facilities ill-designed for pork production, and limits in diagnostic resources.Chinese veterinarians have outstanding observation and postmortem skills, he says, but they do not have access to the full set of resources available in the U.S.

Antimicrobial resistance is a high-profile concern, says Kolb. Widespread access to low-cost antimicrobials, combined with lack of complete diagnostics, leads to overreliance on medication to cover missed problems. 

Misuse of antimicrobials is a public health concern, both in creating resistance but also as an environmental contaminant, says Kolb. Researchers at Fudan University suspected that drinking water has been contaminated by manure applied in fields that drain into city water supplies, as well as wastewater from antimicrobial manufacturing plants that drain into the Yangtze and Huangpu rivers. The spread of these resistance genes appears to be significant, he says.

U.S. firms helping

Consulting veterinarians, genetic companies, and equipment suppliers from the U.S. and other countries are providing expert services and supplies for those Chinese companies aggressively adapting new technology, says Kolb. U.S. veterinary firms Pipestone System and Carthage System have established clinic efforts in China, for example. 

Rapid improvements are occurring in the top producers in China, yet these still represent a small percentage of the total pig production, says Kolb. The competitive advantages for U.S. producers include high-quality, low-cost feedstuffs; the best veterinary education and diagnostic resources; a trusted USDA meat inspection service; and a willingness of producers and veterinarians to collaborate for mutual benefit.

“There will be systems in China that will compete with the best producers in the world biologically,” says Kolb. “But the U.S. industry will maintain a cost and quality advantage.”

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