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Pork producers find a friend in new venture

The past four years have been a rollercoaster time for Ontario’s pork producers, who have experienced many more downs than ups as their industry has become rife with problems.
A combination of rising feed and fertilizer costs, the economic recession, the rising Canadian dollar, and the H1N1 fears of 2009 have created what some industry analysts have called the perfect storm of toxic conditions.
The situation has grown so dire that Ontario’s sow heard is down about 25 per cent — or 109,000 animals — from what it was in April 2004, according to Ontario Pork. And that is a big problem for producers in this region, as pork sales accounted for about $37.5 million in 2008.

So as the industry struggles to re-identify itself, many of the industries related to pork – packers, transportation, even veterinary services – need to do the same, according to Dr. Martin Misener and Dr. Kevin Vilaca, two of the vets behind the area’s newest veterinary group, Southwest Ontario Veterinary Services.

“Through my career there was either slow expansion or boom expansion of the industry, but we’ve never seen the industry shrink,” said Misener, who has been a vet for 17 years. “It’s shrinking and struggling to be competitive with the United States, yet still maintain its deep-rooted family-based profile.

“It used to be that every farm you drove by would have beef and pigs, and even some of the dairy farms had pigs too. That independent small producer has disappeared to a great extent.”

That disappearance of the small, family producer is one of the reasons why Misener, along with eight other vets, began the planning stages of Southwest Ontario Veterinary Services back in 2007, a group of vets which are solely based on servicing pig producers in, well, southwestern Ontario. They opened their doors on July 1st of this year, and are just now getting their feet under them.

CHANGING WITH THE TIMES St. Clements is home to one of Southwest Ontario Veterinary Services’ warehouses. Front row: Cindy Beaudin, Dr. Kevin Vilaca, Jean Smith, Kelly Burnett. Back row: John Gerard, Tracey Leary, Dr. Martin Misener, John Black, Sandy Chilton, David Gohl, Bob Smith.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it up and running. We’ve been stumbling and skinning knees,” Misener said with a laugh. “We’re now at maybe a brisk power walk, heading towards a run.”

The concept is simple. Southwest consists of nine vets based at four locations: St. Clements, Stratford, Ridgetown, and Listowel. It isn’t your typical veterinary office with x-ray machines, diagnostic tables, or charts on the wall, either. The sites are warehouses that store medical equipment and medicine for distribution to their customers, as well as administration services.

The group has become very specialized in pigs, and conducts on-site visits to farms with the primary focus of managing health-related issues at the farm level. They’re looking for ways to improve the production and profitability, said Misener.

Each site also contains a pharmacy for producers to come and pick up their own medical supplies for their animals, as well. Altogether, five independent veterinary businesses came together to form Southwest, which Misener notes has many benefits both for them, and their customers.

“We’re hoping that by focusing on all of our strengths, and minimizing all of our weaknesses, that as a collective we can do a whole lot more than we could as individuals.”

“Part of the difference is, with all of our locations, just the amount of geography that we cover,” added Vilaca. “A traditional vet practice would cover a very short area around the base, but we will actually function out of any of our locations – we can cover southwestern Ontario and be anywhere, depending on the day.”

The business model also allows for greater flexibility for the vets, and can bring many minds together to try and solve a problem – instead of one or two vets like at a traditional office, they have nine vets to draw upon for help.

“It just makes for far more creative approaches,” noted Misener.

Overall, the group services between 1,000 and 1,500 producers, which represents approximately 200,000 sows.  – “It’s a little complicated to define because of ownership and barns,” noted Vilaca.

There are also 40 employees who work for the group doing various tasks such as administrative work or delivering supplies to their customers.

Misener – who had worked at Linwood Veterinary Services prior to Southwest – wanted to stay in the region when he was in the planning stages of the new business, which is why he chose to set up the location in St. Clements.

“To maintain some continuity with the customer base we didn’t want to just pack up and move out of the area.

This has been a fabulous area for me to practice as a veterinarian.”

As the pork industry struggles to emerge from under a cloud of uncertainty, Misener and Vilaca hope that Southwest Veterinary Services can be at the forefront of offering flexible service and help farmers meet these new and unfamiliar challenges.

“The whole industry has come together and it’s been one of the neatest things that has gone on in the past few years,” said Vilaca. “There is a lot more unity and communication taking place, instead of working in a bubble, and saying ‘how can we try to solve this? Instead of dealing with it only on one farm, let’s do it province-wide.’”

Misener says that while some producers have found new and profitable ways of marketing their products, such as niche markets like organic pork or farm-gate sales, other aspects of the industry need to change as well – including the services he and his fellow veterinarians provide.

“I’ve never seen grassroots producers come together to find solutions and look for good ideas like I have in the past four years, and it’s pretty neat to see how creative farmers can be about their own business. They’re good businessmen.”

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