Russia is developing rapidly. Everywhere you look, there is new construction. This includes in the countryside, where new state-of-the-art pig units are appearing in many locations. But these enterprises do not tell the whole story. The fact that Russia remains a country of extremes is true also for pork production.
A western view of the country's pig sector in the days of the former Soviet Union would not extend far beyond the large state farms that covered the landscape. At that time they were all-powerful, accounting for by far the largest part of agricultural production, but the other extreme was represented by the backyarders. Even in today's Russia there is still a large percentage of pigs reared in the backyard, fed on household scraps or anything else that is available. Indeed, one of the challenges of modern production in Russia is finding workers who do not have contact with pigs at home.
The new farms at the other end of today's spectrum are full of the best equipment from the west, stocked with western genetics and mostly fed on imported pre-starters for the young pigs. Often they have also looked westward to find a manager. Their presence is the latest evidence that the agricultural improvement scheme introduced by the Russian government a few years ago has really worked. From a situation where the national pig sector had been left far behind on genetics and technology, we can see the industry now is zooming ahead.
Clearly, when Russia does something, it does it well. But what are the issues facing the modern Russian pig industry? There are 8 aspects in particular that deserve some attention both from within the country and from other places that see Russia as a potential rival for meat sales.
1 Construction speed, cost and quality. Currently, construction companies have more work than they can handle. As a result, raw material costs are increasing rapidly and the quality of work is suffering. The cost of constructing a pig unit has increased by over 50% in 3 years. Construction is nearly always late. That lateness would not present a great problem if the farm contained no animals, but it soon becomes a major difficulty when there are pigs coming forward with no nursery or finisher houses to accommodate them.
2 Biosecurity. On paper, Russia would seem to have some of the highest biosecurity standards in the world. Farm entrances have shower-in facilities, the perimeter of the unit is surrounded by a security fence and vehicles cannot pass through without using the wheel-dip.
The reality is a little different. There are problems related to the point mentioned before, that people living in the countryside often tend to keep a pig or two in their backyard. Of course the members of staff are checked by the farm's security. Even if the unit personnel themselves have no pigs at home, however, their neighbours will.
3 Transport. The transport infrastructure in Russia has not been kept up with the growth in pig production. The result is that many animals are moved on vehicles not designed for carrying pigs. This creates risks during loading and unloading, with pigs having to be forced on and off the transporter rather than walking calmly.
Cold weather is of even more concern on the health front. Effective cleaning and disinfection of transport vehicles is difficult if not impossible in the depths of a Russian winter.
4 Staffing. Although the latest units are built to modern standards, they are still staffed in the tradition of the state farm. This is due in part to old laws still in place, for instance insisting that a pig enterprise must have a gas engineer and an electric engineer on site. Another example of the traditional job segregation occurs where an inseminator's duties are limited to making sure sows are bred and do not extend to handling feed.
While this does not necessarily impact on production performance, it creates a problem for a new business because of the extra number of staff needing training and the time that this will require. Also due to the culture of specialisation, it is the responsibility of an electrician and not of the stockman to set the ventilation controls in a building. Once again it would be true to say that production should not be affected — provided in this case that the electrician is trained to recognise pig behaviour.
Wage levels are still low, but increasing. Staffing levels even on the best farms are more than twice what a western unit would expect or be able to afford. The worst cases have more than 4 times the number of staff that a farm of similar size in the west of Europe would employ. Even modern facilities will have more ancillary personnel than people who work directly with the pigs.
Looking to the future, then, Russia will have to cut staffing levels in order to be competitive on the world scene. But there is a more positive side to the personnel question, which is that many well-educated young people want a career and they understand quickly what is required in a modern pig business. These entrants are becoming heads of departments and managers and obtaining good performance from the farms they control.
5 Nutrition. Feed is often the reason that the performance levels achieved using current Russian genetics fall some way short of those under modern western breeding programmes. To narrow this gap will require some big changes in diets and feeding strategies. Russian herds still restrict the quantity of feed they give to lactating sows to a maximum of 6 kilograms per day. Gilts are limit-fed in the rearing stage to stop them becoming too big and fat before they can be bred.
There are some issues with the quality of raw materials available in Russia and also with the quality control in some feedmills. Multi-vitamin supplements are used extensively on Russian farms because the farm veterinarians assume that the feedmill will not have added the correct amount. Change is on the way, however. New feedmills are appearing alongside the latest pig units and some of the older mills are installing new equipment. This is improving the quality control of feeds at mill level, which is itself being reflected in the levels of pig performance seen on these farms.
6 Information. Finding out what is really happening on a farm is a challenge. As a hangover from the past regime, what the reports say about a particular unit is often much better than the reality. This can make identifying and solving problems very difficult. On Russian farms, for example, recorded mortality figures for baby pigs are often extremely low. The explanation is usually that the smallest piglets were killed at birth and were never recorded. Surviving pigs that are weak or slow-growing are likely to be sold for slaughter at any time after birth, if there is a market for such animals at the time.
Growth rates are measured either by a sample of pigs from a group, or according to the estimated age of the pig. This always means that reported rates of daily liveweight gain are higher than the actual results.
Referring again to the specialisation of jobs, this can actually make the situation worse. Operators may be paid a bonus for the lack of mortality in the room they supervise. This will result in anything that shows any signs of poor health being sent for slaughter at whatever weight. Although undoubtedly good for the worker's income, it is undeniably poor for the business as total sales weights are often far short of target.
7 Bureaucracy. Russia certainly has no monopoly on bureaucrats because they can be found everywhere, but the country suffers from gross over-administration. In its modern form it makes farm managers and veterinarians produce endless reports for accountants, on aspects such as the daily feed use by building, the daily pig inventory by building.
Administrative headaches extend to the ordering of feeds. In effect, supplies need to be up to 6 weeks in advance. Obviously this is a frequent cause of mistakes, with feed running out or storage bins being over-filled.
8 Tomorrow. The concept is found internationally, it is just that the name given to it in the Russian language is 'Zavtra'. Most probably this is first word that all westerners involved in Russia's pig industry will learn. It, too, is a spill-over from the state farm system in its application as the answer to all demands for action.
So those are the 8 points and at first glance they must seem like a set of negatives. But do not be fooled. In Russia there is the will to develop a world-beating pig industry. Signs of this are appearing already, with some of the newest farms achieving production results that are as good as anywhere in the world. The target will be reached. The only unknown is how long it will take. PIGI