Natural Resource and Environmental Issues Related to Hog Expansion in Alberta

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 Introduction | Natural Resources to Support Expansion | Environmental Issues | Opportunities for Expansion | Conclusions


The opportunity for the Alberta hog industry to expand and to take advantage of new markets led Alberta Agriculture to investigate whether water, feed and environmental issues might limit the development of new facilities in Alberta. Provincial soil, water and agricultural production databases were integrated using Statistical Analysis Systems (SAS) software. A set of criteria based on natural resource needs for the hog industry was used to query these database. Each successive query more clearly specified areas with potential for industry expansion. The results of these database queries were presented on provincial scale maps.

Water, feed (in particular barley), land area to meet odour spacing requirements and recommended manure spreading rates were identified as the key potential natural resource constraints for locating new hog facilities. Other issues related to the expansion of the pork industry (e.g. trained labour, financing, herd health and genetics) were beyond the scope of this study. Simple database queries provided the most reliable information on key parameters while more complicated queries actually produced misinformation. This study identifies environmental issues and natural resources in certain landscapes in the province which have the potential for expansion. It does not identify specific townships with or without livestock expansion potential.

Natural Resources to Support Expansion

Current Distribution of Primary Hog Production
Most of the hog production in Alberta is concentrated in the Black soil zone, where moisture optimizes barley production Figure 1. Four areas have the highest sow numbers in Alberta: County of Lacombe, County of Lethbridge, the Neerlandia area (north of Barrhead) and the Acme area (west of Drumheller). the St. Vincent area (north of St. Paul) is a smaller but significant hog producing area. Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat, Oyen and Lloydminster are other areas of production outside of the primary concentration along the Edmonton to Lethbridge corridor. However, all agricultural areas have some level of hog production.

Water Supplies
Water can be the primary constraint for locating new hog facilities in Alberta. There are areas in the province where surface and ground water supplies are limited (particularly where snowmelt is limited) Figure 2. In these areas, careful planning is necessary to guarantee a reliable water source for increased livestock production. Through various database queries on the availability of water (surface and ground water) and water quality (total dissolved solids), the expansion of the hog industry was found not to be limited by water supplies.

Feed Supplies
Barley is the largest component of hog feed rations (approximately 60% of a farrow-to-finish operation's overall ration). Furthermore, barley is also a major component of cattle feedlot rations. However, Alberta has a strong barley industry and is in a very strong position relative to livestock feed supplies (McLelland 1994) which could support an expansion of the hog industry Figure 3.

Environmental Issues

Environmental issues for intensive livestock operations focuses primarily on manure management. In particular, separating new intensive livestock operations from neighbours is necessary to limit complaints about odour. In addition, treating manure spreading as waste disposal rather than application of crop nutrients to farmland can lead to nutrient applications in excess of crop requirements. Research in Alberta has shown that spreading cattle feedlot manure at excessive rates has resulted in nitrates leaching below the root zone (Riddell and Rodvang 1992). Consequently, Alberta's livestock associations have taken the lead in developing voluntary guidelines to assist municipalities and producers in siting, design and management of new and expanding livestock facilities. The Code of Practice: for the Safe and Economic Handling of Animal Manure (West 1994) gives direction for establishing and operating livestock facilities. Some municipalities have development bylaws that use the Code of Practice's criteria.

Population Densities
Since odour is the principal criteria for siting intensive livestock operations, the human population density of the rural area is a key indicator of how close neighbours will be to an operation. Statistically, areas with high population densities have more neighbours to question the establishment of a new operation Figure 4. Rural areas with small farms and rural acreages generally have residents who are not familiar with the smells and operation of intensive livestock operations. As well, even in predominantly agricultural areas, proposers of new operations are now finding that neighbouring farmers can be as vigorous in questioning new operations as non-agricultural rural residents. Odour nuisance is often only the launching point for other attacks on the industry including such issues as runoff, nutrient leaching to groundwater and nutrient management. Consequently, population densities are a critical factor to consider in the development permit process.

Distance Requirements
Population densities are complementary to the minimum distance separation (MDS) criteria used in the Code of Practice for assessing the environmental sensitivity of siting new developments, either livestock or non-agricultural, in a rural area. The MDS method provides recommended minimum separation distances between livestock operations and other uses (residential, commercial or recreational). It accounts for the differences in odour related to livestock type, manure production and manure handling system. Potential nuisance conflicts can be reduced by recognizing that normal odour production can be compensated by meeting minimum separation distances.

Manure Spreading
The Code of Practice recommends the land base that is required for spreading manure to meet crop requirements. Controlling nuisance odour through MDS requires a lower population density than does the land base required for manure spreading. Separation distances for odour do not translate into land requirements for intensive livestock operations; however, odour control will require intensive livestock operations to locate in less populated areas than does the land base requirement for manure spreading. Odour management is the key manure management issue for locating hog operations and can translate directly into the capital costs of land acquisition for new operations.

The primary environmental issue related to manure spreading is whether intensive livestock operations are concentrated in areas where manure output exceeds the cropped land base available to manage manure as a crop nutrient. This is an issue where there are many large livestock operations. For example, Riddell and Rodvang (1992) found nitrates at levels above drinking water guidelines in shallow groundwater, 10 feet below fields where manure spreading from cattle feedlots was above recommended rates. However, by mapping the theoretical application rates for nitrogen from manure, there were no areas in Alberta that have more nutrients from manure that could be used by local crops. The over-application of manure could be due to the high transportation costs of hauling manure to land further away from the livestock operation. Therefore, nitrate leaching from the over-application of manure is not necessarily a land base problem but rather a manure management problem. Managers of intensive livestock operations have the responsibility of ensuring that they have a sufficient land base, either owned or secured through agreements with neighbours, to spread their operation's manure at application rates consistent with crop requirements.

Municipal Planning and Development Processes
Development of new livestock operations is controlled at the municipal level in Alberta. Procedures to obtain development permits for intensive livestock operations range from well defined to none. Municipalities that are familiar with intensive livestock developments generally have some procedures developed. New operations will have some form of public review, either in the development permit process or in the process to obtain a water rights licence for the operation's surface or ground water source.

The absence of a well defined development permit process may create problems. Neighbours who have concerns about a new operation may have no assurances that they can ask questions or that their concerns will be addressed. Their reaction may be to raise objections and force delays that would not occur under a better defined process.

A well defined planning approval process should not be onerous but rather should clearly set out the responsibilities of the involved agencies as well as the livestock developer. In the few rural municipalities which have a well-defined process, risk and uncertainty faced by livestock developers as well as neighbouring residents have been greatly reduced. Processing time has also been shortened.

Opportunities for Expansion

The process of examining resources critical to an expanding hog industry and the environmental issues that surround them defined a series of queries to identify where opportunities exist for the industry to expand in Alberta. Water, the land base (defined by human population densities) and feed supplies (intensity of barley production) were identified as the key resources at the local level. Groundwater, as defined by Alberta Environment's Water Rights database, was assumed to be the preferred water source.

Two scenarios were investigated to define the capability of expanding the hog industry in Alberta: 1) a new 500-sow unit operation; and 2) a new 1000-sow unit, farrow to finish operation. The queries were based on the following criteria:

  • Farm population density: Since the land base requirement for odour control is larger than for manure spreading, the MDS criterion that is used to reduce nuisance odour was the key factor in determining available areas in the province to site new hog operations.
  • Feed supply: The abundance of local feed supplies, as defined by the percentage of land area in barley, was the second criterion used to determine available areas in the province to site new hog operations.

Townships that satisfied both criteria,low population density and sufficient feed supply, were displayed with pumping rates for licensed water wells. To satisfy the water requirements of a 500- and 1000-sow unit, well pumping rates should exceed 42 and 60 imperial gpm, respectively, if there is no water storage. Conversely, the cutoff below which a well with a storage reservoir will not meet the water needs of a 500 and 1000 sow unit is 7 and 14 imperial gpm, respectively.

The series of queries were compiled into two final map products which identified the general areas of the province, not specific townships, that are worthwhile investigating for hog expansion for a 500-sow operation Figure 5 and 1000-sow operation Figure 6.

It is important to understand the limitations of this information. In particular, since feed supply suitability is judged on barley acreages, not actual yields by township, this selection process does not account for areas where barley area intensity is below the selection criterion's standard but yields are significantly above provincial averages. Nor does this selection criterion's account for townships that are adjacent to high production areas, where transport costs to bring in feed may not be significant. This is particularly true west of the intense barley production corridor through central Alberta. Furthermore, barley acreages are based on 1991 Census data and do not reflect local trends since that time. Also, groundwater information does not incorporate water quality or the reliability of well yields through a township. While population densities are low and groundwater supplies are significant in this area, the sharp decline in barley acreage west of the province's central corridor is not accounted for in this selection process. Consequently, there may have been an overestimation of the importance of local self-sufficiency in barley for a 500- or 1000-sow unit. Therefore, limitations for the development of a 1000 sow unit may be best represented by population density and ground water availability Figure 6.


In conclusion, the following areas are worthwhile investigating in terms of hog expansion opportunities: the Grande Prairie area, northeast Alberta, the Lloydminster area, west of Edmonton, west of the central corridor between Calgary to Edmonton, west of Drumheller and west of Lethbridge. However, it must be emphasized that the information on groundwater and barley production has some important limitations. The groundwater information does not incorporate water quality or the reliability of well yields through a township. Likewise, the barley acreages are from 1991 Census data and do not reflect local trends since that time. As well, the analysis procedure may overestimate the importance of self-sufficiency in barley production in some areas. Factors other than feed, water and farm population densities were not incorporated, and when taken into a local context, may be just as significant as the factors used at the provincial scale. Since the process was directed at the provincial scale, these maps should be interpreted at that scale.


McLelland, M. 1994. Personal Communication. Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Field Crop Development Centre, Lacombe, Alberta.

Riddell, K.M. and S.J. Rodvang. 1992. Soil and Groundwater Chemistry Beneath Irrigated Land Receiving Manure Applications in Southern Alberta. In Impact of Agricultural Management Practices on Water Quality. Alberta Agriculture, Land Evaluation and Reclamation Branch, Agriculture Centre, pp. 69-109.

Snowy Owl Software. 1993. Integration of Agricultural Land Use Databases in Alberta. Prepared for: CAESA Water Quality Monitoring Committee. Available from: Alberta Agriculture, Conservation and Development Branch, 19 p.

Statistical Analysis Systems Institute Inc. 1988. SAS Version 6.08. SAS Institute Inc. Cary, NC.
West, B. 1994. Code of Practice: For The Safe and Economic Handling of Animal Manures, Alberta Agriculture, Engineering Services Branch, 301 p.

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This information published to the web on October 23, 2001.
Last Reviewed/Revised on September 12, 2017.