Pigs really can fly

How high-rise hoggeries are reaching for the skies


Pork from the penthouse

Just call them ‘sty-scrapers’ – multi-storey farms that house thousands of pigs and reduce the pressure on scarce agricultural land in China.

The first of these towers went up in 2015 with a nine-storey property in the southern autonomous region of Guangxi.

Now more than a dozen more vertical hoggeries are under construction across the country.

The Ezhou government in Hubei province has just announced that a local pig firm will spend Rmb2 billion ($292 million) on two 17-storey farms. The twin-tower project is set to become the tallest of its type, with capacity for 30,000 sows and 600,000 piglets a year.

Investment in these farms has increased since China lost more than 40% of its pig population to African swine flu last year. The disease has pushed up pork prices and the outbreak is still raging, rebooted by extensive flooding over the summer. Farmers often bury infected pigs and the rains may have spread the disease through excess groundwater, Reuters has reported.

Another part of the appeal of the high-rise pig farms is that they can breed more animals on less land – the government’s diktat is that at least 120 million hectares of farmland must be preserved for arable output (see WiC252).

There are other benefits too: it is getting harder to secure approvals to open new pig farms as environmental regulations have tightened. Bigger projects have been turned down due to their proximity to waterways or as a result of other environmental concerns.

In short: multi-storey farms can mean more pigs for less paperwork.

Of course, the costs of constructing these farms are typically much higher so the dramatic surge in the price of pork has been important in making the investment case. A government notice encouraging the development of multi-storey farms in order to increase pork production has also buoyed investors. Crucially the document didn’t set any limits on the capacities or heights of these new facilities, which often use elevators to move the pigs around and deploy automated feeding systems, cutting down on wage bills for farmhands.

Similar farms of two or three-storeys have been built in Europe but public opposition to intensive farming techniques has meant that they haven’t been as popular among agricultural investors.

The most recent ‘sty-scraper’ in China is near Suining City in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Pictures of the nine-storey building show something that looks more like a hospital or hotel from the outside. The facility, owned by Qiquan Nongmu Group, cost Rmb130 million to build. The company hopes to recoup its investment in around four years.

“Compared with the traditional flat-layer pig farm, this building saves more than 90% of the land and 70% of water,” quoted Qiquan’s CEO as saying.

New Hope, the largest animal feed producer in China, is also expanding its portfolio into high-rise hoggeries with a third vertical farm in Sichuan, following two others in Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

An additional advantage of putting pigs into higher-tech, purpose-built towers is that more of the daily husbandry process can be automated. Animal waste can also be collected and disposed of safely or converted into by-products such as fertiliser. In traditional barn-style farms, much of the waste can end up in nearby rivers and lakes.

Opponents of the high-rise strategy talk about the risks of confining too many animals within small spaces, raising the risks of the spread of disease.

The companies involved counter those concerns by saying that each of the floors in the farms have their own ventilation systems and that the pigs are reared in a more controllable space, reducing the chances of infections that spread across wider areas.

They also say that the chances of transmission of an animal-to-human infection – along the lines of Covid-19 or previous outbreaks swine flu – will be reduced because fewer staff are needed to run facilities like these.

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