Growing Problems for Farmers

Innovation probably is not something that people readily associate with farming. After all, humans have been farming for over 10,000 years, and to the casual observer, it may seem like little has changed. But farming has always been an extremely innovative industry, developing technologies to help farmers do things faster, more efficiently, and in greater volumes. 

1. DENSITY MEETS DEMAND

In the span of 50 years, from 1956 to 2006, the population of Canada doubled and the number of farms fell by 60 percent. So, a growing population, plus fewer farms, equals a need for greater efficiency. In order to meet the increasing demands, farms developed more effective ways to house and feed a greater number of animals in larger facilities – in some instances, pigs can number in the thousands, and chickens in the tens of thousands. However, as is often the case, high risk equals high reward. And with larger operations and greater livestock density comes new challenges and potential hazards for the farming and insurance industries.

2. COPING WITH COOPS

Cutting edge ventilation systems in barns are an example of an incredible innovation that has made the confinement of livestock and poultry in high-density populations possible. These automated ventilation systems remove excess heat, moisture, dust, and harmful gasses that build up in enclosed facilities. But providing proper ventilation can be a challenge, especially in poultry houses where requirements change based on time of day, season, temperature, humidity, wind, bird age and density.

For example: Humidity can be neither too high nor loo low. Too little moisture will cause litter to become dry, which can contribute to respiratory infections. On the other hand, high humidity, which leads to excessive moisture and increased ammonia levels, can also result in respiratory damage. That’s a fine line to walk, and that’s without taking into consideration any of the other elements: Temperature for instance, which, if too high, can cause reduced growth rate, a drop in egg production, and increased mortality. So, not only are the needs of chickens very specific, but the margin for error is very slim, and the consequences for failure very serious.

Thankfully, a well-designed, mechanically ventilated building allows for precise environmental regulation. Motor-driven, thermostatically controlled winches can automatically adjust air inlets in order to maintain the desired atmosphere. However – and this is the part that concerns us – as with any automated system, there is the possibility of disaster in the event that there is a malfunction or the power supply is interrupted. Without fans, temperatures and contaminant levels can very quickly rise in a densely populated barn, leading to the aforementioned dire consequences. Now, ideally a building with an automated ventilation system should have an equally robust alarm system to alert the proper persons in the event of an incident or power failure. It should also have a backup power supply in place. Unfortunately that isn’t always the case. Even more devastating are the instances where the alarm system and generator fail alongside the ventilation and other automated systems. 

3. CAUSE FOR ALARM

Recently we were called in to investigate a farm operation that raised rats and mice, in order to determine coverage. The ventilation system had stopped working, and as a result, high temperatures and toxic gases started to build inside the barn. As the operation lacked an adequate alarm system, the farmer was unable arrive in time to salvage the situation. The equipment failure resulted in the loss of livestock and inability to meet client demands. Fortunately, we were able to confirm the cause of the malfunction and verify the facts of the loss, enabling the insurer to properly indemnify their insured. We were also able to provide the insurer with the technical documentation required to pursue subrogation.

Equipment failure can be the result of a power surge or failure or fault, a programming error, improper installation or poor maintenance. Either way, it’s important to establish the underlying cause so that claims can be processed, insureds can be indemnified and, where applicable, subrogation be pursued.

While we have been dwelling mainly on chickens and other livestock, greenhouses are equipped with similar automation systems, and as such, face similar risks. Greenhouses utilize automated systems for heating, cooling, ventilation, watering, fertilization and lighting. Each of those systems plays a vital role in the health of a crop. And like farms, as greenhouses grow in size and density, the potential for loss increases. In Alberta, the expected gross return on cucumbers is $107.16 per square metre. Apply that to an average greenhouse with a production area of 11,374 square metres and your gross return is just over $1.2 million. Now imagine if one of those critical systems should fail, along with the alarm. The loss could be immense. It’s unfortunate, but it happens all too often. And while taking preventative measures, like installing an alarm system, helps mitigate some of the risk, it doesn’t eliminate it completely.

As the number of farms across Canada continues to shrink, and those remaining increase in size and density in order to compensate, these kinds of incidents will only proliferate. Our in-house team has the experience and expertise to investigate these types of losses and determine the origin and cause of the incident. We perform detailed analyses of equipment and document what failed, why it failed, and when it failed, providing insurers with the basis on which to pursue potential subrogation. We also help verify that that the insured has complied with policy requirements – whether it’s the installation of an alarm or a backup generator – in order for coverage to be confirmed.

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MAZEN HABASH, President and Consulting Forensic Engineer. P.Eng.

Mazen is the president of Origin and Cause and specializes in fire investigation, electrical and electronic failures, product liability and alarm system analysis. With over 30 years of experience in the industry, he has performed over 3,000 fire, product liability and alarm system investigations. Mazen is a licensed professional engineer and designated consulting engineer, and is qualified as an expert witness in civil and criminal courts in three provinces. He is also certified at two levels by the Canadian Alarm and Security Association as an alarm technician.