Healthy pigs euthanized as meatpacking backlog hits farms
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – After spending two decades raising pigs to send to slaughterhouses, Dean Meyer now faces the mentally draining, physically difficult task of killing them even before they leave his northwest Iowa farm.
Meyer said he and other farmers across the Midwest have been devastated by the prospect of euthanizing hundreds of thousands of hogs after the temporary closure of giant pork production plants due to the coronavirus.
The unprecedented dilemma for the U.S. pork industry has forced farmers to figure out how to kill healthy hogs and dispose of carcasses weighing up to 300 pounds in landfills, or by composting them on farms for fertilizer.
Meyer, who has already killed baby pigs to reduce his herd size, said it's awful but necessary.
"Believe me, we're double-stocking barns. We're putting pigs in pens that we never had pigs in before just trying to hold them. We're feeding them diets that have low energy just to try to stall their growth and just to maintain," said Meyer, who also grows corn and soybeans on his family's farm near Rock Rapids.
It's all a result of colliding forces as plants that normally process up to 20,000 hogs a day are closing because of ill workers, leaving few options for farmers raising millions of hogs. Experts describe the pork industry as similar to an escalator that efficiently supplies the nation with food only as long as it never stops.
More than 60,000 farmers normally send about 115 million pigs a year to slaughter in the U.S. A little less than a quarter of those hogs are raised in Iowa, by far the biggest pork-producing state.
Officials estimate that about 700,000 pigs across the nation can't be processed each week and must be euthanized. Most of the hogs are being killed at farms, but up to 13,000 a day also may be euthanized at the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota.
It all means that meat can't be delivered to grocery stores, restaurants that now are beginning to reopen or food banks that are seeing record demand from people suddenly out of work. Some of that demand is being met by high levels of meat in cold storage, but analysts say that supply will quickly dwindle, likely causing people to soon see higher prices and less selection.
The USDA has a program designed to connect farmers with local meat lockers and small processors that can slaughter some hogs and donate the meat to food banks. However, that effort has been hindered by the fact that small processors already were overwhelmed with customers who have turned away from mass-produced meat and instead bought a hog or cow to be processed locally.
Jeff Sindelar, Extension Meat Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says small processors in Wisconsin have been making a valiant effort to help out.
"There are a couple of plants taking on 50-60 hogs a week, with most adding 5-10 extra a week to help out," Sindelar said. "But processing those animals into chops, roasts, bacon and hams takes more labor and then more marketing."
Sindelar says many small meat processors in Wisconsin have likened the uptick in business to the busy holiday season when sales are brisk.
"Extra business is great but its also causing a tremendous amount of strain on the small meat processing sector of the industry," he said. "The industry already had a work force shortage and processors are now dealing with worker fatigue and have resorted to reducing production hours or even days to give employees a break."
On April 29, President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to order that large meat processors remain open, giving hog farmers hope the situation could improve.
However, Howard Roth, a Wisconsin farmer and president of the National Pork Producers Council, said farmers will need to keep euthanizing pigs as the slaughterhouses struggle to resume their full production. Farmers will definitely need federal help to keep them afloat.
"We are going to need indemnity money for these farmers," he said. "This situation is unprecedented."
Even if the reduction of processing capacity is only temporary, Sindelar says it will likely have a lasting impact on meat processors, livestock producers, retail stores and consumers. Shrinkage in the livestock herd will likely make the food supply shortage more acute later in the year.
Sindelar believes that the meat industry as a whole will be different post-pandemic.
"A lot of the large processors are adopting new ways to run their business driven by CDC guidelines including social distancing and ways to prevent the spread of any illness. And I think some of these practices will remain in place," he said. "We need to make these improvements throughout the industry so something like this doesn't make us vulnerable again."
Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this report.