U.S. pork producers are facing a potential financial disaster due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).
Since some meatpacking plants have closed or significantly slowed production, many farmers have not been able to sell or send thousands of hogs to market. This means that, at current plant capacity levels, approximately 170,000 market-ready hogs per day can’t be marketed.
Rachel Gantz, director of communications for the NPPC, noted this has caused overcrowding at every stage of the production cycle. Overcrowding impacts the pigs’ ability to eat and drink without competition and to rest comfortably. It also may result in aggression and injuries; in addition, maintaining air quality and temperatures that keep the animals comfortable is also challenged.
“To prevent animal suffering, farmers are forced to euthanize pigs,” she says. “Destroying these animals and the food they represent goes against every farmer instinct. Our farmers are focused on doing the right thing for their animals and employees while raising food for consumers. Euthanasia is always a devastating last resort.”
While some farmers can find creative, short-term methods to house pigs, they will eventually grow beyond weight specification and will not be accepted by harvest facilities. For instance, Chad Leman, owner of Eureka, Ill.-based Leman Farms, has kept hogs on holding diets for approximately seven weeks in an attempt to keep them from gaining too much weight. “This has allowed us to keep big pigs in barns much longer than usual,” he says “But, we have had to populate barns with weaned pigs as well prior to getting market pigs out, which is difficult to manage. However, it is easier to manage than the alternative—depopulating and disposing.”
Bottleneck at the Farm Level
Dal Grooms, communications director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, says that it takes approximately 10 months from conception to when a market pig is delivered to a processing plant, so pig farmers planned how many pigs they would raise based on what the market indicated it could handle way before the coronavirus hit the U.S. “When human health issues at pork processing plants caused them to either slow production (and the timing of when they would allow market-weight hogs to be delivered) or stop production, a bottleneck developed at the farm level,” he adds. “This disruption in the food chain means thousands of pigs are at the farm.”
While farmers have tried a variety of ways to keep pork in the food chain—donations to food banks, selling animals to individuals, taking them to their local lockers for processing, etc.—this hasn’t relieved the growing pressure of too many pigs still on farms. Since pigs can’t go into “storage” such as grains and other plant foods, they have to be euthanized so the health of even more pigs isn’t threatened with overcrowding.
Currently, the price of hogs has fallen close to zero, with losses reaching $70 per hog. According to economist Steve R. Meyer. PhD, of Kerns and Associates, U.S., pork producers conservatively face a collective $5 billion loss for the remainder of 2020 and without significant and immediate government aid, many generational family farms will go bankrupt. “Any euthanasia of market-ready hogs will impose costs of at least $150 of lost revenue plus costs of euthanasia and disposal,” says Meyer. “In addition, producers who have to kill young pigs have $35 or so invested in each of them and still must pay fixed production costs (depreciation, repairs, insurance, interest, taxes, and/or contract grower payments), which cannot be avoided by stopping production.”
Meyer fears that farmers will need to euthanize up to 4 million small pigs and 4 million market hogs in the months ahead.
NPPC is seeking additional federal government support to compensate farmers for hogs they have to euthanize to prevent animal suffering and for funding to address depopulation and disposal costs. “Without this and other assistance—including expanded direct payments to producers without restrictions to address severe losses as marketed hog values have plummeted—thousands of pork producers will be forced to liquidate their farms and other assets,” Gantz says. “Reduced pork production and significant industry consolidation will follow, leading to higher food prices for consumers.”