Pig farmers across the nation are facing dire straights after several processing facilities have closed after workers contracted COVID-19. Farmers are struggling to find a place to send their pigs. (Daily News file photo)

As pig processing plants start to shut down and see a reduction in staff due to COVID-19, pig farmers are facing difficult decisions.

Processing plants like Smithfield in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Tyson Foods in Waterloo, Iowa; Comfrey Farms in Windom, and JBS in Worthington have shut down after employees contracted COVID-19. JBS processed around 21,000 pigs a day, Smithfield around 19,000. Those closures are creating a trickle down effect that’s leaving pig farmers few options.

Many of the pigs ready for market before those plants shut down have now grown too big for processing. Pigs typically weigh between 250 to 300 pounds when they go to market. Any bigger than that, the plants’ machinery can’t handle.

So, the pigs remain in the barn and farmers are running out of room, forcing them to making the difficult decision to euthanize pigs.

Waseca pig farmer Todd Selvik runs eight barns with 1,200 pigs in each. He was in the middle of selling four of the barns, but later learned the processing plant couldn’t accommodate those loads any longer. Those pigs remain in the barn.

“We’ll take any load we can to get those pigs a home,” Selvik said. “We’re really trying hard to get those pigs to market. If we can’t market them, we’re forced to euthanize them. That’s not good for anybody. It’s a really tough thing. You’ve cared for these pigs their entire life. It’s so tough.”

Pig processing capacity has declined by 25 percent and it could get worse. Dave Preisler, chief executive officer of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association said this week there will be around 150,000 to 160,000 pigs with no place to go. Minnesota is the second-leading pork producing state behind Iowa.

“This will be incredibly difficult on rural communities,” Preisler said. “That’s going to be really hard on them.”

Preisler, the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, and other groups are seeking help from the federal government to deal with the emerging excess supply.

“We’ll need to deal with carcasses in a safe way — composting, landfills or rendering plants,” Preisler said. “We’ll need all three options. There has never been anything like this in this country and that capacity is being worked on.”

Those farmers who choose to compost are faced with another challenge of trying to find enough wood chips, corn stalks, sawdust or straw to make it work. The state can’t use any of its power or COVID-19 funding to help buy those materials because COVID-19 isn’t known to affect livestock. The Minnesota Board of Animal Health has helped to find companies with the material needed for composting.

Preisler said pig producing groups have asked the government to federalize the plants in order to help with depopulation.

“We need these plants to run either to make food or assist in putting the animals down,” Preisler said. “It’s our best hope to deal with a big part of the problem.”

President Trump announced Tuesday he will sign an executive order to use the Defense Production Act to make meat processing a critical infrastructure that needs to stay open. On Wednesday, JBS in Worthington, said it could start euthanizing pigs at its facility this week. Hog farmers told The Globe newspaper in Worthington that they were told by their JBS hog buyer they could schedule euthanizing of hogs weighing over 330 pounds. JBS has agreed to take on the cost of euthanizing pigs.

JBS has the capacity to euthanize 13,000 pigs a day, according to U.S. Rep Collin Peterson, but he was told there’s a need to euthanize 70,000 to 100,000 a day. Some of the pigs euthanized at JBS can be rendered there while others will go to landfills and others could be incinerated.

Finding funding for the disposal costs hasn’t happened yet. Farmers have had access to some funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it’s nowhere near what’s needed, Preisler said. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced April 17 that the USDA will purchase $3 billion of fresh produce, dairy products and meat. A total of $100 million is dedicated for meat products. Distributors and wholesalers will send pre-approved boxes of produce, dairy and meat to food banks and nonprofits, as well as community and faith organizations.

Through the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, commonly referred to as EQIP, producers can apply for assistance to properly render livestock that can’t be processed. Applications are being accepted for this initial period through Friday, May 1.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the state Legislature made low-interest disaster loans for producers available and has bought some excess products for Second Harvest Heartland.

The department of agriculture also added $345,000 in value-added grants to help smaller processors build capacity to take on additional pigs.

While Selvik says he’s a couple of months away from deciding whether to euthanize pigs, he and other pig farmers have started to slow the growth of existing pigs.

“We’re double populating the barns, moving pigs around to be able to accommodate for the situation, but with that comes costs,” Selvik said. “It all has a trickle down effect. You make the best of the situation that you can.”

Even if producers can get pigs to market, they’re seeing some of the lowest prices ever for their animals, Selvik said. Pork hit a decade low price last year but the start of 2020 looked better.

“There were high hopes that China and other export markets would come to the U.S. and buy lots of pigs and pork,” Selvik said. “It was looking to be a pretty decent year.”

Reach Sports Editor Nick Gerhardt at 507-835-5447 or follow him on Twitter @WCNSports. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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