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The mass culling of America’s hog herd is starting as a wave of shutdowns at processing plants creates livestock gluts that farmers can no longer sustain.
Starting Wednesday, about 13,000 pigs a day will be killed at a JBS SA slaughterhouse in Minnesota, according to U.S. Representative Collin Peterson. Rather than cuts being turned into hams and bacon for stay-at-home shoppers, the carcasses may be dumped in landfills or go to rendering plants.
The culling shows the disconnect that’s occurring as the pandemic sickens workers just as consumers stock up on meat. Dairy farmers are pouring away milk that can’t be sold to processors, broiler operations have been breaking eggs to reduce supplies and some fruit and vegetables are rotting in fields amid labor and distribution disruptions.
“We don’t want to euthanize hogs, but we’ve got no choice,” Peterson, who is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told reporters on a conference call. “I asked them to do it. So if people are upset, they can be upset with me.”
The JBS slaughterhouse inWorthington, which shuttered as workers began falling ill, can be used to cull hogs with a team of about 10 people, Peterson said. That means the plant can safely euthanize animals while workers practice social distancing, something that would be impossible with the hundreds of employees needed to run normal processing.
In total, about 160,000 hogs a day nationwide have to be euthanized, which means on-farm disposal isn’t feasible, he said. Peterson said he also reached out to Smithfield Foods Inc. on a similar proposal.
JBS didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hog farmers don’t have the facilities to hold the animals and when they grow too large to be handled by packers, producers don’t have much choice, said Steve Meyer, an economist at consultant Kerns & Associates.
As processing plants shut, demand has tumbled for piglets to replace fully grown hogs in barns. Some of the youngest animals were priced as low as 50 cents to $1 while 40-pound feeder pigs as of late last week were fetching the lowest prices since 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“If you paid for the trucking, you can get the weaner pigs for free,” said Mike Berdo, a grain and livestock farmer in Washington, Iowa.
Lance Schiele in West Branch, Iowa, has a few weeks to decide if he has to euthanize 1,250 baby pigs. That’s when he’ll need a barn currently occupied by fully grown animals that he can’t deliver due to a shutdown at a Tyson Foods Inc. plant.
“It’s probably cruel and unusual punishment to have to destroy them when they are little,” said Schiele, who is buying time by cranking up the heat in the barn to slow weight gain. “As big of a mess we’re having, in six months we are going to need this pork. I don’t know how we’re going to get there.”
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While the U.S. government is setting up a center to assist on “depopulation and disposal methods,” Peterson, a Democrat, called for greater federal assistance. He warned that without indemnity payments, farmers in his Minnesota district would go bankrupt.
There’s enough fresh and frozen meat supplies to keep supermarket shelves stocked for now. But more plant shutdowns mean the possibility of shortages is real, Peterson said. He raised the prospect of prioritizing the domestic market over exports, although acknowledged he wasn’t aware of a way of doing that.
“Clearly in the meat sector we are going to have shortages,” he said. “What I worry about is people are going to find this out and they are going to be hoarding it and that will exacerbate it.”
Farmer Berdo said that when rejiggered plants reopen, they likely won’t be able to maintain pre-pandemic slaughter speeds.
“I’m afraid those procedures put in place will slow the process down,” he said. “It’s going to have a massive ripple effect in the months to comes.”
— With assistance by Tatiana Freitas, and Millie Munshi
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