Farms killing healthy pigs amid backlogs at plants
DES MOINES, Iowa — After spending two decades raising pigs to send to slaughterhouses, Dean Meyer faces the mentally draining, physically difficult task of killing them 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.
“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.
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 are beginning to reopen or food banks 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.
To help farmers, the USDA already has set up a center that can supply the tools needed to euthanize hogs. That includes captive bolt guns and cartridges that can be shot into the heads of larger animals as well as chutes, trailers and personal protective equipment.
On Wednesday, 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.”
Up to 13,000 hogs may be euthanized daily at JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota.