Virus’s effect felt on the farm
As plants contend with outbreak, farmers face tough decisions on pigs
One Minnesota hog farmer sealed the cracks in his barn and piped carbon dioxide through the ventilation system. Another farmer has considered gassing his animals after loading them into a truck. And a third shot his pigs in the head with a gun. It took him all day.
Coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the Midwest have created a backlog of pigs that are ready for slaughter but have nowhere to go. Hundreds of thousands of pigs have grown too large to be slaughtered commercially, forcing farmers to kill them and dispose of their carcasses without processing them into food.
And yet, around the country, people are struggling to find enough to eat, lining up at food banks after losing their jobs in the economic fallout of the pandemic. Distribution issues have caused grocery stores and fast-food restaurants to run low on meat.
In Iowa, the nation’s largest porkproducing state, agricultural officials expect the backlog to reach 600,000 hogs by the end of June. In Minnesota, an estimated 90,000 pigs have been killed on farms since the meat plants began closing last month.
The crisis mostly affects farmers with large pork operations who usually send pigs to be slaughtered in giant meatpacking plants run by companies like Tyson and Smithfield.
But the obligation to kill the animals themselves and then get rid of the carcasses is wrenching.
Last month, Sen. Chuck Grassley, RIowa, and other leaders in Iowa asked the White House’s coronavirus task force to provide mental health resources to hog farmers, as well as money to compensate them for the pigs they have had to kill and not turned into meat.
On May 12, a bipartisan group of 13 senators sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for funding for pig farmers and warning that “failure to have a sensible and orderly process for thinning the herd will lead to animal health issues, environmental issues, and pork producers going out of business.”
Last month, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that gave the Department of Agriculture more authority to keep plants running. And the federal government has announced plans to buy $100 million a month in surplus meat.
“The economic part of it is damaging,” said Steve Meyer, a pork industry analyst. “But the emotional and psychological and spiritual impact of this will have much longer consequences.”
The waste of viable livestock shows how finely calibrated and concentrated the U.S. agricultural system has become after decades of consolidation. Mass-produced pigs live on a tight schedule. They are raised to grow to more than 300 pounds over roughly six months. Pigs that grow too much above that weight make it unsafe for meatpacking workers to hoist the carcasses along the slaughter line.
As they wait for slaughterhouses to reopen, many farmers are looking for ways to slow the growth of their pigs, raising barn temperatures to make them less interested in eating or altering feed to make it less appetizing.
Many farmers are simply running out of space. Right behind one generation of pigs, another is always being raised. Older, larger pigs have to be sold to meatpacking plants to make room for younger batches.
One farmer ordered his staff to give injections to pregnant sows that would cause them to abort baby pigs. Others have sold live pigs on Facebook and Craigslist.
Coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants have created a backlog of pigs for slaughter, but with no facilities to do it.