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Healthy pigs being killed as meatpacking backlog hits farms

FILE - This April 18, 2020, file photo, shows the JBS USA Pork Plant in Worthington, Minn. Officials estimate that about 700,000 pigs across the nation can't be processed each week and must euthanized. AP photo

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to force the closure of meatpacking plants across the country, hog farmers have had to respond quickly to a rapidly growing backlog of animals in their barns by killing and disposing of pigs.

Posted: May 1, 2020 9:42 AM
Updated: May 1, 2020 9:47 AM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — After spending two decades raising pigs to send to slaughterhouses, Dean Meyer now faces the mentally draining, physically difficult task of killing them even 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 (136 kilograms) 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.

“Believe me, 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 near Rock Rapids.

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 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.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, went to the plant Wednesday, in part to thank JBS officials for agreeing to kill the hogs at his request.

“The only thing they wanted out of me was for me to come down here and say I’m the one who asked for this, not them. ... Blame me if you don’t like it," he said.

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.

Iowa officials have asked that federal aid include funding for mental health services available to farmers and the veterinarians who help them.

Meyer said euthanizing healthy animals is a difficult decision for a farmer.

“It is a tough one," he said. “We got keep our heads up and try to be resourceful and if we can make it through this cloud, I think there will be good opportunities if we’re left standing yet.”

The USDA has a program designed to connect farmers with local meat lockers and small processors that can slaughter some hogs and donate the meat to food banks. However, that effort has been hindered by the fact that small processors already were overwhelmed with customers who have turned away from mass-produced meat and instead bought a hog or cow to be processed locally.

Chuck Ryherd, owner of State Center Locker in State Center, Iowa, said he's almost completely booked through the end of the year and has been turning away customers.

Chris Young, the executive director for the American Association of Meat Processors, a trade group for about 1,500 smaller meat lockers, said that while some local processors in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin have been able to take a few extra hogs, the shortage is being felt nationwide.

“When the pandemic started, all across the country, a lot of these small processing plants with a retail store in the front were just overrun,” he said. “They’re still crazy busy. It hasn’t really backed off.”

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."

Peterson also said he’ll seek a change in the law so that the USDA can retroactively compensate farmers for euthanizing healthy animals in such emergencies. He said the USDA told him it doesn’t have the authority at the moment to do that for healthy animals, just diseased animals, as it did during for chickens and turkeys in the bird flu outbreak.

“It’s going to be in there, I’ll guarantee you,” he said.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 912370

Reported Deaths: 9506
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1780492023
Ramsey736781043
Dakota67355574
Anoka63852570
Washington40349356
Stearns33475276
St. Louis29443403
Scott25842181
Wright25830216
Olmsted22258128
Sherburne18919126
Carver1661066
Clay12033104
Blue Earth1144868
Rice11410138
Crow Wing11170122
Chisago992378
Kandiyohi9800106
Otter Tail9758127
Benton9018125
Beltrami816094
Goodhue805597
Douglas7849100
Itasca769597
Mower731249
McLeod710983
Winona708657
Isanti697883
Steele682731
Morrison671579
Becker627174
Polk599484
Freeborn559646
Carlton543474
Mille Lacs529474
Lyon527261
Nobles524754
Nicollet521160
Pine512642
Cass500553
Todd490743
Brown469757
Le Sueur457733
Meeker431457
Martin385843
Wabasha373610
Waseca372332
Dodge359811
Hubbard354749
Roseau315531
Fillmore304315
Wadena301740
Redwood281245
Houston270717
Renville268051
Faribault257032
Pennington251030
Sibley251017
Kanabec248136
Cottonwood229232
Aitkin221550
Chippewa219442
Pope206710
Watonwan197420
Yellow Medicine187723
Rock177428
Koochiching176023
Swift172622
Stevens167011
Jackson160816
Clearwater157520
Marshall153122
Murray151811
Pipestone149529
Lake132224
Lac qui Parle122125
Wilkin120616
Mahnomen105914
Norman10489
Grant101110
Big Stone9465
Lincoln8745
Kittson73023
Red Lake71310
Unassigned629124
Traverse6056
Lake of the Woods5255
Cook3070

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 523052

Reported Deaths: 7289
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk80319799
Linn32142424
Scott26637292
Black Hawk21974378
Woodbury20490258
Johnson19778105
Dubuque18515241
Pottawattamie15890213
Dallas15320113
Story1380258
Warren8450104
Cerro Gordo7964123
Clinton7725114
Webster7326122
Des Moines7098105
Marshall669093
Unassigned66470
Muscatine6645117
Wapello6441144
Jasper619591
Sioux610177
Lee5908105
Marion557897
Buena Vista502149
Plymouth488388
Henry418655
Benton404859
Jones404862
Bremer395372
Washington391463
Boone389739
Carroll367755
Mahaska365365
Crawford353747
Dickinson314655
Jackson307747
Buchanan305741
Clay295536
Delaware294654
Kossuth289077
Fayette286353
Hardin284353
Tama279777
Page272533
Wright266149
Cedar265527
Hamilton259857
Winneshiek258143
Floyd255449
Clayton244459
Poweshiek237243
Madison234525
Harrison234379
Cass233466
Butler232744
Iowa229634
Jefferson223043
Mills220930
Winnebago215938
Hancock214639
Cherokee211347
Lyon206142
Appanoose205357
Allamakee203955
Calhoun196919
Shelby196442
Union191141
Humboldt185130
Grundy183637
Franklin183029
Mitchell182043
Chickasaw178922
Emmet178246
Louisa176953
Sac171026
Guthrie168137
Montgomery161745
Clarke160829
Keokuk150839
Palo Alto150532
Howard146824
Monroe142739
Ida130141
Greene127517
Davis124625
Lucas124426
Monona122939
Worth12139
Pocahontas120724
Adair114337
Osceola104818
Decatur101913
Taylor98514
Fremont95913
Van Buren93222
Wayne84525
Ringgold76729
Audubon74917
Adams5748
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